Scripture: Acts 20:17-38
First things first:
I have to say a word about some of the language in this passage, specifically Paul’s reference to the trails he endured because of “the plots of the Jews.” We come across language like this not infrequently in the New Testament, where “the Jews” as a group are blamed for something in particular; the Gospel of John is a good place to go for it. This kind of language has also been the basis of Christians demonizing Jews a lot over the years.
I cringe when I come across passages like this one in the Bible, because we don’t always have the context we need to be able to interpret them well, and when we don’t interpret the Bible well, we can use it for some bad stuff. So, especially this week, when the news has been full of neo-Nazis and swastikas, I want to provide some context.
In this passage, Paul says he endured trials because of “the plots of the Jews.” But Paul is a Jew. Paul has always been a Jew and Paul never stopped being a Jew when he became a follower of Jesus. Anything Paul says about Jews is also as one. Any feud there is a family feud, and we all know it’s different to say something about your own family than it is for an outsider to say those things.
Luke, the author of Acts, may or may not be a Jew. By the time he is writing his Gospel and its sequel, Acts, sometime between 70 and 90 CE, Christians and Jews have become two separate groups, but the wounds are fresh. There’s also a lot of pressure for Christians to prove to the Roman Empire that they are not a threat to the government or social order, and in the process of doing so, maybe some blame gets cast elsewhere – even though the Romans give Paul plenty of trouble too. Paul’s troubles, as well as Jesus’s, have a lot less to do with any specific group of people and a lot more to do with the fact that people are people, then and now, and we are fallen and broken and self-centered and afraid.
Few of us who are Christians today would now call or would ever have called ourselves Jews. We are the majority religion in the most powerful country in the world, and we hold social power in a way that neither Christians nor Jews ever did in the first century – though I know it may seem to many of you that that social power we hold is shrinking, and maybe it is. The point is, we can’t take language that comes out of one specific context a long time ago and carelessly use it today.
So if you also cringed to hear words like “the plots of the Jews,” I hope that helps. If you didn’t, then I still hope it is a cautionary reminder against repeating language like that or otherwise lumping Jews together in a group to blame for things.
The overarching point, of course, is that whenever the Bible is used to demonize any group of people – whether Jews, black people, gay people, Muslims, whoever – whenever the Bible is used to make them “the other,” to blame them as a group for various social ills – whenever that happens, it makes baby Jesus cry. Because then we have colossally missed the point.
As long as we’re clear on that, let’s move on.
Last week, the apostle Paul got thrown in prison in Philippi and narrowly escaped a riot he indirectly caused in Ephesus. Preaching the gospel and living it out, as I said last week, can get you in trouble like that sometimes.
When Paul leaves Ephesus, he travels around a bit. Back to Macedonia for a while. Back to Asia Minor again. He and his group make a tour of cities on the west coast of Asia Minor, until he ends up back in a town 30 miles south of Ephesus called Miletus. From there, he sends for the leaders of his Ephesian church to come meet him. It’s not totally clear why he can’t meet them in Ephesus itself – but I guess we can only imagine. There in Miletus, Paul delivers a farewell address. After this it’s off to Jerusalem, where he hopes to make it by Pentecost. And after that, if he gets the chance, it’s on to Rome. We know only that the Spirit has told him it’s time to go.
There with his Ephesian church leaders gathered around him, Paul recaps the important parts of his ministry with them – how he lived among them, how he shared of himself, how he held nothing back, even in the midst of the trials he faced, and how he ministered to both Jews and Greeks. He tells them he doesn’t know what will happen in Jerusalem, but he does know it will be dangerous, because every place is dangerous for Paul, now. But, he tells them that that doesn’t matter. There is nothing more important to Paul than carrying out his God-given mission: “to testify to the good news of God’s grace.”
This summer the clergy on our district were supposed to read a book about Christian leadership in changing times. It was called Canoeing the Mountains. In one chapter, the author talked about the importance of having a clear mission- not just for a church, but as a person. He said you had to be able to express your mission in eight words. No frills, just start with a verb and say what you are there to do. This mission, then, is your guiding principle. The mission is your most important thing, even when there are risks to be taken and sacrifices to be made.
I realized that in this passage, Paul has actually done that perfectly. “Testify to the good news of God’s grace.” Eight words. That’s Paul’s mission, and that’s his most important thing, the thing that relativizes everything else, even risk and sacrifice, even death and suffering.
And through the book of Acts, from Damascus Road on, that is what Paul has done. He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by preaching in the synagogues. He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by meeting in people’s homes. He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by proclaiming the story of Jesus in town squares. He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by healing people and setting them free. He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace in prison. He’s testified to the good news of God’s grace by telling his own story: that he was a sinner, the worst of sinners, and God redeemed even him.
And yes, Paul has faced danger. And yes, Paul has suffered hardship. And no, Paul doesn’t know what is going to happen next.
But Paul knows his mission. He knows the job that God has given him to do, and come hell or high water, he’s going to do it.
How many of us can say we have that kind of clarity?
At the clergy meeting a few weeks ago where we discussed this leadership book, we got a chance to go around the table and share our own personal missions. I admit that I lack some of Paul’s clarity. “Make people think about Scripture in new ways,” I said at first, when it was my turn around the table in the clergy meeting. But that didn’t quite capture it – after all, it doesn’t do much good to get people to think differently if it doesn’t get anyone to act differently. “Serve others and inspire others to serve,” maybe? “Help build God’s Kingdom in my community”? These are all things that came to mind.
I’m not sure I’ve ever really been invited or challenged to think this way before. I’ve thought about it for the church. “The mission of Arlington Temple is to be a welcoming community called by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and equipped to be God’s people in the world.” OK, that’s more than eight words. (What if we shortened it? “Equip people to be God’s people in the world.” That’s nine…) And I’ve thought about it in the context of the denomination: “”To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
And I’ve thought about call, that churchy word we use for the work that God has for us to do. It’s just that call can be kind of a nebulous concept, a divine puzzle to figure out over time. But mission is now. What am I here to do? What is my most important thing? What am I willing to take risks and sacrifice for?
Or as I put it a little while ago on Pentecost – what sets you on fire?
It strikes me as not a bad thing to be able to put into words. Give or take eight of them. It strikes me, in fact, now that I think of it, as a pretty good thing to have some clarity on – so I can make sure that’s what I’m living out.
How about you? What’s yours?
Of course, any old eight-word mission we might come up isn’t necessarily going to be religious in nature. Neo-Nazis have a mission, too. Or we might come up with something positive, but mostly for ourselves. So if I were going to leave it there, this wouldn’t be a sermon. It would be a TED talk. That’s why once you come up with your personal mission, I’m going to give you a question to test it by – “Does it glorify God?”
To use Paul’s language – does it testify, in some way, to the good news of God’s grace?
If not, it may be time for a new mission.
I’ve been thinking this week that in the midst of everything going on, with our country in crisis mode, with tragedy striking across the world, with the reemergence of Nazis and the KKK into the mainstream of our national dialogue in a way that uncovers the culture of white supremacy that has always been lurking under the surface – sometimes not very far – it’s a good week to be thinking about this. It’s a good week to decide what we are about in the midst of the pain of the world around us.
What is our mission – what is your mission – in the midst of this pain? It’s a start, but not enough, to refrain from using the Bible to demonize groups of people, as I mentioned before. How are you committed to testifying to God’s grace in a relevant way in the midst of hate? How are you going to testify to God’s love for all of God’s children and the fact that every one of us, no matter the color of our skin, is made in the image of the same God? How are you working to build a world where those are not just nice words we say but the reality we live? How are you committed to genuine reflection on how you, a fallen and broken and fearful person like all of us are, may be part of the problem?
The world around us needs some good news right now, and I don’t believe that we can afford to be mission-less in the midst of it.
God is working through us to redeem this broken world. What is your mission? Will you claim your part in that?