There has been much discussion through the years about Paul's "thorn in the flesh" mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Personally, I've decided that the problem was Jews following him around (see Acts 25:24), harassing him, making charges against him, and demanding his death much as Paul did to others before he became a follower of Jesus. What great irony that provides.
Paul describes the thorn as "an angel of Satan, to beat me, to keep me from being too elated" over the revelations he had from God. Obviously then, the thorn in the flesh is not from God. Paul admits that he asked God three times to remove it. But God assured him that he was strong enough to handle it. So Paul accepts it and goes on to say, "I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints . . . ." We can imagine how Paul might respond, in weakness, to insults and persecutions, even heckling, while he is trying to preach. The types of things being said about him are listed by Paul in Acts 25: 7-8, when Paul is defending himself before Festus in Caesarea. "On Paul's arrival in court the Jews from Jerusalem gathered around, hurling many serious accusations which they couldn't prove. Paul denied the charges: 'I am not guilty,' he said. 'I have not opposed Jewish laws or desecrated the Temple or rebelled against the Roman government.'" These are three serious charges. And it is the harassment, heckling, false accusations and being followed from town-to-town that I think comprise Paul's thorn in the flesh.
For Reflection: It may be that we find people hindering us in our work or our ministry. We may have one or more people whom we consider to be our thorn in the flesh. If so, have we asked God to remove them, as Paul did? If not, this may be the next option. But if we have done so, and God has not seen fit to remove them, have we found God's grace to be sufficient?
Let us pray. God, my Father, I thank you whether you remove my thorn in the flesh or not. I know that in all cases your grace is sufficient. Like Paul, I work toward being content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions and constraints when they come about through preaching the Good News.
So let us look at an early church group in Thessalonica. We know something about them because Paul wrote to them after he established a church there around the year 51 A.D. It is a port town; therefore it's a town of influence where people came and went from various parts of the Mediterranean world. There were Jews in Thessalonica and Paul, as was his custom, first preached about Jesus in the synagogue. Three weeks in a row on the Sabbath, Paul, as well-educated visiting rabbi, explained the Scriptures to them, proving to them that Jesus was the Messiah who had to suffer, die and rise from the dead. Some Jews were convinced along with a number of Greeks (and even some women!).
Although they established an early church there, all did not go well for Paul and Silas in Thessalonica. The Jews who were not convinced that Jesus was the Messiah started a riot in an effort to get Paul and Silas arrested. Paul and Silas escaped and went to Berea, but Jason their host did not. He was arrested and had to post bond.
The Thessalonian Jews chased Paul and Silas all the way to Berea and stirred up trouble there, so Paul moved on to Athens. Persecution kept Paul on the move but also served to spread the good news about Jesus around the Mediterranean.
For Reflection: For Paul, preaching, persecution and pursuit were the normal Christian life. How does my normal Christian life look in comparison?
Let us pray.
When Jesus sent out the apostles and disciples to follow his example (Luke 9 and 10 as we discussed in our last post), he gave them the power and authority to do what he did. Luke 9:1 says, "he gave them power and authority." In Luke 10:1, it says, "the Lord appointed seventy-two others." Those who were with Jesus were appointed with the power and authority of Jesus. In Luke's gospel, we don't have the same ending as in Matthew 28. Instead Jesus opened their minds to understand what was written about him in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44-45) and he told them to wait for the Holy Spirit to clothe them with power.
Since he would no longer be present with them in the flesh, they needed the power of the Holy Spirit to be with them. They receive that empowerment of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2. Peter, the presumably uneducated fisherman, begins to preach from the Prophet Joel and from Psalms. And so the next chapter, the chapter of the church, the believers, our chapter begins.
Believers receive this power from on high, the Holy Spirit, in baptism. Sacramental churches also have Chrismation or Confirmation. Some add the "baptism of the Holy Spirit". Whatever we want to call it, we need the empowering of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, to enable us to live the normal Christian life.
For Reflection: Have I been baptized? Am I clothed with power from on high? If not, today is the day. If I have been baptized, do I act like it?
Let us pray. Jesus, I have been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit. Help me to live up to it today and every day with the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus is in the house! As we saw in yesterday's post, in Luke's Gospel, Jesus' standing up and reading from Isaiah in the synagogue is the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. He then goes out to start fulfilling Isaiah's prophecy, as he said he would do. He teaches with authority (Luke 4:31-32, 36); he frees a man possessed by a demon (4:33-35); he heals many people (4:38-41); he preaches the good news to all who would listen (4:42-44).
Jesus does not ask us to do anything for which he did not give us an example. And just as he did not do things in his own strength, he does not want us to do things on our own strength. He had the authority of the Father and the power of the Spirit to preach, to free, to heal. He prayed before he began his ministry, he prayed all during his ministry, he continues to intercede for us before the Father (Romans 8:34).
For Reflection: If Jesus needed to pray, how much more so do I need to pray?
Let us pray. Jesus, you set the example. You laid out the mission. You showed us how to accomplish it - through our prayer, with the authority of the Father, empowered by the Holy Spirit and your own intercession. It is in partnership with you that we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28). You are the source, the holy one.
Many of us are dragging around a load of guilt. We think that we are too great a sinner for God to forgive us. Not true. God is bigger than our sin. In fact it is hubris to think that any sin of ours is too big for God to forgive or to believe that he can't take away our guilt.
Paul made this very point is his letter to Timothy. Paul considered himself the worst of sinners. He was a "blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man" (1 Timothy 1:13-16; Acts 8:3). Yet God forgave him. Jesus came into the world to save sinners. If Jesus can forgive someone like Paul (who really was a great sinner) and take on all of Paul's sin and guilt, why not ours?
For Reflection: Jesus came into the world to save sinners. I am a sinner. Therefore Jesus came into the world to save me.
Let us pray. Jesus, I have sinned. I realize that if you can forgive Paul, you can forgive me. I have . . . . I ask you to forgive me. Help me to make amends for what I have done and to not commit these same sins again.
The disciples continued to heal people as they preached the Gospel after Jesus ascended into heaven. Healing and working miracles were quite common and are well documented in the Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 3 Peter and John healed a man who had been lame all of his life. The man was not asking for healing, he was begging for food or money. So there doesn't seem to be any faith present on his part. Yet Peter and John healed him anyway. This was a very public miracle because the man begged every day at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple.
Acts 5 is even more dramatic. Beginning with verse 14 we read, "More and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter's shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed."
As with Jesus, all of them were healed. None were turned away. We could continue to heap up citations from Acts as from the Gospels. The clear fact is that the disciples continued to heal and work miracles in support of preaching the Gospel. They didn't heal people just for the sake of healing people; they healed people to show the truth of the Gospel message. And the basic Gospel message is this: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God who became a human being, who suffered, died and rose from the dead for the forgiveness of our sins. Repent of your sins and believe this good news. Be baptized and spread the kingdom of God further.
Let us pray and meditate today on Peter's words to the High Priest and the Jewish Council: "We must obey God, not men. The God of our ancestors raised Jesus from death, after you had killed him by nailing him to a cross. God raised him to his side as Leader and Savior, to give the people of Israel the opportunity to repent and have their sins forgiven. We are witnesses to these things - we and the Holy Spirit, who is God's gift to those who obey him." (Acts 5:29-32)
It is not easy to have the faith to believe that God will do what he says or that he will fulfill a promise, or enable us to do what he has called us to do. I'm sure the early disciples had their moments of doubt, so we are not alone when we doubt too.
In Hebrews 11 there is a terrific discourse on faith which is very encouraging as it goes through a list of ancient people and what they did by faith. First it gives a definition of faith - being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1). There's the rub. How can we be certain of what we do not see?
Let's take one of the examples given in Hebrews 11. God promised Abraham and Sarah a son. They were not young when the promise was made to them, and it didn't happen for several years. It's no stretch of the imagination to think that there were times when they were not sure or certain. Do you suppose Abraham went around bragging to his relatives, "I'm going to have a son"? Maybe he did. But what might the reaction have been when he said this year after year, with no evidence, and he and Sarah not getting any younger? Thankfully, God continued to reassure them and provided the proof for their faith. They had Isaac. God had further promised Abraham that he would be the father of many nations. Abraham's faith extended to that promise, but he never saw the fulfillment during his lifetime. It was faith that enabled him to be certain of what he did not see.
For reflection: Even people known for their great faith struggled to be sure of what they hoped for and certain of what they did not see. Faith depends upon knowing God and trusting God to fulfill his promises. The evidence given in the Scriptures is that God is trustworthy. What evidence have I seen of that in my own life? Am I sure of what I hope for and certain of what I do not see?
Let us pray. Father, I know the promises you have made to me. Some of them I have seen come to pass, and some not. Today I need encouragement and reassurance so that I can continue to have faith.
The first few stories of healings and miracles in the Acts of the Apostles are not just to show us that the healings and miracles continued. They are also to show us that the Gospel message is for everyone. Peter and the other disciples thought that the Messiah was only sent to the Jews. But Peter has a vision about unclean foods and goes to speak to a Roman officer, who receives the Holy Spirit and then is baptized. The Messiah is for Jews and Gentiles alike.
Another point in these early stories is that the Gospel message was being spread far and wide even through the disciples had not traveled many miles from home. Philip witnessed to and baptized the Ethiopian, who took the message back to Ethiopia. Peter healed Aeneas and raised Tabitha in port towns, where travelers and sailors would hear about the healings and tell the stories wherever they went. Peter witnessed to the Roman centurion Cornelius, who had 100 men under him, and who could be re-posted elsewhere when needed. Paul had been sent home to Tarsus (another port town) to keep him from being killed by the Jews in Jerusalem. The initial disciples were simple men who did not have contact with the movers and shakers of the day. So God moved them where he wanted them so that the message would spread.
Peter and Paul both realized that God wanted all to be saved and none to be lost. Peter said, "He (the Lord) is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9). Paul told Timothy that God our Savior "wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4).
For reflection: God always knew about the "six degrees of separation". The person we talk to no doubt knows someone else God is wanting to reach. Who might need to hear of God's love today or tomorrow?
Let us pray. Father, I haven't always been as diligent about your work as I should have been. Please forgive me and give me more opportunities to tell others about what you have done in my life.
We interrupt our story of Cornelius, the Roman officer, to let you know what is happening with Peter. We skipped over Acts 9:43 about Peter staying in the home of a tanner named Simon. Since a tanner handled dead animals, Simon would be considered "unclean". So Peter was breaking a Jewish tradition, and making himself ritually unclean, by staying with Simon.
About the time Cornelius is sending his men to bring Peter to his house, Peter has a vision wherein a voice tells him to "kill and eat" all the kinds of unclean animals he is seeing. Peter refuses because he has never eaten unclean foods before. The voice says, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." Peter carries on this exchange three times (Acts 10:9-16). Peter comes out of the vision, and while he is still thinking about it, the Holy Spirit tells him three men are coming to fetch him (the ones sent by Cornelius) and he should go with them.
The next day Peter and a group of disciples set out for Cornelius's house. Going into the home of Cornelius, a gentile, also breaks another Jewish tradition which would again make Peter ritually unclean just as staying in the home of Simon the tanner did. But now Peter realizes the message God was giving him in the vision - he should not call any person unclean (Acts 10:27-29).
For reflection: Am I judging others as being "unclean", beneath me or not worth my time? (By the way, I saw Woody Allen's movie "Blue Jasmine" over the weekend, and it has this same theme. The truths of the Gospel are always current.)
Let us pray. Father, forgive me for the times when I have looked down on others, turned them away, passed them by. Help me to see all people as persons you have created and whom you love. Help me to see them and love them as you do.
After Peter brought Tabitha back to life, he stayed in the port city of Joppa for a time. Meanwhile a Roman officer named Cornelius, stationed in Caesarea, another port city north of Joppa, has a vision. An angel appears to him and tells him to send to Joppa for a man named Peter. The angel tells him in whose house Peter is staying (Acts 10:1-7).
This story is similar to the story of Saul who hears Jesus audibly speak to him and than Ananias has a vision telling him where to go to find Saul.
What strikes me today is that God spoke to people in multiple ways: audibly, through visions and through angels. Were they unusual - and so they were recorded? Were they just for certain leaders? Were they occurring to many people, but these were recorded because of their notable outcomes?
It is hard to know for sure. These means of communication were not unique to the time of the apostles because we see them throughout the Old Testament also. And since the time of the apostles there have been people throughout the history of Christianity who heard an audible voice or saw visions or had significant dreams. The records exist of what they heard and saw.
But who is Cornelius that he should see an angel? in this Cornelius is not a Jew, not a believer (yet) in Jesus. He is an officer in the Roman army occupying Israel. However, he is a God-fearing man who prays and gives generously to those in need. This story is told, we eventually discover, because of the lesson Peter and the others learned through it (the story continues through Acts 11:18).
For reflection: Do I think visions, angels and audibly hearing God were unusual in the time of the apostles? What about now? Have I or someone I know experienced one of these? Would I be open to God speaking to me in one of these ways?
Let us pray. Lord Jesus, author of the universe, I want to be open to whatever means you use to speak to me. I would rather you speak to me through some unusual means, than that you not speak to me at all. I want to know you in all the ways you can be known.
(Comments are open. Do you have a story to tell of how God has spoken to you? If you don't want to post it publicly, you can send a private email through the prayer request form on the home page or call 301.760.7744 to talk.)
I started this website and blog on May 1, 2012. I am a Catholic who has been in ministry for many years. I first developed what I would call a close relationship with Jesus in the early 1970s. Ever since then I have been praying with people for healing and other needs. It is because I have seen so many of these prayers answered that I am so bold as to offer to pray for you individually through this website and phone line.