Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Blessed Life: Sermon on Matthew 5:1-12

Their world wasn't so unlike our world. Haughty looks. Genteel compromise. Religious hypocrisy. Injustice, oppression, anger, revolution, violence. But that's just life – isn't it? Or is it? 

What road should we take? How do we navigate a world like that, like this? Is there such a thing as living right? What kind of life is the good life? What kind of life does God favor; what style of living did he make us for? And if God were to take over the world, I mean really take over the world, what kind of life would be ready for him? What kind of life do we call the blessed life, the life things go well with in the end, the life God favors and approves and embraces?

Even today, there are so many answers, just like then. Some will tell you there is no 'blessed' life. Maybe there isn't anybody to bless it – maybe this is the upper story of the universe right here. Or maybe the Fella Upstairs moved out long ago or just ignores the knock at the door. That's what some will tell you. They'll say there is no 'blessed' life. There's no such thing as a good life. It's all about surviving and trying not to suffer too much until you die. It's all about distracting yourself from the fundamental pointlessness of existence. There's no bigger story, no story at all. It just is. A cold, brute fact for a nasty, brutish world – but that's what it is.

But suppose that's not true. Suppose there is such a thing as a good life. What's that look like? Is it the American Dream – a beautiful wife, a white-collar job, two cars, 2.5 kids, the white picket fence in suburbia, and all that? Or, or try this description on for size: The good life means being a good person, going to church, doing the right things down to the letter, looking the right way, earning a good reputation, and enjoying it. How does that sound for the good life? That's pretty popular. That sounds like being a decent person; a good and upstanding citizen; an admirable example. Is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call that the Pharisee answer. But notice who doesn't fit. All the chronic screw-ups, the people who can't seem to get their life together, can't stay on the straight and narrow – they're left out. The people who don't look right, who don't fit the mold, who just don't have good optics, who don't get good press – they're left out. The average Joe, the blue-collar guy who works with his hands but doesn't have much – the Pharisee calls his life less good, less blessed. And the same goes for all those who don't live in privilege – born to the wrong race or gender, the wrong family, the wrong social class, the wrong country or school district. Tough luck to them – the Pharisees' good life is for those who look and sound just right.

Well, here's another stab at the good life: The good life means making friends in high places. It means being well-connected. It means being upwardly-mobile. It means being a success and hobnobbing with the rich. It means having a big house, taking vacations, dining with Hollywood stars and DC insiders, wielding the influence of political sway or just money to remake the world just a little bit more in your image. That's sort of popular, too. Who doesn't dream of being rich – of having no cares – of buying up beachfront property, of bidding the world's cares goodbye? Is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call this one the Sadducee answer. Again, notice who doesn't fit. All the lonely people (where do we all come from?). Those without connections, without friends, let alone friends in high places. All the poor, even all the middle-class. All those on society's margins – tough luck, the Sadducees' good life isn't for you.

Let's take a third approach: The good life means being right. It means, even if they chase you into the desert, even if nobody listens, at least you've got the satisfaction of knowing that you were right and they were wrong. You've got the courage the satisfaction of your convictions, so hunker down and enjoy. It sounds a bit silly, I know, but it's still an option today, prevalent in some parts of the church but also in society. And if there's one thing these people look forward to, it's hearing God say, “Congratulations – your opinions were all the right ones! Now come forth, and enter into your glory.” So is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call this one the Essene answer. In the first century, the Essenes couldn't stand the corrupt temple establishment, so they withdrew to their desert compound, set up a cloistered little society of their own, blocked out the outside world, and waited in their own little utopia for history, or the end times, to prove them right. Ephrata, the town where I live, was founded by just such people. But notice who doesn't fit. Ordinary men and women – anybody without the refined smarts and the right knowledge-base to formulate the exact right opinions and outlook. Anybody who isn't so finely 'enlightened.' Nor does anybody who values opining right less than seeing right, less than doing right, less than unity and love and mercy. If you're that kind – tough luck, the Essenes' good life isn't for you.

How about one more approach: The good life means taking up the heroic struggle. It means fighting for justice – maybe fighting literally. It means toppling the oppressors. Viva la revolución! It means gaining victory in life, or else raging against the machine, railing against 'The Man.' Is that the good life, the blessed life? 

We'll call this one the Zealot answer. It's popular today. It used to be the good life as defined by Lenin and Stalin, by Che and Castro. It's the good life as defined by terrorists the world over – all struggling for their cause, to overthrow the dominance of the Western world and come out on top. But it's familiar closer to home, too. It's the good life as defined by our political parties today. For one, the fight is against Wall Street, against traditional religion, against a vast host of -isms and -phobias; justice means equality, justice means solidarity in marginality. For the other, the fight is against the 'politically correct' top dogs, against foreigners and outsiders and critics, and the good life just means winning at all costs and being 'great.' But they're all variants of the same approach to life. And who gets left out? The peaceful, the meek, the principled – tough luck, the Zealots' good life isn't for you.

Our world is dreadfully confused about what the blessed life is. And first-century Judea and Galilee were no different. And into that world strides a man like no other, a man who was truly a man but more than a man. A man named Jesus. And he shook the world with his message and his wonders. In all he said and all he did, he went from village to village, announcing that people needed to change; people needed to get ready, or they'd miss out; because God was about to grab hold of the world in a new way, a way we hadn't seen before. And God grabbing the world like that is called the kingdom of God. And when it came, as it came, nothing would be the same. But what kind of life is ready for that?

We're all so confused – and so were the Jews of Jesus' day. They longed for the days when everything was clear – when Moses sat on Mount Sinai and gave them a pipeline to God, passed down to them all his instructions, the Torah, the Law. If only we could listen to Moses, we'd get it right! 

And so Jesus came. He came as the New and Greater Moses. He sat down on the mountain, with his twelve disciples and the crowds gathered around (Matthew 5:1). He was shaping a new Israel, giving them a new Law, a new plan for how to be God's people. The old Law closed with blessings and curses, but Jesus opened his message with blessings, just blessings. He tells the crowds who lives the good life, who God favors, who things are going well for, from an eternal point of view. And he paints a picture for them, and for us, of what God's kingdom-ready people look like. And here's what he has to say to us today (Matthew 5:2-12).

Maybe you're sitting here this morning and you feel like a spiritual failure. You've got no gusto deep down in your heart. You try and try to change, but you fall into the same rut over and over. You look at all those happy, smiling people in the pews every morning, and you feel like a fraud, sitting there like that – so maybe it's hard to even get up and come. You think to yourself, “I don't have a religious bone in my body. It comes so naturally to some people. Never to me. I'll never make it on my own. I need help.” So all you can do is drop to your knees and call out to God, “Please help, please help!” And let me tell you something, you who have nothing to your name but empty hands reaching out for grace: God's kingdom embraces the likes of you! Rejoice: your transgression is forgiven, your sin is covered, my Father counts no fault against you (cf. Psalm 32:1-2).

Or maybe you're struggling to make ends meet. You try and you try, but the debt collectors are knocking at your door. You've taken out a second mortgage. You miss the days when you were helping others, giving without thought of return. But something happened. Your health took a turn, you got in a bad place. And you're being weighed down, held down, and the burden of it all seems crushing. You know the stress isn't good for you. You lie awake at night, wondering if you can keep the house, keep the car. Wondering if you'll ever be redeemed from this bondage to debt. Those who promised to help you – they're slow in coming; they're gumming up the gears, taking advantage of you, maybe. No one seems interested in helping, so you turn to God, you lean on him, you cry out day and night. But you wonder if it does any good. You look around at your neighbors, taking fancy vacations, buying new things, when you can't afford to fix the roof when it rains, when you sweat out the heat because keeping cool's a luxury you don't have, when you ration the food to make it stretch. You wonder if there's a place in the world for you. Sometimes you wonder if God's listening, but he's all you've got, so you cling tenaciously to hope, you trust him to make it right some way, some how.... and let me tell you something: you're living the good life! The Spirit sent me to bring good news to the likes of you – yes, you – to assure you that your hope is not in vain (Isaiah 61:1). Because my Father is holding onto you; his kingdom embraces you; he's a defender of the poor, the struggling, the outcast; his kingdom embraces the likes of you – and you won't be second-class any more.

Or maybe you look at yourself, and you look at your neighbors, and you look at your nation, and you say, “Where have we all gone wrong?” And you get on your knees day and night, and you ask God to forgive you. You lament, and you mourn your sin. When you take a wrong step and you see it, it cuts you deep; it hurts you to sin, it hurts you to see your neighbors give in to sin, and yet here you all are. And you cry out to God, you call on his name, and you beg for forgiveness. And let me tell you something: you're on the right track, not the self-satisfied, self-righteous.

Or maybe you feel a deep sadness inside today. Maybe you feel far from home. Maybe you wonder if you'll ever fit in. But you feel mismatched, born out of time, in the wrong place. You live in exile, and all you want is to be home again, home again, if home you've ever been. Or maybe you're grieving in the face of tragedy. You hear the latest news – another bomb, another gun, another knife; another child beaten, another puppy neglected, another unspeakable wrong. Or the grief hits close to home. A parent died. A spouse, a child, buried before their time. And the sense of loss feels like your heart is torn in pieces, and you're tempted to envy those who seem oblivious to the hurts and pains of life. But let me tell you: God's favor, God's care, is on you. The Spirit sent me here today “to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:2). Oh yes – you will not grieve forever. And you will have your grief tended and ended, your comfort supplied, by my Father himself. Laments are for a season, to those who believe.

But maybe you're sitting here, and you feel helpless. The world's a rat race, and you can't compete. You always come out the loser. They take your house, they take your car, they take your land, they take your business away. You get pushed around, you fall behind. Their lawyers harass you, stonewall you, belittle you, trick you. If history's written by the winners, you've got nothing to add. And you've given up trying to compete. You've resolved not to fight back. There's no point. You've resigned yourself to insignificance in this world. But you wonder what God could possibly want with somebody like you, who never comes out ahead. But let me tell you something: yours is the good life, yours is the important one in God's sight. He favors you; God is on your side! His kingdom embraces you, and the day is coming – just hold on tight – when all that's taken from you will be given back, and then some. And on that day, you'll call the whole earth yours, and when my Father's angel tell its story, people like you will get top billing.

But maybe you're sitting here, and you feel worse than helpless. You've been wronged. Someone's hurt you, actively hurt you. The rules didn't apply to them, but you get hammered; or they got protected, but you got left out in the cold. All you want is to be treated well, and they can't even give you that. Instead you get nailed to the wall. The world isn't fair, and it seems like the unfairness never tilts in your favor. And so you call out to God. You ask, “How long, O Lord?” And your ears don't pick up an answer. And so you watch as they take and take, as they push you around and betray you, and they get a slap on the wrist. And you feel it burn in your bones. But you won't take matters into your own hands. You just keep hammering on God's door, asking for justice, asking him to fix this broken place. And let me tell you something: my Father will set everything right – I guarantee it. Your prayer, your outcry, has never been ignored, nor will it ever be. You ask for justice, and it's coming – of that you can be sure. God's kingdom embraces the likes of you.

But maybe that troubles you, because you're not so sure which side of justice you're on, some days. Maybe you yearn to do what's right, and you can't seem to muster up the strength. Maybe you don't even know what's right; maybe this world is too confusing, and you're like a ship lost in fog, unsure which way is land and which is the open sea. And you feel so useless, stuck in this place. But you're not content there. You don't want this moral paralysis; and when you plumb the depths of your soul and come up empty, you know this isn't the way you're meant to be. So you call out to God day and night, and you ask him to fix you, and let me tell you something: he hears you! And though you wonder if your wavering, faltering, meandering steps can ever stick to the strait and narrow road, God's kingdom embraces the likes of you. Yours are the promises of God – and he promises that he'll supply all that missing righteousness. You will be set right.

Or maybe when you plumb the depths of your soul, you feel an emptiness inside. Maybe once upon a time, you tried to fill it with money, power, fame, sex, drugs, rock 'n roll, friends, family, work, play, toys, good times, morality, religiousness... and none tasted right, none hit the spot. And you've learned that if you've got a void inside that nothing in this world can satisfy, maybe you were made for more than this world. And you look around at all the happy people, all the people who seem satisfied, their hungers met, their thirsts quenched, but that's not your story. Your desires go deep, your longings are stronger, and you know it, and once you know it, there's no turning back. And you wonder if you'll hurt and ache and yearn forever. And let me tell you something: yours is the good life, this life of longing you lead. Because your desires run too deep to be satisfied by lesser things; that hole in your heart is the shape of God's love. And my promise to you is this: my Father won't just let you sample it; you'll be filled to overflowing, and on that day, the day of God's kingdom, you will be satisfied forever by what's best.

But maybe what troubles you this morning is something else. You're the type who sees a beggar and starts scratching your pockets to the bottom. Freely you give. You're the type who sees a problem and volunteers to do something, do anything. You spend your time, your money, your energy, your health, your life in taking care of those in need. People tell you you're a fool. They say you're being taken advantage of. When you have a chance to get ahead, you fritter it all away. You give what's yours to be what's theirs. Sometimes you wonder if the critics are right, though. You wonder if it's all pointless. You look around at the suffering and poverty of the world, and you're not making a dent. But still you live by mercy. Still you care for the sick, you give to the needy, you help your neighbors with what you can. And let me tell you something: what a life, what a good life! God's kingdom celebrates the likes of you! And you may wonder if it's pointless, but let me tell you: my Father will fritter away his treasure on you gladly! As you've forgiven, he'll forgive you; as you've given mercy, he'll give you mercy. What a good, worthwhile life – don't doubt that God favors you!

But maybe people doubt your good intentions. Maybe you're not one for showy displays. What you do, you do on the down-low. No one watches as you do your good deeds. Nobody gives you credit. They even think you're stingy, selfish. No, maybe you don't have a good reputation. You can't keep up with all the minutiae of the rules: do this like this, do that just so, keep your hands clean and your shirt unstained. That's not you. But on the inside, you've handed your heart to God; he's scrubbed it clean; and your devotion is honest, sincere. It's not for show, it's not for credit; it's for character; it's for God. And let me tell you something: God favors you! God's kingdom embraces and celebrates the likes of you! What your neighbors don't see, my Father sees; and the One who sees will be the One you see. Yes, there's a promise for you: keep your heart in God's hand, keep desiring nothing on earth besides him, and he'll be the strength of your heart and your portion forever – and oh, how good it is to be near God, to live in his presence, and yes, yes, you will! You live the good life – look where it leads!

Or maybe you're battered and bruised because you can't bear to fight, you can't bear to see people fight, you can't bear to see nations fight, so when they raise their wounding words or their weapons of war, you stand between and implore them to be reconciled. And whether they listen or not, you tried. Maybe all you're saying is, “Give peace a chance.” And for it, the Zealots of the world call you a traitor, a loser; you stand in the way of progress; you're risking yourself for nothing, they say. So you've heard it said. But I say to you, God's kingdom embraces and celebrates the likes of you! So much so, my Father is your Father; he calls you his sons and daughters; and he whispers from the heavens to all the world, “Can't you see these are mine? Just look at that family resemblance!” You peacemakers are the children of your God – and in the kingdom, you'll live in peace at last.

Or maybe you've done everything right, you've lived by the values of the kingdom, and you expected it all to go so well – but it didn't. The world slanders you. The world makes fun of you, tells you to get with the times, join the program. They attack you, they persecute you; they take you to court, they put you in prison, they say the world would be better off without the likes of you. So you've heard it said; but I say to you, you should celebrate when they honor you in heaven by their dishonor on earth! Haven't all the prophets been persecuted? And look, here you are, ready for the kingdom – how much greater are you than the prophets of old, and how great is the reward that waits for you when the kingdom of heaven rules on earth! God's kingdom embraces you who embrace the King at a cost.

Maybe you recognize yourself in these words. O you poor in spirit, you mourners, you meek of the earth, you hungry and thirsty and longing, you merciful, you pure in heart, you peacemakers, you persecuted and slandered – yours is the good life. Yours is the life made ready for the kingdom that's coming (Matthew 5:2-12). 

Woe to those who aren't ready on that day; but if this is you, you belong! You kingdom-ready people have hearts like God's heart. You live by prayer, and you trust the Father. You don't live by strength, you don't live by what's 'practical,' you cling ferociously to faith and hope and love. You'd never dream of forcing his will – or your will – on an unwilling world. No, but you wait patiently – painfully, but patiently – for that long-awaited day, the great day of God's kingdom, not in part but in full. And that day is coming. And that day will make your blessing plain. 

Take heart! Take heart, and know that the King overcomes the world. Go in peace, you blessed of the Father, and live the good life – the blessed life – for the kingdom is at hand. Amen and amen.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Paul's Defense, Part 2: Sermon on Acts 22:22--23:11

Last week, when we left Paul, he shared his testimony – the story of his life before Jesus and with Jesus – with the mob. And the mob listened at first, but as soon as Paul spoke about sharing this blessing with the Gentiles and actually fulfilling Abraham's calling, they went berserk and called for Paul's death (Acts 22:22). And so the tribune Claudius Lysias had to protect him and take him into the barracks. Now, all this went down in a language Lysias didn't speak, so naturally he assumed Paul was stirring an uprising against Rome. Lysias ordered Paul subjected to... 'enhanced interrogation techniques,' as we're fond of saying these days (Acts 22:24). But at just the right time, Paul put Lysias in a tough spot by mentioning his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25-29).

Now Lysias has to get to the bottom of things. If he's going to pass this case up the chain to the governor, he has to find out what the accusation is (Acts 22:30). And so he takes Paul to a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish council – the same council that, decades earlier, unlawfully condemned Paul's Lord. So here he stands, to testify in Jerusalem, and Paul starts well in his defense (Acts 23:1). But “the high priest Ananias commanded those who stood by him to strike him on the mouth” (Acts 23:2), as if Paul were already proven guilty! In furious words, with the Romans watching, Paul rebukes Ananias: “God is going to strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the law, and yet contrary to the law you order me to be struck?” (Acts 23:3).

Paul singles out Ananias as judging him, when the whole council should wait to judge. And Paul connects him with Ezekiel's prophecy about false prophets: “Because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash, say to those who smear it with whitewash that it will fall! … And I will break down the wall that you have smeared with whitewash, and bring it down to the ground, so that its foundation will be laid bare” (Ezekiel 13:10-11, 14). 

Ananias may look righteous, like a plaster-coated wall – but it's all a trick of false prophets managing an image to mislead the people, and God won't let this prettied-up hunk of junk stay standing. And Paul was right – on both the crime and the punishment. The high priests during the first century were notoriously corrupt. Besides all their bribery, they routinely sent minions to steal tithe portions from poor priests, sometimes causing the other priests to starve to death. Some years after this scene, Ananias would watch his palace burned to the ground by assassins, and while hiding in an aqueduct, he'd be found and killed.

Other nearby priests challenge Paul: “Would you revile God's priest?” (Acts 23:4). As in, “What, you think you can talk that way to the boss? Are you criticizing God's special servant?” Well, as a matter of fact, yes. That's what Ezekiel did, and it's what Paul has to do here. But Paul apologizes: “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, 'You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people'” (Acts 23:5). 

Or at least, it looks like Paul is apologizing. It looks like he's made a mistake, and he's so very, very sorry. But this story is a bit funnier than that. Paul is playing coy. He's being sarcastic. He's driving home a point. He knows exactly who Ananias is supposed to be. He's the man sitting in the presiding chair. He's the man wearing the most priestly robes. He's the man giving orders to the rest of the Sanhedrin. Paul knows how this works. Paul wasn't born yesterday.

Earlier this week, I went to the Lancaster County Courthouse, to watch another attempt at putting on trial the man who broke this stained-glass window. He managed to derail it and delay it further, but I was there. And I remember, before the day's trials began, how many lawyers were sitting around the courtroom, in pews and chairs, chatting among themselves, advising various clients. I remember how, after twenty minutes, the bailiff told us all to rise, and in through a conspicuous door walked a man in judicial robes, who sat down behind the bench. The outward trappings of his office made it clear who he was supposed to be. I didn't have to wonder or guess.

And just the same, Paul knows what office Ananias holds. This isn't a story of mistaken identity – on Paul's part. But he does have a point to make in this whole scene. He's pointing out that Ananias is the one who must be most confused of all. Ananias forgets who he is, what he is. Ananias is the high priest of Israel – the one most responsible of all to uphold the Law and to teach it. Ananias is the example to the entire nation and to the entire watching world. Here sit the other members of the Sanhedrin. Here stands Paul, supposedly wayward, supposedly needing re-education. Here stands Claudius Lysias, a pagan watching how God's people handle their affairs.

But Ananias acts unpriestly. The Law – yes, even the Law of Moses – implies innocent until proven guilty (Deuteronomy 22:27). The Law explicitly demands, “You shall do no injustice in court” (Leviticus 19:15). That's just three verses before “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). That's what being a priest was all about. But Ananias the High Priest doesn't live it out. He forgets who he is. He lives out a different story, one where he's a petty thug presiding over a kangaroo court. So Paul says, “Sorry, I couldn't tell who you were. Because for all the chair, the robes, the signs of status, you sure don't seem very priestly.” Ananias was a most unpriestly high priest.

The real irony here is that Ananias isn't the highest priest in the room. Paul is. He was personally ordained and anointed by Jesus. Paul thought of his ministry as a priesthood – he calls himself “a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:16). That's a level of priesthood Ananias couldn't dream of! It's a priestly calling Ananias never lived out. But Paul did. Paul is a high priest – and, unlike Ananias, he's faithful.  

And Paul isn't the only priest in the church. The Bible never limits 'priesthood' to just a few special Christians. Instead, we find out we're all called to be “a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5), and a “royal priesthood” meant to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).

So the question is, which high priest do we resemble the most: Paul or Ananias? Ananias bore the name of 'high priest,' but his example was worldly, not holy. Paul didn't go around introducing himself as a high priest, or even a priest at all, but to watch him live was to learn about God – not through pomp and circumstance, not through bossy brags and boasts, but through faithful devotion to God and service to others. 

Friends, make no mistake: we are priests. I belong to the royal priesthood. And so do each of you. We teach others about God, we pray for the people, we offer up sacrifices of praise. And just like this scene, there are people like Claudius Lysias watching us, waiting to see what a priest of God looks like, what God's kingdom looks like in practice, whether there's a difference between holiness and self-righteousness, between service and self-service.

And I'm afraid that too often, we forget who we are. In the heat of the moment, we lose sight of our identity. And instead, we act out the wrong story, like Ananias did. None of us are perfect. Our neighbors don't expect us to be. But your primary identity isn't sinner, it isn't stained, it isn't failure. Your primary identity is holy child of God, filled by grace, anointed to the royal priesthood. That is who you are, and a life lived with that in mind is a life that, consciously and unconsciously, points to Jesus. Like Paul did, and Ananias didn't. Will we live it? Do our lives proclaim the Father's excellencies?

Back to our scene. As Luke keeps writing, Paul blurted out a speech – a short speech, just enough to make an impact. And what did he say? “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. It is with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial” (Acts 23:6). Luke knows we aren't all experts on the squabbles between ancient denominations of Judaism, so he tells us that the big difference between Sadducees and Pharisees came down to this issue: resurrection. The Pharisees believed that, one day, God would raise the dead; that all faithful Israelites would rise from their graves, their bodies restored. The Sadducees, like the high priest Ananias and most of the Sanhedrin, didn't believe in it. Maybe that's why the Pharisees had more courage to challenge Roman injustices: they knew that God would veto and overturn the death penalty after the fact.

Paul is clever. He knows, when it comes to this, the Pharisees are closer to the gospel. Because the gospel is all about resurrection. Where Pharisees believed the resurrection would happen, Paul believed it had already started with Jesus, and was only taking a pause for evangelism before Jesus would step back down here and finish the rest of it. 

But Paul just says that he's being put on trial because he preaches about the resurrection from the dead – which he does.  Paul speaks the truth. And the Pharisees, even the Pharisees, recognize enough of their values in Paul's teaching that they come to his defense.

But today, things are different. If I asked most churchgoers in America, “What happens when you die?”, what answer do you think I'd get? “We go to heaven,” they'd say. So far, so good, more or less. “But then what?” And that's where we stumble. Because the truth is, you could count on one hand the number of Bible verses that say anything about going to heaven when you die. That just isn't the focus. But you could fill buckets with all the verses that talk about what happens after heaven. 
  • “An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out – those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).  
  • “I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down in the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men also accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust” (Acts 24:14-15).  
  • “For if we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6:5).  
  • “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).  
  • “Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? … As in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. … The trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:12, 16, 52).
It is an undeniable truth of the Bible – and a core doctrine of the Christian faith – that there will come a final resurrection of the dead. That's how the Nicene Creed ends: “We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come – Amen.” Even the Apostles' Creed says that we believe in “the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” From dust we came, to dust we return, but that is not the end of the story. There's life after the afterlife! 

If we hear Paul describe Jesus as “the first to rise from the dead” (Acts 26:23), how can we not be excited to catch up? If we hear Paul call Christ's resurrection “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Corinthians 15:20), how can we not believe God will be faithful to finish the harvest?

Look out the window, look at the church cemetery – do you know where the word 'cemetery' comes from? It's from a Greek word meaning a place where people lie down to sleep. And no one will sleep forever; they will all wake up. And so will we. 

Here's a promise of the gospel: those gravestones are not permanent. You are not done with your body! Oh, it'll be different, when you get it back: imperishable, glorified, powerful, and fully fueled by the Spirit of the living God (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). But you will get it back. That is just what Christians believe – and we must believe it. Because it's what God promised, and what Christ set in motion.

But back to the scene again. Luke tells us, “Paul perceived that one part were Sadducees and the other Pharisees” (Acts 23:6). Paul cast himself as being under fire as a Pharisee, so the Pharisees rallied around him – “a dissension arose between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. … Then a great clamor arose … and the dissension became violent” (Acts 23:7-10). What started as a scholarly council ended on the verge of a riot. 

Truth is, the Sanhedrin was easy to divide and conquer. That's because, under the surface, there was already so much distaste and distrust. The Pharisees have long been irritated at how the Sadducees act so arrogant. The Sadducees think the Pharisees are rabble-rousers who contaminate the pure faith of Moses with all these newfangled ideas like resurrection. They can't stand each other.

The Sanhedrin could be divided because they already were divided! The Sanhedrin was so divided, in fact, that they tried to divide Paul! Claudius Lysias had reason to worry that they'd yank the poor apostle limb from limb, with Sadducees trying to thrash him and Paul's fellow Pharisees trying to pull him to safety. Are we so different from the Sanhedrin? That's what happens when the church gets divided: in our constant tussle, some of us to destroy and others of us to preserve what the Bible teaches, we end up rending it in pieces, with the result as a fractured witness, a fractured fellowship, and a fractured Bible.

Thankfully, the tribune was there to rescue Paul – he sent in the soldiers to “go down and take him away from among them by force and bring him into the barracks” (Acts 23:10). What a dreadful thought – God's people had to have God's messenger taken away from them by pagan Romans! They lost the privilege of having the apostle there with them, all because they were so insistent on jockeying for power and pushing their agendas. 

It reminds me of how the Church of the Holy Sepulchre – built to surround both Calvary and the empty tomb – is divided into sections for different factions of Christians. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac... and you know which one holds the keys to the place? The keys to the church where our Lord died and rose? None. For over eight centuries, the Nuseibeh and Joudeh clans – two Muslim families – have served as doorkeepers, because we Christians were too divided. Parts of the church have been falling apart for decades, because only this year did they finally work out an arrangement to restore the aedicule, the shrine, around the empty tomb. There's a ladder that hasn't moved in two centuries because no one can agree whose it is. And even in the twenty-first century, monks have gotten into violent fistfights – inside the church – over somebody moving a chair or leaving the wrong door open.

We here in this sanctuary may not be able to do much about monks slugging each other in the Middle East. We can pray, we should pray, we must pray – like Jesus prayed. But we do have plenty to do with whether there's church unity here, here in our own backyard. In this congregation, are we sticking together or drifting apart? “Let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:24-25). 

Being prevented from meeting with other believers is one thing, whether on account of sickness, lack of transportation, or infirmity; neglecting to do it is another entirely. If we neglect to worship alongside other believers, if we withhold our fellowship from the communion of the saints on earth, if we chronically treat the church as an option instead of a body, we aren't helping the cause of church unity, are we?

But even in meeting together, it's possible to do it without unity. Now, among those of us here, I'd say that this congregation is remarkably united. I think that's one of our great strengths. We really love each other. We care about each other. We do want to encourage each other. We even want to stir one another up to love and good works. And that isn't always the case in churches. There are plenty of professing believers who bicker and scheme so much that they look for ways to stir one another up to anger, ways to discourage one another, when they come together. Those monks in Jerusalem aren't alone.

But I'm sure even those monks get along when they're among their own tribes. The Greeks get along fine with the other Greeks; the Catholics have no beef with the other Catholics, perhaps. It's between their groups – the ones who worship at a different place and time – that the friction happens. How we get along with other churches – that's the question, too. Sometimes, we do it fine. Other times, maybe we do it about as well as the Pharisees got along with the Sadducees, and for similar reasons. 

Now, the Sadducees needed to repent. They'd abused their power, and they'd denied truths that were important to God, and because of it they'd limited their ability to hear and appreciate Paul's gospel. But the Pharisees didn't give a great witness, either. They were quick to latch onto an excuse, any excuse, to combat the Sadducees – to humiliate them, expose them before a watching world for the heretics they were. “Whoever covers an offense seeks love, but he who repeats a matter separates close friends” (Proverbs 17:19). “...Love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8). 

The Sadducees needed to repent of their false teaching and their abusive thirst for power; they needed to listen to the full witness of the Law and the Prophets, and not keep carving up the Scriptures into acceptable and unacceptable portions; but the Pharisees needed to bear with the Sadducees in love, reckon them as wayward brothers, and refuse to contribute to the escalation of the hostility that nearly tore Paul limb from limb.

And the same is true today for us. We can learn a lot from the Sanhedrin's mistakes. We know there are whole congregations and denominations that bear Christ's name – whether they know his glory and grace, whether the good news has been good to them, that's another story – that, like the Sadducees, are missing some truth of the gospel. 

Maybe on this or that truth, we're the Sadducees. But maybe more often we're the Pharisees – ready to disdain and fight our wayward brothers who are genuinely betraying the heritage of the faith, like the Sadducees betrayed the heritage of Israel's faith. Even then, for the sake of the world, we need to correct in love as sisters and brothers, not in anger as enemies. How much more, then, should we handle the differences that don't betray the gospel – differences in tradition, in mode of baptism, in theologies of free will or predestination, in outlooks on the church and culture? May we be faithful to Jesus' prayer that we all be one (John 17:21).

One last return to our scene. The tribune had Paul taken out of the Sanhedrin's reach. Now he knew that this was no argument about Roman law. He knew Paul wasn't a threat. But the Sanhedrin lacked the maturity to handle this decently, and so Paul's Roman custody became Roman protection. And there Paul sits, inside the Fortress Antonia. “The following night, the Lord stood by him...” 

Isn't that a startling thought? Luke doesn't tell us if this is a dream, a vision, a physical visit, or what. But Paul saw Jesus again! I wonder if, after each of Paul's encounters with the risen Christ, the apostle pined after the Lord, like a dog left home alone while his owner is out. And now, after what might have been months or even years, Paul inhales heaven's atmosphere and sets his eyes on the Risen King. “...the Lord stood by him and said, 'Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome” (Acts 23:11).

Last week, Paul reviewed for us his story – and you can't explain Paul without celebrating Jesus, remember? And what was Paul's commission? “You will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard. … Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:15, 21). Paul heard those last words while he was at the temple in Jerusalem. And so he went away to the Gentiles. Now it's happening again. Paul is going to the Gentiles one more time. But not just any Gentiles. Paul is tracing out the movement of the gospel from the Jewish capital to the Gentile capital – from Jerusalem to Rome – from the halls of priestly power to the halls of imperial power.

Like we learned last week, the God of Good News is the God of Going. The church doesn't just sit on a hill and wait. The church is on the move, led by a moving Spirit and following a moving Jesus. But the church doesn't just go new places and stand there, either. We have a purpose. “As you go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). What Matthew explains as discipling through baptizing and teaching, Jesus sums up to Paul in one word: “Testify.”

Long before, God told Isaiah to imagine all the nations bringing witnesses to testify to what their idols can do. And shouldn't God have his own witnesses to testify? “'You are my witnesses,' declares the LORD, 'and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me. I, I am the LORD, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses,' declares the LORD, 'and I am God'” (Isaiah 43:10-12).

He's talking to Israel – and that means he's talking to the New Israel, the Church. Aren't we God's witnesses? Hasn't he declared us righteous, and we've heard the good news? Haven't we seen and felt his saving touch in our lives? Don't we walk, step by step, in light of the wisdom he proclaims? Was it some strange, foreign god who gave us all these blessings? Or did they come from the LORD? He declared, he saved, he proclaimed, and we are his witnesses! We've seen more than Isaiah's audience could ever have dreamed possible. We belong to the new covenant, his Spirit lives among us, our hearts are circumcised, we eat and drink with our Lord at his table, and the Father calls us sons and daughters.

That's not some hand-me-down theory. That's something that each of us can know as the truth, by living it out in faith! We are witnesses. Witnesses have to testify. And the Law said that if anyone was a witness and heard the call to testify but didn't, that would be a sin (Leviticus 5:1). It's actually a sin to not testify to the truth when we're called to do it. But Jesus is with us – and we can do it with courage. 

Maybe we're called to testify right now among a familiar people, right where we were raised, as an act of worship to the God of Good News. That needs to happen! Take courage, and share Jesus with your family, your friends, your coworkers. Or maybe we're called to take a step of faith and testify among an unfamiliar people, as an act of worship to the God of Going. Take courage, and share Jesus with strangers, with prisoners or addicts or politicians. Take courage, and share Jesus with Vacation Bible School kids this week! Whoever it is, testify we must. 

May the wisdom of God show us where to testify, the grace of God make us bold to testify, and the power of God compel us to testify. Amen.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Paul's Defense, Part 1: Sermon on Acts 21:37--22:29

When we left Paul last week, he was in trouble. Narrowly avoiding death by lynching, he got taken into custody by the tribune, Claudius Lysias. Lysias hasn't the foggiest notion who this Paul fellow is. Well, he has a notion – it's just completely wrong. Probably some dunderhead in the mob made a guess out loud and called Paul “the Egyptian” (Acts 21:38). 

That's a strange idea, isn't it? See, here's the scoop. Around the year 56, there was an Egyptian Jew who apparently called himself a prophet and maybe even claimed to be the messiah. This Jew from Egypt – we don't know his name – gathered a large band of followers in the desert, saying that they, the righteous ones of Israel, were going to cast the Romans out of Jerusalem so that he could be crowned as king.

They'd gathered on the Mount of Olives, thousands of them, meaning to attack the Fortress Antonia where Lysias had Paul. But the Romans had crushed the revolt, slaughtering the false messiah's followers – but the Egyptian escaped, never to be heard from again. The idea of finally catching that troublemaker is what has Lysias excited here. 

But that's not who Paul is. He's fluent in Hebrew and fluent in Greek (with a fine Greek accent), maybe knows some Latin, too. He's a citizen of Tarsus and a natural-born Roman citizen – higher in social rank, in fact, than Lysias himself, which Lysias learns embarrassingly late. And he's a devout Pharisee, raised in Jerusalem in a family rich enough to get him a good education under Gamaliel the Elder (Acts 22:3), one of the greatest rabbis in history. So Lysias gives him a chance to talk to the mob and settle things down (Acts 21:40).

Paul could have jumped directly to answering the mob – he did, after all, say he'd be giving them his “defense” (Acts 22:1). But he takes the long way around. When Paul's in the spotlight, Paul was never one to waste time. He doesn't fritter away his opportunity by explaining that Trophimus never set foot in the inner court – most of them probably don't know why they're all upset anyway. Instead, he gives them his testimony, explains to them who he is. And Paul can't explain Paul without celebrating Jesus.

And I'd like to suggest that as Paul describes in greater detail to the Jerusalem mob how Jesus came and revolutionized everything in his life, how Jesus exploded his formerly limited vision of God and of God's work, how Jesus replaced and upgraded it with a new, fuller, sweeter, stronger story of God... I'd suggest to you this morning that there were four key realizations Paul found – not by reflecting on it in the corner of his study, but by running headlong into the experience of a bigger, better God than he ever dreamed.

First, when Paul was stopped on the Damascus Road, he experienced the God of Glory. This was new to him! I mean, not totally new. It isn't as if Saul the Pharisee would've said, “Oh, God is glorious? Fancy that! News to me, pal, news to me.” No, he knew the Scriptures. From his mama's knee, he'd heard the story of when the priests couldn't get into the newly built temple because it was too full of “the glory of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 7:2). With the psalmist, he'd gazed up and seen written in the stars, “Breaking News: The Glory of God!” (Psalm 19:1). He'd sung along in the temple courts, calling God, “King of Glory” (Psalm 24:10).

And literally, the word 'glory' in the Bible means something like 'weight' – something heavy, with substance. To say God is glorious is to say that he's got a real gravity to him; he matters, he's central, he's imposing and significant. But the Bible also connects glory with light. Isaiah does it: “The LORD will be your everlasting light, and your God will be your glory (Isaiah 60:9). The prophet Ezekiel was big on this: the perfect temple would be “filled with the brightness of the glory of the LORD (Ezekiel 10:4). And one day, says John, the holy city won't need sun or moon, “for the glory of God gives it light” (Revelation 21:23).

Saul would always have said that God is glorious. But there's a difference between saying that God is glorious and seeing that God is glorious. Maybe you remember last year, there was that show, AD: The Bible Continues? Cancelled long before its time, I tell you. But as they dramatized the early days of the church, as they recounted the story of Acts, they did an amazing job showing why Saul the Pharisee was so terrifying, so deadly, to those first disciples. And in one episode, Saul is leading a band of temple soldiers through the countryside on a hard march toward Damascus. One of them asks him why he's so driven – why this strange, powerless group makes him so angry. And in the heat of the moment, the actor playing Saul blurts out the crux of the matter: that he can't accept, can't make space for, the idea that the Messiah could come and choose some stupid fisherman like Peter instead of a genius like him.

Now, that conversation is fiction. It's not in the Bible. But I think it's an awfully convincing picture of Saul's heart on the Damascus Road. His mouth may say God is glorious, but the real star in his mind is named Saul. Saul, the new Phinehas (cf. Numbers 25:7-13). Saul, the hero. Saul, the defender of the faith. Ambition might as well have been his middle name. What kind of person would go so far out of his way to terrorize the church? A man who thinks he has plenty to boast in. A man who thinks he's better than his neighbors. A man acting out a script of his own sufficiency, his own greatness, his own destiny of glory. The kind of man who makes his glory the natural boundary of God's glory.

But listen to what happens here, on that long and lonely Damascus Road: “As I was on my way and drew near to Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone around me. And I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' … And since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, I was led by the hand by those who were with me, and came into Damascus” (Acts 22:6-7, 11). In that moment, everything changed. Why do you think Luke makes sure we know this happened around noon? Because think how bright a light has to be to suddenly swallow up the noonday sun! To Saul's eyes, this was the brightest light that could ever shine. This was the glory of God – heavy, blinding, brilliant, overwhelming, astonishing!

Or as he wrote about it later, it was “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). Where the Old Testament spoke of “the light of [the LORD's] face” (Psalm 4:6; 44:3; 89:15), now Saul recognizes that face as the face of Jesus. And the light from that face made the sun look dull and dim. 

And in the presence of that light, every illusion Saul had was blasted away – every thought of his own greatness, every notion of worthiness, every boast in his credentials and lineage, all confidence in his works or his brainpower or everything else he thought defined him. Saul couldn't think himself to that epiphany. He had to experience it; and once he did, all his shiny trophies and diplomas and achievement awards and bragging rights looked like a heap of manure beneath the brilliance of the God of Glory (Philippians 3:8-9).

And the same light shines in us by the Spirit. If we believe, we can see, within our hearts and within the church, “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4). But we have to look. We have to open our eyes. We have to gaze where the Spirit points, and let Jesus slowly strip the scales from our sight. 

Paul's story confronts us with some hard questions here. We're singing this morning about the glory of God, but do we really know the glory of God? Do we hold fast the conviction that the face of Jesus is the radiant face that looked down on the dim spark of creation as the universe flew into being? 

How deeply are we aware that, beneath God's glory, all boasting is null and void – “What becomes of our boasting? It is excluded” (Romans 3:27). Man, woman, young, old, employed, jobless, propertied, homeless, rich, penniless, white, black, Republican, Democrat, right, wrong, Pharisee, tax collector, priest, prostitute, health nut, glutton, diplomat, freedom fighter, Jew, Gentile, right, wrong, Presbyterian, EC, Protestant, Catholic, French, Tunisian, American, Turk, native-born, immigrant, PhD, high school dropout, athlete, invalid – all boasting is excluded. Can we see we're equally overwhelmed, outshined, outweighed? Can we see that God's importance inevitably outweighs the universe – past, present, and future? Have you glimpsed that light? “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14)!

Second, as Paul shared with the mob, he learned for himself that the God of Glory is also the God of Grace. Again, not a totally new concept, in theory. There's grace in the Old Testament: God famously described his character that way: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 33:19). The Jews received that as a promise: “The LORD your God is gracious and merciful and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chronicles 30:9). The psalmist often asked: “Give ear, O LORD, to my prayer; listen to my plea for grace” (Psalm 86:6).

But a lot of the time, they thought of God's grace as the gentle, somewhat indulgent way they imagined he'd treat them, on the basis that, well, they're usually such good kids. “But as for me, I shall walk in my integrity; redeem me and be gracious to me” (Psalm 26:11). Or they'd ask for his grace when they were obviously in a mess – they were hurting, they were scattered and scared, they needed God to bail them out. But rarely did they think deeper about grace as something God would show to the deliberately undeserving, like Jonah feared he would to Nineveh (Jonah 4:2).

As he set forth on the Damascus Road, Saul thought of himself the way we usually think of ourselves – as a basically good person, someone whose 'side' God would naturally take. When Saul thought about God's grace, he thought about it in the usual secular terms – the way God smiles at him and favors him because he's so good and noble and nice. 

But then the light shines around him and swallows him up. Then he hears the voice. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? … I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 22:7-8). I'm not sure there have ever been more terrifying words uttered since the gates of Eden clanged shut. Saul hears this divine voice thunder from the sun-dwarfing glow, like the roar of a thousand Niagara Falls, jackhammering his ears with the fateful words: “You... are persecuting... me!” The God of Glory takes this persecution against his church as a personal affront, a personal attack.

What do you think was going through Saul's mind in that moment? When he realizes he's standing there as the unwitting villain? He thought he was Moses, but he's Pharaoh, he's Korah. He thought he was David, but he's Goliath. He thought he was Elijah, but he's Ahab. He thought he was Mordecai, but he's Haman. Pharoah ran the gamut of ten plagues, the earth swallowed Korah alive, Goliath toppled at a teenager's feet, Ahab's blood was lunch for dogs, Haman hung on his own gallows – and next to Saul, they were innocent. Because Saul the Pharisee persecuted the God of Glory. And what his trembling, throbbing heart told him in that moment was the truth: that God would be totally justified in striking Saul dead right then and there.

In terror, flat on his face in the dust, Saul stammers, “What shall I do, Lord?” Is there anything Saul can do to not be the villain? The expected next word is, 'Die.' But the actual next word is, 'Rise' – as in, “Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do” (Acts 22:10). And there, he receives his sight back, and hears those words, “The God of our fathers appointed you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear a voice from his mouth” (Acts 22:13-14). 

The God of Glory doesn't strike Saul dead! Or, actually, in a way, he does: Saul the persecutor drowns in the waters of baptism. All his sins prove water-soluble. And he stands up and dries himself off: Saul the believer – Saul, the child of God – Saul the blessed – Saul, who calls the God of Grace by name (Acts 22:16).

Saul the persecutor thought he knew God as gracious. But he had no clue. Just no clue. Because he thought he was the hero all along. He forgot we're all villains. And only when he saw himself as a villain facing justice was he in a position to receive radical grace. The God he personally persecuted showered him with undeniable love, undeserved mercy, and inconceivable blessings heaped up heaven-high. And that changes everything! 

If we don't know God as the God of Glory, we'll think of ourselves as the hero – and in everyday life, we almost always do, don't we? Maybe a flawed hero, a Byronic hero, an anti-hero, but always the protagonist of the story. But to be a sinner is to be a villain, when all the shadows dissipate in God's light. And “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Yet when we don't know God as the God of Grace, we'll lapse into hopelessness and despair – or else try to rescue ourselves by dead works. And truth be told, our churches are full of people who are acting out those lying stories instead of the saga of grace.

We need the same shift Paul went through – the exchange of his old story of God for a bigger, better, beautiful one. It's not enough to just sing “Amazing Grace.” We need to be amazed by grace! Are you amazed by grace this morning? Do you remember all your sins were water-soluble? Do you realize what incomparable treasure that clay jar of yours holds? 

In the light of glory, do you see the grace on Christ's face? The way he and his Father look on you with favor, with relentless love, with unyielding forgiveness in spite of every wrong road, every spendthrift night of wild living, every lunch in a pig sty? And all he wants is for his lost, dead, prodigal sons and daughters to come home so he can hug and kiss us, put rings on our fingers, and feast us on the fatted calf (cf. Luke 15:11-24)! Call on his name. Experience him as the God of Grace. Experience him, regard him – always – as the Grace-Giver... as the God of Grace who gave Saul the villain a new righteous life.

Third, in meeting the God of Glory and Grace, Paul was also confronted by the God of Good News. Not totally unknown in the Old Testament: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'” (Isaiah 52:7). But Saul the Pharisee didn't have such beautiful feet. He didn't appear on the mountains to publish peace or salvation; he came to defend the purity of Israel against an 'evil lie' that proved to be the amazing, gracious, purifying, life-giving truth of God.

After Saul makes it into Damascus, after he receives his sight again, Ananias prophesies to him, “You will be a witness for him to everyone of what you have seen and heard” (Acts 22:15) – namely, the Risen Righteous One with pierced hands and feet, and the heavenly voice of Jesus, the God of Glory and Grace. From Damascus, he returned to Jerusalem and went to the temple to pray. And, in a trance there, he saw the Lord again, who told him to escape, because the mobs in Jerusalem wouldn't accept this witness (Acts 22:17-20). 

But that implies that he had been trying. Luke told us that thirteen chapters ago: “He went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord” (Acts 9:28). What's happened is that Saul has encountered the God of Good News. He's a God who's so good, once you know him, once you experience him, you need to talk about him! This God's story is good news indeed. And since Saul is an appointed witness, Saul talks, Saul teaches, Saul tells. That's what he gets grace for – God's God of Grace because God's God of Good News.

As Paul tells the mob his story, he challenges them – and he challenges us, too. Your God – is he newsworthy? The mob's god wasn't. There's no evangelism by the mob – no thirst to talk about their god, to converse about matters of the spirit, to share life and health and strength they've found. Their god – the idol they made by whittling down biblical revelation to their puny customs and conventions – was neither greatly glorious nor greatly gracious. 

But we risk the same thing, don't we? We reduce 'church' to a couple hours on Sundays. We bore so easily of reading the holy pages. We tire of talking to the Inventor of speech, of thinking about the Maker of thought, of spending time with the Eternal One. We hoard up what we hear here, because it's private, because it's not for polite company. Or... so the culture tells us.

But have you ever gotten good news – just good news in your life? I remember a time back in my college days – it was a little over eight years ago. I got an e-mail I just couldn't believe. It told me that I'd been approved – I guess I'd submitted an application – for the International Scholar Laureate Program. I'd be going on an adventure to study archaeology and anthropology... in China. And let me tell you, I must have been well nigh insufferable for the next few days – more insufferable than usual, I mean – because I couldn't not tell everybody in sight. My roommate, my mom, my friends, everybody. I was too excited to keep quiet!

Imagine if we felt that way about this news: that heaven isn't content to stay above earth; that what's priceless is given without price; that God loves you more than you love yourself; that he forgives you even when you can't forgive yourself; that he fought Death to the death for you and won; that nothing can get between you and his love; that times will come and go, but you and he are forever; that, in the pithy words of Tolkien, everything sad will come untrue; that all this is leading to a Wedding Supper. 

Isn't that better news than a few weeks in China? Isn't that better news than a clean bill of health? Isn't that better news than a new job or the birth of a grandchild or the bliss of newlyweds? This, this heavenly news, is news worth telling about! If we really believe that it's true, if we experience it as true, if our thinking and feeling and behaving is anchored in it, how can we not see that the God of Glory and Grace is newsworthy – is the God of Good News? And how can we hold back, in practice, from being good news messengers like Paul?

Fourth and finally, the God of Glory, Grace, Good News, also proves to be – Paul tells us this – the God of Going. Twice in Paul's story, he remembers being told to 'rise' – because God is the God of Resurrection. But twice in Paul's story, at key points, he's also told to 'go.' The first time is in verse 10: “Rise, and go into Damascus, and there you will be told all that is appointed for you to do” (Acts 22:10). Saul must go and be told. But the second time is in verse 21: “Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles” (Acts 22:21). Saul, having gone and been told, now must go and tell.

And when he reaches this part of the story, the mob calls for his death (Acts 22:22). They could bear to hear of a God of glory, a God of grace, even a God of good news. But there is one god they can't abide. And that is the God of Going. A God of Gentiles. A God for far away – a God for people not like them – a God for their enemies. But “is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one – who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through faith” (Romans 3:29-30). 

Because God is one, God has to be a God of Going – a God who is on the move, and whose people are on the move. That's what the mob can't tolerate: the notion that their statuesque state, their stationary stance, makes them less like God, not more; that God is on the move, and they need to keep up or lose out; that they, the supposed sons of the kingdom, could find themselves on the outside looking in (cf. Matthew 8:12). Their motionless inertia blinded them to a God on the go.

They didn't know the God of Going. Do we? Have we experienced the God of Going – a God who stretches us, calls us, who promises to meet us somewhere we aren't, among an unfamiliar people? I fear that, for many of us, who struggle to know the God of Good News, the God of Going may be even more alien. The God of Going whom Saul has met, whom Paul loves and lauds, is never content to let his – or our – witness remain in a familiar domain. 

It need not be a geographic 'go.' It might be an intergenerational 'go,' an interracial 'go,' a socioeconomic 'go,' or just a broad social 'go.' But staying still atop this hill, preaching to the wind and the choir, is not what the God of Going asks. This God is on an active quest for the lost who aren't like us, and he calls us into the hunt.

God of Glory. God of Grace. God of Good News. God of Going. Not four gods. One God. But a God we might not know – not as well as we think. A God on whom we might be projecting our wishes and fears, our dullness of imagination and hardness of heart, instead of setting ourselves aside and getting to know the God Jesus knows. Paul can't narrate his autobiography without this God at the heart of it; can't talk about Paul without celebrating Jesus. May the same be true of us. May we know, encounter, and love the God Jesus knows and makes known. Amen and amen.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jerusalem: Keeping the Peace...?: Sermon on Acts 21:17-36

The days grow rough. Times are turbulent. The nation isn't what it used to be. The last eight years have really gotten under our skin. Everywhere you go, people seem angry all the time. Seems like, by the week, more and more stories of violence come seeping out the woodwork. 

Nationalism is on the rise – you know, the idea that this nation comes first, before every other loyalty; that compromise is betrayal; that foreigners are mighty suspicious; that anybody who doesn't look like us, sound like us, talk like us, say the right buzzwords... is an enemy. 

People are especially frustrated with politics – far-off leaders threatening what's sacred, thinking they know best; a string of corrupt politicians only in it for themselves; and, what's worse, no end in sight. So yes, people are angry. They're mad as you-know-what, and they don't want to take it any more!

Does this all sound familiar? It does to me. But I'm actually not talking about twenty-first century America. I'm talking about a time centuries upon centuries ago. Jerusalem in the late 50s. Because in the years before Paul's arrival, they were going through just that same process. Years of rage, years of anger, frustration, were all just boiling beneath the surface. Violence was bursting out all across the city. The Roman emperor Caligula had threatened to violate the holy temple, intruding his own ridiculous policies into the Jews' religious lives. 

Locally, Rome had sent plenty of inept governors: for four years, they suffered under Ventidius Cumanus, who just could not keep peace with the Jews and who turned a blind eye when some Galileans were murdered by Samaritans. He ended up banished for his failures and was replaced by Marcus Antoninus Felix, a harsh, cruel man, always on the lookout for a bribe. One Roman historian said Felix “thought he could do any evil act with impunity.” And so the Jewish historian Josephus tells us Felix even arranged the murder of Jonathan, the high priest.

This environment brought out the worst in the people of Jerusalem and the countryside. Gentiles were no longer just unclean, no longer just different. Now it could be dangerous to be an unarmed Gentile in this territory – or a Jew seen making nice with Gentiles. An absolute hatred of foreigners was bubbling up within the hearts of many in Jerusalem. All other loyalties faded into the background, and there in the foreground stood one loyalty above all – not to God, but to Jewish culture, Jewish tradition, the Jewish nation. Anyone with other loyalties was a traitor. 

In this environment, crime and chaos took hold – revolutionaries agitated to form a militia, fight the government, and there were cases of people actually being assassinated in the outer courts of the temple.

A rough and tumble place, that Jerusalem. And it's into that Jerusalem that Paul marches, bringing a pack of Gentile Christians in tow. What kind of church does he find? The Twelve Apostles are gone – the ones still alive have gone forth as missionaries, leaving Jerusalem under the supervision of Jesus' brother James and a group of wise elders. They try to steer the church in a healthy direction, but that's no easy task. Because the atmosphere of Jerusalem has seeped into the Jerusalem church. The attitude that prevailed at the Jerusalem Council belonged to a different time, and now even the believers in Jerusalem are suspicious, angry, exclusive... zealous for the Law in a way that could bode trouble.

So when Luke opens this scene by writing, “When we had come to Jerusalem, the brothers received us gladly” (Acts 21:17), that might as well be a miracle. The core of the Jerusalem church is still holding strong, still resisting the temptation to give in to hatred and rage. And in this environment, that takes a miracle of God. 

The next day, Paul goes in and shows deference to James and the elders – Paul makes clear that he's a team player (Acts 21:18). And when the stories come out about everything Jesus has been up to through Paul and his churches, all the things “God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry,” they replied by glorifying God (Acts 21:19-20). Now that is how the church should look! And they, in their turn, tell Paul how there are thousands of Jewish believers now in Jerusalem and Judea.

But then... then they mention something that could be a real sticky wicket. “They are all zealous for the Law, and they have been told about you that you teach all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children or walk according to our customs” (Acts 21:20-21). In other words, the rumor mill has been hard at work. Because that's what happen when people get angry, when people get polarized. They jump at any story that confirms their biases, no matter if it's true. 
These believers have given in to the blindness that enveloped the nation. These believers have been co-opted by another agenda. It isn't that they've abandoned the gospel. But their zeal has taken a troubling turn, and combined with this misinformation, it leads them to mistrust Paul and the work Jesus has been doing through him. And they might be unwilling to sit down at the table with Paul and his Gentile friends, Gentile believers. Even if the believers knew better – even if they remembered the lessons the apostles had taught them – well, in this atmosphere, it was so tempting to disown the Gentiles, to try and fit in. Because in this Jerusalem, it's dangerous to not fit in.

So “what then is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come” (Acts 21:22). Paul's stay can't be kept secret. News will get out. So James and his team feel the need to do some quick public relations work. If there's ever going to be a chance of the Jerusalem believers accepting Paul's mission, then they have to see evidence that contradicts the rumor. They think Paul disses the Law, so they should see him going all-in for the Law. 

So he can go to the temple and sponsor some Jewish Christian guys under a Nazirite vow. All the Jews recognize that sponsoring Nazirites is like Law-keeping plus. “Do therefore what we tell you: We have four men who are under a vow; take these men and purify yourself along with them and pay their expenses, so that they may shave their heads. Thus all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself also live in observance of the Law” (Acts 21:23-24).

In other words, they're saying to Paul, “We know maybe this isn't your usual style. We know this isn't your emphasis. But this is where we are, this is where our people are. Will you help us keep the peace? We're not asking you to compromise your principles; we're asking you to 'be a Jew to the Jews' – to go above and beyond the call of duty for the sake of peace. Don't worry – we remember the council, we want to welcome your Gentile believers. But we have to welcome you in a way our members and our neighbors can accept.”

Now, the irony is that, in hindsight, Paul's vision – the one the Jerusalem church thought was unrealistic and couldn't work in their time and place, the one they judged impractical, the one they found maybe even offensive and troubling – that vision was, even then, the only hope. Because a few years later, things would get worse. A few years later, after Felix's successor Festus dies and while his replacement is on the way, the high priest Ananus would take advantage of the situation to murder James himself – and even the leading Pharisees would call foul on that one. In four more years, war would break out; and in the middle of that seven-year tribulation, the temple would be destroyed, never to be rebuilt, save for the temple of God that is the church of Christ.

But in the meantime, the Jerusalem church can't see that. They don't know what Luke and his readers know. They can only see the demands of their increasingly nationalistic city. But Paul wants to keep the peace. So he does what James asked. Because Paul really is a team player (Acts 21:26). 

Sadly, what James didn't foresee was a band of Ephesian Jews showing up, looking to cause trouble for Paul. Glimpsing Paul in the temple's inner courts, they cry out that he's defiled the temple by bringing Trophimus, a Gentile convert from Ephesus, inside (Acts 21:27-29) – and there were signs all over, saying that doing so would get the death penalty. And in this one thing, the Romans gave the priests permission to carry that out... even against a Roman citizen.

So they lay hands on Paul, and the mob drags him out to the outer courts, where he can be killed. Paul is at heavy risk of a lynching... not unlike Stephen, once upon a time. The irony is that this crowd, trying to defend the Law, is actually stopping Paul from obeying the Law, while they themselves betray it. The Levite police shut the gates. A Roman sentry runs up the stairs from the temple's outer courts into the Fortress Antonia, and the tribune – commander of one of the five cohorts in the auxiliary legion that serves Governor Felix – gives orders to take Paul into custody (Acts 21:30-34). 

And given the choice between custody and a lynching, Paul isn't exactly complaining as the soldiers muscle through the crowd, haul him over to the stairs, and hoist him over their heads to lug him, single-file, into the fortress (Acts 21:35). And “the mob of the people followed” to the bottom of the fortress, “crying out, 'Away with him!'” (Acts 21:36) – much as they once did to Paul's Lord.

And all Paul was trying to do was to keep the peace. But the truth is, peace with the world can't be a one-way street. Oh, we can try, and we should try, where it doesn't betray the gospel. But there's a reason Paul himself would later write, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). There's a part of that peace that we can control. We can be peaceful. We can be peacemakers. But a one-sided peace is the limit of possibility. Takes two to tango. Paul lived that verse. So far as it depended on him, he was making peace. He can't be blamed for what the mob did. He went out of his way to work for peace. Just as the church always should – where it doesn't compromise the gospel or unduly tie our hands.

But Paul also had to work toward peace in the church. And the gospel doesn't call that an option; it calls that a given and a necessity. It is written, “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). It is written, “Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace, and the God of love and peace will be with you” (2 Corinthians 13:11). And it is written, “Now in Christ Jesus, you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2:13-14).

Brothers and sisters, we live in a world and in a nation not so unlike that Jerusalem. And too often, the church gets infected with the culture's noxious air. I don't just mean licentiousness, I don't just mean lust and greed and pride; I mean nationalism, suspicion, division. Our culture in our day is in a constant cycle of “us versus them” – natural-born citizens versus immigrants; nationalists versus globalists; Republicans versus Democrats; ethnic minorities versus law enforcement. You know what happened this week. And you know that, in all these cases, culture says, “Pick a side – pick one side – no more, no less. Stand there, no matter what, and rant and rave and rail against the other side's evils.”

And often, we listen. Often, we get sucked in. Often, we feel our sympathies tugged to one faction more than another. That's natural – but can we remember that the gospel comes first? Can we remember we aren't defined by our factions, our opinions, our partisan loyalties and biases, but by the peace of God in Jesus Christ? And can we remember that a church of peace is a living witness to the world? 

Why, when Paul sums up the mission of Jesus as tearing down dividing walls, are we so eager to build them again? And why do we let our petty opinions drive wedges between us and our brethren from other tribes and tongues – other backgrounds, other ways of talking and thinking about the culture and its issues?

Imagine if we didn't. Imagine if we refused to pick one side. Imagine if we picked both “sides.” Imagine if we took seriously Paul's words: “Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:15-16). 

Imagine if we wept with the men and women in uniform who know they risk their lives in the course of serving and protecting – that the badge they carry is a target for all rebellion against authority. 

Imagine if we also wept with men and women who know that they too face risks in showing the color of their skin – that society's gone wrong, and it feels like their lives don't matter to their neighbors. 

Imagine if we wept with both. Imagine if we bent over backwards, like Paul, to see what we can identify with in both struggles, both stories, both “sides.” 

And imagine if we brought them together, listened to both on their own terms, in their own words, and then helped them weep together and work together for peace. 

I honestly can't think of any other way the peace of God might leak out of the church and into our broken, hurting world. We have to show the way. But to do that, we have to keep the peace. 

And may we see in our own lives and in our own world the fulfillment of the words, not just of Paul, but of James: “A harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18). The peacemakers are blessed indeed (Matthew 5:9).

In a couple minutes, we're going to approach the Lord's Table. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, is the host, and he invites all to approach in faith. Long ago, when Peter gave in to pressure and stopped eating with believers who weren't like him, Paul called him out – and Peter knew Paul was right (Galatians 2:11-14). This table, this meal, is a meal of peace and of peacemaking. It's not a Republican meal, not a Democrat meal; not a white meal, not a black meal; not an American meal, not a Mexican meal, not a Chinese meal. But it's a meal of peace for a people of peace – a people made one, not by the worldly culture they share in common, not by loyalties to a nation, but by the blood of Christ that brings us close together and close to God. So let's come together and, in the loaf and in the cup, meet our Divine Host, who once promised, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart: I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Hallelujah! Amen and amen.