Sunday, May 29, 2016

Troas: One Last Bread-Break: Sermon on Acts 20:1-16

Good morning, brothers and sisters! When we last left our hero Paul, we saw him in the prime of his life (Acts 19:1-20). His ministry had never been flourishing more – through his very sweat rags, the sick were healed; through him, Ephesians renounced their magic tricks, their devotion to profitable silver, their reliance on Artemis or Caesar to save them, and they turned entirely to Jesus; and, as the word of the Lord prevailed within them, so it prevailed all across the province of Asia. 

Like we've said before: Acts isn't so much a history of the church as a story about the mission – but to the extent the church is healthy, that's just about the same thing! Because the church is a missionary movement, and if we're committed to being a healthy church, then we'll follow the Spirit out past the stained glass windows and watch the word of the Lord prevail.

But Paul couldn't stay in Ephesus. A riot stirred up by the pagan silversmith Demetrius made it impractical for him to stick around (Acts 19:21—20:1). Paul was honor-bound to leave – but he left a thriving church behind him, and that's what matters. 

And now Luke traces Paul's journey onward. He traveled through Greece and Macedonia and picked up a number of new companions: folks from Thessalonica, Berea, Derbe, Asia (Acts 20:2-4). Luke doesn't mention it, but this is the season when Paul wrote some letters and is now gathering a big offering from his churches to bring to the Jerusalem church. It's not a big theme in Acts, but Paul was really passionate about it. He saw it as the final fruit of his ministry: just as the spiritual blessings of Israel had spilled over onto the nations through his apostleship, now the churches in the Gentile nations would return material blessings back to the heart of Israel – a vivid symbol of the nations coming obediently to Zion, just like the prophets said. And Paul would be the chosen priest to present this pure and holy Gentile offering to God and to share it with the holy ministers of the gospel in Jerusalem.

Paul's companions listed here are probably representatives chosen by the churches to carry offerings on those churches' behalf, with Luke likely representing Philippi himself. And so Paul embarks on this last journey – one of his great goals is within reach. But the first place he has to stop after Philippi is, naturally, Alexandria Troas, on the Turkish coast, the site where Alexander the Great invaded the world. Paul's been through here before, and there's already a small church set up. He and his team can only spare seven days, so he doesn't want to waste a moment of it (Acts 20:5-6).

They didn't have big church buildings in those days – couldn't meet in a place like this – so Paul and his friends have to all cram into a third-floor tenement apartment. Paul's holding conversation with them, knowing he won't see them again – so any last instruction, any last comfort they need, he has to give now. So it's no surprise that he makes his message a long one – lasting until midnight and beyond (Acts 20:7). Wow! I sure am glad this church doesn't know anything about having a long-winded preacher. (That's your cue to laugh!)

Now, Luke's audience wouldn't have judged Paul for this. Long speeches were actually very normal for preachers and teachers back then. Even a couple centuries ago, massive sermons lasting several hours were somewhat typical right here in America. But they usually didn't happen in such cramped rooms. Everybody's packed in there like sardines. What happens when you stuff a whole crowd of people into a little room with candles, and the ventilation isn't so great? It gets hot – hot and sweaty – and people are getting maybe a little bit dizzy.

Eutychus is sitting on the broad windowsill – it was big enough, this wasn't so unusual – and he's described as a young man, probably of military age. Luke's first readers would expect any student to be able to stay awake through even a long lecture. That's just the self-discipline you needed.

But Eutychus doesn't have it. He yawns. He feels his eyes drifting closed. He tries to keep them open, but they're so heavy! He yawns again, peers through his bleary eyes. The room seems like it's dancing, with all the candles flickering. It's bright, he should stay awake, but... yawn... just so sleepy... He can let himself nod off, just this once....

And then he drops. Tumbles out the window, onto the street or courtyard below. Can you imagine the dismay running through the crowd? I wonder – were Eutychus' mom and dad there? Aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters? His childhood best friend – was that guy here? And there goes Eutychus (Acts 20:9)! They rush to the window to look out over; some run down the stairs as fast as they can go, wanting to get to the body, wanting in their grief to say goodbye.

It's a familiar kind of scene: a youth, a kid, gone from the world in an unthinkable way at an untimely age. Elijah saw it. Elisha saw it. Jesus saw it. Peter saw it. And now Paul sees it. And if you've been paying attention, there are lots of clues what's going to happen. Why does Luke mention the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Acts 20:6)? Why does Luke describe the location of this scene as “the upper room” (Acts 20:8) – where else does that come up in the biblical story? Why does Luke specify that this scene here takes place “on the first day of the week” (Acts 20:7)? Can you guess what he's suggesting?

The Feast of Unleavened Bread – the days following Passover, when Jesus died on the cross. In the upper room, this band of disciples is breaking bread – just like the Last Supper. And now we've come to the first day of the week – the exact phrase Luke uses at the end of his Gospel when he opens the chapter about the resurrection (Luke 24:1). This is a new Last Supper story, a new account of death and resurrection! 

Luke wants you to hear those echoes, wants you to pick up on what he's doing. This story is not going to end with Eutychus staying dead. And he doesn't. Paul picks him up, tells the people not to worry (Acts 20:10). Paul's become a lot like Jesus during these last chapters. And now, like Jesus and like the wonder-working prophets Elijah and Elisha before him, Paul yanks this kid from the Grim Reaper's bony fist. There's hope for Eutychus. The breaking of bread isn't done, not even for him. And even death and restoration can't impede the witness of the gospel. That's why Paul keeps on talking, keeps on making use of every moment, doesn't let himself be diverted from his mission (Acts 20:11).

Why does all this matter? Why is it so timely for us to hear this week? Well, you know what tomorrow is. Memorial Day. And on Memorial Day, Americans show honor to those who lost their lives in the course of their military service toward this country – often on our behalf – those who boldly faced peril in “air and land and sea” – whether they were among “the host of those who love the vastness of the sky,” or “those who on the ocean ply.” 

I know that many of you can think of the name of someone close to you – the first person who pops into your mind when I ask you about someone you knew personally who died while in the service – maybe World War II, maybe Korea, maybe Vietnam, maybe Afghanistan or Iraq or deployed elsewhere? Would you please raise your hand and then say their name loudly when I point to you? Who comes to mind when I ask who died while in the service?

Friends, this story of Paul's departure – the last bread-break he gets with his friends in Troas – is very intentionally cast by Luke as a last meal. This scene points back to the Last Supper, and to the death of Jesus Christ. By this point in the story, Paul knows that he isn't going to make it back to Troas. He has a mission to accomplish – he intends to announce his gospel in Rome, the center of imperial power, to preach to the very emperor himself, if he can – and then, if he lives long enough, to bring the gospel to the utmost reaches of the west in Spain.

But there's no turning back, no more revisiting places he'd once been, no more seeing old friends. He's making a goodbye tour, knowing the risks of Jerusalem, as the prophet Agabus will tell him (Acts 21:10-11). Paul doesn't know exactly what waits for him there, but says – and we'll cover this speech next week – he says that “the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me. But I do not account my life of any value nor as precious to myself, if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the grace of God. And now, behold, I know that none of you among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom will see my face again” (Acts 20:22-25). 

And he's right – Acts never records another trip to Corinth, another visit to Ephesus, another stay in Troas. Paul understands exactly the feelings of a soldier who says goodbye, unsure whether he'll make it back. Paul knows the pain, the wistfulness, the anxious separation that shrouds Memorial Day and all its memories.

And yet this scene reminds us that there's more to the story. At the moment when Luke is preparing his readers – preparing us – to watch Paul march out to battle one last time, to end up a prisoner of war in God's holy war against the dominion of darkness... well, at that moment, Luke does all he can to remind us that the death and resurrection of Jesus has consequences for the church. At that moment, Luke hearkens back to that central story by showing us that Eutychus does not have to stay dead. 

In the instant he fell from the window, the hearts of all those gathered sank – sank like the news hitting a father, a mother, a sister, a brother, a friend, a fiancée, that their beloved won't come back from that foreign land – whether the halls of Montezuma or the shores of Tripoli, whether far-off northern lands or sunny tropic scenes; whether Valley Forge or Custer's ranks, San Juan Hill or Patton's tanks – won't come back, save in a pinewood box.

The hope for an American soldier (or a soldier from any other nation) is the only hope for all of us, as well – and that's to be a Christian soldier... to be enlisted in Christ's holy war against the dominion of darkness. Because that's what a disciple is – someone under the discipline of Christ's service, someone exercising the self-control and watchfulness proper to his or her duty in that war, someone vigilant in the day of battle, equipped with God's own armor (1 Peter 5:8; 1 Corinthians 16:13; Ephesians 6:11). 

A disciple is a Christian soldier, whose fight as such is never against flesh and blood but against the dark powers that infect and infest the world... that dig their fierce talons and fiery darts into our own souls, our own lives and lifestyles (Ephesians 6:12). When and where the Son of God goes forth, a disciple follows in his train. A disciple belongs to the church militant here on earth and, when his or her tour of duty in this world is done, plans to return with all the church triumphant! 

Yes, a disciple is just such a Christian soldier. And for no other soldier is there this immense hope – a certainty that, like Eutychus, death is no defeat, because Jesus Christ has trampled down death by death, and on those in the tomb he's bestowing the victory of life! By that, you can be more than just a little comforted (Acts 20:12)!

My hope and prayer today is that, for all those servicemen whose names we shared out loud this morning, that they were also enlisted in Christ's army. Maybe they already were when you said your goodbyes with them. But if they weren't, I pray they joined up in those last weeks, days, hours, even seconds. The love of God is relentless, and there's no recruiter so tenacious as Jesus Christ, the commander of the armies of the LORD of Hosts (Joshua 5:14)! I've got my own speculations on how the relentless love of God pursues us as we surrender our last breath.

But more important and relevant to us today is whether we – each one of you, and myself, too – are enlisted in the armed forces of heaven – armed with the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God (Ephesians 6:17), to fight against sin's inward summons and the world's temptations, against principalities and powers and all thoughts and prideful schemes that set themselves up in opposition to the wisdom of our holy God (Ephesians 6:12; 2 Corinthians 10:4-5). Are you enlisted? Are you just such a Christian soldier? If you're not, don't leave this building, don't leave this gathering, without having a heart-to-heart with the Recruiter and Commander!

But if you are a Christian soldier, then hear this word: March onward! March onward, with the cross of Christ crucified being all the banner, all the flag, all the emblem you need. No matter whether the American kingdom should “rise or wane, / the Church of Jesus constant will remain.” March onward, sure in the promise that, whether you weaken on the field of battle like Eutychus or stay strong to the end like Paul, there's a resurrection promise that your last bread-break is only final for now. 

Death does not get the last word. Tombs are temporary. Because one day, we will break bread with Paul, and with Eutychus, and our fallen brothers and sisters and friends, and best of all, with the Lord Jesus himself – and in that day, there will be no need to decorate graves ever again. There won't be any more graves to decorate – all swords will be beaten into plowshares, and all spears into pruning hooks, and the nations won't learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4) – and “the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Romans 16:20). Hallelujah for the gospel of resurrection and unending peace! Amen and amen.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Ephesus: "The Word of the Lord Prevailed": Sermon on Acts 19

Good morning, brothers and sisters! Sure has been a wet week out there at times – and still is! But through all the weather, we've come to the first Sunday after Pentecost. And if we remember last week, we met someone new in the story, a man named Apollos, who was incredibly gifted in mind and, most importantly, in the Spirit. 

Paul had stopped in Ephesus briefly before Apollos arrived, and when Paul did, the folks at this synagogue actually wanted Paul to stick around with them (Acts 18:19-20). He told them he'd come back “if God wills,” and God did will (Acts 18:21)! In the meantime, Apollos came to probably this very synagogue, speaking boldly and teaching about Jesus, so far as what he knew (Acts 18:25-26).

In Thessalonica, Paul got to dialogue at the synagogue for three whole weeks (Acts 17:2). In Berea, he would've gotten a lot longer, but his Thessalonian opponents chased him away (Acts 17:13-14). We don't hear how long he did this in Athens (Acts 17:17) or in Corinth (Acts 18:4), but his synagogue ministry in Corinth gets cut short by dirty, slanderous opposition that drives him to mainly focus on the Gentiles (Acts 18:6). 

And now in Ephesus, where Priscilla and Aquila and Apollos have been serving the gospel, this friendly synagogue gives Paul three whole months to teach there, “reasoning and persuading them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 19:8). Seems too good to be true, and when it all comes down, the opposition is just attributed to 'some' – as in, not everybody wants Paul gone, because a sizeable number are convinced or still open!

So when the synagogue as a whole has become a hostile environment, Paul leaves and takes a big band of new believers with him. And where does he go? To “the hall of Tyrannus” (Acts 19:9), and there he stays for two years, holding daily discussions there, so that both Jews and Greeks throughout the whole province hear about the word of the Lord (Acts 19:10). We often miss what an amazing thing is going on here. Paul hasn't stopped being a tent-maker or leather-worker, but he's found a new job on the side. Paul has become an official, approved professor of philosophy for the city of Ephesus. That's pretty amazing! What he dabbled with in Athens, he's matured to full measure here.

Probably he does his craftsmanship in the marketplace from sunrise until late morning, and then goes to the hall – used as a local school as well as for other advanced lectures – to teach for five hours – first the general crowds who wander in, then more dedicated students including the new believers. He has to rent the building, but once his popularity picks up, he gets financial sponsorship from local benefactors who've served in government – the Asiarchs (Acts 19:31). 

So there's Paul, teaching the Bible in a school, holding lectures in off-hours. Students wanting to hear different styles would go around listening to any lectures or discussions available, and the whole city was on siesta and might go looking for some entertainment, so plenty of both wandered in – especially because there weren't enough teachers to go around.

To me, this is absolutely amazing. I never really thought about this before, but Paul's new position is a major launching platform for his ministry. He's in the schools, he's teaching college, he's making friends and influencing people, and he's doing this for two years! And even though he faces some persecution during this time, he's still enjoying the privileges of official teaching. It's possible to have both: you can be a believer, you can follow the Way, you can minister the gospel, both while enjoying status and while being opposed and oppressed – and sometimes both at once! And this is what he's trained for. When the Spirit led Paul on a route of ministry he didn't expect, it was to make sure he was ready for this.

Paul didn't know what God had in store! If you'd asked Paul in Acts 14 if he thought he'd ever be a philosophy teacher in Ephesus, and that it'd be the most successful gospel ministry of his life up to then, I mean, is that what Paul's written down as his career goal? No! No, this is a move of God. Paul didn't plan it; God did. And all the uncomfortable situations, all the fish-out-of-water experiences in Athens, everything else – now Paul can look back on it and see what God was doing. 

But Paul couldn't have done that if he'd disobeyed Jesus last chapter to “speak and not be silent” (Acts 18:9). Without faithfulness, we won't find out what God is training us to do and be. But rest assured: God has a plan for your life. It may involve suffering – too often we gloss over that. It may involve discomfort, and awkwardness, and hardship, and deprivation, and a lot of seemingly wrong turns. But God is the Grand Weaver. He's taking those threads and making a tapestry. He's writing your story, and that confusing path you're on may prove to be just the plot that makes the most exciting chapter possible. Just trust God, and keep on trucking.

As for Paul, that's what he did. And so for two years, his ministry prospered and reached all of Asia and beyond – he trained mission teams and sent them out, and even word of mouth reached other towns about this popular new philosopher in Ephesus with an original message they ought to hear. In fact, it's during this time that all Seven Churches of Revelation get founded. The word of the Lord reaches not just a city, but the whole province – amazing! 

But Paul's ministry isn't just in teaching. God is doing miracles. He lays hands on people, they get healed (Acts 19:11). And soon, that's not enough. Jesus laid hands on people, and then suddenly a woman was healed by touching the fringes on his clothes (Luke 8:44). Peter laid hands on people, and then suddenly they got better when his shadow crossed their path (Acts 5:15). And now the same happens with Paul – the Spirit won't stay limited to touch.

What's happening here is that, as Paul's fame as a miracle man grows, people are sneaking into his workshop and taking things – his grimy aprons... the rags he uses to wipe sweat from his face when he gets overheated – and miracles follow them (Acts 19:12). It's not Paul's idea, just like Jesus didn't suggest touching his garment and Peter didn't ask people to gather in his shadow. But if last chapter we heard about Apollos “boiling in the Spirit” (Acts 18:25), now we have Paul sweating out Holy Spirit! 

And I can't help but think, “Isn't that what we need today? We need the church to be so saturated in the Spirit that God makes himself undeniably known here!” Too often, we try to make it through on our own power. But we are not made to be self-sufficient. We aren't! When Paul writes in his letters about 'the natural man,' he's literally talking about a soul-driven person – somebody whose own soul, whose own self, is the practical source of their actions. And most of the time, that's where we live. Think back over the last week. How much of what you did, how much of what you tried to do, how much of what you thought about, came mostly from inside yourself, within your soul?

But Paul tells us about another possibility. When he talks about somebody being 'spiritual,' he's not talking about somebody thinking about God a lot. (By the way, when somebody tells you that they're “spiritual but not religious,” it probably means they're neither.) Because when Paul talks about being 'spiritual,' he's talking about a Spirit-driven person – somebody whose attitudes and actions aren't led or decided or fueled by their own soul, their own self, but by the Spirit of God living within you. And when we become totally surrendered to the Spirit, to whatever fruit and gifts he wants to grow and give, to wherever he wants to lead us and whatever he wants to do with us – well, as we mature, who's to say whether we won't sweat out the Spirit's power too?

But back to Paul. Luke wants to make sure we don't get the wrong idea, because this whole healing-cloth thing sounds a bit like magic. And magic was a big deal in Ephesus. In fact, around the whole Roman world, if you had an amulet with some occult symbol etched on it, you might call it “Ephesian writing.” What Athens was to philosophers, Ephesus was to magicians. And it's no surprise that the next two stories make obvious the difference between magic and the gospel. 

A band of Jewish magicians, children or disciples of a renegade Jewish priest with the Latin name Scaeva, swing through town, trying to do magical exorcisms (Acts 19:13-14). In those days, there were two ways you might try to give a demon the boot – you could learn its name and subdue it, or you could manipulate a tougher spirit to do your dirty work for you. And that's what these magicians try – only the one they want to invoke is Jesus. 

Oh, the demon knows who Jesus is, and he's heard who Paul is. But these men have no connection to either. They aren't students of Paul, and they aren't followers of Jesus. They aren't trusting in Jesus; they're trying to use him, just one name among many. And as a result, they don't exorcise the demon; the demon asks their name and exorcises them (Acts 19:15-16)! Hilarious!

It's easy to laugh at the sons of Scaeva. But the truth is, we might be more like them than we think. Because we follow in their footsteps sometimes. They were trying to domesticate Jesus to their own agenda, rather than joining his. And there are days we do the same thing. We have goals, we have ideas, and implicitly we see Jesus as a tool to achieve them. We want to invoke Jesus, to pressure him to our will, to have him cast out our problems so that we can get back to 'life as usual.' That's exactly what the sons of Scaeva tried. And it didn't work. It doesn't work. Jesus is not here to be our butler, or our nanny, or our concierge, or our errand-boy. He isn't here to endorse our partisan politics, or take our side in our petty personal squabbles, or bail us out in times of trouble and then kindly go away. He is Lord always and Savior always.

Remember the scene in the Book of Joshua: as the Israelites were preparing for battle against Jericho, Joshua looked up, and there was a man with a sword in his hand. A threat! Or a helper? So Joshua asks, “Excuse me, sir, but whose side are you on? Is it our side, or Jericho's side? Are you for us or against us?” And the answer isn't, “Your side, of course, Joshua.” Nor is the answer, “Their side.” The answer is just, “No.” “Are you for us or against us?” “No... but I am the commander of the LORD's army” (Joshua 5:13-14). And so Joshua gives worship. 

If you ask Jesus, “Hey, are you on my side or theirs?”, that's the answer you'll get: “No.” What matters isn't getting Jesus on your side; what matters is joining his team. And that happens through faith. That's what the sons of Scaeva don't get. They think they can manipulate Jesus to take their side against the demon, and then discard Jesus until he proves useful again. 

Often, we do the same thing: we reach out when there's a problem in our path, and then we want to go back to 'life as usual.' We can enlist Jesus, we think, and then muster him out when the battle's done. But Jesus didn't come to be a soldier fighting the battles of Jonathan, or Joe, or Cindy, or Wilmer. Jesus came to enlist us. And since the sons of Scaeva aren't in the fight, the demon doesn't know them, and their magic is pointless and vain – and so is every goal we try to reach by using Jesus instead of trusting him as Lord of our lives.

When news gets out in Ephesus, it catches attention. You mean these magicians aren't worth diddly-squat? That Jesus is greater than angels and demons and our little gods and spells? And everyone begins celebrating, magnifying, exalting the name of Jesus – that's what we want to see (Acts 19:17)! Because the name of Jesus isn't a tool to be wielded, or an incantation to be pronounced. He doesn't make himself available to magic; he asks us to approach with just faith. No fancy spells, no secret tricks that'll blow your mind... just trust in him, to work for his kingdom, and to accept the answers he gives. 

And now the believers come, and they have an admission to make. They'd been trying to follow Jesus in a lot of things... but they wanted to hold on to magic too, as a back-up plan, or a side business, or a hobby. They figured that Jesus is plenty of heavenly good, and maybe Jesus rules the future... but this is the real world, this is earth, this is here and now, and we need practical magic to get by! Only, we don't. And now they realize that. Jesus isn't content to let this corner of their lives stay pagan. Jesus won't settle for 95% of a person. Jesus wants the entire Ephesian – and the entire you, and the entire me. No areas held back. Nothing left pagan, nothing running according to the old rules of the world.

And that's a challenge for us, because there are so many areas where, pressed with the clear commands of the gospel, we object, “Well, yeah, sure, in theory, but let's be practical here, that just won't work!” Maybe it's the gospel discouraging us from living by the sword. Maybe it's the repeated command to not fear, not worry, just trust in the Lord. Maybe it's the gospel's call to show hospitality 'til it hurts, or to bless those who curse us. Maybe it's the gospel's high standard for living out the gospel in our careers, or in our marriages, or with our wallets – and we want to say, “Slow down, let's be practical here!” 

We assume we can fairly hold that back, because Jesus has no business with it, Jesus can't handle it. But what the Ephesians realize here is, Yes he can! And he will. Break the power of those secret sins; burn those useless magic scrolls (Acts 19:18-19). Whatever the cost, turn yourselves over to Jesus entirely – confess your sins, break the ties that bind you to unbelieving worldly ways, and go all in for the kingdom! That's what the Ephesian believers do here. They would rather have Jesus than silver or gold, or houses or lands, or applause, or worldwide fame; rather led by Jesus than “to be the king of a vast domain / or be held in sin's dread sway.” We sang it. But is it true – would we rather have Jesus lead?

And then Luke says it: “The word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20). The word of the Lord prevailed! There were a lot of false messages floating around Ephesus in those days. There was the false gospel of magic – that you could be saved from your troubles with the right secret tricks. There was the false gospel of Caesar – Ephesus was a big center of the imperial cult, had temples where you could worship Rome itself, or Julius Caesar, or Augustus – and Rome offered salvation from your barbarian ways by making you civilized, bringing order to your world through noble politics and strong leaders. There was the false gospel of Artemis, whose temple there was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. All that's left, though, is a single towering pillar. I've been there, I've seen it, and the birds make their nest at the top. And there was, of course, the false gospel of silver – that what matters most of all is profit, and in wealth is salvation from all your troubles, and that's what life is all about.

In the story, we meet a fellow named Demetrius, a leader in the silversmith's guild, who follows that message above all. Demetrius sees Paul's teaching as a threat to Artemis-worship, which is the livelihood of the city – after all, the Temple of Artemis served as an international bank and owned tens of thousands of acres of land – but, most important to Demetrius, his personal business. Demetrius is the prototype of so many companies today that adopt anti-Christian policies, agitate for anti-Christian change in society, because that kind of image is where the money is. They follow the false gospels of silver and Artemis – but may the word of the Lord prevail.

Yet where Demetrius stirs up a riot in the theater, agitating to protect his business in silver, the believers dismiss all the silver they could get from selling those magic scrolls – they've turned from the false gospels of magic, of Caesar, of Artemis, of silver, to follow Jesus in everything. The word of the Lord has prevailed in them – has prevailed over all the false gospels, has come out on top and won their allegiance. 

And the word of the Lord needs to prevail in us, and prevail mightily! Just like the Ephesian believers, we need to lay down our lives in surrender to the gospel. We need to submit to Jesus and let him reshape us, let him root out all the hidden pagan pockets in our souls. That's what the life of faith is: we lower our defenses, we present ourselves to Jesus, and with the scalpel of the Spirit, the Great Physician becomes our Great Surgeon, slicing and stitching and saving.

That's what it means for the word of the Lord to prevail in us, in our lives. It's not a one-time thing. In many churches, there's a great motto: “Ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda.” The church has been reformed, but it always needs to be reforming – and so do our lives. Jesus isn't done with us when we're born again. Paring away our hidden paganism is a lifelong process of the word of the Lord prevailing. As we gather here, we need to ask the question – in our own lives, and in our life together as a church – “Where do we need work next? What part of us is Jesus asking us to turn toward him, let our defenses down, surrender to him?” 

I can't promise it won't hurt. I'm sure it was painful for the Ephesians to watch 137 years' salary go up in smoke! I'm sure it wasn't easy to trust Jesus instead of those fancy incantations and spells. But it was worth it. Because in the big picture, those spells, those silver coins, pale next to the power of faith that enlists us on the Lord's side.

But the word of the Lord didn't just prevail in the believers' personal lives. The word of the Lord spread, the word of the Lord prevailed mightily in reaching the whole province. This is a missionary message! The word of the Lord prevailed over Jewish and Greek and Roman objections (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:22-24). The word of the Lord prevailed over the resistance that cities and villages put up. 

During this whole season, the word of the Lord was at work, changing pre-Christians into disciples. And even when the riot broke out, and Paul had to leave the city... well, Luke doesn't write that Paul prevailed, he says that “the word of the Lord prevailed.” It wasn't about Paul. He was an effective messenger, but the power's in the message. All because Paul's faith, Paul's reliance on the Spirit, made Ephesus the perfect base for sending out mission teams to all the cities of the province. That's when the word of the Lord prevailed, and kept on prevailing after Paul was gone.

And that's our calling as a church – for people to be sent out into the community, so that the best description of Lancaster and Chester Counties might be, “The word of the Lord increased and prevailed mightily!” But that won't happen if we aren't on the Lord's side. That won't happen if we're so focused on ourselves – on battling over Caesar, or collecting silver, or defending our petty interests, or navigating life with a few secret tricks we've worked out – that we neglect the kingdom of God. The word of the Lord won't prevail unto salvation for our neighbors and our neighborhoods if we don't follow the Spirit, who was and still is God's gift for God's people on God's mission. 

The church is a missionary movement. Don't look at me; look out the windows. May the word of the Lord prevail out there! Pray this week for Jesus to show you – to show us – where to start moving, because all authority and power in heaven and earth are his, and he is with us always, even to the end of the age. Glory be to the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Like Peter, Like Apollos: Sermon for Pentecost 2016

Good morning, brothers and sisters! Hallelujah – what a morning! Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire. When we last left the Apostle Paul on his journey, his ministry in Corinth was booming – and all because he obeyed Jesus, as we must, to “speak and not be silent” without being afraid (Acts 18:9). 

After Paul's eighteen-month stint in Corinth, he took Priscilla and Aquila, went to the port, got a ritual haircut for a Nazirite vow – Paul was, after all, a devout and converted Jewish Pharisee – and then Paul went to Ephesus for a short stop (Acts 18:18-19). Those in the synagogue actually asked Paul to stay longer with them – now there's a new twist! – but Paul had elsewhere to be, so he set sail for Caesarea, Antioch, possibly a visit to Jerusalem, and definitely a trip through the Galatian churches. He'll be back to visit Ephesus again later.

But meanwhile, after Paul's left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, another fellow passes through. His name is Apollos – probably short for “Apollonius.” He's a Jewish believer, like Priscilla, Aquila, and Paul. But he comes from Alexandria in Egypt. Excuse me – Apollos wouldn't like me saying that. He might rather have me say, “Alexandria by Egypt.” Alexandrians saw themselves as standing apart from Egypt, the same way – and for similar reasons – we wouldn't say, “Washington DC in Maryland.” Alexandria was a sophisticated place – famous for rhetoric, scholarship, education. What Athens was in memory, Alexandria was today. But speakers in Alexandria weren't calm and dispassionate, the ideal in Athens; no, they were emotional, vigorous, heated.

And our friend Apollos here has a lot going for him. Luke tells us he's eloquent and educated – he's got all the rhetorical training, all the great studies Alexandria can offer – and he's also a Jew with a pretty strong education in the Bible, or what we'd today call the Old Testament. Alexandria had a large Jewish community – maybe it's where Joseph and Jesus took the baby Jesus when they hid from Herod – and they had a style unique to them. 

One clue that suggests to me, and Carl, and Martin Luther that maybe Apollos had something to do with writing Hebrews is that it reads like something out of Alexandria, with lots of allegory and typology and echoes of Middle Platonist philosophy. One of the most famous Jewish teachers, Philo of Alexandria – he's left heaps of writings we still have – had just passed away a few years before Apollos reached Ephesus. For all we know, Apollos could have been a student of Philo's once, or a student of a student. 

 Yet not all was well in Alexandria: the Greeks and Egyptians felt threatened by the Jews, and there was a slaughter when Caligula was emperor, about thirteen years before this story. Apollos would've known; maybe he was even there.

But this educated Jew from Alexandria was also a believer. He was “instructed in the way of the Lord” (Acts 18:25). And we know that doesn't just mean the Old Testament, because from the moment he got to Ephesus, he started acting like Paul, jumping into the synagogue and precisely teaching about Jesus by name (Acts 18:26). How did Apollos get converted? We don't know. Maybe some of the crowd from Pentecost returned home to Alexandria and he learned that way. Maybe missionaries made their way there in the two decades since. 

But somehow, Apollos had gotten John the Baptist's baptism – probably during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during John's ministry – but nobody ever baptized him into Christ. In fact, there were portions of the story he was still missing in Ephesus. Some preachers have speculated he hadn't heard of the cross and resurrection; he just knew Jesus as the kingdom-teaching Messiah. That seems a little far-fetched to me, but I can't rule it out.

Bottom line is, nobody seems to know what the deal is here. But whatever Apollos did know, he had it right. He just needed more. We always need the full gospel; the mere basics, a diet of milk, isn't enough for us. So Priscilla and Aquilla brought him home for some grub, showed him hospitality in their new house in Ephesus, and filled him in with the rest of the scoop (Acts 18:26). And once they did, watch out! 

Apollos is a powerhouse – evangelism and apologetics and preaching all in one awesome package. In fact, his reputation as a preacher was even better than Paul's. Can you imagine that? There's a reason Apollos is, next to Jesus, literally my favorite person in the Bible. And when he wandered off to Achaia, the province where Athens and Corinth were, he proved a huge help to the believing, grace-filled church (Acts 18:27). And that's because he had the skills needed to totally and thoroughly debunk the Jewish objections to Jesus, and he made an irrefutable case that Jesus was the promised Messiah (Acts 18:28). And like I said, I suspect if you want to know what that looks like, read Hebrews.

But beyond all of that, that's not the most important thing Luke tells us about Apollos. Oh, it's good to know. It's encouraging to hear that there are people like that in the early church. And his intellectual prowess, his training, his obvious skill – those are certainly traits that set him apart from virtually every early Christian except Paul himself. These things all make Apollos stand out. But they aren't what's really important. No, what's really important is this little reference tucked away in verse 25 – in him dwelt the Spirit of God. He doesn't just have skills and education and training; he has the Spirit. But the Spirit uses all those other things he has: his broad knowledge base, and his talents, and his training in rhetoric, and his education in the Scriptures, and his awareness of what Jesus taught, and all of that, the Spirit uses it.

Too often, we're tempted to think that, if we have the Spirit, then doing anything else is pointless. We focus in on those passages that talk about God choosing the weak of the world and announcing the gospel through them so as to shame the strong – and we think that the Spirit and natural talent, or the Spirit and high culture, or the Spirit and education, are somehow alternatives. You can go with one or the other, so pick. 

That kind of defective pietism plays into the anti-intellectual trend in American culture. And, to be honest, our own denomination has some of that in our history. Early Evangelical Association preachers looked down on anybody who went to seminary, thinking that if they got an education from trained theologians, they'd somehow lose the power of the Spirit. It took a lot of effort by faithful, intelligent pastors like William Yost to convince the Powers-That-Be otherwise and open up a school.

But even today, we can find ourselves thinking like that – that somebody untrained is in a way more pure, more in tune with the Spirit, than somebody with natural skills and the training to put them to use. For some pastors even today, for instance, there's no need to research or plan for a sermon, because they just depend on the Spirit to teach them what they need and put words in their mouths. And I remember one of my seminary professors – world-renowned New Testament scholar, and a faithful believer – recounting a conversation with a student with this mindset. And the student says to him, “Professor, I don't need to study this, I don't need to plan, I don't worry about any of that; the Spirit will get things done.” And my professor told the student, “Well, son, I sure wish you'd give the Spirit more to work with!” Ain't that the truth. Well, Apollos did. But, of the two, the more important was that he had the Spirit. The Spirit takes up his skills and puts them to use; it's not an “either/or.”

That's what makes Apollos' situation different from the people next chapter who also only knew the baptism of John. We'll meet them soon – a band of twelve Jews in Ephesus, evidently disciples of John the Baptist, whom Paul has to tell that Jesus is the One Who Was to Come (Acts 19:4). When Paul finds out they're clueless about the Holy Spirit, he has to do a double-take: “Wait, whoa, what kind of baptism did you boys get, anyway? They a little lax down where you're from?” They didn't have a Christian baptism – they weren't baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ – and so John's baptism wasn't enough. They needed to be baptized as believers, not merely washed as part of John's mission (Acts 19:5). And only then do they get a visit from the Holy Spirit. “When Paul laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying” (Acts 19:6). For folks who only know John's baptism, it's no surprise – that baptism was just to get ready, to point the way – but now the Messiah has died and risen and ascended and poured out power, and it's a whole new ballgame, friends.

But then there's Apollos. Luke mentions nothing about anybody baptizing Apollos again. Aquila doesn't do it. Priscilla doesn't do it. Why did they need it, but not him? Well, this is a pretty messy situation – don't get me wrong – but it looks like the reason is that Apollos, unlike them, knows who Jesus is. I mean, even before Priscilla and Aquila get to him, he's accurately teaching things about Jesus. He's preaching the gospel! Or at least some of the gospel. And God has given Apollos the gift of the Holy Spirit. He may just know John's baptism, but do we have a record of Jesus baptizing Peter or Andrew? Andrew was John's disciple first, had been baptized by him. Apollos is like that – he's had John's baptism, and he's learned about Jesus being the Messiah, and he has God's Holy Spirit in him somehow.

In Acts, we sometimes see people who have just water baptism needing to get the gift of the Spirit separately – usually to make a point about the apostles being special. And in Acts, we do on occasion see people who have just the Spirit needing to get baptized into Christ in the water – folks like Cornelius, for instance – and usually it's because unless God acts first in those cases, things aren't going to get done. But Apollos has a water baptism – John's – and the Holy Spirit. 

And so Apollos, “born of water and the Spirit” (John 3:5), is made clean with the holy power of God. Water and Spirit go together somehow – they belong together. Not that you can't get them out of order or a bit jumbled up – it's a crazy world – but no role model in Acts ever had the thought, “Well, I have the one, I guess I don't need the other.” And that's because the Holy Spirit and baptism were promises that went together. It's what God told Israel through Ezekiel years ago:

I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

But Apollos doesn't just have the Spirit. Luke doesn't say the Spirit descended on Apollos, or that Apollos spoke and worked by the Spirit, or that Apollos was filled with the Spirit. All those things are true, but Luke goes further, picks a rare word here. Literally, Luke says that Apollos is boiling in the Spirit” (Acts 18:25). That's a strong image! It's one thing for a pot to have some water, it's another thing for a pot to be filled to the top, but we have some profound chemistry going on when you crank up the burners and set that thing a-boilin'! But... it's an odd image. I mean, what exactly is Luke saying?

Have you ever really thought about what boiling is? Go ahead, close your eyes, and picture a boiling pot of water on the stove. Mentally put your hand over it; see the steam wisp between your fingers; feel the heat against your palm. Watch the bubbles pop and froth – that thing's going pretty crazy there, isn't it? What is boiling? Here's a definition of boiling for you: “Boiling is the rapid vaporization of a liquid, which occurs when a liquid is heated to its boiling point.” And what's a boiling point? Well, a boiling point is “the temperature at which the vapor pressure of the liquid is equal to the pressure exerted on the liquid by the surrounding atmosphere.” That's boiling.

So first, the liquid has been heated – heated a lot. It isn't just everyday water anymore. It's water with all this kinetic energy, so much energy the molecules are bouncing to and fro, and because they just can't contain themselves, they have to throw off the excess, and you've seen that, you've felt that. And that's what's going on in Apollos. When he has the Spirit making himself known in his life, the energy of God is at work in him. 

And because the energy of God is exciting Apollos's soul, elevating it to a new state, he can't hold it all. The energy of God – the action of God – is so at work in Apollos' life that he knows exactly what Scripture means when it calls God a “consuming fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24), whose wrath “burns hot” (Exodus 32:11), seated in heaven on a throne of “fiery flames” (Daniel 7:9). God is hot! God is more than we can handle! When God comes to work on us, he stirs things up with his heat and gets everything excited! And that energy spills over into Apollos' life.

See, here's another thing about boiling water. It gets so hot, by the time it reaches its boiling point, that any microbes living in it are killed off, rendered inert and dead and unable to hurt us. Because when water is dirty, what it needs is to be boiled, because to be boiled is to be sterilized. Boiling helps to make water clean. And because Apollos is boiling in the Spirit, he's being made clean – he's being sanctified – because anything foreign in him, things like sin and death, are being killed off by the Spirit's heat! 

That's what sanctification is all about. And if it keeps going on, if Apollos boils all up and recondenses, perfectly free from all specks and germs and impurities... well, John Wesley had a name for that: “Christian perfection,” or “entire sanctification.” Whether we reach it in this life or not, God does have it in store for us. But it comes about through boiling in the Spirit.

And then, what else happens when water boils? Remember the definition. When water boils, when it reaches the boiling point, then the vapor pressure matches and rises beyond the ambient atmospheric pressure. In other words, the air pressure holding the water in place gets trumped by the pressure of energetic water molecules trying to get out as vapor, as steam. The pressure inside due to the heat is more than the pressure outside – and so, water versus atmosphere, the water wins! 

And Apollos knows all about that. He's boiling in the Spirit – the pressure in him to live for God, to exercise his spiritual gifts, to think and declare the gospel, is too great to be hemmed in by the pressure of the synagogue, of the world, of his own fleshly inhibitions pressing in on his soul. Nothing can keep his faith, his gospel, his gifts, trapped inside – the pressure is too great – it has to get out, it needs a rapid release, there's no containing Apollos anymore! That's boiling in the Spirit!

And it reminds me of Peter decades before. Now Peter didn't have Apollos' talent, or gifts with rhetoric and oratory, or special education – though before we rush to judgment, Peter was a student of a pretty excellent rabbi for a full three years – he's a graduate of the Seminary of Jesus Christ. But Peter didn't have Apollos' training; his style was probably a lot more simple. But there Peter was, staying in Jerusalem on the Feast of Weeks, the sixth day of the month of Sivan. The wheat harvest was ripe. So was the human harvest. 

In Jewish tradition, Shavuot – the Feast of Weeks – commemorated the gift of the Law to Israel. The Sinai Covenant, the Covenant of Moses, is renewed – Israel thanks God for the gift, renews her oath to follow it. But the problem is, Israel had a heart of stone. She couldn't make good on what she promised at the Feast of Weeks. If she wanted to walk in God's statutes and carefully obey his laws, she couldn't do it without another gift: the gift of God putting his Spirit in her.

And now the Feast of Weeks rolled around again. Pilgrims swarmed the Holy City, each presenting his firstfruits of wheat, barley, grapes, figs, dates, olives, and pomegranates at the temple (Deuteronomy 8:8; 26:1-4). They recounted the story of their deliverance: they were immigrants, foreigners, slaves in Egypt, but God multiplied them in his mercy, and when they were oppressed, they cried out to the LORD and were heard, and he brought them out of Egypt and into “a land flowing with milk and honey,” where there's plenty to go around – but the credit goes not to any farmer in Israel, but to the LORD who grants the growth (Deuteronomy 26:5-10; cf. 1 Corinthians 3:6). Springtime is here; the pilgrims think of the legend that Sinai's heights blossomed when God came down to give the Law.

But this is no ordinary Feast of Weeks this year. It doesn't follow an ordinary Passover. This year, the true Lamb was sacrificed. And this year, God has a greater gift than the Torah to offer. God offers the Spirit. And if the Feast of Weeks remembered how Israel was forged into one nation, a kingdom of priests (Exodus 19:6), this Feast of Weeks – this Pentecost – marks the empowerment of a New Israel to really live as a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9).

The Twelve are clustered with the other followers – the real Israel meeting in secret – the church, the “assembly of the LORD” – in the upper room. And like at Sinai, God comes down bearing a gift – a better gift – the gift of the Spirit! And with tongues of fire, he fills the apostles with the presence and power of God (Acts 2:1-4). The crowds outside are confused, bewildered, amazed; some scoff (Acts 2:5-13) – they don't see the connection. But again, the Spirit gave Peter the same boldness later given to Apollos. And so he declares the gospel (Acts 2:14-36). He reminds the crowd of God's promises to pour out his Spirit during the last days (Acts 2:18; cf. Joel 2:29) and reminds them the prophet Joel said they'd be saved at the Day of the LORD by calling on the name of the LORD (Acts 2:21; cf. Joel 2:32).

Peter explains these must be the last days, because Israel crucified their promised King. God proved Jesus was the King, the Messiah, by attesting him with “mighty works and wonders and signs,” and still he was delivered up and killed (Acts 2:23). But the story isn't done, because the promise of Psalm 16 wasn't for David, it was for Jesus: that the Holy One precious to God wouldn't be left in the grave, wouldn't be abandoned to rot, but would experience the paths of life (Acts 2:27-28; cf. Psalm 16:10-11). 

The crowd knows the news; they were there at Passover; they've heard that Jesus is risen, he's alive, and that's not some weird modern idea; it fits the weave of the Scriptures (Acts 2:29-31). They all are witnesses that God raised Jesus up again, the final proof that he's the priest and king who belongs at God's right hand – Israel's Messiah and Lord, whom Israel crucified (Acts 2:32-36). What a sermon! No wonder the people were sliced deep, right to the heart (Acts 2:37), and ready to hear the call to repent of what they'd done – and all their other sin – and be baptized and receive the same Spirit by whom Peter spoke (Acts 2:38). That's what we remember at Pentecost!

But friends, Pentecost isn't just a day. It isn't merely an annual festival. Pentecost is the history, reality, and destiny of the church of God. A church absent Pentecost is a club. And we have enough clubs. We need new hearts. We need to be the church. And that's exactly who we're called to be! The Spirit that burned in Peter, the Spirit that boiled in Apollos, lives in each believer's new heart, and especially in the believing church. “God's Spirit dwells in you” (1 Corinthians 3:16)! 

That's the promise of Jesus, and anybody who doesn't have the Spirit doesn't belong to him (Romans 8:9). The Spirit is here to unite us with God – to give us access to the Father, through the Son, in one Spirit (Ephesians 2:18). The Spirit is here to supercharge our conscience. The Spirit is here to expose and cast out sin; to bring our earthly darkness into the life of the Light of the World. The Spirit is here to lead us into all truth (John 16:13; cf. Ephesians 3:4-5). The Spirit is here to grow fruit for the harvest (Galatians 5:22).

But most of all, the Spirit of Christ is here to make us the Body of Christ for the mission of Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:13). That's what Pentecost is all about. It's not simply “the birthday of the church.” Pentecost isn't so much the birthday of the church as the explosion of the mission! The Church doesn't have a mission; the Mission has a church! And that's what the Spirit is all about. I mean, why did the Spirit on the apostles make them audible in all the world's languages? Because Abraham's blessing was at last swallowing Babel's curse. The Spirit translates the gospel to every mind and every heart. The nations were being bound together as one humanity in the Spirit (Galatians 3:27-28; Colossians 3:11; Ephesians 2:15).

Why did the Spirit fill Peter? Not just for his personal communion with his beloved Jesus, there there is that. Not just to make him a better person, though there is that. Not just to let him worship with joy, though there is that. But the Spirit filled Peter to make him bold to announce the gospel, not in his own rocky strength, but in God's incomprehensible power! 

The disciple who denied Jesus by a campfire was now fearless to speak the truth – to let loose all Jesus taught him – to confront the crowd with sin and repentance, to offer grace and mercy and love, in the boldness of God. He was filled with the Spirit “of power and love and self-control” (2 Timothy 1:7). Like Micah, Peter could say, “I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the LORD, and with justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin” (Micah 3:8). Jesus was right: with this gift, Peter really had received power – power to be a witness in Jerusalem and all Judea and Samaria and unto the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8)! 

And why did the Spirit fill Apollos? To drive him to use all that skill and talent and learning in the cause of Christ, to lay out an irrefutable case for the gospel, to strengthen the church for her life of mission! Paul planted, but to keep Corinthian and Ephesian believers from drying up under pressure, Apollos was sent to water (1 Corinthians 3:6).

And if that's what the Spirit was given for then, what do you think the Spirit wants to do with us now? We live in the same story as Peter and Apollos. It's the same Spirit working in us, near to us, present in and among us. And like Peter said, the Spirit is a promise – a promise for everyone the Lord our God calls to himself (Acts 2:39). If you're a believer – if you've repented, been baptized in Christ's name – then rest assured, you are forgiven by grace through faith, you are saved by grace through faith, and you are gifted by grace through faith. You are gifted for your role in the working of the Body of Christ, who is on a mission as the Spirit leads us. 

So rest assured, we have the Spirit. But are we walking in the Spirit? Are we following the Spirit? And, like Apollos, are we boiling? Does the Spirit overflow from this tiny cup of ours. Because we should be boiling! There's only one other time the word crops up in the Bible, and that's in Romans 12. It's one of Paul's exhortations for the church: “Be boiling in the Spirit” (Romans 12:11).

This Pentecost, let's turn aside from anything that hinders. Let's fix our eyes on Jesus, who went up to send the Spirit down. And let's implore him to breathe into us a double measure – like Peter, like Apollos – for the life of the world. May this church be found boiling in the Spirit! “O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years” (Habakkuk 3:2). “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit” – that 'Pentecostal power' – “you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).

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.