Scripture: Acts 27
Throughout this summer, we’ve been following Peter, Paul, the rest of the apostles and the early church on their adventures, and as we come to the end of the book of Acts today, let’s recap:
Back at the end of May, we stood with the apostles as they watched Jesus ascend back into heaven and waited and prayed with them, huddled in an upstairs room, for the promised coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of their mission. On the day the Spirit arrived, we saw the apostles catch on fire (figuratively) and proclaim God’s story in languages they didn’t even speak. Then they headed out into the streets of Jerusalem and performed miracles, healed people in Jesus’ name just the way he had healed people. As God added to the number of people who experienced these things and believed for themselves, they formed a community, and they broke bread together and worshiped God and shared everything they had with each other – except when they didn’t, in the case of Ananias and Sapphira.
But as we also learned, life wasn’t all picnics and praise songs for the people of God. Stephen, one of the church leaders charged with overseeing the food distribution among community members, was stoned to death for his belief in Jesus. A man named Saul, we learned, was holding the coats of the stone-throwers and nodding his approval. When this persecution of Christians begins, the church scatters – but instead of being the end of the Christian movement, it’s simply the beginning of the next wave, as the Gospel suddenly reaches beyond the gates of Jerusalem for the first time. And it’s not even just ethnic Jews that it’s reaching, because its converts include people like an Ethiopian eunuch, someone who might once have been considered to be on the fringes of God’s people, but wasn’t anymore.
But before the Gospel can spread any farther geographically, the Holy Spirit comes back around for Saul, that persecutor of Christians, that chief of sinners, who finds himself knocked down and blinded on the road to Damascus and gets up a different man, a man on a mission for Jesus. Meanwhile Peter, already the head of the church, has a conversion experience of his own when he meets a Gentile named Cornelius and God lets him know that actually, when it comes to God’s people, this whole Jew-Gentile distinction doesn’t matter so much anymore. Of course, it takes the rest of the church leadership a little longer to get there, but eventually they, too, accept and celebrate the fact that God is doing a new thing. And so God does, as the story turns more fully to the travels of Saul-turned-Paul, who goes where the Spirit leads him and preaches the Gospel to Jews and Gentiles and plants churches in places like Antioch, and Philippi, and Ephesus. Of course, sometimes he gets arrested or starts riots, along the way, when people begin to realize that the Good News has some implications for their bank accounts and their social power and privilege. But through all of it, Paul holds fast to his mission: to testify to the good news of God’s grace.
When we began this series, I introduced it with the question of what the church today has to learn from the church of Acts, and I want to pose that question to you now. What does this ancient community of Christians, this collection of God’s people on fire with the Good News, have to teach us, the Church in Arlington in 2017?
Last week Paul said goodbye to the leaders of the Ephesian church, telling them he probably wouldn’t see them again. He was headed to Jerusalem, and from there it was onward to Rome. These last chapters of Acts tell the story of both of those journeys, which we heard just a piece of earlier. Far from quietly winding down his ministry in these last chapters of Acts, Paul has a lot of adventures left in him.
From Miletus, where he bids farewell to the Ephesian leaders, Paul is off to Jerusalem. It’s important, after all, to bring the story full circle back to Jerusalem, where it all began. Though the Gospel has spread far and wide, its center is still there; Jerusalem is still the place where Jesus walked and taught and broke bread and healed and confronted the powers that be and died and rose again. As far as the church may go, it can never remove itself too far from those things, from that story. As Paul makes the journey back to Jerusalem, believers along the way try to stop him. It’s too dangerous, they say. One prophet even dramatically prophesies Paul’s impending arrest, taking Paul’s belt and tying it around his own feet and hands. No matter, says Paul: “I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” So it is for a man committed first and foremost to his God-given mission.
In Jerusalem, Paul meets with the church leaders there. We find that perhaps not all of the tension between the two wings of the church – the wing who sees its mission to Jews and the wing that sees its mission to Gentiles – has totally been resolved. But Paul is ready to do whatever it takes to prove that he is still a faithful Jew – that his mission to the Gentiles is an expansion of God’s story, not a revision of it. While he is praying in the Temple, he is seized by an unruly mob, accusing him of defiling the place. Soon, once again, a full-scale riot erupts, and when the Roman military shows up to put this thing down, Paul is arrested at the center of it.
It turns out, though, that they don’t even know who he is or why they’ve arrested him, so Paul tells them his whole story, and when Paul drops the fact that he is actually a Roman citizen by birth, that gives them pause. They decide to send him back before the Jewish city council to get the actual charges straight. But the council goes off on a theological tangent and the disagreement gets so heated that the Roman commander takes Paul back to the barracks. He plans to bring him back the next day, but in the meantime we (and they) find out that the council members are plotting to murder Paul, so he gets taken to Felix, the Roman governor of Judea instead.
Paul remains in prison for several years under Felix, who refuses to do anything, mostly waiting and hoping for a bribe. But when Festus takes Felix’s place as governor, he reopens the case. When he does, Paul makes an appeal – to Caesar, Emperor Nero himself.
And so Paul begins the long journey to Rome – as a prisoner.
From the beginning, the headwinds are strong. The first leg of the journey takes longer than expected. But the crew and their merry band of prisoners do finally make it to a harbor on the island of Crete, where they stop for a while. From there the journey is looking even more grim, since winter is fast approaching and that’s the worst season for sailing. Paul urges the crew not to go on – he can see what’s ahead – but they are determined. If they can just make it to a different part of Crete, they think, it will be a better place to spend the winter. So as soon as the wind seems reasonable, they set out again. Soon they find themselves caught in a terrible storm. It’s so bad that they start throwing cargo over the sides of the ship, hoping to make it lighter and easier to navigate, but as Luke writes, “Neither sun nor stars appeared for many days.”
It’s at this point that Paul stands up and makes one of his more inspiring speeches in the book of Acts, beginning with, “Men, you should have listened to me,” but he does go on to tell them to keep up their courage. Paul knows he is meant to get to Rome, and they are going to get there with him. And since no one has eaten in days through all of this, Paul urges them to have some breakfast, and he takes bread, gives thanks to God, breaks the bread, and gives it to his fellow shipmates. Sound familiar?
Later that morning, they spot land.
It is not Rome, but they’re not picky at this point, so they try to bring the boat in – but in the process they strike a reef, run the boat aground, the stern is completely destroyed by the crashing waves, and the crew and prisoners jump overboard, either swimming to shore or grabbing a plank to float. And so, in a Bible-meets-Robinson-Crusoe kind of twist, they reach the island of Malta.
On Malta they are welcomed, which to me brings to mind images of modern-day Greek islanders pulling boats loaded with refugees to shore. It is cold and rainy, and the natives build a fire. Suddenly Paul gets bitten by a poisonous snake as he’s putting some wood on the fire, and everyone waits for him to drop dead on the spot, thinking this must be some divine punishment – he is a prisoner, after all. But instead Paul shakes the snake into the fire and nothing else happens, at which point the natives begin to think he might be a god instead. So they take him to heal the father of a local Roman official who lives nearby, and after that, Paul heals everyone on Malta who comes to him. When it is time to set sail again, they send them off loaded with provisions.
And so, finally, at long last, Paul makes it to Rome.
It’s not a perfect victory, of course. Paul is still a prisoner, put under house arrest; but for two years, we learn, people come to see Paul and he preaches the Gospel to them, right where he is.
When Paul first met Jesus on that road to Damascus and stumbled blindly into the presence of a man named Ananias, Ananias is told how much Paul is going to have to suffer for Jesus’ sake. And as I recount the end of Paul’s story today, I am struck by how much that is true. Paul is beaten, arrested, and locked up. He’s passed back and forth from one official to another for years with no real trial. He’s loaded onto a ship as a prisoner, is shipwrecked, floats to land on a plank and gets bitten by a poisonous snake his first night back on land. And when he does get to Rome, well, it could be worse – but he’s still technically under lock and key. We never, in the book of Acts, hear of that changing.
A life of discipleship, a life of following where the Spirit leads on the mission God has given you, is not an easy life. It’s a life of risking and facing very real dangers. It’s a life of sacrificing your own personal hopes and ambitions in service of God’s hopes for you and for the world. It’s a life of painfully confronting the sin lurking in our own hearts. It’s a life of suffering, as much as we may question sometimes why bad things happen to those who are faithful. They simply always have.
There are moments of such divine beauty along the way. The prayers and the love of the communities of believers who send Paul along his way to Jerusalem. A renewed commitment to a shared mission from a divided church. Communion on deck, while a storm rages on every side. The hospitality of the people who greet them on the shores on Malta. The chance, while there, to heal people. Even every Jewish or Roman official Paul confronts presents a chance to tell his story once again, and it’s a good story, of resurrection and redemption, a story that should be told.
And that’s the thing: this life of discipleship is hard. But it is also really, really beautiful.
It’s the sound of our voices together as we sing praises to God even though we are tired and hurting. It’s sharing communion together even when we disagree on important issues, even when we haven’t been so good at loving each other. It’s finding ourselves part of a new family of faith, having coffee on a Sunday after worship with someone we would not otherwise know.
It’s the bond you form as you link arms with a stranger at the protest, when armed white supremacists stand in front of you. It’s the tomato sandwich shared on deck you’ve spent all day in the hot sun working to repair in Appalachia. It’s the conversation you finally get up the nerve to have about your faith, with someone who it turns out wants to know more.
It’s realizing what you do have when you’ve lost everything. It’s finding the courage to trust God even in the midst of the storm. It’s slowly letting God liberate you from the chains that aren’t so easy to see: the chains of self-centeredness, and idolatry, and our desperate need for security, and our own deep-seated bigotry.
It’s claiming every hardship you encounter as a chance to testify to the good news of God’s grace.
It’s the seed that dies in order for the plant to grow; it’s losing your life in order to save it; it’s the cross and empty grave; it’s death, and resurrection.
That is the life of discipleship that the church of Acts invites us to – that is the life of discipleship that Jesus invites us to.
Tradition says that Paul died a martyr in Rome. But Acts doesn’t take us there. “He lived there two whole years at his own expense,” the book ends, “and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
It’s kind of open-ended, isn’t it?
Maybe that’s because the story isn’t over.
Maybe it’s not too late for us, the church, to be set on fire once again.
 cf. Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, p. 162-164