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Sunday, August 26, 2018 | 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Open our eyes and our hearts so that we may be able to discern your work in the universe. And be able to see your features in every one of your children. . . . Help us to know that you have created us for family, for togetherness, for peace, for gentleness, for compassion, for caring, for sharing.
It is good to be back with you today! I am grateful for the gift of time away—not only the time I had traveling to South Africa with our church choir mission tour group, but also for the time to be with my family the last two weeks as my husband, Greg, and I took our two teenagers on an adventure in Scotland. We have never traveled internationally as a family, so it was a lovely experience to be far away, just the four of us.
Though the end of my travels indicates summer days are waning and the sun is already starting to set earlier with each passing day, I am glad to be home. Home here in Chicago with my family, getting ready for the new school-year routine, trying to anticipate what it will be like parenting a high school senior and eighth grader. And home, here with you as church, anticipating the start of another active church year—a year that will undoubtedly be full of both challenges and opportunities to grow in our own individual discipleship as well as in our collective witness to Christ’s love not just for us but for this city and for this world.
That desire to do our best to ready ourselves for the next challenges and opportunities that will arise is what motivated your clergy staff to dive into the book of Acts with you all summer long. As I preached in the very beginning of the summer, the book of Acts is all about movement thinking. And movement thinking is a paradigm that, according to Willie Jenkins, allows us to notice how the Spirit is always active where we are—where we take up space, move, live, and have our being (Willie Jennings, Acts Commentary: Belief Series). Thus we have immersed ourselves into Acts with the expectation that by doing so not only would we learn how the Spirit of God acted in the world way back then, way back when Peter and Paul, Tabitha and Priscilla were leaders in the church, but also, by pondering those stories, we could have our eyes opened to how the Spirit of God is among us, active in us, present with us here, today, right now.
We have concentrated on Acts hoping what Calvin said about the purpose of scripture could be true for us: that these stories could become the spectacles, the eyeglasses, that we put on to help us discern what God is up to in our lives, in this church, in our world. So what might our Acts spectacles, our Acts-colored eyeglasses, help us see through today’s text—this story of Paul defending himself against charges that he was against his own religious tradition, teaching heresy and blasphemy? Before we address that question specifically, let’s back up for just a minute, because a lot has happened to get Paul to this point.
Listen to how Will Willimon sums up the background to this passage: “Throughout the last chapter of Acts (chapter 20) the clouds have been gathering. Paul has been warned of the trials that await him in Jerusalem. Yet, led by the Spirit, Paul has determined to go back to the home base, back to the mother church of the Way. From what is written, we know we are at the beginning of the end for Paul.” The beginning of the end. And yet Paul goes anyway. And sure enough, when he arrives and shows up at the temple, he is immediately shouted down as one who teaches against the people, the law, his Jewish tradition; one whose words and actions turn everything and everyone upside down (Will Willimon, Acts Commentary: Interpretation Series).
The crowd who has gathered acts in response to the sense of threat Paul represents. The scriptural testimony paints a picture of chaos and violence, with everyone shouting and beating Paul, yelling and threatening. As Acts puts it, “While they [the crowds] were trying to kill Paul, word came to the tribune of the cohort [the Roman soldiers] that all Jerusalem was in an uproar.” That is rather dramatic: all of Jerusalem was in an uproar over what Paul represented, which was, more than anything else, that both Jews and Gentiles were included in the covenant with God and the claims of the gospel.
Frankly, that is another reason why Paul had gone to Jerusalem, according to the book of Romans. Not only did Paul want to go home to the city in which he had been raised, the home base of the mother church of the Way, but he wanted to bring with him an offering for the Jerusalem church—a church primarily made up of Jewish Christians. The offering had been collected from churches primarily made up of Gentile Christians. Paul had hoped that this offering would be a tangible sign of reconciliation, a symbol of just how long God’s arms really are.
At this point in the temple, though, the offering seemed not to have done the trick, so much so that it is not even mentioned in this part of Acts. When the Roman authorities catch wind of the mob scene unfolding, they rush in to try and regain control and order. They take Paul out of the middle of the crowd, bind him with chains, and bring him to the steps of the barracks. But right before they take him in, Paul stops them and asks if he might speak—not just to them, mind you, but also to the crowd, to the group of people who had just been beating him up. He wanted to offer his defense, some of which we heard in our reading.
And just what is his defense? Does he offer his grand theological treatise of how both Jews and Gentiles are included as part of the same family tree, complete with scriptural citations from Hebrew scripture and the prophets, like he does in the book of Romans? Or does he choose to speak of the situation more broadly, hoping to give practical advice on how to solve the conflict, like he does in the letter to the Corinthian church? One strategy could have been to verbally paint pictures of the inclusive reign of God—a space and time in which there is no longer male and female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, for all are one in Christ Jesus—something he does in the letter to the church at Galatia. What tactic does Paul choose to use in order to defend himself against these false charges? What does he say to this lynch mob that is calling for an end to his life?
The strategy Paul chooses is to tell them plainly who he was before the living God scooped him up on the road to Damascus, as well as who he is now as a follower of the Way. He gives his testimony, to use a good old-fashioned church word. Paul stands before this crowd and simply tells them that though he had not been looking to find Jesus that day, apparently God in Jesus had decided to find him. He tells that crowd the story of his call—his call to be a disciple, his call to be a part of the body of Christ, the church, his call into ministry. With plain speech and deep courage, Paul speaks of his experience of the living God interrupting his life and taking over. Yet as we see in the first part of his speech we did not read today, this is no rags-to-riches kind of tale. There is nothing romantic in the way he speaks of it. Rather, Paul lays it all out there—the good, the bad, and the ugly.
He talks openly about how he persecuted those who followed Jesus and how he felt faithful in doing it. He talks about binding up both men and women and putting them in prison. He speaks of holding people’s cloaks as they stoned Stephen to death. He mentions—without glossing over it or making excuses for it— the pain and the destruction he caused. It is all very matter-of-fact for Paul. Perhaps that is because he knows that despite all of that, God still wanted to let him know he had a place in the heart of God. It is the great gospel word of grace, of “nevertheless.” Nevertheless, even after all that, Paul was still loved by God. As Peter Marty has preached, “Saul never got over that voice or that moment. He was so overwhelmed by a God who would be willing to do business with him, even in his bigotry and hatred, that his whole life changed in an instant. He was never ever the same after that” (Peter Marty, “Two of the Sweetest Words Ever Spoken,” 10 April 2016, day1.org). And that is why Paul tells the crowd his story on that day.
Yet at least to me it sure seems like a strange defense. It is an odd way to try and save one’s life, just telling the story, a story that says, “The grace of God called me by name. The grace of God claimed my life. And grace gave me a ministry. I am living a life shaped by grace. Do to me what you will. I will still belong to God who will raise me up” (Tom Are, “Have I Told You This Story Before?” sermon preached 16 July 2017). Paul’s defense was as simple and as complicated as that. I am not sure that is how I would have handled it.
The fact is that Paul chose that moment to speak of the difference God in Jesus had made in his life. That fact gave me pause this week, as I came back home to you as church. It gave me pause, because for the last six months I have been working on a plan to help your church leadership launch a strategic listening campaign—a campaign that could, by God’s grace, unearth and begin to reveal directions for our future life together as Fourth Church. As Presbyterians we trust that God plants the vision in the hearts of the people, so in order to know that vision, we, as some of your spiritual leaders, need to listen to the vision in your heart as well as listen and pay attention to what is on the hearts of those in our neighborhood and city. We want to know your big dreams of how you hope we, as Fourth Church, might participate in God’s transformation of the world. What is our next big thing, we are wondering and asking.
Yet someone who has been doing quite a bit of this kind of listening to different Fourth Church members said to me earlier in the week that it is actually rather difficult for many folks to articulate their hopes for the church. “We need to help people learn how to dream God’s dream for our future,” he said to me, and his observation takes us back to Paul and his story, for Paul had a definite dream for the future of the church—one that had been given to him by God.
That was the dream of a church in which every part of the body functioned in a way that was healthy and whole; the dream of a church in which all people, from Ethiopian eunuchs to Roman jailers and everyone in between, knew they were welcomed and valued and could make an honest difference; the dream of a church that knew that to choose to follow Jesus on the Way might also be risky and dangerous, for it would mean going up against the “powers that be” whenever those powers refused to show care and promote justice for “the least of these.”
God had given Paul that dream, God’s dream, of what the church of Jesus Christ, the church of the Way, was to be and to do. But at the precise moment he was called to task for speaking and living that dream, in response, Paul chose to get personal and to only speak of his own encounter with the living God and how that encounter changed his life. Perhaps that is because all of it, all of this, really starts there—with encounter, with baptism, with realizing God’s claim on you as one of God’s beloved children.
With this text as my conversation partner this week, I have been wondering if before we can begin to speak more fully of God’s dream for our church’s life, maybe we need to first follow Paul’s example and get back to basics, beginning where Paul began, by asking ourselves questions like, When did I know that grace claimed my life, and once my eyes were opened to it, how has that claim of grace changed me? Or, when did I first hear Jesus call my name, perhaps not literally, but in a way I could feel and not deny? What is my testimony, we could ask ourselves, my witness of how God’s claim on my life has changed the way I live—how I treat people, how I parent, how I spend money, how I make decisions at work and at home?
It might just be that the one thing we see this week through our Acts-colored glasses is that in order to be responsive to God’s dream for our congregation, our collective life, we first need to be awakened to God’s dream for our own lives of discipleship and be ready to give that dream a voice. Why does your faith matter to you? Why are you here? How has God changed you? I invite you to take those questions seriously as this autumn unfolds.
We dare to even ask those questions because we know first and foremost that it is not that we seek God but that God is always seeking us, whether we realize it or not, whether we are ready for it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. The testimony of scripture, Paul’s own testimony is that God is always seeking to encounter us, always wanting to help us know God’s love for us, always desiring to claim us and to change us. That is a fundamental claim of our Christian faith—God in Christ has come to us, to be one of us, one with us.
With our Acts-colored glasses on, we might see that the very first step on our journey towards hearing God’s dream for Fourth Church is to become much more attentive to God’s dream for you, for me, for each of us, for if we have learned nothing else through our immersion into this book of Acts, we have learned that the Spirit of God is constantly at work and will never let us go, continuing to keep prodding us and pushing us forward towards God’s love and mercy. We have learned that God is not done with us yet, as people or as a people. But our question right now is what difference does that make to you? Let’s start there. Amen.