July 16 2017 Sermon
“Three days after Festus had arrived in the province, he went up from Caesarea to Jerusalem where the chief priests and the leaders of the Jews gave him a report against Paul. They appealed to him and requested, as a favour to them against Paul, to have him transferred to Jerusalem. They were, in fact, planning an ambush to kill him along the way. Festus replied that Paul was being kept at Caesarea, and that he himself intended to go there shortly. ‘So’, he said, ‘let those of you who have the authority come down with me, and if there is anything wrong about the man, let them accuse him.’
After he had stayed among them for not more than eight or ten days, he went down to Caesarea; the next day he took his seat on the tribunal and ordered Paul to be brought. When he arrived, the Jews who had gone down from Jerusalem surrounded him, bringing many serious charges against him, which they could not prove. Paul said in his defence, ‘I have in no way committed an offence against the law of the Jews, or against the temple, or against the emperor.’ But Festus, wishing to do the Jews a favour, asked Paul, ‘Do you wish to go up to Jerusalem and be tried there before me on these charges?’ Paul said, ‘I am appealing to the emperor’s tribunal; this is where I should be tried. I have done no wrong to the Jews, as you very well know. Now if I am in the wrong and have committed something for which I deserve to die, I am not trying to escape death; but if there is nothing to their charges against me, no one can turn me over to them. I appeal to the emperor.’ Then Festus, after he had conferred with his council, replied, ‘You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.’”
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Would you pray with me?
I wish we had a little bit more time this morning because there is a lot of ground to cover to make sense of this morning’s New Testament reading. Only reading these 12 verses is like watching the last 15 minutes of the whole Lord of the Ring series or reading the last chapter of the second to last book in the Harry Potter series. You can kind of guess as to how we got to this point and what is ahead but a clear understanding is hard to come by.
To fully make sense of what is going on with Paul and the early church, we would need to look in detail at Acts chapter 21 through 27. Thus far, our journey through Acts has focused heavily on the ministry of the apostles, their companions, and the converting experiences seen at Pentecost, in Peter’s vision at Joppa, the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, Paul’s travels to Damascus, and the Jerusalem Council. Today, there is a striking move from tracking the movement of the early church to a singular focus on Paul’s missionary journeys and the trial that sends him to Rome.
The whole episode begins as Paul returns from travels to Macedonia and Greece making his way to Jerusalem to see James, the brother of Jesus. While meeting with the church in Jerusalem, Paul tells of all the great ministry taking place among Gentile communities. Paul is instructed to complete purification rites along with several other men from the community. This is done so that other Jews in Jerusalem will see and hear that Paul still observes the Mosaic law. Rumors were spreading that Paul was instructing converts to throw out the old customs and this purification ritual might quell the rumors.
Once the ritual was complete, Paul goes up to Herod’s temple and he is seized by Jews from Asia. They stirred the crowds into a frenzy accusing Paul of defiling the temple. Paul is dragged out of the temple and as the crowd prepared to kill him, Roman soldiers occupying Jerusalem responded to the uproar. They arrested Paul as the crowd shouted out accusations. No one was able to make sense of what Paul had actually done so the Roman soldiers took Paul away. The mob’s intensity was such they kept shouting to have him executed.
When the Roman soldiers realized that Paul was not an Egyptian insurrectionist who had previously caused them trouble, they granted him the opportunity to speak to the crowd.
Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:
‘Brothers and fathers, listen to the defence that I now make before you.’
Paul tells his story of faith, how he once persecuted the church, how his life was changed on the way to Damascus, and how he was commissioned to go to the Gentiles. It was that last point, being sent by God to non-Jewish people that caused the crowd to erupt again.
‘Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.’
As the Roman soldiers take Paul back into the barracks to beat and flog him until he explains himself, Paul asks a pivotal question. Is it legal to beat a Roman citizen if there is not yet a judicial judgment? You see, Paul has rights as a Roman citizen and he invokes them before he is beaten senseless.
Again, Paul is brought before the religious elite and the Roman soldiers to determine the nature of his so called crimes. Mob violence stirs again when the religious elite are insulted and some folks try to validate Paul’s commissioning to go to the Gentiles. Paul is kept under protective custody for the night so the crowd can’t get to him.
The Lord speaks to him while in custody. ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’
The next morning, a conspiracy of forty or more individuals colluding with the chief priest to kill Paul intensifies. The plan is for the chief priest to request an additional hearing and when the Roman soldiers bring Paul to the hearing, they will kill him along the way. Paul’s nephew gets wind of the plan and goes to the place where Paul is being held and relays the plans of the ambush. Paul convinces his guard to take his nephew to the Roman tribune whose custody he is in so that his nephew can break the news of the ambush. Once informed the Roman tribune decides to send Paul that very night out of town with two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen. The tribune sends an accompanying letter to Felix the Governor explaining the ambush and the need to trust Paul to his care while on trial.
Again Paul is given a hearing before his new Roman custodian and the chief priests regarding the accusations he was defiling the temple. He defends the actions he took while completing the purification rite and the Governor delays issuing a verdict. For two years, he keeps Paul in custody and converses with him frequently about the coming reign of God.
When Porcius Festus took the position held by Felix, a request is made for Paul to be transferred to Jerusalem. Again an ambush is underway. Festus asks Paul whether he wants to go to Jerusalem to stand trial on the charges that were brought to him by the chief priests. Again Paul makes a pivotal decision and requests to have his case heard by the Roman Emperor, a right afforded to him as a Roman citizen.
Festus replies. ‘You have appealed to the emperor; to the emperor you will go.’
All of the ground we’ve covered this morning is part of our story, an ancient story, but our story all the same. The least likely among all people to spread the Jesus movement becomes its most effective story teller, evangelist, and defender. Paul escapes assault, death threats, ambushes, imprisonment, and character assassination on a regular basis as he retells his experience of faith in Jesus Christ. You have to admire, that in the face of adversity and persecution for his understanding of God’s love at work in the world through Jesus Christ, he sticks to his story.
Over and over again, he tells his accusers what he knows to be true in his core. He hated the church, he tried to imprison its members until Christ dramatically knocks him off his horse on one of his bounty hunts. The encounter with Christ changes his life, restores his sight with help from Ananias, and then he goes forth taking the good news of Jesus among non-Jewish communities. He’s fairly consistent in the story he tells about how he experiences God’s grace.
As important as this narrative of Paul’s ministry is for the Christian tradition, I’m not so sure it’s all that meaningful to you and me and the life we will live once we depart from this place in about a half hour or so. Most of us will never face any serious bodily persecution for the sake of the gospel, at least not in this part of the world. Indeed, I can’t imagine except for a few instances that the expression of faith in Jesus Christ would land any one of us in a judicial setting, pressed to defend our experience of God’s grace.
All that said, what do we do with Paul’s ongoing judicial hearings, stuck between conspiring religious elite and the seat of ancient absolute political power? What instructive word can we glean from this morning’s New Testament reading? I don’t think it’s so much a theological statement about God’s work in the world as it is a model of Christian discipleship.
Model consistent integrity in your life of faith in Jesus Christ. Do what you say you’ll do. Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Don’t lie, cheat, buckle under pressure, or scheme to carve up a better portion of the pie for yourself. In whatever circumstance, be the same person-before the meek and the powerful, you should have the same visible expression of faith in Christ. That’s what I see in Paul’s ministry and discipleship-consistency.
This past week, something very interesting and unfortunate happened in theological and ministry circles. A beloved pastor and teacher to thousands of others fell from a seat of respect. Eugene Peterson, who is in his mid 80’s these days, is known by just about every pastor in the United States. Many of us have read his works, found his memoirs of ministry to be illuminating, encouraging, and formative. For millions of folks, religious and non-religious alike, they have encountered his work through The Message, which is a version of the Bible written in contemporary language. Some call it a paraphrase and others a legitimate version of the Bible. No matter, millions of folks have better engaged the words of Jesus, the letters of Paul, and the sweep of God’s love affair with creation through that piece of writing.
In a recent interview with Religion News Service, Eugene Peterson was asked whether or not he would perform a same sex marriage of a couple in his church if they were Christians of good faith. He responded ‘Yes.’
It didn’t take long for Lifeway, the largest Christian bookstore and distributor in the United States, to threaten to remove Eugene Peterson’s works from their repertoire. Economic leverage. Threaten to cut off sale royalties to a man whose net worth is estimated at $140 million and see how consistent and strong commitments to justice are.
Eugene Peterson soon offered a retraction after ‘reflection and prayer’ stating that he was mistaken when he said he would conduct a same-sex marriage. You can find his entire statement online. Did he slip-up in an interview and need a genuine retraction to correct himself? I hope so. Did Lifeway’s economic leverage bend the man’s spine, testimony, and witness to God’s grace? Let’s hope not. But the optics are such that he caved when income streams were threatened. More importantly, the lives of those encouraged by Eugene’s long ministry now wonder how committed he and the church were to inclusion after all.
All around us, folks are listening and watching to see what the church does. We’ll probably never occupy a forum such as Paul and have the notoriety and following of Eugene Peterson. But still, live with integrity in your discipleship. Be consistent day in and day out in the small practices of growing your life with God. Then when occasions of adversity or discernment arise, faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ will not be in jeopardy. Bless you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.