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.

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