July 21st, 2019 “Jerusalem Defense” Rev. Heather Jepsen
Summer Sermon Series: The Amazing Adventures of Paul
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)
(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.