Do We Really Serve the Same God? A Sermon on Acts 25-27

We are entering in at Chapter 25 in Acts this morning. So there is a lot happening now in Acts. Paul is bound up in prison for at least two years. He is being used as some sort of political tool to impress others and frustrate others. He is constantly defending himself and his story becomes more layered and more intricate the more he tells it and depending on who he is talking to. The chapters before are full of Paul’s speeches and we get lots of insight as to what his goals are and where he is heading. On top of this, if we follow Paul’s journey we can see lots of close parallels to Jesus’ journey. Jesus went on a journey and eventually arrived in Jerusalem, so did Paul. Jesus was picked up by Jewish authorities and handed over to the Romans, so was Paul. Jesus was interrogated by the Roman governor; who at one point brought him before Herod Antipas; Paul was interrogated by two Roman governors and brought before Herod Agrippa. Jesus was sent to his death, and Paul was sent to Rome (or to sea) which we will read today. We are meant to see the connection. The connection isn’t there so that we can think that this is the life we are supposed to live or that Paul is actually the next Jesus or anything like that. Remember, Luke is a masterful writer. He is intertwining these stories together in a way that we can better understand Jesus’ journey and what it means. The way that Paul lives and the things that happen to him better inform us of what Jesus is doing in the world.

Luke is asking us to watch as the story unfolds, to see this narrative as it were superimposed on the story of the cross, not as just another example of suffering and vindication but as a sign of the way the unique event of Jesus’ death is implemented in the mission of the church in the world, the world as it yearns for its new creation. – NT Wright

So Paul stays in jail for quite a long time, and rulers change. The new ruler comes into play and Paul is in jail still just to keep the Jews happy. But the new ruler seems to want to deal with it, his name is Festus. So he tries to work with Paul and tell him that he will bring him to Jerusalem so that he can go on trial. Paul is having none of it and says that he wants to go on trial before Caesar. He says “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar” and then Festus agrees to send him to Caesar for trial. Right after this though, since Festus is a new governor, he has some high ranking visitors come and pay their respects to him namely King Agrippa. Festus wants King Agrippa to help him decide how exactly to send him to Caesar because at this point all he knows is that he’s had some disagreements about religious matters that really don’t concern a whole lot of people. So Paul gets an opportunity to plead his case to King Agrippa. He tells his story, telling the King that he was once like the people that hate him. He killed on behalf of his beliefs and he also says a few more things. This is a part of his speech.

And now it is because of my hope in what God has promised our ancestors that I am on trial today. This is the promise our twelve tribes are hoping to see fulfilled as they earnestly serve God day and night. King Agrippa, it is because of this hope that these Jews are accusing me. Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?

Paul is trying to make a case that really he has done nothing wrong. Then we get to a more fun part of his speech as he gets interrupted and we get to watch a little bit of fun back and forth game of wits.

“So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and then to the Gentiles, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and demonstrate their repentance by their deeds. That is why some Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. But God has helped me to this very day; so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen – that the Messiah would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would bring the message of light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”
“I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
Paul replied, “Short time or long-I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.”
The king rose, and with him the governor and Bernice and those sitting with them. After they left the room, they began saying to one another, “This man is not doing anything that deserves death or imprisonment.”
Agrippa said to Festus, “This man could have been set free if he had not appealed to Caesar.”

There is almost a sense of humour in these passages. Paul is trying to trap Agrippa into saying he is either for or against the prophets and Hebrew scriptures, which is a brilliant question seeing as it would put him trapped no matter what way he turned. Agrippa doesn’t answer straight and Paul gives him a off the cuff remark about hoping everyone can be like him, except for the fact that he is in chains. You have to be impressed that Paul can keep his head up after being in two years of jail and still have some fun with his oppressors.

Thus his journey to Rome begins. As if it was planned all along. Paul along with a few other prisoners get handed off to a centurion and set sail on their way to Rome.

This story of Paul and his situation with the powerful Roman authorities will remind us of Jesus and his situations with powerful Roman authorities. What was once a religious tussle amongst those that adhere to Jewish religious beliefs had turned once again to forcing the hand of the empire’s powers to get their own way.

Paul disagrees with Jewish understandings of the resurrection. Namely he takes everything that he used to believe and finds its fulfillment in Jesus. This disagreement eventually leads him to be at the mercy of Roman officials. Similar things happens to Jesus. A religious disagreement turns into the worldly authorities being pressured into dealing with it and eventually putting to death the issue. It’s odd that religious leaders would use political figures to execute their hopes of dealing with their religious problems.

Q: When does this kind of situation happen today? When worldly authorities are forced to deal and decide on religious matters?

I wonder if being in the hands, at the mercy of worldly authorities is exactly where the Christian/the church should find itself in. I wonder if there is anything to it. Joe talked a little last week about how the church is supposed to be resident aliens here on earth. Another way to look at it is that the church is a colony of heaven.

“A colony is a beachhead, an island in the midst of another kingdom. On their own, individual colonists could never survive in the alien culture. So they work and live together, come out to meet one another, give each other courage. The colony is not fully established, not out of danger, for it lives in the midst of a culture which bows to other gods.” – Willimon

Philippians 3:20 says that our citizenship is in heaven. So it seems that this is exactly what we are. Resident aliens. We are a colony on this earth. So it is interesting that the Pharisees and Saduccess would put so much faith and control into the Roman authorities since God should really be their King and their ruler. How far off the path God’s people have gone. They fully entrust their enforcement of rules and get what they want through the powers of their oppressors. But isn’t this what we kind of do? When we start to see that we are losing by the rules, wouldn’t it be awesome if all of sudden we could just change the rules that we abide to so it crushes the competition. We saw this happen back in Acts 23

Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” 2 At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. 3 Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”

Paul catches them in the very act of changing the rules and calls them on it. I think this is more than changing the rules, I think what we start to see is the root of what people really are in this for and what they really want. What many of us really want is control over situations and over people and we are willing to do whatever it takes to get our way. People don’t enjoy change and they certainly don’t like to be told that the way they are living is wrong. So instead of facing into the changes that confront them, they choose to shut down the messenger through any means necessary including going against their very beliefs to make it happen.

The unique part about Paul in these scenarios though is not that he is a deranged man preaching harmful religious beliefs that was going to destroy the world. Paul was a Jew. He clarifies that over and over again and tells them that he gets it. He understands where they are coming from. He believes in the same God, the same Scriptures. His challenge isn’t to let all that go. His challenge is for them to change their perspective on the God they both worshipped.

“Paul didn’t change God’s, he didn’t waiver from God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob – rather he followed (so he would have said) the one God, the creator, Abraham’s God, down the line he had always promised to lead his people, the line that would lead to resurrection. Paul is not saying ‘jews worship like this, but I’m saying something different’ but rather ‘the message i believe and preach is rooted in the worshipping life of Israel itself.'” – NT Wright

This is kind of a similar predicament that I have had recently with the Street Preacher (Harry) in downtown. After listening to him preach downtown and hand out tracts I started engaging with him a bit more and we have been e-mailing back and forth with each other for the last few months. Our conversations generally take pretty broad circles and don’t land on any points. Harry for some reason throughout the entire conversation never wanted to play by his own rules. He would tell me that it was God’s faith and grace that gave us salvation and if you confess and repent then you can be saved. I would then say I have done those things but then numerous times, over and over again he kept telling me I was not saved (or he was unsure I was) because of my other beliefs or things that I would challenge him on.

I am certain that we serve the same God. He just kept telling me I was wrong and that would end me up in hell. What I wanted him to understand is that we serve the same God. We believe in the same traditions. We have the same history even. In many ways, I believed all the same things that he did. But something happened in me. It had nothing to do with my hard work or my intelligence. Something happened that helped me see God’s story in Jesus in an entirely new light. This doesn’t mean throw out everything else that you were taught, it means to look at everything you were taught with a different light. I think that Harry is in the same boat as these Pharisees. He has yet to grasp the reality of the resurrection and what it means for the world. In his head, the only people this benefits is those that meet certain strict standards of belief and of doctrine.

This passage is saying, at its heart, that though there was an obvious break between Saul of Tarsus prior to his conversion and Paul the apostle afterwards, there was a strong line of continuity making a bridge between the two. This is, in fact, where the language of “conversion” may be misleading because, as Paul himself would have put it, and indeed did put it frequently to anyone who would listen, at no point did he waver in his belief that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob was and is the true God, the one and only creator God. He didn’t change Gods. From his point of view, he didn’t even, really, change religions. Rather, he followed (so he would have said) the one God, the creator, Abraham’s God, down the line he had always promised to lead his people, the line that would lead to resurrection .

His message about resurrection-that it is what we were all waiting for, and that is has happened, to our enormous surprise, in Jesus-is at the heart of his claim that this changes everything at the same moment as fulfilling everything. It is the changes, of course, which are the controversial bits, but Paul’s point would be that they are not changes for change’s sake, nor changes because there was something wrong with the old ways, but changes because God’s new world had arrived, fulfilling the promises to bless all nations through Abraham, and that in this new world it appeared that some things which Jews, himself included, had thought were fixed for ever had turned out to be, quite deliberately from God’s point of view, only temporary. – NT Wright

Paul wasn’t converted away from one God or religion, but called to a radical new understanding of that same God as the basis for a radical new fulfillment of that same religion. There are plenty of us that this has already happened to because we are here at theStory. I’ve had conversations with many of you and they all sort of say the same thing. There is something that we do here together as a church that helped us all gain a new perspective on Jesus, God and our Christian life together. We didn’t change our religion, but we did gain an entirely new perspective on what this is all about and why we are Christians in the first place. And still for some of us, we are still changing and still being exposed to a new perspective about what it means to fulfill Christian lives and the calling of the church.

I don’t like to say that ‘we are different’ and use that as a tool to boost our ego, but I do think it’s important to know that there is a difference between where we have come from and where we are now. There is a reason why we confront Street Preacher’s downtown Sarnia. There is a reason why we don’t stop talking about the poor and marginalized and oppressed in the world. There is a reason why we constantly point to our place in the empire and what our role of the church is. We believe that God’s new world (the Kingdom of God) has arrived and we are a colony of that new world and God’s promises to the world will be fulfilled through us. We are called to love each other, love God, confront the powers, spread peace and live a lifestyle that upholds the fruits of the spirit and values of the Kingdom. This means that we are different. We don’t exist to hold services and get lots of people to come to them. We don’t exist to own a building and maintain it. We don’t exist to make sure your kids learn Bible stories. We don’t exist even to teach you about the Bible. We don’t exist to teach you right from wrong. We exist to be a living and breathing community that models what a life with Jesus as Lord and King looks like.

So even though we are different. We have a different purpose, a different goal in mind, we are still grounded in the same things that folks from other churches are grounded in. Just like Paul where what he had believed as a zealous Jew and what he believed as a zealous Christian were both alike grounded in God the creator so do we hold the same foundational beliefs of those in other churches and the churches that some of us grew up in. Let’s not trick ourselves in thinking we are special or that we ‘got it right’ while everyone else got it wrong. But let’s take ownership over who we say we are and live it out passionately and ridiculously loyal to who we are called to be.

Q: Do you ever feel like you are just so different than other Christians that you don’t know if you can even call yourself one anymore? What do you do to keep a level head about it?

The story continues with Paul getting on a ship and sailing off to Rome, the story is complex and you should read it on your own. There is lots of this story that will remind us of another story where a man gets on a ship and has crazy storms to deal with. This is normal when we read scriptures. We are supposed to be reminded of similar stories and characters and situations when we read, especially in the New Testament. The story of the prophet Jonah is written all over this part of Acts but there is some stark contrasts made. Paul is not Jonah, even though he finds himself in the same situation as Jonah. Jonah however is a story of a prophet who is running away from God trying to get away from his duty and what God called him to. Paul is a story about a man exactly where he should be. Jonah was a shy, quiet, reluctant passenger on a ship trying to take off. Paul all through this story takes charge, encourages everyone and knows exactly why things are happening and he knows things will be OK. It’s like he can’t wait to get to Rome and give the message that he has to give.

Paul gets up and warns them not to leave because he seems to know the sea and knows that it won’t get well. But they go anyway. Eventually a hurricane of sorts shows up and had to wait on a small island and just listen to Paul, he gets up and says this.

After they had gone a long time without food, Paul stood up before them and said: “Men, you should have taken my advice not to sail from Crete; then you would have spared yourselves this damage and loss. But now I urge you to keep up your courage, because not one of you will be lost; only the ship will be destroyed. Last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood beside me and said, ‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar; and God has graciously given you the lives of all who sail with you.’ So keep up your courage, men, for I have faith in God that it will happen just as he told me. Nevertheless, we must run aground on some island.”

So Paul, despite the insane circumstances, despite the fact that he is their prisoner still helps bring peace and calmness to the situation. He knows he is going to make it to Rome, so he doesn’t seem all that concerned. The story keeps going

On the fourteenth night we were still being driven across the Adriatic[h] Sea, when about midnight the sailors sensed they were approaching land.They took soundings and found that the water was a hundred and twenty feet[i] deep. A short time later they took soundings again and found it was ninety feet[j] deep. Fearing that we would be dashed against the rocks, they dropped four anchors from the stern and prayed for daylight. In an attempt to escape from the ship, the sailors let the lifeboat down into the sea, pretending they were going to lower some anchors from the bow. Then Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, “Unless these men stay with the ship, you cannot be saved.” So the soldiers cut the ropes that held the lifeboat and let it drift away.

Just before dawn Paul urged them all to eat. “For the last fourteen days,” he said, “you have been in constant suspense and have gone without food-you haven’t eaten anything. Now I urge you to take some food. You need it to survive. Not one of you will lose a single hair from his head.” After he said this, he took some bread and gave thanks to God in front of them all. Then he broke it and began to eat. They were all encouraged and ate some food themselves. Altogether there were 276 of us on board. When they had eaten as much as they wanted, they lightened the ship by throwing the grain into the sea.

So this is where I want to end today. Paul, in the midst of pure insanity happening around him has a very peculiar and calming response.

Paul takes bread and blesses it and breaks it – What is the response of the church in the midst of discouragement and fear? Like Paul, the church takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and begins to eat. “What good will that do” the world may ask, in this sign of hope in the power and presence of God, this Eucharistic witness to our confidence in God’s will to give us what we need even in the midst of the storm, the church not only feeds itself but witnesses to the world. The Eucharist is food of confidence shared in the middle of the storm.
Willimon

God gets that things are going to get insane. Life isn’t going to get easier. In fact he says its will get tougher. It will become full of strife and opposition. He doesn’t give us a way out. He gives us sustenance to face into it. It’s called the Eucharist. It’s a sign of hope. It’s the very presence of Jesus in our midst giving us strength and peace to endure the storm. It’s what Jesus left his disciples. It’s a way of remembering who you are and where you are going.

So as we start to get to the end of Acts and we start to see how Paul’s life is falling apart before our very eyes on his journey to Rome , we get a shinning example of what it looks like to be sold out for Jesus and proclaiming his message. The storm is here. The storm is coming. But we as the church are calm. We break bread together and we courageously move forward into the lives that God has called us to, even if that life is death.

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