Sunday, May 8, 2016

Corinth: "Speak, and Do Not Be Silent": Sermon on Acts 18 for Mother's Day

Good morning, brothers and sisters! When we left Paul last week, he was in Athens, preaching to the Areopagus and introducing them to the God they'd left unknown (Acts 17:23) – the God who, he tells them, made the world (Acts 17:24), and sustains us with “life and breath and everything” (Acts 17:25), and sets the boundaries of human history in space and time (Acts 17:26), and stooped down within our reach (Acts 17:27), and made us in his image so we wouldn't need idols (Acts 17:28-29), and who calls us to repentance and appointed Jesus as our Savior and Judge through his resurrection from the dead (Acts 17:30-31). And we saw in his teaching that idols can't bring heavenly life to earth – nothing we chase can achieve our dreams. But we don't have to chase idols, because God sent Christ to catch us with his love and show us his glory in each other. 

And on that note, Paul bade Athens goodbye – the intellectual capital of ancient Greece – and went to the mighty city Corinth, the Las Vegas of ancient Greece. Plenty of trade, plenty more depravity and vice – let's just say calling a Greek woman a “Corinthian lady” might've gotten you slapped, and that's if she lets you off easy. And yet Corinth is where Paul went next (Acts 18:1).

And in Corinth, we read, Paul, busily at work bearing testimony to the truth he knows, gets reunited with Silas and Timothy (Acts 18:5). Paul writes himself, after all, that the ones who announced the gospel to the Corinthians were “Silvanus and Timothy and I” (2 Corinthians 1:19). 

And you know, there's something I'd kind of like to ask Luke about. I get why he mentions Silas so much. Silas was a pretty impressive fellow. He was prominent among the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 15:22), might have been one of the Seventy Disciples even; he's not just a believer and elder, but he's actually a prophet, has a gift for strengthening and encouraging churches (Acts 15:27), and he's a real part of the action – he shared Paul's imprisonment at Philippi, after all (Acts 16:23). So yeah, Luke, I get why Silas gets so many mentions here.

But what about Timothy? What's he done to deserve all the space he gets? He's just a kid, right? A very young man, at most, surely. Probably in his late teens, would be my guess. Even a decade after this visit to Corinth, the church Timothy pastored was tempted not to take him seriously – because he was so young; that's why Paul had to tell him not to let anybody get away with looking down on him for his youth (1 Timothy 4:12). And surely it didn't help that Timothy was just getting sick all the time – he's got “frequent ailments,” Paul writes (1 Timothy 5:23). Plus, his personality tended toward the introverted side, and he was naturally reserved (1 Corinthians 16:10). Those things together don't exactly spell out our conventional picture of a successful ministry leader, do they? “So why mention Timothy at all?”, I'd like to ask Luke.

But on second thought, I think I do get why Luke takes such notice of Timothy. It's on account of the young man's “sincere faith” (2 Timothy 1:5). He's got a burning love for God. He's got a selfless devotion to the people. He's proven himself (Philippians 2:22). He's got a clear commitment to the mission. And even from the moment Paul met him, Timothy had already earned a solid reputation for good character (Acts 16:2). Paul saw something in him – something that made Paul realize that, as great as Timothy was for the church in Lystra that had started just three years earlier (Acts 14:8-10), Timothy would glorify God all the more out on the open road (Acts 16:3).

It wasn't something that happened to Timothy overnight. It wasn't a radical conversion in his thirties, forties, fifties, sixties. His “sincere faith” didn't begin in him. He was raised with it. And not by his dad. See, Timothy's dad was a pagan, a Greek (Acts 16:1). No, Timothy's “sincere faith” dwelled first in his mother Eunice's heart, and in her mother Lois before her (2 Timothy 1:5). It was they who set an example for self-control, for charity, for worship – they who gently stood him on his feet and taught him to lift up holy hands in prayer, they who showed him the difference God makes in a human life. It was they who saturated Timothy's life with scripture from childhood – from those tender moments he was still small enough to be cradled and rocked in mama's arms (2 Timothy 3:15).

If Timothy were standing here, he'd tell you the impact of a mother's faith – the way, before ever he met his mentor Paul, his mother Eunice raised him on a sound foundation, nurtured him in the love of a godly household. Even with a Greek father who thwarted his mama's desire to see her baby boy circumcised into God's covenant with the Jewish people, Timothy knew what it meant to have Eunice grow a little bubble of spiritual nurture all around him.

Timothy's not here to tell you that in his own words. But I can tell you. Like Timothy, the central parent figures in my life were my mother and my grandmother. Like Timothy, before I – before we – ever new the fullness of faith in Christ, God was at work in my life through a mother's love. Some of the earliest memories I have are of my mom reading to me – oh, there's always been plenty of reading going on – from a little Bible picture book. From childhood she made sure I was acquainted with the Holy Scriptures, which when the time was right proved able to make me “wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ” – just like Timothy (2 Timothy 3:15). And when that time came, time to give myself over into the hands of Jesus, who walked with me into the Light of Christ but Mom? So I can tell you what Timothy would tell you: never, ever, ever underestimate the impact a mother can have in raising up and discipling a new generation of sons and daughters of God.

And it's happened all down through the years. From Eunice teaching Timothy from infancy, to the martyrs Perpetua and Felicity leaving their little children behind on earth in good care as they passed with glory through the Gate of Life, to St. Macrina the Elder yielding abundant fruit in her sainted son Basil and five sainted grandchildren, to St. Monica waging unceasing war in prayer for the soul of her wayward and profligate son Augustine, down through centuries to Susanna Wesley preaching the good news and teaching spiritual discipline to her sons John and Charles – and today we see just the same.

Men, women, young, old: if you've had a mother who raised you well in the faith, or even a mother who didn't know Jesus but who shaped you in ways that served you well once you met him yourself, be thankful to God. And mothers of the church, know that not an ounce of your maternal love and care has been wasted in the sight of the Lord. The very shape of the word of God wouldn't be what it is if not for the humble, patient, faithful, courageous witness of mothers like you.

But lest we think that only a Eunice or a Lois can shape a Timothy, this chapter of Acts introduces us first – before Timothy's return – to a couple named Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2). Now, from their names, it's a safe bet the both of them are Roman citizens; and we know they're Jewish followers of Jesus already, just like Paul. They probably aren't his converts; they were probably believers before they met him. 

We know not just from Luke's report but from the Roman historian Suetonius that in 49 AD, the Emperor Claudius was fed up with the clamor on Rome's synagogues – a great hubbub and controversy about somebody some Jews were calling “Chrestus,” he'd heard. And Claudius was sick of it, so he kicked out most non-citizen Jews, maybe whole synagogues – gave 'em the boot from town.

Aquila and Priscilla were ringleaders of the Christ movement – as citizens, they couldn't be exiled without trial, but they refused to abandon their friends by clinging to home's comforts. So into exile they went, too. And by God's providence, these strong, daring believers reached Corinth just in time to meet Paul – to open up their home and even their leatherwork shop to the apostle, to become partners with him in ministry (Acts 18:3; cf. Romans 16:3). 

And the three of them, and Paul's other partners later, were just in time for the nearby Isthmian Games – second only to the Olympics! – in 51 AD. Athletes and spectators came from all over Greece, and there'd be Paul and Aquila and Priscilla and friends, captivating visitors with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

But the focus in this passage isn't really on Aquila. Just as often in the New Testament, it's not Aquila's name that comes first, like you'd expect in a Roman story; it's Priscilla's. Luke portrays her as Aquila's equal as a missionary, teacher, and leader. And while neither Luke nor anybody else tells us the two of them had kids, Priscilla is obviously a spiritual mother wherever she goes (Acts 18:26). She takes the lead in rounding out Apollos' Christian education (Acts 18:26) – we'll hear more about him next week – and seems to take Timothy under her wing after they leave Corinth to lead a house-church in Asia (1 Corinthians 16:19; 2 Timothy 4:19). Priscilla is proof that you don't have to give birth to be a mom – if not by blood, then by the Spirit of God and spiritual nurture.

So by verse five here, Paul's team – Priscilla, Aquila, Silas, Timothy – is busily preaching the gospel “to the Jew first” (Romans 1:16). Even for the “apostle to the Gentiles,” that was Paul's first mission field wherever he went (Romans 11:13). And what's his message for his synagogue ministry? That the one they've been waiting for, the one God promised, the one who would cure Israel of what ails her and set her right with God and achieve her long-awaited destiny – that's Jesus (Acts 18:5)! 

But they don't want to hear that. Some do, sure, but not most. Instead, they throw up walls of resistance. Oh, they want the hope of Israel, but they don't want to hear that it's Jesus. And they don't just attack the message; they attack the messenger. Things turn ugly, and so Paul announces he's through with the Corinthian synagogue – if they don't want to hear the good news, then they can eat the consequences, but he's got a clear conscience. And if they'd rather miss out on Israel's destiny, proving they aren't Abraham's children at all (cf. Romans 9:8), maybe their pagan neighbors would like to get in on it – so he'll go to the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). “Through their trespass, salvation has come to the Gentiles, so as to make Israel jealous” (Romans 11:11). Perhaps Paul's ministry may “somehow make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them” (Romans 11:14).

And it's probably because of that dream, that vision, that Paul doesn't go far. He may shake out the dust of the synagogue from his clothes, treating it as unclean, but he moves literally next-door – so even if the synagogue kicks out all the Jesus-followers, they'll still have to see them, still have to hear them, still be exposed and enticed (Acts 18:7). And Paul's ministry bears fruit: “Many of the Corinthians hearing Paul believed and were baptized” (Acts 18:8). 

Still, things had gotten ugly. And Paul knows what happens when things turn ugly. He remembers the beating in Philippi – maybe has scars where his open wounds festered all day in the jail. He still hears the shouts of the Thessalonian mob, crying violently for his blood. He's haunted by nightmares of his enemies tracking him down from city to city, stirring up riots and chasing him out. 

And maybe by this point, just like Elijah on the run from Jezebel, Paul's just tired of it. Maybe he's wondering if there isn't a quieter way to evangelize, a less offensive method – don't go to them, let them come to you; don't stir the pot, don't make waves, don't risk alienating your friends and neighbors. Maybe he's thinking of calling it quits or changing his tune.

And that's when he hears it. All's dark, all's quiet – well, quiet as cities ever got – he's tossing and turning on his bed, maybe breaking out in the nightmare-sweats, panting for breath, trying to get back to sleep or else freshly slipped to the bottom of his sleep cycle – and then the Lord comes for him. He has a vision of Jesus. Jesus has a message for Paul: “Fear not, but speak, and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:9). Now that's a message! Don't give up, don't give in; don't hold back, don't keep quiet; don't be afraid to tell the good news, tell the good news.

The words sound a lot like Jeremiah, in fact. If Paul was the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13), well, Jeremiah was ordained as a “prophet to the Gentiles” (Jeremiah 1:5) – it's really in there, honest! And when Jeremiah was called, he protested, tried to object to God drafting him like that – said he can't speak well, said he's just a kid like Timothy (Jeremiah 1:6). And God told him to cut the excuses: “Do not say, 'I am only a youth.' For to all to whom I send you, you shall go; and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, saith the LORD (Jeremiah 1:7-8). And the Maker of the universe stretched out the hand that shaped the mountains, and touched the young prophet's lips, and filled Jeremiah's mouth with the word of God, mighty to overthrow and build whole kingdoms (Jeremiah 1:9-10).

As years went by, Jeremiah was persecuted, not by pagan Babylonians, but by Pashhur the priest, the chief officer in the temple, who tried to intimidate Jeremiah into silence (Jeremiah 20:1-2). Paul could identify with Jeremiah's lament that God's word was a heavy burden to speak, hard to tell, provoked mockery from everyone (Jeremiah 20:7-8). But, writes Jeremiah, “If I say, 'I won't mention him or speak any more in his name,' in my heart there's a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I'm weary with holding it in, and I can't!” (Jeremiah 20:9). The word of God wants to get out! All because the LORD told him, “Whatever I command you, you shall speak; do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you” (Jeremiah 1:7-8) – the same message, in essence, the Lord Jesus told Paul, just like he'd told Jeremiah centuries before.

The message is for us, just as much as for the prophet and the apostle. Jesus is telling us, “Don't be afraid, but speak and do not be silent.” Now it's true, the Bible also tells us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak” (James 1:19). But there's a difference between being slow and standing still! And those words are a warning against snapping in anger or speaking thoughtlessly (James 1:20, 26) – James' words for a quarrelsome church (James 4:1). But James also said that “whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (James 5:20). We shouldn't speak in anger, shouldn't leap ahead of our knowledge – but we should, must, speak the word of God, like Jeremiah and Paul.

We must, must speak the gospel! We must not, not remain forever silent! Maybe you've heard that famous quote by St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary, use words”? As if words are the last resort? Problem is, St. Francis never said that. Not only that, he wouldn't agree with it at all! St. Francis loved speaking the gospel – he loved it so much, he spoke it when no one but birds were around to listen! Loved it so much, he advised his followers to preach “to the advantage and spiritual good of their listeners” in short messages. Loved it so much, during the thick of the Crusades he dared to personally go preach to the Muslim Sultan of Egypt! This phony quote just ain't Franciscan, and it just ain't good advice, either. Better advice: Live out the gospel in your life, and from that life, preach the gospel at all times in words with your life to back those words up.

Friends, it can be hard to speak the gospel in today's age. We know our culture is increasingly Corinthian. More to the point, some of our churches are increasingly resistant like Pashhur, like the Corinthian synagogue. It can be hard to bring up the good news in a natural way. It is not easy to speak the gospel. I get it. I struggle with it myself! Oh sure, from the pulpit it's fine – though if anybody brings a basket of rotten fruit to their pew, I might be in trouble! But out in conversation, yeah, I struggle to speak the gospel. I'd much prefer to be silent – it's more my speed. But when I hold my tongue, I feel that tingling way down in my bones – the word of God itching to break past my locked lips (cf. Jeremiah 20:9).

The gospel isn't meant to be chained within our hearts and minds. The gospel isn't meant to stay buried in our bones. Like Eunice, Priscilla, Jeremiah, and Paul, we have to speak it to pass it on! It's not by words alone that we share it, but it is by words. “How will they call on him in whom they haven't believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they've never heard? And how are they to hear without someone proclaiming it? And how are they to proclaim unless they're sent? … So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ” spoken by those sent out with good news to tell (Romans 10:14, 17). 

And make no mistake: we're sent. Whether we're younger than Timothy or old enough to be penpals with Jeremiah, we're sent! Whether we're mothers like Eunice, spiritual mothers like Priscilla, fathers like Isaiah, spiritual fathers like Aquila and Paul (cf. 1 Corinthians 4:15), or children and disciples like Timothy – we're sent! 

That truth comes to us from the words of Jesus: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). The church is a sent people, a missionary movement, the one holy worldwide and apostolic church; and if we're sent, then we're sent to speak the good news – not just stern judgment like Jeremiah, but also hope “to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10), news of salvation.

With Jesus promising to be with him, Paul keeps speaking. He himself says he did it “in weakness and in fear and much trembling,” but he trusted in “the power of God” that was in the gospel he preached (1 Corinthians 2:3, 5). And because he kept speaking, he stayed for a year and a half in Corinth, finding the people God assured him would listen to the message (Acts 18:10-11). He built up the church in Corinth, demonstrating the gospel with signs and wonders (1 Corinthians 12:12) and sticking to the basics, because the Corinthians weren't ready for more (1 Corinthians 3:2). Paul planted (1 Corinthians 3:6), he laid the foundation (1 Corinthians 3:10), and with the Lord's words on his mind, he later wrote to the Corinthians, “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (1 Corinthians 9:16).

And because he preached the gospel, not one but two synagogue chiefs became believers – first Crispus (Acts 18:8; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:14), then his replacement Sosthenes (Acts 18:17; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:1) – as well as the synagogue's main bankroller Titius Justus (Acts 18:7). What's more, his preaching set the stage for his trial before the famed governor Lucius Junius Gallio (Acts 18:12-13), the Stoic philosopher Seneca's brother. And while that might seem dangerous, Gallio's refusal to hear the case set a major precedent: the gospel is a question of Jewish law, not Roman – the gospel is a message emerging from Israel's ancient faith – and Christianity merits the same legal protection and tolerance that other versions of Judaism had under Roman law (Acts 18:14-16). For Luke, who wants to show how the gospel is good for Romans and other Gentiles like us, that's key. And all because Paul spoke and didn't keep silent.

Today, there's just as much of a need for us to speak and not keep silent. The Lord yet has many in this place, many who don't yet know him, who are to be called his people (Acts 18:10). So we need to speak, now as much as ever. But we're not called mainly to be cultural critics, or to defend the US Constitution, or to tell the kids to get off our lawns. What we speak is the gospel – of Jesus Christ who lived and died and rose and reigns, of his kingdom without end, of the salvation he gives and the power he pours out, of the promises of God all made 'Yes' in him (2 Corinthians 1:20), of life that we can have to the full (John 10:10) when our lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). 

The gospel is a “secret and hidden wisdom of God,” but he makes it known “for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7)! For Eunice's glory, and Priscilla's glory, and Timothy's glory, and your glory, and your glory, and your neighbors' glory... speak the wisdom of the gospel. It's good news! Too good to keep hush-hush. 

So don't. Speak, and don't be silent. For the Lord Jesus who promised to be with Paul is with us always, too, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20; cf. Acts 18:10). Amen.

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