Chain Of Command [Acts 25]
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Chain Of Command – 01.08.2023
You know, there’s an old Christian tradition – we’ve used it on and off over the past few years. It goes like this – I say, “God is good” and you say “all the time.” Let’s try that again. God is good (all the time). And then we flip it. I say “All the time” and you say…. Right. So let’s try the whole thing. God is good (all the time) and All the time (God is good). Very nice. It’s one of those things – it’s so simple, but it is SO important for us to remember. That God is good, literally all the time. And that all the time, in every single moment God is good.
There’s a pastor named David Platt, he was the youngest mega church pastor in the country at one point. Wrote a bunch of really great books, phenomenal teacher and missionary. And I can’t remember if it was in one of his books or a sermon or an interview – I can’t remember where I saw him talk about this. But he tells this story about how people in his church would come up to him and ask him career advice. People would come up to him and says, “What is God’s will for my life?” What should I do with my life that will honor God? Like youth might come up and ask, “What college should I go to that will honor God?” College students would come up and ask, “What job field should I pursue?” It’s like, our heart wants to follow God’s will – I just want to do God’s will, I just want to do what God wants me to do - but we don’t know how to translate that into the life we live. There’s a fear that if I pick the wrong thing, God will be mad at me. And Pastor David addresses it, but basically it comes down to the fact that you’re asking the wrong question. What is God’s will for my life – to go to this college or this college? And David’s response was, “No, no – God’s will for your life is to know him and make him known.” Well, but should I pick this career field, or this one over here? God’s will for your life is to know him and make him known. Right, but should I vote this way or that way - what is God’s will for my life? But the answer stays the same - God’s will for your life is to know him and make him known.
You know, a couple weeks ago I wrote a blog post with some reflections on the disaffiliation and my resignation from the UMC. You see, the United Methodist Church, for all it’s bumps and bruises – the UMC does a really good job taking care of their pastors. And one thing I don’t think a lot of people understood was that I’m not trying to leave this church. We love this church, and this church will continue to be a place where you can love God and love your neighbor for generations to come. I’m leaving the denomination, the structure. In the UMC, they’ll send Pastors to a church. They take care of their churches. But outside the UMC, it’s sort of chaos out there. You have to go find a church to work at. You have to put out resumes and do interviews, it’s completely in your hands where you apply. It’s sort of paralyzing – there’s too many choices. And a lot of them are really bad – there are a lot of really unhealthy churches out there in the world. And I remember one night, I couldn’t sleep. I just lay there in bed, studying the ceiling as the hours ticked by, and I started to pray. I just cried out to God. “God, where am I supposed to go? What am I suppose to do with all of this? Which city is the right answer? Which place do I take my family?” And in the midst of all that stress and worry and fear God spoke to my heart. And God doesn’t speak to my heart all that often, but he spoke and my heart heard it. I cried out, “God what is the right path in front of me? What is your will for my life?” And God came close to me and whispered “it doesn’t matter.” (laugh). And I was laying there in bed, and I almost laughed out loud, and I’m glad I didn’t – because I don’t want to wake up the baby in the crib. But that message just kept rolling over and over in my mind and in my heart. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because God is still in control! If it doesn’t work out in one place or things don’t come together like you expect – God is still in control. It’s not to say that the things we do don’t matter – because of course it matters – but rather no matter WHAT we do, God is still God. And that is a life changing message for each of us here in Flushing 2023, but also it was a key piece of our scripture for today.
Now, for those who are not familiar – we are diving in to the book of Acts. We have been reading this book on and off for over a year, and this month is the big finale. We are almost done with the entire book. You might remember, we have been following the acts of the apostles, most recently the story of Paul when he shows up in Jerusalem. Paul, of course, started out as this Christian hater – going around hurting Christians. Then he had this incredible conversion experience where he literally met Jesus. Turned his whole world upside down, and he started spread the gospel all over the ancient world. But telling people about Jesus made Paul some enemies, and back in chapter 21 – when he finally gets to Jerusalem, he hangs out for all of thirty seconds before they arrest him. The Jewish religious leaders are trying to pin him down with some charges in court. They want the Romans to get rid of him like they did with Jesus. So the last couple chapters leading up to today is basically Paul getting accused, defending himself and then getting transferred to another court. First he gets put in prison, and he shares the gospel with the guard. Then he is asked to share the gospel with the crowd outside the prison. Then the military commander hears his story. Then the military commander transfers him over to Governor Felix. And at every step in the chain of command he tells people the story of Jesus, and the story of how Jesus changed his life.
And I don’t know if you remember, because it was way back before the holidays, but the last time we were in Acts – we got up to chapter 24. And Paul has been passed up the chain of command to Governor Felix. And Felix wants to keep everybody happy, but Paul is a Roman citizen. So he can’t really punish Paul, but he also can’t let him go – because then the Jewish leaders will be mad. So he just leaves Paul in prison, for years. But eventually Felix gets replaced with a different governor. Governor Festus, and that’s where our scripture opens up for today. [v.1-3]. Huh. So it’s been years, but these Jewish leaders have not forgotten Paul. New leaders coming in, they think – we’ll get THIS guy to help us out. But, just like at every stage so far – they don’t actually have anything on Paul. So they put him back on trial, and he says, [read v.10-11] Two things. First – I love that phrase, “I do not refuse to die.” He’s very blunt. He just lays it out – if I’m guilty then I deserve the death. But the important thing is that last line. Paul says, “I appeal to Caesar.” When a Roman citizen appeals to Caesar, his case can get transferred to Rome. So Festus responds, [read v.12]. So that’s our framework over these next couple of weeks. Paul is a prisoner on his way to Rome, and they’re trying to figure out what to accuse him of – because he’s actually innocent.
Then the story takes a turn. King Agrippa shows up to pay respects to the new Governor. And Festus and Agrippa – these two great and powerful Roman leaders – they start chatting about what to do with Paul. Festus explains it all to Agrippa and he says in verse 18, [read v.18-19]. Even two thousand years ago there was this weird separation of church and state. Paul hasn’t broken any actual laws, but he has defied Jewish religious custom. Paul is convincing people to walk away from Judaism and be Christians, and the government is baffled about how to deal with that. But notice the key piece. Festus is trying to explain this and he says, “I don’t know – it’s something about this guy who the Jewish people say is dead and Paul says is alive. I think his name is Jesus. And that’s really the most important thing in this chapter. Everything hinges on that guy Jesus. Why do we go through all this Christian stuff? Why do live our lives in a certain way, trying to love our neighbors and be generous and honest and true. Why do we center our lives on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control? It would be so much easier to just do whatever we want whenever we want – but we don’t. We submit our lives to this higher power that’s out there. And the reason is that Jesus died and then three days later rose from the dead. Because if he actually rose from the dead – there’s no counter argument. He’s God and that’s just the end of the conversation. Why else would someone like Paul abandon his Jewish faith, leave behind his position of power and spend years running from persecution and death, and then more years in prison telling his story over and over to a long series of people who don’t believe him. Why would anybody put themselves through that, unless it was the truth.
And so Festus says [read v.20-21]. Festus is like, “look, I didn’t know what to do with him, so if he wants to go see Caesar – I’ll send him to Caesar.” And King Agrippa is like, “this is fascinating, I want to talk to this Paul guy.” And so next week is Paul’s audience in front of King Agrippa, where he has one more person to tell his story to.
The core teaching of this passage jumps out at me, and I wonder if you can help me with it. The good news this morning is that GOD IS GOOD (all the time), and ALL THE TIME (God is good). Literally no matter what else happens in life – God is still God. God is still in control. With Paul, he’s getting passed up the chain of command – with Jewish people attacking and harassing him at every turn, but he never wavers, because God is good, all. The. Time. There’s a lot of people, particularly politicians or like mega church pastors, televangelist types – there’s so many people who love to point at scary things in our world and say, “This is a threat to the gospel.” This policy is a threat to the gospel. This person I don’t like is a threat to the gospel. This movie, or this music or this social trend – is a threat to the gospel. One time I saw that congress or whoever was debating taxing churches. And all the talking heads were sounding the alarm bells, “Oh my gosh the world is ending it’s a threat to the gospel!” Another time, I actually heard about one guy who said that yoga pants were a threat to the gospel, I’m not even making that up. “Threat to the gospel” is a common buzz word. But here’s the thing – there are no threats to the gospel. The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ, the son of God, died for your sins and rose from the grave three days later defeating sin and death. And if you believe in him, and you love him and you serve him as your Lord you can have new life and an eternity in heaven. Yoga pants can’t hurt that. Taxes can’t hurt that – stick my boy Paul in prison for years can’t hurt that. No matter what else happens in life, God is still God. God is good (all the time).
I’ve heard about threats to the gospel, I’ve heard about threats to the church. We see the decline of religion in America, we’ve had our fill of denominational kerfuffles, we’ve felt the effects of the pandemic, and we’ve buried too many friends lately. Sometimes it feels like there are some real threats to the church out there. I have even heard that there are rumors flying around about what’s going to happen to this church. Vicious rumors that have no foundation in truth or reality. I heard a rumor that the evil liberals and the progressives up at the conference were going to get together and send us one of those crazy progressive pastors who was going to change all the rules and force this church to sin. Wrong. That’s just wrong on top of being dumb. Actually, let’s follow that rabbit trail for a second. Because I really think this is causing a lot of fear in our church. A lot of anxiety. Let me show you my cynical side for a moment. They are not going to send a pastor who is wildly different than the pastors you have had before. And I know that for three reasons. First, that type of pastor does not match this church. They wouldn’t survive. This church has a broad range of diverse opinions and you need a leader who can love people from both sides. I didn’t succeed in this church because I’m a conservative. I’m a deeply conservative person in my personal theology, but I’m also not a jerk. That’s the real secret to success in Flushing. The ability to look someone in the face and say “I completely disagree with everything you just said, but God loves you and so do I.” Our ability to focus on Jesus even in the midst of disagreement, that is one of your greatest strengths as a church – and that is the kind of pastor that will help Flushing flourish. That’s the first reason. Number 2 – they’re not stupid enough to send us a pastor who would hurt the church. Before all this drama that I brought, Flushing United Methodist Church was one of the healthiest and most vibrant churches in the district. We are valuable to the conference and sending us an extremist would be like shooting us in the foot. I may not agree with everything the conference does, I don’t like all their decisions but I know they’re not going to shoot themselves in the foot. Number 1 – an extreme progressive pastor won’t match. Number 2 – they’re not dumb enough to hurt themselves. And the number 3 reason I know that the rumors flying around are false is that I KNOW who the new pastor is going to be. And you have nothing to worry about.
No matter what, God is still God. God is good (all the time). Look, I really want you to get this good news into your system. This is not just some abstract concept. The gospel is bullet proof. The gospel is unbreakable. And so we as Christians should be fearless. And yet so many of us live our lives paralyzed by fear. We live in a society that loves to grab horrifying stories from the extreme fringes of society and shove them in your face to make you afraid of anything that comes from outside your little bubble. But if you live your life on the unshakeable foundation of God’s unbreakable love – you can have freedom from fear. Are you tired of being afraid? Are you tired of living in anxiety? Waiting for the horrifying world to come in and claim you? Or do you wake up every single day, confident that no matter what the world might throw at you – God is good (all the time). Now I’m not saying that bad things will never happen. I’m saying that when challenges arise we can walk through the firestorm, like Paul who walked before us – because Jesus rose from the grave, and if you put your trust in his grace you can have freedom from sin and an eternity in heaven. There are no threats to the gospel. There are no threats to God’s holy church. Not really.
Let me give you a moment of application – let me give you a way to apply this to you life and then we’ll be done. If Jesus was just this nice guy who had a couple good ideas – a teacher or maybe a prophet or whatever. We could just sort of take the stuff we like and ignore the rest. “I like the part where he says that God is love, and that other part when he said that we should take care of people when we feel like it.” (laugh) But if he died. Dead. And then rose from the dead. That guy probably deserves more than our cherry picked obedience. So when he says love your enemy, and he says sex should be inside marriage, and he tells us you have to sacrifice in your life to take care of poor people – feed the hungry, clothe the naked, when he tells us we have to love our enemies, when he tells us DO NOT BE AFRAID – we have to change our behaviors to match his teachings. And we can be honest about it – I don’t want to do this stuff. I read this bible and sometimes I don’t want to follow all your commands Jesus, but you are the one who died for my sins and then rose again from the dead, so I’m going to change my behaviors to match your teachings, because I want to follow you because you’re the one, the one who was resurrected. I can’t tell you how many times I’ll be in an argument, maybe I’m fighting with my wife. And I’ll say something, or I’ll do something and I know it’s not what Jesus wants me to do. And I’m angry and I don’t want to apologize, I don’t want to go back and fix it – I just want to get the last word and storm off. I don’t want to repent, I want to win the fight! But in those moments Jesus comes to me and he says, “you don’t get to use my name, if you’re going to act like that.” And I wrestle with it. I fight with Jesus. I don’t like your teachings right now. I don’t like your rules. But Jesus is the one who died for my sins, and rose from the dead. So I go back, and I obey Jesus, and I love and serve my wife even when I’m angry and I don’t want to. Because there is not one second of your life that God is not God. Not one second when God is not good.
Here's what I want you to do this week, and probably every week after. It’s okay if you’re feeling scared or anxious – our entire culture is literally designed to make you feel that way. I want you to ask yourself a very simple question that I know you know the answer to. When you’re getting that clenched feeling in your stomach, and that stress level starts to rise I want you to ask, “When is God good?” (repeat that several times). When is God good? (All the time!) No, please shout it out. I need to hear you, When is God good? We are pushing back the darkness here in Flushing this morning, you can’t whisper away your fears. When is God good? (pause) If you can reclaim that truth, like Paul did in his jail cell. You will be unstoppable. Amen.