October 12, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE STORY OF THE CHURCH: ANOTHER BEGINNING
Acts 21:8-15, 27-36
The sixth in a series of six.
As we come to the end of this series, I want to take us back to the beginning. Remember, Luke dedicated both of his books, Luke and Acts, to someone named Theophilus. Here is how Acts begins: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” The Book of Luke is just the beginning. The story continues with the Book of Acts. The story continues with the story of the church.
So we have two stories: the story of Jesus and the story of the church. And these two stories are really one story, because the story of the church is a continuation of the story of Jesus.
There are some fascinating parallels between the story of Jesus found in Luke and the story of the church found in Acts. For one, both begin with a birth story. The first two chapters of Luke tell the story of the birth of Jesus. The first two chapters of Acts tell the story of the birth of the church. Angels figure prominently in both stories. The angel Gabriel tells Mary she’s going to have a baby and a whole chorus of angels sings when Jesus is born. And then in Acts we have two angels standing next to the disciples as Jesus ascends into heaven. Before the birth, there is a time of waiting. Mary waits nine months. The disciples wait ten days. Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit”. And so was the church. In Luke we have Christmas. In Acts we have Pentecost.
It’s like the story of Jesus is the story of the church. It’s like they are two parallel stories. And not just in the birth stories.
There is a key verse in Luke. The whole plot turns on this one verse. Luke 9:51. “[Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He doesn’t get there for another ten chapters, but from that moment on he is bound and determined. Nothing can stop him. Nothing can turn him back. Not even the cross which he can plainly see waiting for him.
And there is a parallel key verse in Acts. Acts 19:21. “Now after these events Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem.” As we pick up our passage, he’s almost there. He’s crossed the Mediterranean. He’s in Caesarea. Maybe 40 miles from Jerusalem. Two days walking and he’s there.
You may have noticed an important word we’ve learned to listen for in this series. The word is “we”. “In the morning, we went on to Caesarea . . . ” That means Luke was there.
Luke was watching as something strange happened. A man named Agabus who is identified as a prophet goes up to Paul and removes the belt from around Paul’s waist. Then he takes this belt and uses it to tie up his own hands and feet. The point? “So shall the Jews at Jerusalem bind the man who owns this belt and deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles” (21:11). It’s a prophecy warning Paul not to go to Jerusalem. Bad things are waiting for Paul in Jerusalem.
We’re told that everyone there, Luke included, begged him not to go. These are some godly people, including Agabus the prophet. Including Philip the evangelist in whose home they were staying. Including Philip’s four unmarried daughters who we are told also are prophets. Had they taken a vote right then and there on whether it was God’s will for Paul to go to Jerusalem, Paul would have lost.
This is something we deal with often as Christians. All Christians don’t necessarily agree about God’s will. Even when we pray to the same God, we can get different messages, conflicting messages, and it makes it real confusing. We know that God’s will is not conflicted and confused. But when God speaks to fallible human beings like us, there is always the possibility that God’s clear voice will get distorted.
Years ago I heard a pastor tell the story of how his daughter was once approached by a young man who announced to her out of the blue that they should start dating. She was not interested but before she could say anything, he added that he was absolutely certain they should start dating. Why? Because God had told him so. This young woman had a good answer. She said, “As soon as God tells me the same thing, I’ll let you know.” Her dad had taught her well!
What God is telling Paul and what God seems to be telling Paul’s well-meaning friends are not the same thing. Paul is hearing God say, “Go.” Paul’s friends are hearing God say, “Don’t go.” It reminds me of Peter’s advice to Jesus that he really shouldn’t go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Well-meaning advice. But remember what Jesus said to Peter on that occasion? He said, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Matthew 16:23) It was hard enough for Jesus to go through with what he needed to do without his well-meaning friends trying to talk him out of it.
Paul says something similar here. He says, “What are you doing weeping and breaking my heart?” (21:13) His friends aren’t exactly helping! It’s nice to know you’re loved, but it’s not so nice when the people who love you are making your life miserable. You have mustered up your courage to do something you know you need to do and instead of getting encouragement, you’re getting resistance. You are dealing with people who just don’t understand.
So Paul tries to get them to understand. “You’re looking at this backwards. The issue in Jerusalem is not what they do to me . . . but what Jesus does through [me]” (The Message). But they still don’t understand. They still don’t get it. So finally they just give up. Paul is going to go to Jerusalem regardless. They can’t stop him. So they say, “The will of the Lord be done.” You can hear the resignation in the tone of their voice as they say those words. It’s almost like, “Whatever.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
So Paul goes to Jerusalem. And trouble is waiting for him there. This was no surprise, to Paul or to his friends. And thus begins the final eight chapters of Acts. It’s one-fourth of the book. It’s the story of Paul’s arrest, imprisonment, repeated trials, and repeated (and repetitious) speeches by Paul defending himself. We start in Jerusalem, we move to Caesarea, and finally we end up in Rome. And in this whole section, what Paul goes through sounds remarkably similar to what Jesus went through.
In fact there’s one verse I had never noticed before that has Jesus standing right beside Paul and speaking to him. We know he appeared to Paul and spoke to him on the Road to Damascus. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me.” But once again in Acts 23:11, here is Jesus. It’s an amazing verse! “The following night the Lord stood by [Paul] and said, ‘Take courage, for as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome’.” Jesus knew all about courage in following God’s path all the way to the bitter end. And, as it turned out, so did Paul.
It’s a mob scene in Jerusalem. It gets ugly. Paul had been a “missionary to the Gentiles”. Gentiles are those who are not Jews. We’re all Gentiles. You might say we’re all here because of Paul. Paul believed that Jesus came to save the whole world, not just the Jewish race. And a lot of Jews and even fellow Christians didn’t like that. That’s the issue that gets him in trouble. There was a rumor that he had allowed a non-Jew to enter the Jewish Temple. Whether he had or hadn’t isn’t clear. But the rumor was enough. He is about to be beaten to death. It’s going to be mob justice. Then the Romans get involved. Roman soldiers restore order. They arrest Paul. They bind him with two chains (21:33). That detail makes me smile. Maybe they had heard about Paul’s proven ability to escape. Another interesting detail: The soldiers have to physically carry Paul over their heads to protect him from the violence of the crowd. And then the final verse we read today: “As they carried him away, the crowd followed, shouting, ‘Kill him! Kill him!’ ”
That’s exactly what a similar crowd had shouted when Jesus stood before Pilate: “Kill him! Kill him! Give us Barabbas!” (Luke 23:18).
There are so many striking similarities between the story of Jesus and the story of the church, both stories told by Luke! But here is one difference: Jesus dies in Luke. He sets his face to go to Jerusalem and in Jerusalem he is nailed to a cross. Paul does not die in Acts. He sets his face to go to Jerusalem and in Jerusalem the chain of events is set in motion that will lead to his death. Probably in Rome. Probably by decapitation. We don’t know for sure. There is nothing in the Bible about his death. Acts ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome. The final verse does not sound like a final verse. Luke’s story of the church just ends. Paul “was preaching the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (28:31). And that’s it. “That’s all she wrote”.
So the story of Jesus ends with his death and the story of the church just ends. But wait. Does the story of Jesus end with his death? If the story of Jesus ended with his death, there never would have been a story of the church! It would have all ended on that lonely hill just outside Jerusalem where Jesus was nailed to that cross. But the story of Jesus doesn’t end with his death. The best part of the story comes after his death! The story of Jesus ends with his resurrection. Which means the story of Jesus ends with a beginning.
And that’s the whole point of the Book of Acts. Luke had reason to write volume two of the story because the story of Jesus ends with a beginning. “In the first book, O Theophilus, I wrote of all that Jesus began to do and teach . . . ” The work of Jesus continues all through the Book of Acts. Then Acts ends, with that ending that is so sudden and abrupt and leaves us wanting more. The whole point is that there is more! The Acts of the Apostles don’t end. They continue. After whatever happens to Paul happens. After all the original disciples have died and gone to heaven. The story of the church is never ending, it is always beginning. Even today. Even through us. Even in our humble church right here in Nampa, Idaho. We’re part of the never-ending story!
I don’t know if you remember the movie “Gladiator”. It was not a movie for the faint of heart. Lots of violence. Lots of blood. Maximus is a Roman general who is leading the Roman army to victory over the barbarians. In the opening scene he is rallying his troops for the battle. He mounts his horse and turns to one of his officers. He says, “At my signal, unleash hell!” Then he moves to some other officers with one final message of encouragement. “What we do in life echoes in eternity!”
Jesus has something very similar to say to us. Just one word is different. “At my signal, unleash heaven!” That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. Unleashing heaven. Making earth look more like heaven. Going to battle against whoever and whatever is contrary to God’s love. Whoever and whatever is cheating people of the life God intends for them to live.
We’re not alone in this battle. The same Holy Spirit that did wonders through Paul and the apostles will do wonders through us. Jesus is our general. Jesus is rallying his troops. He says, “At my signal, unleash heaven!” He also says, “What we do in life echoes in eternity.”
Church is a big deal. Church is the vehicle Jesus uses so the work he began can continue today. On the first Sunday in this series, we distributed prayer cards. You were asked to take them home with you and be in prayer for your church. The suggested prayer was a simple one.
Our church is a blessing to me.
May it be a blessing to many others.
Show me where I can put my unique gifts to work
to make our church stronger. Amen.
We’re asking you today on your Connection Cards to write down what God has been telling you this past month-and-a-half about where you can put your unique gifts to work to make our church stronger. You may have more to write down than there is space on the card. Either write real small or send me an e-mail with the rest after you get home. You may not have anything to write on your card yet. Keep praying. I know God will give you something. We are all needed to accomplish the mission God has for this church. Write down what God gives you and when you have it I’d love it if you would share it with me.
We’re going to close a little differently today. It’s going to be a variation on the old altar call. In the United Methodist tradition, we usually call this an “Invitation to Christian Discipleship.” Some of you may have never really given your life to Jesus. This may be what you need to do today. If so, this invitation is for you. Today can be your spiritual birthday. Some of you may have already given your life to Jesus, but you need to do it again. You need to renew your commitment and let the Holy Spirit flow into you afresh. If so, this invitation is for you.
But I want to broaden this “Invitation to Christian Discipleship” today. I want it to also be for our church. I want it to be a moment when this church once again gives itself to Jesus. When this church renews its commitment and once again lets the Holy Spirit flow freely.
If you want to be part of what God has for our church now and into the future, this invitation is for you.
So here’s what I have in mind. Real simple. We’re going to sing our closing hymn and while we are singing, I invite you to just come forward and stand up here in this open area in front of me. There’s more room here than you think. Some of you have mobility limitations and you can certainly participate in this without coming forward. But those of you who can, I hope you will come forward while we are singing. Whether it is to say “yes” to Jesus in your personal life or “yes” to what Jesus is going to do through us in this church. We have some exciting days ahead of us!
After the hymn, I will say a prayer with all of you together and that prayer will be our benediction for the day. After the prayer the organ postlude will begin and you are free to go. Any of you of course will be welcome to stay up front and I would be honored to visit with you and perhaps share a personal moment of prayer with you.
“Spirit of the living God, fall afresh on us. Melt us, mold us, fill us, use us.” Because, God, we want to be part of your never-ending story. We want to live so that what we do in life echoes in eternity.
(After the Invitation to Christian Discipleship)
I am so grateful, dear God, for this church. I am so grateful for each person here today, and those who aren’t here, and those who will be here in the future as we “invest and invite”. Thank you for the story of this church. Part of that story has already been written, and we are grateful for the faithfulness of those who came before. But God, we dare to believe that the best part of the story is yet to be written and that it will be written through us. May we be faithful and bold and filled with the love that comes only from you. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.