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.

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