We've Got To Get Rid Of This Guy [Acts 23]
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We’ve Got To Get Rid Of This Guy – 09.04.2022
Margaret Storm Jameson, an English author, once said, “The only way to live is to accept each minute as an unrepeatable miracle…Work at your work. Play at your play. Shed your tears. Enjoy your laughter. Now is the time of your life.” She was talking about how we all spend too much time living in the past – feeling regret for lost joys or shame for things badly done. Even when our minds do in fact turn to the future – we spend an inordinate amount of time longing for it or dreading it. The only way to live is to accept each minute as an unrepeatable miracle…Work at your work. Play at your play. Shed your tears. Enjoy your laughter. Now is the time of your life.
I think I’ve told this story before – but hang in there with me. In my life, ever since I was really young – I wanted to be a missionary. To travel the world and tell people about Jesus was my plan. For a long time I thought I’d be a medical missionary. Healing bodies and souls together. Through the twists and turns of life I switched my major to religion and got on a different track towards ministry – but missionary work was always in the back on my mind. As many of you know, before we had a thousand babies, my wife had developed a career in teaching English to speakers of other languages. She worked with refugees in resettlement programs, immigrants at community centers, international students in the universities and even just good ol’ esl type teaching. We were a dynamic duo of international religious leadership. And so when the end of grad school was drawing closer – we took a good look at missions work. We applied to a number of organizations. I called up the District Superintendent in Michigan and I said – do not place me in a church, I’ll be overseas. I resigned as the full time youth leader at the lovely church in Chicago that I had been working at for a couple years. They gave me a cake, and a farewell party. We had four or five organizations we were looking at – my favorite was in Turkey. There was an international church there that had two job openings. They were looking for pastor who spoke English and someone trained in teaching English to the community. They needed a pastor and an ESL person. I mean are you kidding me. I felt like I got a sneak peak at God’s plan – it was so perfect. And after I told the district superintendent in Michigan, don’t put me in a church, and after I told my church in Chicago goodbye and I told the youth kids goodbye and I had my party and I ate some cake – I didn’t get the job in Turkey. It was too big of a risk to take on a pastor with zero years of senior pastor experience. Okay, I understand. So then we turned to this missionary organization with it’s home base in Colorado. They train you there and then send you all over the world – and then we found out it was a self funding missionary organization, you had to find your own donors and you couldn’t be a part of it if you had any debt. Sara and I had both just finished grad school – we had a bit of debt, so we were disqualified. So then we turned to this missions opportunity in Vietnam – which actually turned out to be a scam. Wasn’t a real organization – praise God we found out before we gave them any real information or any money or anything. Long story short, I graduated with a Masters of Divinity and the first thing I did with this very expensive higher education degree, was stick it in a drawer and then I went out and got a job bagging groceries at Whole Foods – because I had bills to pay.
It felt like the doors were slamming shut all around us. I called the District Superintendent, are there any churches you can appoint me to? No, it’s too late – sorry. The church I had just left had already filled the Youth Leader position – I knew that because I’d trained her. So there we were – two graduate degrees and zero careers, treading water with jobs we did not want. It was frustrating because it felt like God was delaying the starting gun. I was ready to run, ready to be a pastor, ready to go – and I had to wait a year for the appointment process. I kept thinking, “come on God! I want to go! I want to finally get to all that stuff I know I’m supposed to be doing – loving my neighbor, telling people about Jesus, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, sharing God’s love and making the world a better place – and because the perfect super awesome plan fell through, I was stuck in this crappy situation, unable to get started.
Today we are in week three of our series in the book of Acts, we’ve been reading through chapter by chapter and we’re up to chapter 23. Now, if you remember – we’ve been following Paul around the ancient world. He finally gets to Jerusalem and gets himself arrested after like ten minutes, and then last week we heard Paul’s testimony as he stands in front of the crowd and tells them how Jesus changed his life and we see that his citizenship comes in handy. He’s a Roman citizen and as such there are rules about how he gets treated. Chapter 22 finishes with Paul standing in front of the Jewish council and chief priest, and what we’re going to see in chapter 23 is that no matter how bad things go, no matter where Paul ends up – his mission field is right in front of him. Like Margaret Jameson says, “Now is the time of your life.”
[read v.1-3]. Starting out with an action scene. Paul looks around and says, “Come on guys, you know I’m innocent.” And the High Priest says, “hey, punch that guy in the face for me.” So they punch Paul in the face, and he gets all mad and says, “you white washed walls!” Which doesn’t mean anything to me – so I looked it up to figure out what it meant. Apparently “white washed wall” is meant to describe a dirty wall, that has been covered up so that it looks clean – it’s sort of Greek slang for “you hypocrite!” Paul’s mad because he got punched in the face, which I think that’s fair, and so he’s calling them hypocrites because they’re supposed to be giving him a trial on the law, but hitting him is a violation of the law. It’s like the cops catch a bank robber and then steal his wallet. So things are going really well for Paul in front of this council, and then we get to verse 6.
[read v.6] Now this is another verse that makes no sense unless you have a little context. Paul’s in trouble, they’re punching him in the face, it’s obvious they’re not in the Paul-The-Apostle Fanclub. But he looks at the room and he realizes there are two different groups here. Sadducees and Pharisees. They’re both part of the Jewish council, but they have some disagreements in their theology. Sadducees don’t believe in resurrection or angels or spirits, but Pharisees do. And so Paul, crafty clever Paul, decides to use their division to his advantage. Because Paul is a Pharisee, and so he shouts, “I am on trial for the hope and resurrection of the dead!” And by saying that every Pharisee in the room is now on his side. And it causes a massive uproar – and the council that was a united front against him, is now divided against one another. It wasn’t even difficult – he just picked a controversy, lobbed a little debate grenade and then watched the room explode.
Now, I know that this text was written two thousand years ago and a lot of people think the bible is outdated or not relevant to our modern context. But I just want you to try and imagine a church that is divided over a theological issue, so divided that if you just lob a debate grenade into the room, the church would explode and turn on one another and start fighting. Instead of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world – they waste all of their time with with bickering and smear campaigns. In case I’m not being blunt enough as I slap you in the face with this obvious parallel - imagine the church is working on a big project – trying to rebuild their Sunday school or Christian education programs after a global pandemic, or trying to fundraise for a major renovation project and someone walks in the room and yells “Love is Love, All means all!” OR someone walks in the room and yells, “Marriage is one husband, one wife for life.” [imitate explosion noise]. Now, of course, the conversation on human sexuality is important – vital even – but if we let it divide us, pit us against one anther, take our eyes off of Jesus – then we lose the plot, forget why we are here and abandon our purpose in this place. Division in the church makes people easy to manipulate – like Paul working his magic on the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Disagreement, conversation, dialogue is good, healthy and even beautiful – but don’t let it turn into division that distracts you from our purpose in this place. I had a fellow pastor phrase it like this, “look, we’re going to talk about this stuff – but we’re not going to lose friends over it.” To use our old mantra – Eyes Up, Flushing.
Alright, back to Paul – he’s plays these guys like a fiddle, pits them against one another - the room is in an uproar. [read v.10-11]. Paul goes back to the jail, where he is safe – and God gives him some words of comfort. And then we add a little murder and intrigue to the plot. [read v.12-16]. So this giant group of guys gets together and makes a pact – we’re going to kill Paul, and we’re not going to eat anything until he’s dead. Which really feels like something you shouldn’t be telling the chief priests and religious leaders. And then we see that they’re actually recruiting the chief priests to help them. Have the commander bring Paul down for more questioning, and we’ll jump him while he’s on his way. Because we all know the best way to get at an inmate is during prisoner transport. But their plot is overheard by Paul’s nephew, he tells Paul, Paul tells the guard, Guard tells the commander. Commander decides, this is entirely too much work for me, so I’m going to pass Paul up the chain of command. [read v.23-24]. Commander Claudius gathers up a bunch of soldiers, gives Paul an armed escort to Governor Felix. He writes a letter explaining everything, and sends Paul on his way to Caesarea.
Now the letter basically just said, “Jewish leaders tried to kill this guy, seems like he didn’t break any of our laws, but he might have broken some of the Jewish people’s laws, then I found out about this plot so I’m sending him on to you.” That’s all it says. [read v.33-35]. Paul arrives safe and sound in Caesarea. So to recap – Paul comes to Jerusalem, gets attacked, given a chance to tell his testimony to Commander Claudius and everyone there, and then the plot to kill him actually gets him put in front of the governor. One last thing I wanted to mention – the last thing we hear is that Paul was ordered to be kept in Herod’s Praetorium. Now I didn’t know what that word means, Praetorium, but I figured it was like Herod’s jailhouse or something. But I looked it up, and it’s not. Praetorium was Herod’s house. High up Roman officials, governors, kings, etc., often had residences in several locations. Got an apartment in Rome, a place in Caesarea and a ranch out in Jerusalem. So Paul, in the end, is under house arrest in the governor’s mansion. Not too shabby, to be honest. And we’ll see what happens with Governor Felix next week.
The good news we have from the text this morning is that God has put you where you need to be. Through all the bumps and bruises, hills and valleys of life – wherever you are is where you need to be in this moment. The mission field is not some far off country – it’s right here in your backyard. You know I used to talk about mission work so much that I’ve had people ask me – how can you be content to stay here in the states? I thought you were going to travel all over, how can you be content in the local church? And the answer is really simple – I found out that there’s actually a whole lot of people who need to know about Jesus right here in my backyard. Growing up I always had this romanticized picture, where all my neighbors were Christians, and everyone here in Michigan – they’re already Christians. I needed to go half-away around the world to find people who don’t know about Jesus. I was going to be like Paul, walking around from town to town introducing Jesus to people who never heard of him. But as I grew up, I realized the people who need Jesus are all around me already. And actually, the more I learned about the world, the more I discovered that assuming America was the source of Christianity and the rest of the world needed it was arrogant and wrong. Truth is, America is the mission field. We’ve got growing, vibrant churches in Africa who are sending missionaries here – because we are the lost. In America, in Michigan, in Flushing – even among those who grew up in the church – there are SO MANY who no longer have a connection to Jesus in any way. The mission field, the people we need to reach with the love of Jesus is RIGHT HERE. God has put you where you need to be, the mission field is all around us. And that doesn’t mean you have to stay here, that doesn’t mean you can’t go places and do wonderful work for the kingdom of God wherever you go – but that’s the point. The mission field is wherever you go, everywhere you go. I think we romanticize sharing the gospel, and we have this picture of us swooping into someone’s life when they’re down and out and giving them Jesus and we lift them up. But the real picture of evangelism, of discipleship is a lot more like walking with the people you already know, sharing your story and listening to theirs. Showing them how Jesus can transform their life with God’s gift of grace and forgiveness. How we should live our lives according to his teachings and then working together to do just that. Just like Paul, telling his story to whoever happened to be holding him in prison at that moment – God has put us where we need to be to share God’s love right now.
Now here’s the good news that’s going to sound a little bit like bad news. When we realize that God has put us where we need to be. In this season, the people we need to reach with the gospel of Jesus Christ are all around us, we can actually get to work right now. When we realize that, we have to let go of this romanticized vision of swooping in and saving the world full of far away people in the name of Jesus. It’s not going to be like the movies where there’s a dirty homeless man holding a cardboard sign, and you give him a copy of the new testament and pray with him and the next day he's a high powered business man in a suit running a fortune 500 company. It’s not fairy-tales, it’s real life. And real life is messy and even painful. Walking with someone on their journey and gently and humbly guiding them closer to Jesus. I want you to think about what Paul actually accomplished here. Last week he gave his testimony, told them his story, told them about Jesus and the new life he gives to people. This week they punched him in the face, literally. And verse 11 comes in there with God giving some encouragement. [read v.11]. Paul tells his story and gets punched in the face, and God’s response is, “great work, do it again in Jerusalem.” Be courageous. God will put you where you need to be, but instead of a romanticized story of Disney-style transformation – you might get punched in the face while you’re trying to love people.
So coming out of this chapter in Paul’s story – there are two big challenges for us today. First – start your ministry now. Don’t wait for everything to be perfect. Tell your story to everyone, everywhere. You can start loving people and sharing God’s love with the people in your daily life right now. We’re not waiting for some perfect moment when all the stars align. There is a co-worker, or a neighbor, or a friend at the senior center, or whatever – there is someone in your life who you already know and interact with, who needs you to pray for them. Needs you to invest in them and tell them about how much Jesus loves them. To invite them to church, to introduce them to a community that can love and encourage and challenge and laugh and weep and support one another. Challenge number 1 – start your ministry right now. Challenge number 2 – be courageous. God didn’t promise that it would always be easy, and sometimes we will get punched in the face. The promise that we do have is that God has put you where you need to be. You can do great things to spread love in the world wherever you are.
When I graduated from seminary, I was frustrated with God because I felt like he was delaying my grand plan. I had to wait a whole year before I could start my ministry, before I could really get to work. But the truth was God ended up putting me to work right where I was, there was no need for me to wait for the stars to align. Margaret Storm Jameson once said, “The only way to live is to accept each minute as an unrepeatable miracle…Work at your work. Play at your play. Shed your tears. Enjoy your laughter. Now is the time of your life.” And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that God has put you where you need to be. Open your eyes to those who need your love who have been standing in front of you all along. Tell your story of God’s work in your life to everyone, everywhere. And may you be courageous, and love boldly with your life. Amen.