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Daily Devotional

So what about eunuchs?

Acts 8: 34-38 “The eunuch* asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.”

It may not have escaped your notice that circumcision is a, shall we say… male-centric ritual. And really, it’s only centered on a particular kind of male body. If you don’t fit that framework, you just have to sit on the sidelines. When it comes to the actual act of circumcision, those of us on the sidelines probably don’t mind too much, but when it comes to participation in the covenant, then exclusion starts to matter.

As the Ethiopian eunuch demonstrates, baptism is a far more inclusive marker than circumcision ever was. He intuitively understands that baptism is available to him. I love his question, “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” It’s a rhetorical question. He already knows the answer: nothing.

As we see the holy spirit push the early church more and more towards inclusion, we start to see the importance of the new covenant markers of baptism and communion. They include. They bring people in. They encourage fellowship. These are the things Jesus unveils in his new covenant, as he meets the culture where it is and challenges it to grow. What does that mean for you today?

*If you're asking yourself, "what's a eunuch?" See what google has to say.

Bound Together

Thursday – Luke 22: 17-19 After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”

Throughout scripture, we see God bringing his people away from old symbols and towards new ones. One common symbol of covenant that the church has participated in since Jesus instituted it on the night before his crucifixion is communion. If you've been to City Church (or any church, really!) on a Sunday, you may have taken communion too. Usually, the person leading it quotes Jesus’ words from today’s passage (or one of the other gospels) to remind us of his sublime sacrifice – both magnificent and terrible.

Many Christian traditions teach that communion is a sort of replacement for circumcision. Much like circumcision was a physical and ritual marker of God’s covenant with the Israelites, so communion is a physical and ritual marker of his covenant with us. In this way, communion connects us with a heritage that stretches back thousands of years.

I encourage you today to spend some time reflecting on the magnitude of that idea – when you take communion on Sundays, you’re participating in something that your sisters and brothers in Christ were doing 400 years ago, 600 years ago, 1,600 years ago, 2,000 years ago! This is the power of symbols. They connect us and remind us that we are bound together by something much bigger than any one person.

Food Polluted by Idols

Acts 15: 19-21 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

So, what’s the deal with strangled animals and feet polluted by idols? Let’s look at food polluted by idols. The “pollution” here happened when the food was presented to idols in the home or at a temple. Eating the food afterward was often part of the worship practice, so the instruction to abstain from polluted food is essentially an instruction to refrain from idolatry. In other places, however, Paul lets Gentiles know that they may eat meat sacrificed to idols as long as it will not cause “weaker brothers” to stumble.

God’s tendency throughout scripture is to move his people slowly from one thing to the next. He pushes his people just slightly beyond the expectations of their culture – not so much that they can’t handle following him, but enough that they are set apart. In the cultural time and space of Acts, eating meat sacrificed to idols felt like idolatry for some. Hence, the Jewish leaders affirmed the need for Gentiles to set themselves apart as followers of Jesus.

Navigating the space between symbols and covenant can be so tricky. Think about the symbols you've processed this week. What is it about the unhelpful symbols that has made them unhelpful, and what is it about the helpful symbols that helps them stay helpful?

No Obstacles

Acts 15: 19-21 “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. For the law of Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.”

Admittedly, it can be easy to hang too tightly to the symbols of our faith. In Acts 15, for instance, the early church has a dispute about whether or not Gentiles should have to adopt one of the main Jewish symbols of covenant - circumcision. (It’s worth reading through the entire chapter just to get a sense of how the early church handled disagreements like this one.)

As you can see in today’s passage, the church leaders ultimately decided that the symbols really were nothing more than that - symbols, which were not intended to take the place of the covenant they were meant only to symbolize. So, rather than allow the the act and marker of circumcision to cause confusion and act as an obstacle for Gentiles, they took the requirement away.

Yesterday we brought to mind the markers of God’s faithfulness in our lives. Today, consider if any of those markers have taken the place of the covenant you have with God. Are they helpful markers and rituals, or are they distracting you from the actual covenant he has made with you?


P.S. Close readers might notice that there are a couple symbols (like not eating meat from strangled animals or that has been sacrificed to idols) that the early church leaders still required of the Gentiles. Don’t worry. I saw it too. We’ll look at them tomorrow.

Physical Reminders

Genesis 17: 9-10 Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised.”

In Genesis 17, Abraham’s covenant with God continues to develop. God changes Abram’s name to Abraham and sets for the terms of his covenant – every male in his family must be circumcised. Circumcision remains a symbol to this day of Israel’s commitment to God.

Throughout the course of the early Old Testament, God actually designates a number of physical markers for the Israelites. Circumcision is by far the most … intrusive, but each of the symbols God sets out for them reminds the Israelites, and those around them, that they are set apart for covenant with the God of Abraham. This morning, consider what physical reminders or rituals there are in your life that represent God’s faithfulness to you? If you feel like there are none, ask God to open your eyes to the ways he has been faithful to you.

Psalm of Ascent: Friday

I hope this week of meditation and reflection has been restful for you. Next week, we'll switch back to our normal devotional style, but the reading practices we've done this week are part of a long tradition in the church of reflective and meditative reading.

As we read our final Psalm of Ascent this morning (read it slowly, a couple times), I would encourage you to think about the ways in which this Psalm may or may not reflect how you feel today. Sometimes the promises we see in scripture can feel almost teasing - promises of peace and righteousness and justice. But scripture tells us again and again that, while that feeling is common throughout the history of our faith, the promises are still true and are / will be fulfilled. How might this psalm reflect that tension in your own life and soul today?

Psalm 125

A song of ascents.

1 Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion,
    which cannot be shaken but endures forever.
2 As the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people
    both now and forevermore.

3 The scepter of the wicked will not remain
    over the land allotted to the righteous,
for then the righteous might use
    their hands to do evil.

4 Lord, do good to those who are good,
    to those who are upright in heart.
5 But those who turn to crooked ways
    the Lord will banish with the evildoers.

Peace be on Israel.

Psalm of Ascent: Thursday

All week, we've been taking a meditative approach to reading scripture. For today's meditation, I want you to ask yourself, "What is the theme of Psalm 124?" Look for repeated words and ideas. What is this Psalm's central focus? Once you've arrived at a theme, ask yourself how that theme applies to your life today and to the church more broadly. It will apply differently to us than it did to David and the ancient Israelites, but the central ideas should still ring true to the present time.

Psalm 124

A song of ascents. Of David.

1 If the Lord had not been on our side—
    let Israel say—
2 if the Lord had not been on our side
    when people attacked us,
3 they would have swallowed us alive
    when their anger flared against us;
4 the flood would have engulfed us,
    the torrent would have swept over us,
5 the raging waters
    would have swept us away.

6 Praise be to the Lord,
    who has not let us be torn by their teeth.
7 We have escaped like a bird
    from the fowler’s snare;
the snare has been broken,
    and we have escaped.
8 Our help is in the name of the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

Psalm of Ascent: Wednesday

We're going to practice something similar for today's psalm as what we did yesterday. Read the Psalm slowly to yourself three times through. The first time, ask yourself what word or phrase stood out to you in the Psalm. What is God saying to you in this? The second time, ask what your response will be to what you have heard from God this morning. On your third and final reading, rest in the word that God has for you today. Allow yourself to feel his love for you and enjoy his presence. 

Psalm 123

A song of ascents.

1 I lift up my eyes to you,
    to you who sit enthroned in heaven.
2 As the eyes of slaves look to the hand of their master,
    as the eyes of a female slave look to the hand of her mistress,
so our eyes look to the Lord our God,
    till he shows us his mercy.

3 Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us,
    for we have endured no end of contempt.
4 We have endured no end
    of ridicule from the arrogant,
    of contempt from the proud.

Psalm of Ascent: Tuesday

I would encourage you to read today's Psalm of Ascent slowly and out loud to yourself (if you are able to do so wherever you are sitting today). What words or phrases catch in your heart or mind? Chances are, these phrases will touch something that has been in your soul recently. Reflect on what God might be saying to you through that verse or phrase.

Psalm 122

A song of ascents. Of David.

1 I rejoiced with those who said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
2 Our feet are standing
    in your gates, Jerusalem.

3 Jerusalem is built like a city
    that is closely compacted together.
4 That is where the tribes go up—
    the tribes of the Lord—
to praise the name of the Lord
    according to the statute given to Israel.
5 There stand the thrones for judgment,
    the thrones of the house of David.

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
    “May those who love you be secure.
7 May there be peace within your walls
    and security within your citadels.”
8 For the sake of my family and friends,
    I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
    I will seek your prosperity.

Psalm of Ascent: Monday

This week, we're going to look at what are known as the Psalms of Ascent (also called "travelling" or "pilgrimage" psalms). It's believed that the ancient Israelites sang these songs on their pilgrimages to the temple in Jerusalem. 

As you read each Psalm this week, there will be a prompt for meditation. For today's psalm, consider what pilgrimage you are on right now. Where are you coming from, and where are you going? What does it mean, as this psalm says, that "the Lord is your shade at your right hand"?

Psalm 121

A song of ascents.

1 I lift up my eyes to the mountains—
    where does my help come from?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
    the Maker of heaven and earth.

3 He will not let your foot slip—
    he who watches over you will not slumber;
4 indeed, he who watches over Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord watches over you—
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
6 the sun will not harm you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord will keep you from all harm—
    he will watch over your life;
8 the Lord will watch over your coming and going
    both now and forevermore.

Fully Human, Fully Alive

Genesis 15: 6 "Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness."

 

Fully Human, Fully Alive [by John Powell]

God says: I am covenanted, 

committed forever to love you;

to do whatever is best for you.

 

I will be kind, encouraging and 

enabling, but I will also be challenging.

At times I will come to comfort you

 in your affliction. At other times,

 I will come to afflict you in your comfort…

Whatever I do, it will always be

 an act of love and

an invitation to growth.

 

I will be with you 

   to illuminate your darkness, 

   to strengthen your weakness, 

   to fill your emptiness, 

   to heal your brokenness, 

   to cure your sickness, 

   to straighten what may  be bent in you, 

   and to revive whatever good things

may have died in you.

 

Remain united to me, accept my love, 

enjoy the warmth of my friendship, avail 

yourself of my power, and you 

will bear much fruit.  You will have 

life in all its fullness.

Astounding willingness

Jeremiah 34: 18-20 “Those who have violated my covenant and have not fulfilled the terms of the covenant they made before me, I will treat like the calf they cut in two and then walked between its pieces. The leaders of Judah and Jerusalem, the court officials, the priests and all the people of the land who walked between the pieces of the calf, I will deliver into the hands of their enemies who want to kill them. Their dead bodies will become food for the birds and the wild animals.”

A little backstory is helpful here. When God brought Israel into the Promised Land, one of the laws he gave was that they were to free all of their Hebrew slaves every seven years (probably as a way of limiting economic inequality). Israel did not follow this law for centuries, but then in the time of Jeremiah, they repented and made a covenant (just like Abram’s, with split animals and everything) to free their slaves.

The only difference between this covenant and Abram’s was that the people who violated this covenant actually walked through the split animals. Shortly after this covenant, however, they changed their minds and re-enslaved everyone they had set free. So God sent Jeremiah to deliver today’s passage.

God’s response to the broken covenant highlights how serious these covenants are and points to the eventual necessity of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. God’s grace for us and for Abram isn’t just the result of looking the other way, but is actually possible only because of his astounding willingness to fulfill both halves of the covenant.

Spend some time reflecting on the supreme love of Jesus today and on his willingness to fulfill the covenant for us.

By believing what you heard

Galatians 3: 5-6 “So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Aside from highlighting the reality that God sometimes does not do things the way we want him to, Genesis 15 also demonstrates the truth that God’s covenant with us is not based in our righteousness, but rather is based on faith.                       

It’s not Abraham’s moral purity that served as the foundation for God’s covenant. (Remember how he pretended that his wife was his sister?) Instead, Galatians tells us, it was God’s own commitment to that covenant and Abram’s belief in it. (And as we continue on in Genesis, we’ll see that Abraham didn’t even do belief very well.)

So when you consider your covenant with God, what do you assume it’s based on? Don't answer this question too quickly. It’s easy to give the answer we know we’re supposed to give, but when it really comes down to it, what does your life say about what you’re counting on to save you?

Lift up your hand, O God

Psalm 10: 12-13

Arise, Lord! Lift up your hand, O God.
    Do not forget the helpless.

Why does the wicked man revile God?
    Why does he say to himself,
    “He won’t call me to account”?

In the wake of horrific tragedies like this week’s shooting in Las Vegas, we might feel as though God has abandoned us. The Psalmist felt this way too, as we can see in Psalm 10 (read the entire thing here).

Both here and in Genesis 15, we see God listening to people who question his goodness and covenant. In fact, God visibly responds to Abram. Most of us don’t get this luxury, however. For instance, the Psalmist doesn’t hear a verbal response the way that Abram does, but the verses immediately today’s reading suggest that the Psalmist is somehow reassured.

This reassurance usually doesn’t come in the form of an elaborate covenant ceremony. Think back to ways you have felt God’s presence in the past. Most likely, that’s how he will speak to you again. How might you remind yourself to listen for him in that way?

I remain childless

Genesis 15: 2-3But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”

What areas of your life seem to contradict God’s promises or character? How are they frustrating you today? How can you create a dialogue with God and other people? Follow Abram’s example in this [though perhaps not in all things] and start that dialogue with God and others today.

Neither Now Nor Never

As we wrap up the week, use the poem below to help you meditate on the limitations of our knowledge of God.

Neither Now Nor Never (by Kaveh Akbar)

None of my friends want to talk
about heaven. How there is this eternity
and the one for those
more clerical with their faith. 
I spend hours each week    
saying “I can’t hear you” 
into a phone and courting the affections
of neighborhood cats, yet
somehow never find time to burn the thigh
of an ox or a stack of twenties. Thought,

penetrate my cloud of unknowing. 
I remain a hungry child
and the idea of a land flowing with milk
and honey makes me excited, 
but I do wonder what gets left out – 
least favorite songs on favorite albums,
an uncle’s conquered metastasis,
or the girl whose climaxes gave way to panic, 
whose sobs awakened the feeling of prayer in me. 
May they be there too, O Lord. 
With each second passing over me
may that heaven grow and grow.

Out of the mouths of pagan philosophers

Acts 17: 27-28 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

We’re still at the Aeropagus today, and Paul quotes the Cretan philosopher Epimenides and the Cilician Stoic philosopher Aratus in this passage. Both of these philosophers are talking about Zeus in the sayings quoted by Paul, but Paul is saying that they are actually talking about God. This is the Melchizedek moment in Acts 17. Essentially, Paul is claiming that these pagan philosophers are able to speak truth about God, even when they think they are talking about another deity altogether.

This happens a lot today for folks who are spiritually minded. People often understand things about the universe and about goodness and grace that are true of God. They just don’t realize that he is the person they’re right about. What does it mean for us that we might understand something that is true, but that we might just not understand the entirety of what we’re saying?

Your personal Aeropagus

Wednesday – Acts 17: 22-23 “Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: to an unknown god. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you.”

I imagine that the God Paul introduced to the Athenians in Acts 17 didn’t quite fit on the altar they had made for him. In fact, Acts 17 later tells us that “some sneered,” but others did want to hear more. They were intrigued by a God who made their other gods unnecessary and who “was not served by human hands” the way that their other gods were (through gifts of fruit and food).

I imagine that the folks who sneered in this story were the same ones who expected that they already knew what “the unknown god” would look like. When they met him, they didn’t recognize him because they simply weren’t prepared for the thing they didn’t know to be genuinely new and different. Seems like what they really expected was more of the same.

Think about your personal Areopagus. Do you have space in there for elements of God that you do not yet know or understand? If so, are they flexible? Or do you think you already know what will fill those spaces?

Even after millennia

Tuesday - Hebrews 6: 19-20

We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”

If we only saw Melchizedek and his Canaanite “God Most High” in Genesis 14, it would be easy to dismiss Abram’s interaction with them as one of his many failings. But the author of Hebrews puts Melchizedek in the same camp as Jesus! So is Jesus now the priest of a pagan god? Probably not.

If we look at the rest of Hebrews 6, we see a lot of language describing Jesus as the guarantee (or certainty) of God’s promise of deliverance. For many Hebrews during the time of this book, Jesus wouldn’t have looked very much at all like what they expected God’s promise of deliverance to be. In fact, he was so unlike what they expected that the religious leaders were at the front of the line for his execution. After thousands of years of developing their theology, the Jewish leaders still don’t have quite a large enough picture of God. How do you feel about a God who may not be understandable, even after millennia? Does that make you uncomfortable? Meditate on that today.

Which "God Most High"?

Genesis 14: 18-20

Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying,

“Blessed be Abram by God Most High,
    Creator of heaven and earth.
And praise be to God Most High,
    who delivered your enemies into your hand.”

Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

Yesterday, Brenna pointed us to the fact that the “God Most High” of Melchizedek is not the same one that Abram worships, but rather the highest deity in the Canaanite pantheon of gods. This might make our ears perk a bit – Abram tithing to the high priest of a god other than the one who called him from the land of his fathers? What’s going on here?

Abram is stretching our understanding (and his) of God. Sometimes we encounter things in scripture and in life that require us to see God as larger and more complex than we originally did. We’ll unpack this more throughout the week, but for this morning, spend some time meditating on those times in your life where your understanding of God has seemed insufficient to explain the world around you. Try to dissect what it was about that situation that made you question your understanding of God.