God in Art: Justice

The painting below, Raphael’s “Death of Ananias,” depicts a moment when God’s justice fell upon a husband who was part of a deceptive couple in the early church. (The wife receives her portion soon after.) The story is found in Acts 4:32-5:11. Does the story and its depiction shock you? Why might we be shocked that God’s justice could be so swift?

Lord, we thank you for the mercy and grace you continually shower upon us. We know that without Jesus Christ, your justice would be swift, righteous and terrible. Amen.

Language of the Spheres

This Sunday’s sermon at Holston View UMC in Weber City, Va., will be “Babbling in Babel,” rooted in Genesis 11:1-9. If you want to view the sermon but cannot be present, the entire worship service will be available through Holston View UMC’s web page.

Today’s preparatory text: Acts 2:1-15


By Chuck Griffin

I’ve made a living through the use of the English language all of my adult life. Part of that time, I have attempted to serve Christ’s kingdom via preaching and writing. Our ability to communicate in nuanced detail often is a tremendous gift. We need to remember that words have their limits, though.

Languages reflect cultural differences in how our minds work, so they often reinforce cultural barriers. One of my favorite examples is the German word schadenfreude, which has no English equivalent. It describes an emotion that is familiar to most people, the improper joy we sometimes feel when another person experiences misfortune.

The emotion likely is universal, but in naming it, the Germans have a better grip on this dubious feeling than we do. I have suggested “malevejoy” as an English equivalent, but it has yet to be an entry in Dictionary.com.

I’m sure many of you quickly realized the preparatory text linked above is part of the story of Pentecost, the day when the Holy Spirit ignited the first followers of Christ.

When I hear the Pentecost story, I see great beauty in that moment where everyone,  regardless of which language a particular listener may have spoken, suddenly understood what was being declared about “God’s deeds of power.” United in Christ, many of those people discovered that language barriers and other cultural impediments had been torn down.

I also think of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:1, where he spoke of the critical importance of love. In the process, he mentioned “the tongues of mortals and of angels.” That little phrase gives me images of heaven, a place where a higher, better language—one as godly as can be—will keep us in perfect union with the Creator, and of course, with each other.

I imagine the heavenly language to be so much more than mere words. It must engage all the senses at once, employing a grammar of motion, music, color and other means of communication we cannot even imagine.

Knowing language has such potential, I feel inspired to do a better job of incorporating Christ into the mortal language available to me now.

Lord, may our words reflect your holiness as we draw from your precious Holy Spirit. Amen.

Strange Voices

During my sermon this Sunday, I will return to the theme of the Lord as shepherd, probably most familiar to us in Psalm 23. The sermon will be available on Holston View United Methodist Church’s website.

Today’s preparatory text: Acts 17:16-31


By Chuck Griffin

When Paul began to preach in Athens, his was a strange voice amidst a babble of competing ideas. Americans, welcome to New Athens.

Christian Americans at one time were accustomed to the idea that we were the dominant voice in our culture. Any debate, it seemed, was largely limited to what type of Christianity people espoused; Paul’s core message about the crucified and resurrected Christ was commonly understood. Even the people who declined to accept the message likely had been dragged to church at least a few times.

I find it difficult to mark the turning point where secular thinking became truly dominant. In 1980, the British satirist and Christian convert Malcolm Muggeridge published a book entitled “The End of Christendom,” and I know that by the 1990s it was common to talk about Christianity no longer being the baseline of our society.

A couple of weeks ago, I watched a Saturday morning rerun of a 1959 “Wagon Train” episode. It was built entirely around the story of a preacher who lost his faith because of pride, abandoning his flock but ultimately rediscovering grace. I looked at my wife and said, “No one would write a prime-time show that way today.”

For crying out loud, the show had a sermon embedded in it! The slide from 1959 to now seems to have been gradual enough that people weren’t quite seeing it, but fast enough that it’s astonishing in hindsight.

To employ a tired but useful cliché, we are where we are. I think that’s supposed to be accompanied with a sigh, but I would encourage optimism. Let’s try to remember that working in a similar environment, early Christians were quite successful.

Of course, the early Christians we remember were also quite serious, willing to cut against the social grain, surrendering themselves to kingdom work and often paying for their countercultural attitudes with their lives.

Conservative, traditional Christians, having enjoyed Christendom for so long, need to relearn how to be countercultural. So-called progressive Christians are simultaneously dangerous to those around them and amusing—they go to bed thinking they’re countercultural, when mostly they’re just comfortably shifting with the secular sand beneath them.

At this point, I cannot do much to help the progressives. Conservative, traditional Christians: Well, I return to the message I delivered Wednesday. If we are to succeed, we have to deepen our discipleship. We likely need to give up certain aspects of our lives so we can better clothe ourselves in Christ.

A hurting world awaits word of the crucified and resurrected Christ.

Loving Jesus, call us clearly through discipleship so we may always have your voice leading us. Amen.

The Gift of Giving

2 Corinthians 8:1-7 (NRSV)

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.


By Chuck Griffin

In 2 Corinthians, Paul was writing to a church in an affluent part of the world, with well-off people mixed into the membership. (Sound familiar?) But when he wrote about an offering being taken up for the destitute Christians in Jerusalem, he cited what had already been raised among other churches nearly as poor.

In effect, he was asking, blessed Church of Corinth, will you do your share?

For Paul, giving was a matter of the heart, and it only made sense that people blessed with abundant resources would give abundantly. Yes, the idea of the Old Testament tithe, the giving of 10 percent, became obsolete in the light of New Testament grace, but it appears most early Christians interpreted that life-giving grace as a reason to go much further in their giving than a simple tithe.

Acts 2:43-45: “Awe came upon everyone, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This pooling of resources sounds strange and even shocking to us today. As members of a capitalist society coming out of the Cold War and headed toward similar tensions with China, a lot of us don’t like anything that smacks of communism.

Don’t get lost in modern politics as you consider all this. The early Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit and madly in love with Jesus. Their resources became a way to show that love even from city to city, and Paul was praying the Christians in Corinth would join that movement, imitating what the earliest Christians and the Macedonian churches already had done.

The current-day lesson in all of this is pretty obvious: Our giving reflects our love for Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. Do we have a need to grow in love?

Dear Lord, inspire us with a deeper sense of your grace and a new understanding of how we are to use our resources to care for one another in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.

A Grand Tour

Acts 21:1-16 (NLT)

After saying farewell to the Ephesian elders, we sailed straight to the island of Cos. The next day we reached Rhodes and then went to Patara. There we boarded a ship sailing for Phoenicia. We sighted the island of Cyprus, passed it on our left, and landed at the harbor of Tyre, in Syria, where the ship was to unload its cargo.

We went ashore, found the local believers, and stayed with them a week. These believers prophesied through the Holy Spirit that Paul should not go on to Jerusalem. When we returned to the ship at the end of the week, the entire congregation, including women and children, left the city and came down to the shore with us. There we knelt, prayed, and said our farewells. Then we went aboard, and they returned home.

The next stop after leaving Tyre was Ptolemais, where we greeted the brothers and sisters and stayed for one day. The next day we went on to Caesarea and stayed at the home of Philip the Evangelist, one of the seven men who had been chosen to distribute food. He had four unmarried daughters who had the gift of prophecy.

Several days later a man named Agabus, who also had the gift of prophecy, arrived from Judea. He came over, took Paul’s belt, and bound his own feet and hands with it. Then he said, “The Holy Spirit declares, ‘So shall the owner of this belt be bound by the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem and turned over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the local believers all begged Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.

But he said, “Why all this weeping? You are breaking my heart! I am ready not only to be jailed at Jerusalem but even to die for the sake of the Lord Jesus.” When it was clear that we couldn’t persuade him, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”

After this we packed our things and left for Jerusalem. Some believers from Caesarea accompanied us, and they took us to the home of Mnason, a man originally from Cyprus and one of the early believers.


By Chuck Griffin

These verses read like journal entries, written as Luke, the author of Acts, traveled with Paul on his third missionary journey. Along the way, people given the gift of prophecy by the Holy Spirit made it clear Paul would not fare well if he went to Jerusalem.

Events didn’t go well, of course, at least not in a worldly sense. The rest of Acts is an account of how Paul was arrested for preaching Christ crucified, and then as a citizen of the empire was carried off to Rome, where we know he was eventually executed. Along the way, he and those with him endured hardships at sea, including a shipwreck.

No doubt, working for the Lord can be a difficult task. Many of us might head a different direction when faced with repeated prophetic warnings about the dangers of going to a particular place. Paul’s friends and fellow travelers urged him to turn aside.

I deeply admire Paul’s single-mindedness. It genuinely seems that he did not care about his own welfare. He simply wanted to preach the message that Jesus Christ is Lord, taking word of salvation all the way to the heart of the Roman Empire, if possible.

Faced with far fewer impediments, I find Paul’s story to be a challenge. To what greater lengths should I be willing to go in order to reach people for Jesus Christ? Never has my freedom or life been in serious jeopardy while declaring Jesus’ lordship.

I thank God that I live in a time and place where the gospel can be preached so freely. But a question always remains before me: Do I use that freedom well?

Lord God Almighty, guide us to the places you would have us go, and give us new courage if we find those places daunting. Amen.

Up (Ascension Day 2021)

Acts 1:1-11 (NRSV)

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”


By Chuck Griffin

Today is Ascension Day, an important moment in the Christian year.

When we think of what Jesus accomplished for our benefit, the concept of his ascension into heaven often vanishes behind the darkness of his crucifixion or the brilliant life-giving light of his resurrection.

The ascension is a critically important part of God’s plan of salvation, however. In many ways, it completes the work done by God in the crucifixion and resurrection.

The key to understanding the ascension is to comprehend what is carried up.

Luke, a companion of the Apostle Paul, gives us accounts of the ascension in the end of the gospel of Luke and the beginning of the book of Acts. After appearing repeatedly to his followers in his resurrected form, Jesus led them about two miles outside Jerusalem to Bethany.

He then did several important things: He opened their minds to understand the Jewish Scriptures, in particular how they predicted Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He told his followers they would spread throughout the world the good news that salvation is available. He promised them the Holy Spirit would come to empower and support them.

And then the ascension happened. It’s described a bit mysteriously; in Luke, Jesus “withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.” In Acts, we get a little more detail, where we learn “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”

The point is that Jesus physically left this world and entered the realm of the holy, God’s abode, the place where only things unstained by sin can go.

So, why does it matter that Jesus went up? Well, it matters because of what Jesus took with him—his resurrected human body. Human flesh now exists as part of God’s trinitarian nature, a strange change in the nature of heaven. What was unacceptable anywhere near the throne is now on the throne.

And that is why salvation is now so easy for us, if we will only believe that Jesus died to free us from punishment for our sins. When we appeal to God, we look up and appeal to the one who loves us so much that he made himself like us in order to save us.

Lord, on this special day, we again are grateful for the tremendous measures you have taken to restore us to you despite our sins. Amen.

Clean and Unclean

Acts 10 (NLT)

By Chuck Griffin

Today’s reading is an extended narrative from Acts. I would encourage you to spend a few minutes reading the story of Cornelius, Peter and a rooftop vision, either by using the link above or finding it in your personal Bible.

From there, let me simply provide you with a guide to meditating on this important story.

Most of you raised in church likely have at least a rough understanding of what Jews meant by “clean” and “unclean.” As a people set apart by God, it was the Jews’ role to demonstrate ritually their separateness by avoiding activities and objects the non-Jewish world might find normal. Certain actions unique to Jews at the time—circumcision, for example—also were required to set them apart.

This story in Acts is critically important because it demonstrates that the Jewish messiah’s death on the cross has made it possible for all people to be restored to God. A common theme of the New Testament is how difficult it was for Jewish Christians, Peter included, to let go of this separateness in order to spread the Good News. Many were reluctant to go among Gentiles, and some demanded the Gentiles adopt Jewish behaviors in order to follow Jesus Christ. A council of Christian leaders finally had to settle the matter.

We who are of non-Jewish descent should be particularly thankful for the expansive nature of God’s grace. “For God so loved the world ….”

This story also should challenge us now, just as the Jewish Christians were then challenged.

  • How do we let our own ideas about cleanliness and uncleanliness impact where we tell the Good News?
  • Can people be so different from us that we ignore their need to hear about Jesus Christ?
  • To be Christian, people need to reject sin and accept Jesus Christ as Savior. But do we sometimes try to impose additional burdens?

Let’s always be watching for a good-hearted Cornelius who awaits word of salvation.

Lord, thank you for your ever-expanding grace, which is capable of penetrating all cultures and all individual circumstances. Amen. 

Who Owns Whom?

“Peter’s Conflict with Simon Magus,” Avanzino Nucci, 1620. Simon is on the right, in black.

Acts 8:18-25 (NRSV)

Now when Simon saw that the Spirit was given through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, he offered them money, saying, “Give me also this power so that anyone on whom I lay my hands may receive the Holy Spirit.” But Peter said to him, “May your silver perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God’s gift with money! You have no part or share in this, for your heart is not right before God. Repent therefore of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you. For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and the chains of wickedness.” Simon answered, “Pray for me to the Lord, that nothing of what you have said may happen to me.”

Now after Peter and John had testified and spoken the word of the Lord, they returned to Jerusalem, proclaiming the good news to many villages of the Samaritans.


By Chuck Griffin

Earlier in Acts, we learn that Simon was a magician, one so clever he astonished the people of Samaria to the point they thought he was tapping into the power of God.

But even this trickster was drawn to the message of Jesus Christ as Savior. Impressed by the signs and great miracles that truly flowed from God through Philip the Evangelist, Simon received baptism and began to follow the preacher about.

Pretty soon, two apostles, Peter and John, arrived on the scene, laying hands on those who had claimed Christ as Savior so the Holy Spirit would go to work in their lives. In other words, new spiritual gifts became available to this fledgling church in Samaria, expressed visibly in new signs and miracles now flowing through these recent converts.

As we see, Simon had heard the message in only a kind-of-sort-of way. It had not moved his heart to a new place. He saw the world as transactional, all about gain and loss. He thought money could somehow let him control this Spirit power.

Here’s what Simon was missing: We do not control God, and God’s work is never intended to glorify us. Instead, we let God control and guide us, giving the glory to him. Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross removes the offense of sin from the relationship, and we are able to resume the role of created beings serving the loving Creator.

It’s a struggle that continues today. Even church leaders can become obsessed with the idea that they need to benefit personally from this kingdom work. Certainly, the “laborer deserves to be paid,” but beware of those whose only motive seems to be personal glory and a paycheck, preferably a big one.

Thanks be to God for all who serve the kingdom humbly and without thoughts of entitlement or reward, other than the joy to be found in eternal life with God.

Lord, may your Holy Spirit flow freely among your church, going to and fro to all who call upon your name. Amen.

Silver Lining

Acts 8:1-8 (NLT)

Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.

A great wave of persecution began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem; and all the believers except the apostles were scattered through the regions of Judea and Samaria. (Some devout men came and buried Stephen with great mourning.) But Saul was going everywhere to destroy the church. He went from house to house, dragging out both men and women to throw them into prison.

But the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went. Philip, for example, went to the city of Samaria and told the people there about the Messiah. Crowds listened intently to Philip because they were eager to hear his message and see the miraculous signs he did. Many evil spirits were cast out, screaming as they left their victims. And many who had been paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was great joy in that city.


By Chuck Griffin

No one would ever look forward to persecution, but it’s amazing how resilient Christians can be in the face of such abuse. This particular outbreak of systematic oppression seems to have been led at least in part by Saul, more often called Paul after his later skull-rattling conversion to Christianity on the road to Damascus.

Let’s focus, however, on the response of these Christians in the midst of this storm of hate. They prudently scattered, but as a group they did not abandon their mission. In fact, scattering them may have been the worst mistake their enemies could make.

They scattered not like frightened rabbits, but like seeds, blooming wherever they landed. Rather than being destroyed, the church grew, spreading beyond its Jewish base further into the world beyond.

When we think of miracle-workers in Acts, we tend to think of Peter and Paul. But here we learn about Philip the Evangelist’s work. The Spirit clearly was upon him, manifested in both miraculous signs and powerful teaching and preaching.

Those of you attending Weber City, Va.’s Holston View UMC or viewing worship online this Sunday will hear more about Philip and his work, God willing. To me, Philip seems like a quiet servant of God, humble but having a great effect on the world.

I realize some of you read these devotions in places where you perhaps face hostility and danger because of your faith. We who are in the United States face nothing like real persecution—our challenges rise only to the level of extreme nuisances, and those often are inflicted on us by other members of our denomination.

If you are in one of those dangerous places, know we are praying for you. We are conscious that martyrs are being made every day.

Thank you for standing strong and sowing seeds for the kingdom.

Lord, bless all who find their freedom and their lives jeopardized for believing in you. Please continue to astonish us with the ways you work in the midst of vicious non-belief. Amen.

Grace Under Fire

Acts 4:1-4 (NLT)

While Peter and John were speaking to the people, they were confronted by the priests, the captain of the Temple guard, and some of the Sadducees. These leaders were very disturbed that Peter and John were teaching the people that through Jesus there is a resurrection of the dead. They arrested them and, since it was already evening, put them in jail until morning. But many of the people who heard their message believed it, so the number of men who believed now totaled about 5,000.


Yesterday, we considered how Peter continued to offer forgiving grace from Jesus Christ even to the people involved in the crucifixion. Thousands listened, but we also see how pointedly describing sin and the need for repentance can get a person into trouble.

The leaders who thought a crucifixion had brought an end to the Jesus movement were unhappy to hear all this talk of resurrection. Peter and John found themselves under arrest.

They seem to have approached the situation not as a problem, but as an opportunity. Read on a little, and you’ll see how they continued to declare that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior, and that ongoing healing still was to be credited to the one who had risen from the dead.

Later, such arrests would lead to beatings for the apostles. Fearing the people who had seen the lame man healed, the Jewish leaders this day opted for authoritarian threats and intimidation, telling Peter and John to speak of Jesus no more.

The two were unimpressed.

“Do you think God wants us to obey you rather than him? We cannot stop telling about everything we have seen and heard.”

The lesson is straightforward. If they were so bold under their circumstances, we certainly should be bold in ours. Let’s always be seeking new opportunities to tell people Jesus Christ is Lord.

Lord, we know any success we have at declaring the Good News is because of your strength, not our own. May we rely on your guidance and power more each day. Amen.