Tuesday, July 25, 2017

July 25 - James, Son of Zebedee, Apostle, Martyr


James the Apostle and John the Evangelist were brothers. Their father, Zebedee, was clearly a man of wealth and influence. He was a fisherman by trade and, therefore, so were James (the older) and John (the younger). Zebedee provided for them in their youth and education. Their mother, Salome, was one of Jesus' followers and would, later, be one of the women who followed after Jesus and provided for him as he engaged in ministry prior to his death.

Growing up in Galilee, their family likely knew Jesus' family and, perhaps, were even distant relatives. As they grew older they engaged in the fishing trade of their father until, one day, Jesus came alongside the Sea of Galilee and called out to the brothers on the boat and proclaimed that if they would follow him, then he would make them "fishers of people." Along with his brother, James accepted the call and became one of "the twelve disciples." He abandoned the life of affluence that his father provided for the life of a wandering disciple of an itinerant teacher.This sacrifice should not be overlooked. After all, James would follow Jesus loyally for years forsaking his own life in pursuit of the Kingdom--even if he wasn't entirely sure what it might look like.

As Jesus and his disciples approached Jerusalem for the last time, Salome ambitiously decided to take some initiative and convince Jesus of her sons' worth as leaders in the new Kingdom. Salome said to Jesus, "Jesus, I want you to tell me that my sons can be your inner circle when you finally start this Kingdom you've been talking about." Oblivious that the Kingdom had already started and they were missing it in their ambition, her sons joined in with her and placed their hope in worldly gain and power. For a moment, James bought into the lie of success through power--a new kingdom just like the other kingdoms except with himself on top.They bought into that old lie that says, "The only thing wrong with this world's kingdoms is that I'm not the one in charge." Jesus, knowing how the Kingdom worked and hoping to get it through to them asked: "Can you drink the cup I'm getting ready to drink?" In their ambition, they exclaimed, "Yes!" Jesus knew they still didn't get it and so he said to them, somewhat cryptically, "Yes, you will drink the same cup but the Kingdom is not about power like you understand it. No, it's different--it's not about domination and control. It's about love and sacrifice."

James would, later, be present at the transfiguration of Jesus at Gethsemane. James, along with Peter and John, would see their Lord and Savior conversing with Moses and Elijah. The effect of this event for James' change of outlook and character should not be underestimated. Even as James gazed upon Jesus transfigured that night, parts of James were being transfigured.



Jesus would, of course, go on to lay down his life and die for the sins of the world. He would offer forgiveness to the death-dealers surrounding him and love to those intent on being his enemies. This frightening inauguration of a new Kingdom scattered the Twelve--including James. Perhaps the words of Jesus about the cup he would drink came back to haunt James. Regardless, James would help lead the disciples and early Christians in living into the Kingdom they understood so late. He who had been given much and who had come from an affluent family would give it all up for a chance to be a part of a new and different Kingdom--the Kingdom of God.

Monday, July 24, 2017

July 24 - John Newton, Ex-Slaver and Lost Cause


John Newton was born on July 24th, 1725, to a family of affluence that had grown rich on the backs of slaves. Though his mother died young from tuberculosis, it was his father’s desire that John should become a slave master in the family business on a sugar plantation. Before this could occur, however, John was pressed into service to the empire as a naval officer. For whatever reason, John tried to desert and was punished severely: 96 lashes, humiliation in front of the whole crew, and demotion to the status of servant. John’s well-planned life that had been formed quickly by the desires of his father and the values of imperial England was falling down around him.

His pain turned him to thought of suicide but he refrained from a quick d
eath and tried to throw himself into a dark abyss one choice at a time instead. He requested to be transferred to a slave ship and made a servant of a slaver. His self-imposed punishment and exile was ended, however, when his father sent a crew to recover him. On his way back to England aboard the Greyhound, a terrible storm descended upon them. John had only just changed places with another man when the man was swept overboard and drowned. Having read Thomas a Kempis’Imitation of Christ and in a great panic John prayed to God in desperation for grace and protection. After the terrible storm had passed, that night, he began reading the scriptures and feelings the beginning of his conversion. Whereas the promises and plans of the world had failed him and left him empty, the promises and plans of God began a process of conversion.

He would, eventually, become an Anglican priest—though not until June 17th, 1764—and experience God’s grace and formation as he continued the process of conversion from who he was into what God was making him into. Throughout John Newton’s story it is evident that his conversion was a slow and steady process that involved the persistent formation and repair of all that was broken about him. In fact, it was only after years of being a priest and continuing in relationship and conversation with other Christians that John eventually renounced the slavery that he had grown up under.

Some have criticized John Newton for dwelling in sin even as he claimed the mantle of Christian.Charges of hypocrisy are not unheard when telling the story of John Newton. Even though John later regretted his commitment to the slavery he had engaged in and supported, it cannot be simply overlooked. Yet, it only serves to strengthen the power of his story: conversion is a process that takes time whereby we are made more into the image God has for us. Though John’s continued support of slavery is distasteful for us, it must be remembered that unlike many people who struggled with the issue he did renounce it--better late than never. Also, it makes the story more real and more honest because it so closely resembles the struggles of all Christians in the process of conversion away from the world’s image and into God’s image. Perhaps this is why so many Christians have connected with his hymn “Faith's review and expectation”—you might know it as “Amazing Grace.” Perhaps, it is that Christians can sing along with John Newton confidently:
Thro’ many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

July 23 - Phocas, Martyr, Grave-digger

Phocas had finished tending his gardens and it seemed that yet another day had slipped away into dusk while he worked busily to grow the crops that had been planted and sustained. Giving thanks to God, he watched the Christian pilgrims sneaking away under the increasingly dark cover. Under the rule of Diocletian, food was becoming increasingly difficult to find for those professing Jesus’ name and lordship. More and more Christians were coming to Phocas to receive food from his vast gardens along with the poor and oppressed that had been coming for some time. This was a blessing and, yet, there was a catch: the more he helped his brothers and sisters, the more the Empire’s gaze turned to Phocas’ home at Sinope near the Black Sea.

As is always the case for those who attract the hatred of the empire, Phocas was ordered to die by an imperial sword. For, you see, the power of the empire is ultimately rooted in the power to deprive you of your life. Diocletian sent soldiers to find and execute Phocas for his obedience to Jesus—a power besides Rome. And, so, the soldiers traveled to Sinope where they found the gates locked. Looking for a place to stay the night, they came upon the home of Phocas. They did not know what he looked like when they arrived at his home looking for him. Phocas promised to show them where they could find the man they were looking for in the morning but, first, invited them into his home for a meal and a place to sleep. He fed them, perhaps he washed their feet and he provided them with a place to sleep and recover from their travel. As they slept that night, Phocas went out and dug a grave near his garden. Praying while he dug, he prepared himself for his own martyrdom.When he had finished digging his own grave, he spent the remainder of the night in prayer.

In the morning, the thankful soldiers awoke and prepared for the day. They were appreciative of Phocas’ hospitality and kindness but were unprepared for Phocas’ confession. Phocas agreed to show them the man they were looking for and lead them out of his home. As they approached Phocas’ garden, he stood in front of the grave he had dug, turned to face them, and confessed to being the man they were looking for. The soldiers who had been tasked with killing Phocas—menace and rebel that he was—suddenly found their imperial resolve weakened. They offered to return to Diocletian and lie: “We couldn’t find him.”

Phocas knelt in the dirt, bared his neck, and refused to let the soldiers lie, sin, and risk their own lives to save his. He assured them that he was not afraid of death—a concept entirely foreign to the threats of the Empire—and, instead, eagerly anticipated his martyrdom. Having given permission to his executioners, they decapitated him and finished the burial he had started the night before.

Phocas denied the power of the Empire over him and left an indelible impression upon not only his executioners—the soldiers—but, also, all who would hear the story of the willing martyr and grave-digger. The great power of the Empire—the ability to deprive you of your life—had failed to convert Phocas and, yet, Phocas’ seemingly incomprehensible willingness to love and die converted many.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

July 22 - Mary Magdalene, Apostle to the Apostles


Mary of Magdala was found in the crowd that had turned on Jesus as He drug the cross to Golgotha. Fickle as people are, it is not especially surprising that they had turned on Jesus and now gloried in His agony and looming death. Equally unsurprising is Mary’s presence near Jesus as He walked the Via Dolorosa. After all, Jesus had cast seven demons out from Mary and began the beautiful process of conversion and redemption. Mary’s feet were planted firmly in the Kingdom and, for her, that meant walking alongside—or at least as close as possible—Jesus as He agonized in His journey. The Twelve may have fled for their lives but Mary continued to follow because of hers.

Arriving at the Cross, Mary waited with Jesus as He shed his blood and took away the sins of the World. She was present as they took the Lord God Almighty down from the Cross and buried Him in the tomb. It is inconceivable what pain went through her as she watched Jesus slowly suffer and die. Who can tell the fear and desperation that passed through her as they carried her Lord and placed him in a tomb?


She went with the other women to the tomb on the third day and found it empty. She ran for Peter and others and told them of the emptiness that she had discovered. The emptiness of the tomb must surely have symbolized to her the emptiness of hope for the once-exorcised and now seemingly abandoned disciple of Jesus. As she stood there, weeping for herself and for her lost Lord, she sees a man approaching. In her desperation, she takes Him to be the gardener and pleads with him to tell her where Jesus has been laid. The man, Jesus, only calls out her name and casts the fear, confusion, and emptiness out of her.

She cried out, “Teacher!” and is comforted again by His presence. He commissions her, again, and gives her an important message: “Go to my people and say them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” She took this blessed charge and ran to tell them the blessed news. Mary had carried the Gospel message—Jesus has lived, died for our sins, and been raised from the dead—before any other and, thus, is well deserving of the title: Apostle to the Apostles.

Though others may overlook Mary and focus solely on the other disciples, there can be no doubt that this devoted follower of Jesus Christ was an apostle and citizen of the Kingdom of GodShe was the first to hear the good news and the first to proclaim it to the world. As is the case for all conversions to the Kingdom of God, Mary was redeemed by the life, death, and teachings of Jesus Christ and made into an instrument of God’s redeeming love. Indeed, Mary—Mary who never abandoned Jesus and whom Jesus called by name—was a witness to the redeeming power of love over death and evil.