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.

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