Sunday, July 21, 2019

Jerusalem Defense


July 21st, 2019          “Jerusalem Defense”          Rev. Heather Jepsen

Summer Sermon Series: The Amazing Adventures of Paul

Acts 22-23

         This morning we continue our summer sermon series “The Amazing Adventures of Paul.”  All summer long we have been following Paul’s missionary journey through the Book of Acts.  We have watched his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ deepen and we have also watched his skills as a church leader grow.  Gone are the days of blowing into town and wreaking havoc by causing religious unrest.  Paul is now the planter of church communities, leaving schooled and counseled leadership within his wake.  Last week we saw Paul turn his face toward Jerusalem and the suffering that was on the horizon.  Though warned by prophets, colleagues, and friends not to go into the city, Paul was unable to resist the call from God.  When we left Paul last week he was trapped by a murderous lynch mob outside of the Jerusalem temple.  His only hope of salvation was in his arrest by a Roman tribune.

         (Read Acts 21:37-22:21)

         Just as Paul is about to be carried away to the prison barracks, he speaks up and begs for mercy from the Roman tribune.  As soon as the man hears Paul’s accent he realizes that Paul is not who he thought he was, namely an Egyptian who had stirred up a revolt.  Paul declares that he is a Jew from Tarsus and asks to speak to the crowd.

         Silence descends on the temple steps, and in a dramatic gesture Paul speaks to his fellow Jews in Hebrew.  He retells his story, reminding them that he is part of their tradition and he himself once persecuted people of the Way as much as he himself is now persecuted.  He tells of his dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus and his calling to bring the good news to the entire world.  Expanding on the narrative told in Acts chapter 9, Paul even recounts a time in the temple when he saw Jesus and was warned that Jerusalem was not a place that would accept the word that he was preaching. 

         Paul knows that there is no way out of his imprisonment and chains, and so he does not give this speech in the hopes of somehow being set free.  Instead he desires to show his faithfulness to God.  He wants his fellow Jews to understand that this is not a mission of his own making.  Rather it is the very God of Israel that has sent him to preach to the Gentiles.

         (Read Acts 22:22-29)

         As soon as Paul declares that he has been sent to preach to the Gentiles the crowd once again loses its mind.  Not willing for Paul to be killed in a riot, the tribune brings him back to the barracks.  Seeking to get to the bottom of things, he decides to employ an age old method of getting information, examination by torture.  He himself will not beat Paul, but he has his hired men string Paul up to be whipped. 

         As Paul is being tied up for torture he drops another key bit of information, “don’t they know he’s a Roman citizen?”  This causes a halt to the whole affair as the grunt runs back to the tribune with the news.  It is unlawful to bind a Roman citizen without trial, let alone to torture him for information.  The tribune questions how Paul came about this status and is shocked to learn Paul is a citizen by birth.  This calls for a change of plans.

         (Read Acts 22:30-23:11)

         The next day the tribune decides to take Paul to his own people to see if he can figure out what all the trouble is about.  Once before the council Paul clearly states that in the eyes of God he has done nothing wrong.  This earns him a punch in the face, ordered by the high priest.  Paul responds with an insult of the highest order, “white washed wall” referring to the white painting on the walls outside the tombs of Jerusalem.  This was to mark the place as unclean so pilgrims visiting the city wouldn’t accidently touch them and become defiled.  Paul is basically calling the high priest a defiled tomb, looks good on the outside but is nasty on the inside.

         Folks are taken aback that Paul would insult the high priest and Paul responds with a catty comeback, “I didn’t know he was the high priest”, implying that the man’s behavior is so bad he couldn’t possibly be the high priest.

         Paul is no dummy and as soon as he notices there are Pharisees and Sadducees in the room he decides to stir up trouble as a distraction.  Dropping yet another new piece of information, Paul declares that he himself is a Pharisee and that the message he is preaching is of resurrection from the dead.  As the author points out, the Sadducees do not believe in life after death.  The Pharisees do believe in angels and spirits as well as resurrection.  In fact, their whole theology revolves around the hope that God will resurrect the nation of Israel itself.

         Immediately the Pharisees come to Paul’s defense, causing the Sadducees to take offense at them and not at Paul.  The whole council gets stirred up and before long the tribune has to haul Paul out of there for the people are becoming violent and he can’t have Paul’s blood on his hands.

         That night as Paul is held in prison he has a vision.  The Lord stands beside him offering him comfort and peace.  He will live through this Jerusalem trial for God has work for him to do in Rome.
         (Read Acts 23:12-22)

         The plot thickens as a group of more than forty Jews conspire to kill Paul before he leaves the city.  Theirs is a religious quest and so they vow not to eat or drink anything before their act is complete.  Conspiring with the religious authorities they devise a plan that Paul once again be brought before the council for examination.  On his way across town they will ambush the tribune and his men and kill Paul.

         Luckily Paul’s nephew hears of the plot and comes to the barracks to warn him.  The tribune is told of the plan and now will take steps to keep Paul safe.

         (Read Acts 23:23-35)

         Eager to have this troublesome prisoner off his hands, the tribune plans to have Paul transferred to Governor Felix in Caesarea.  During the night he gives Paul a horse and sends him away with 470 troops to insure his safety.  He writes a letter declaring that he finds no crime with Paul.  Whatever Paul has done wrong it is something to do with the religious law and even then it doesn’t seem worthy of a death sentence. 

         The soldiers safely transfer Paul to Caesarea and Paul is told he will have a hearing at a later date.  In the meantime, he is kept in chains within Herod’s headquarters.

         So, where do we start when we are looking at the parallels between Paul’s story and our world today?  Shall we talk about the part where Paul is about to be the victim of police brutality?  Shall we talk about the age old practice of torture?  Shall we talk about the fact that since Paul is a citizen he has rights other people don’t have, like the right to a fair trial and to be treated with respect?  There’s a lot in the news today about the treatment of non-citizens at the border and we could talk about that issue, namely human rights vs. citizen rights.

         We could talk about what a mess the Jerusalem council is.  Pharisees and Sadducees, all supposedly on the same side but all up in each other’s faces instead.  Sounds like a few ruling councils I could name in Washington DC.  Nothing like factions within the ruling body to help make things run smoothly.

         We could talk about all sorts of uncomfortable things today but the hot button I want to press is nationalism.  Let’s talk about what everyone in our story is so upset about in the first place, and that is the fact that Paul has been called to preach the word of the God of Israel to the Gentiles.

         Early on in our reading for today Paul was sharing his testimony with the people on the temple steps.  All was well and good until he made clear that God’s mission for him was to preach to the Gentiles.  Since Paul came to Jerusalem, everyone has been up in arms about the Gentiles.  Remember last week when Paul made a show of taking the Nazarite vows to show he was a faithful Jew.  Still the rumor circulated that Paul had brought a Gentile friend into the temple and for that they were ready to kill him.  Never mind that that part wasn’t true.  Paul himself says God’s mercy and love extend to the Gentiles and to some of the Jews those are fighting words.

         Again, a warning about anti-Semitism.  The Jews in our readings from Acts are written in as enemies of Paul.  They are not the Jews of today, nor is this in any way a discussion of the real history of the Jewish people and their faith.  These are characters in the story the writer of Acts is telling, and at this point these characters are enemies of Paul.  Our Jewish brothers and sisters today are in no way, nor have they ever been enemies of Christianity.

         So, in our story the Jews believe that God has chosen them, that they are special, and that they are the people through whom God works in the world.  If Paul is going to invite Gentiles into the family, then the Jews are nothing, they have nothing, and their identity and their way of life are threatened.  And these folks are upset for good reason.  Paul does end up starting a new religion, rather than reforming an old one.  Folks leave the synagogue, new communities are formed with new leadership, and the old guard does lose power.  What Paul is bringing is not good for them or their way of life.

         Wrapped up in all of this is their sense of nationalism.  It’s not just the religion that is at stake, it is the nation.  The Jewish identity is wrapped up in the identity of the nation of Israel and salvation for the Jews is salvation for the nation.  Resurrection is about a new nation state, not about a life after this one.  It can be hard to tease apart nationalism and religion.  Even today, we find the Jewish identity tied up in the nation state of Israel, and speaking critically of the actions of that country is often equated with anti-Semitism.  So too, in our own country, we run the risk of defining God’s salvation in nationalistic terms.  “God bless America” and all that goes with that.

         The God we worship never intended for us to equate salvation and nationalism.  And while the promise to the Jews was a promise of a land and a home, it was never meant to be a marriage between religion and political power.  We saw God fight against that throughout the Old Testament from the first anointing of Saul to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.  Jesus makes it clear that he comes to rule in the hearts and minds of the people and not on any political throne.  From the beginning to the end, the salvation and love we have from God is all about how we live, not where we live.  God loves the whole world and all nations, all people, are equal in the sight of God.  In the worship of God there is no room for nationalism.

         This is a good stopping point so let us take a break.  I will be gone for a few weeks and we will just leave Paul here at the end of chapter 23.  He is in Caesarea awaiting another trial within the headquarters of Herod.  Will things get better for our hero?  Or will they get worse?  In a few weeks we will return to “The Amazing Adventures of Paul.”  Amen.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Farewell Tour


July 14th, 2019        “Farewell Tour”        Rev. Heather Jepsen

Summer Sermon Series: The Amazing Adventures of Paul

Acts 20-21:36

         Today we continue our summer sermon series “The Amazing Adventures of Paul.”  We have spent the whole summer following Paul on his journey through the Book of Acts.  From his early conversion experience to his deep and abiding faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, from his near-death experience to miracles in his name, the story of Paul has been nothing short of amazing.  Today the adventures continue as Paul begins to turn his face toward Jerusalem where he will experience hardship and suffering.

         (Read Acts 20:1-12)

         Things have quieted down in Ephesus and Paul returns to the road.  The author of Acts gives an account of his journeys and his traveling companions.  Paul returns to Troas and meets with the Christian community there.  I want to point out that they are meeting on the first day of the week, Sunday, to break bread, and we can see here the formation of early Christian tradition. 

         Paul won’t be staying long and we have a bit of comedy here as he preaches long into the night.  The author tells us that the hour is late, the room is stuffy, and one young man Eutychus (which is translated lucky) is sitting in a window sill.  As Paul “talked still longer” the young man falls asleep and falls out of the window, dying when he hits the ground three stories below.  If people fall asleep when Paul preaches, I can’t feel bad if you doze off during my sermons! 

         The group is saddened by the death of the young man but Paul declares that he yet lives, and taking the young man in his arms he brings him back to the group.  Not to be stopped by a mere death in the congregation, Paul preaches on until the sun comes up.  Talk about a long worship service!  Instead of going out to lunch these folks are going out to breakfast the next day!

         (Read Acts 20:13-38)

         This is a rather long section but it is important to our narrative.  Paul has a goal to be in Jerusalem by Pentecost and so he is keeping to a strict travel itinerary.  He stops in Miletus and asks the leaders of the Ephesian church to come over and meet him for a while.  The Lord has made clear to Paul that he must suffer for the sake of the gospel, and Paul realizes that this has become his farewell tour.  In light of this, he wants to give a final message to the leaders of the church of Ephesus.

         He tells them that he won’t be back, and he offers the new church leaders advice for carrying on the ministry in his absence.  Like a manual for new ministers, Paul doles out warnings and inspiration.  He warns the church to be wary of those that may cause disruption both from within and from outside of the community.  The Pastors are told to watch not only over the community but also over themselves.  A good church leader is alert to threats from within and without.  Paul encourages the community to hold strong to the faith, and the message of grace that will build them up and keep them strong.  Gone are the days of Paul coming into town and smashing the place up.  Here we have a seasoned church leader, carefully laying the ground work for a ministry that will last beyond his lifetime.

         (Read Acts 21:1-16)

         The farewell tour continues and Paul is not the only one who knows that suffering lies in his future.  As the group travels along they stop in Tyre for a few days and the disciples there warn Paul not to travel on to Jerusalem.  Through the Holy Spirit they have sensed the danger that lies ahead and they urge Paul not to continue.

         In Caesarea the group stays in the home of Philip.  Here too, Paul is approached with a warning.  The prophet Agabus comes all the way from Judea to make clear to Paul the suffering that is on the horizon.  Taking Paul’s own belt, he ties his hands and feet to demonstrate the way that Paul will be bound by the authorities in Jerusalem. 

         The community fears for Paul’s life and they urge him to abandon his plan to go to Jerusalem, but Paul is undeterred.  He declares that not only is he willing to suffer for the gospel, he is willing to die in Jerusalem if that is necessary.  The community is stunned to silence, and can only stand alongside Paul in his declaration that the Lord’s will be done.

         (Read Acts 21:17-26)

         The group arrives in Jerusalem and is welcomed warmly by James and the others.  Paul is told about some unrest in the community.  Some believers feel that Paul is leading the community astray by not encouraging the Gentiles to fully appreciate the Jewish traditions.  In order to prove he is still a loyal Jew, Paul joins with others at the temple for the Nazarite rights of purification.  This way he makes clear that he understands his mission not to be starting a new religion, but rather he is one proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah within the Jewish tradition.

         (Read Acts 21:27-36)

         Now, the moment that everyone fears comes to pass.  The Jews stir up the crowds against Paul using the false claim that he has brought a Gentile friend into the temple.  No Gentiles are allowed within the temple and the punishment for such a crime is death.  The mob seizes Paul and drags him outside of the temple, slamming the doors shut.  They intend to kill Paul, and his blood would defile the holy space so it is important to keep the violence outside the temple with the doorways blocked. 

         The lynch mob which is trying to kill Paul on the spot attracts the attention of the local authorities who rush into the fray and arrest Paul.  He is bound hand and foot, fulfilling the prophecy that Agabus had spoken.  The mob is so violent in their desire to kill Paul that he has to be physically carried out of the place by the soldiers.  As he is carried along to the prison barracks the crowd follows shouting, “Away with him” which means “kill him”!

         Last week we talked about the high cost of discipleship, and that following where God leads will lead to hardship in the pocketbook and in our personal lives.  Throughout our reading for today Paul makes it clear that he is willing to suffer in his desire to bring the word of the Lord to the people of God.

         If you were here for our first Sunday of the sermon series, you may remember Paul’s call story, way back in Acts chapter 9.  In that story, God says that “I myself will show Paul how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  It is clear now that God has done this and that Paul knows his future will be one of suffering.  Despite multiple warnings from within the faith community, Paul journeys on to Jerusalem to face the violence that awaits him there.

         In many ways the writer of Acts has fashioned Paul’s journey after the journey of Jesus Christ.  Paul has set his face toward Jerusalem, so to speak, and on his farewell tour he does his best to prepare the community for his departure.  Unlike Jesus, Paul’s suffering is not redemptive.  Rather, Paul seeks to live the life that Jesus taught, taking up his cross for the sake of the gospel.

         Throughout today’s reading we are given signs of the early church.  The story in Acts is not just about the amazing adventures of Paul, it is also about the birth of the Christian community.  In our readings for today we find a community that is beginning to separate from its Jewish roots.  They have their own regular meeting day, Sunday, the first day of the week.  And they have their own shared practice, the breaking of bread.  The community gathers for preaching and for prayer, and among their members some are lifted up for leadership, encouraged to serve the church with their whole hearts and lives.  In today’s reading we begin to see ourselves.

         And like the many people of faith who will come after him, Paul willingly faces suffering.  This is not suffering for suffering’s sake; Paul does not intend to make himself a martyr to be worshipped.  Rather, this is a willingness to follow God.  Throughout this sermon series we have marveled at Paul’s deep and abiding faith.  Nothing will deter him from the path that God has laid before him, and if that path leads into danger and violence, so be it.  Paul’s ultimate loyalty lies with the God he serves, and with his Lord Jesus Christ.

         Today as we gather around the communion table we see echoes of Paul’s farewell tour.  Here too, we meet on Sunday and we break the bread.  Here too, we preach the word, worship the Lord Jesus, and offer God our prayers in community.  We remember the story of our Lord’s suffering on the cross, and we find meaning in the suffering in our own lives.  We know that God does not will our suffering, and we also know that we follow a God who goes into suffering before us.  God is everywhere we are, be it in relative comfort and peace, or be it bound in the chains of this life.  It is clear in our reading today that the church Paul is planting is our very own church, our very own faith.  And Paul will give everything to make this church a reality.

         And so we leave Paul for today.  His story is reaching its climax and in the next few weeks he will give his defense to both Jews and Greeks, to the common man and the ruling elite.  Come back next week to find out what happens to our faithful leader as we continue “The Amazing Adventures of Paul.”  Amen.