Nicky Gumbel, the Rector of Holy Trinity Brompton Anglican church in London says, “Movements grow from the intersection of a personal story and circumstances.” It’s true, isn’t it? Movements cannot be explained in any other way. They do not begin without an extraordinary individual but that person must come at just the right time and under the right set of circumstances that make change possible. It’s interesting to watch the movement growing around Donald Trump right now. Conditions and personality are in perfect alignment. Erik Erikson in his book titled “Young Man Luther” said this, “Ideological leaders, so it seems, are subject to excessive fears which they can master only by reshaping the thoughts of their contemporaries; while those contemporaries are always glad to have their thoughts shaped by those who so desperately care to do so. Born leaders seem to fear only more consciously what in some form everybody fears in the depths of his inner life; and they convincingly have an answer.” I am not suggesting Paul had “excessive fears” but he certainly reshaped the thoughts of his contemporaries and articulated the basic theology of the Christian church for all time. That is why the Book of the Acts of the Apostles could almost be subtitled, “With Special Attention to Paul.” Luke devotes almost the whole of the book after Chapter 9 to Paul and his missionary activity.
Can we recap some of the content of the book? Can we go back 30 years to the beginning of the book and then look at the last chapter? Maybe we can identify some themes.
Chapter 3: The healing of the beggar at the door of the Temple. It doesn’t start off as a miracle. It is simply “an act of kindness” on the part of Peter and John. What is the ripple effect? 5,000 people come to the Lord with no strategy or plan. The whole church undergoes persecution and all but 12 are forced to leave Jerusalem. The church is dispersed and begins to go global. All that from an unplanned act of kindness.
Chapter 8: The earliest church becomes the migrant church and preaching the word wherever they went. They are traveling light and God uses dislocation and displacement to grow the Church in ways we often overlook. He uses it to knock off the barnacles and get rid of some of the baggage we have collected that weighs us down. But it was their becoming the migrant church that saved it in the end.
Chapter 9: The conversion of Paul. This is not the most important event in the book but it is certainly a turning point in the church. While no one can know how things might have played out certainly they could not have predicted this. There were two opposing tectonic plates deep in the personality of Paul. The plate of grace pushing up against the plate of proving himself worthy of God’s acceptance. It was a fault line running through his life that moved on the road to Damascus. It wasn’t conviction of sin that threw Paul to the ground but the shock of being loved. The encounter with grace. He was not recruited. He was arrested. He was not a volunteer but a conscript whose life was no longer his own.
Chapter 10: Peter’s vision. What must it be like to completely turn on everything you believe God requires of a holy life? Where is the line between apostasy and a word from God that even contradicts everything you believe about God? All of us have righteous rules that limit the mission of the church but how do we know what to hold tight and what to let go? What is merely liberal or even heretical and what is a rightful earthquake from God to shake us up?
You know this story…and it’s sadly too often true.
Man On Bridge
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the
edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well … are you religious or atheist?”
“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed
Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed
Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
Chapter 15: The Council at Jerusalem. This is where we see clearly the lines that have been drawn between the founders and the future of the church. For the founders, there are still parts of the Law that are essential and for Paul the Gentiles are free from the Law. If Paul’s conversion is a pivotal point in the life of the great innovator of the Gospel then the Council is a picture of where the road parts. The Council doesn’t really see the change until it is too late.
Chapter 16: This is the saddest rupture of friendship in the entire account. Two men of great integrity part over a disagreement over a young man. One, Barnabas, would give him another chance. The other, Paul, will not. In the end, that frightened, spoiled and weak young man under the mentorship of Peter becomes the Lion of Venice St. Mark.
Chapter 17: Lydia, the slave girl and the Philippian jailer. How I would have loved to have been present for that first service. Such a mix of characters! But what we saw in that story was symbolic of many of our lives something we have securely locked up in the innermost cell the cell within a cell that if it escapes could destroy us. For some, it is a great secret and for others it is a great fear. As in the case of the jailer they think failure is fatal. But we learn that it is the jailer who is in prison and Paul who is free. The earthquake was not to release Paul and Silas but to shake the very foundations of the jailer’s life. Paul was already free. It was the jailer himself who was in chains.
Chapter 18: Paul in Athens. Paul steps into a community that used to be great and still living on its former glory. Philosophy was a blood sport but not now. They are sleep walking and you never want to shout at a sleep walker but Paul does. He shouts the good news and they ignore him. A new philosophy could mildly interest them but talk about a resurrection and the poor taste to mention judgment of the elite is too much. They dismiss this arrogant Jew and Paul never darkens the door of the faculty club again. But because of this failed encounter we have Paul’s take on the wisdom of this world compared to the mysteries of God.
Chapter 19: Something happens in Corinth. He comes face to face with three fears. The fear of leaving the familiar and becoming a stranger to his own people. The fear that follows success because you know you cannot control the power that comes and goes. Sometimes it drives out demons and people think you are a god. Sometimes it doesn’t show up at all and people want to stone you. Then there is the fear of settling down with people who would tie him down for years in their petty squabbles, backsliding, idolatry, gross immorality and common lives. No adventure just day to day ministry. What if this is it? This is where Paul becomes a pastor.
Chapter 20: Paul has his first encounter with celebrity driven churches. Apollos had the pedigree, the skills, the connections, the accent and the ability to both attract and refute. He was so attractive and polished that people encouraged him to start his own church so they could leave the one they were in and follow him. Paul’s coming to them in fear and trembling without eloquence was now almost embarrassing. The church began to splinter not over doctrine but over personalities. The church became a place that would draw people who needed stars and performers and large personalities.
Chapter 21: The Council in Jerusalem. This is the nail in the coffin for the Jerusalem church. Not many years later the Romans destroy the Temple and because the church failed to adapt it disappears. Their excitement about the thousands of converts who are zealous for the law and their insistence on Paul’s proving his loyalty to the old traditions is the end of the story in many ways. First, they fail to adapt and then they are excited about the very thing that only ensures their demise. Change is not just hard. It is sometimes impossible and that can be fatal.
So, let’s circle back to the very beginning to the Ascension and the angels and the final words of Jesus before he returns to God.
The first question of the earliest church was about the kingdom of God. “Are you now going to restore the Kingdom of Israel?” That seems to be the same question in every generation. People want the kingdoms of old rebuilt. They want the times that used to be only updated.
Instead, the gospel has moved in thirty years from a small town in an insignificant corner of the world to a rent house in the center of the empire. The gospel always moves out not back. Thirty years or three hundred years or three thousand years is the same. The gospel does not restore it recreates.
Our vision is always smaller than God’s. We want to restore and he wants to totally redefine. We want to refine and he wants to interrupt. We are looking for a calm in a storm of change and he is in the middle of the changes.
It doesn’t say we will receive power to build great organizations or followings or even reputations. He says we will receive power to be witnesses in Greek that is martyr. I was at the funeral of a long time friend yesterday and looking around the sanctuary I realized generations of devout families had grown up, married, raised their children, and been cared for in their last days here. While I think the church is almost always at its best as a rent house there is still a longing for permanence and place and this is not a bad thing. But there is something in us that wants to turn a rent house into a St. Peter’s and in so doing we often lose our power. The place and the permanence become ends instead of means. Our power is for one thing only the supernatural power to be martyrs. They would be witnesses when they enjoyed the favor of the people and witnesses when they were persecuted. The point is the power to be a witness in both, good and bad, was
supernatural. They could not be witnesses on their own nor can we. In the good times we get corrupted by the favor of the people and the growth of the church. We get distracted from being a martyr and want to have a place at the table, influence, a following, esteem and prestige.
But we cannot be witnesses on our own in the bad times when the people turn on us because we become victims who long for the old days and the majority status. We feel “picked on” and singled out for contempt and abuse. Paul was always a martyr but never a victim. There was never a sense of importance or longing for influence. There was never a sense of despair or loss. In whatever circumstance he found himself he was content. In these last scenes he has not closed himself off from people or bemoaned his fate. In fact, Rome may be the warmest welcome he has ever received. The brothers travel over 40 miles to greet him and other join them along the way. It’s not quite triumphal but it is clear that everyone has been looking forward to his coming. He is confident, open and unhindered in Rome. He is as productive as any time in his life. Were it not for being confined those two years in Rome we would not have the letters to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians or Titus. His home is a magnet for every kind of person coming through and he is at peace and perhaps more so than at any other time in his life. No more riots or confrontations. No threats on his life. No controversy or people being stirred up. From being a man who went from house to house breathing threats to one receiving guests and teaching.
You remember the final question of the angels in that first lesson months ago? “Why are you standing there?” Why are you still in the same place? Why are you not on your way?
It’s still a valid question for us this morning. What is keeping you from being on your way? Where in our lives are we, like the disciples, still gazing on what used to be? Are we still looking for God to restore something that he wants to replace?
The angels always asked the hard questions, didn’t they? Almost to the point of being insensitive. But they weren’t at all. They simply could see just one step ahead. “Woman, why are you crying?” They saw Jesus when she did not. “Men, why are you standing?” They saw Pentecost when the disciples did not.
I think Paul would be asking us this same question this morning. “What is keeping you from moving on?” “Why are you waiting for what used to be to return?” Move on. The last chapter of the book of Acts is not the end of Paul’s life and the same is true for you and me. The end has not been written. So, don’t confuse the end of a chapter in your life with the end of the book. God is still asking, “Why are you standing there?” because He sees what you cannot but you will.
It was from a fearful, trembling, inarticulate prisoner that we can learn to be productive whatever our circumstances and live as he did when we leave him. Boldly, openly and confidently. God has his pen out to write with you the next chapter of your life.