Church on Fire: Onward to Rome

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.[1]  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.

And yet.

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.

 

[1] cf.  Will Willimon, Interpretation: Acts, p. 162-164

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Church on Fire: Know Your Mission

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?

 

Church on Fire: The Disruptive Gospel

Scripture: Acts 19:23-41 (Acts 16:16-40)

We’re going to get to the story we just heard from Acts 19, but first I want to back up a couple chapters to another story about one of Paul’s many adventures.  This story takes place just after Paul meets Lydia – who you may remember from last week as the Philippian businesswoman who starts the first European house church.  Paul and his companions remain in Philippi for a little while, staying with Lydia, and while they are there they meet a certain woman who happens to be of a very different status from their hostess: this woman is a slave.

She’s also possessed by a spirit that somehow gives her the power to predict the future, so her owners use her to tell people’s fortunes and they make a tidy little profit off of that.  When Paul and Silas meet her, something about this spirit immediately picks up on the presence an outside spiritual power, and the woman follows them around Philippi shouting “These men are servants of the Most High God!  They are preaching a way of salvation!”  The text says this happened for many days, which presumably got old quickly.

At some point Paul gets so exasperated that he just turns around and yells, “In the name of Jesus Christ, stop it!” and the spirit leaves the woman.  It’s a happy ending, except for – who?  The woman’s owners, who find their share prices suddenly taking a dive.

So they drag Paul and Silas before the local authorities.  Only it maybe doesn’t sound so great to try to charge them and throw them in jail for exorcising a spirit, so instead, they accuse the religious-minority Paul and Silas of un-Roman activities.  This kind of fear sells, of course, and Paul and Silas end up in jail.

Paul and Silas do get the last word in this little episode.  Late that night as they are praying and singing hymns in their prison cell, there is a great earthquake, and all the cell doors swing open and their chains fall off.  When the jailkeeper sees this he thinks he’s lost all his prisoners and is ready to kill himself, but when he realized they’re still there, he ends up getting saved instead.

I admit it might have been nice if Paul had gotten rid of that spirit more for the sake of healing the slave woman and less just because it got on his last nerve.  Still, no matter what Paul’s motives, Jesus was at work.  In the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, when he stood up and read from Isaiah in the synagogue, he said: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me…He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release of the prisoners, and recovery of sight to the blind; to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  That day in Philippi, those words were still true.  This is, then and now, the power of the Gospel.

We also learn in this story that the Gospel, at times, has the tendency to cut into the profit margins of the economic powers that be.  This will be important.

Fast forward a couple of chapters and the missionary team is now in the city of Ephesus.  Here, again, Paul finds himself in trouble, which will be a recurring theme for the rest of Acts.  Things get interesting quickly in Ephesus – we learn, for example, that even a small towel that touches Paul and then is taken to a sick person has the power to heal people.  Also, a number of people who previously practiced sorcery come to believe in Jesus, and hold a huge bonfire where they burn all their old sorcery texts.   All eye-catching, to be sure, but it’s a silversmith named Demetrius who decides that Paul is a threat to society.  Paul is going around preaching the Gospel, telling everyone that new life and hope can be found in Jesus, but Demetrius makes shrines to the goddess Artemis.  Artmesis’s temple was in Ephesus and it was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and she was not only the patron goddess of the city but also, as it turns out, the patron goddess of banking.  Demetrius see the writing on the wall and figure if everyone in Ephesus starts worshiping the one God we know in Jesus, there might not be much of a market for Artemis shrines anymore, and then he and a bunch of his fellow craftsmen are out of a job.

So he gathers his fellow craftsmen and riles them up real good.  “We can’t let this happen!” he says.  “It’s not just about our profits – I mean, it is a little bit about our profits – but we can’t let this happen to Artemis!”  Everyone yells and cheers – “Make Artemis great again!” and before you know it, there’s a full-scale riot going on in downtown Ephesus.

Paul is persuaded by his friends to lay low as all of this is going on, and eventually the city manager shuts the whole thing down and tells the people to take it to court.

Sometimes (I think) we think – though we probably wouldn’t put it in so many words – that being a good Christian means something like being a good citizen, if being a good citizen means something like living a nice, quiet life, helping little old ladies cross the street, picking up litter sometimes, and generally not making waves.  If we do these things then we are pretty well following the path of Jesus.

Not if we read Acts.

Sometimes I think we need a reminder that while there’s certainly nothing wrong with picking up litter or helping little old ladies cross the street, being a good Christian and being a so-called good citizen are not, in fact, the same thing.  Sometimes, following the way of Jesus and proclaiming the Gospel will butt heads with the very values a society is built on.

That’s true, of course, in places across the world where simply to go to church or profess faith in Jesus can get you in trouble – and there are those places.  But it’s also what happens when we look at aspects of our society and dare to say, “God won’t stand for this.” For Paul in these stories, the problem isn’t talking about Jesus.  The problem is that these societies are built on power and profit, and Jesus threatens those things.

The Gospel has the power to disrupt our community life as we know it.  If we’re following Jesus, we “good citizens” should probably be prepared to make and get into a little trouble.

Does that sound like something you signed up for?

I have to tell you that I wrote much of this sermon yesterday, at Jon’s parents’ house where the internet is pretty sketchy.  Then as we drove home and came back into civilization, I started reading my Facebook news feed in horror about everything that had taken place in Charlottesville that day.

As you know, yesterday white nationalists marched on Charlottesville, protesting a decision to take down a statue of Robert E. Lee in a local park.  In the morning, they surrounded a downtown church where people were gathered, in response, for an interfaith prayer service.  It was pointed out that this Klan-type group didn’t even feel the need to wear hoods.  Somehow, militant racists don’t feel like they have to be anonymous these days.  Street violence broke out between the white nationalists and counter-protestors.  Later that afternoon, a car drove into a crowd of counter-protestors, killing at least one person and injuring many others.  This was all two hours south of here.  (Was anyone there?)

You know, I’ve always liked to imagine myself as someone, if I had lived during the 60s, who would have joined the Freedom Riders. I would have been one of those religious leaders you see in the pictures who locked arms with Martin Luther King – never mind that none of them were women at the time – and I would have faced the water cannons and bravely gone to jail. In these ways I would have let the Gospel which says that all people are created in the image of God come to life in my life.

I like to imagine that, but a week or so ago, Bishop Lewis sent an email out to clergy asking us to be there, be physically present if possible.  I read the email and didn’t dismiss it, but Jon and I had plans to go to his parents’ this weekend already.  Besides, having the baby always complicates these things, and besides, this is DC and there is always a protest or counter-protest going on, which I will very occasionally attend.  So it wasn’t something I gave that much thought to.  I confess that what was happening there was a lot bigger than I realized.  So I wasn’t there yesterday.  Some of my friends were, and I am thankful for their witness.  They may not have caused a riot like Paul did, but they willingly walked into one. They did so to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Gospel of love and justice, the Gospel that sets all of us free from both the power others wield over us and the power we wield over others.  They did so to say racism is evil and God won’t stand for it.  They did so to live out their baptismal vows: to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

I’ve heard people say that if you’ve ever wondered if you would have been a part of the civil rights movement back then, the best indication is whether you are part of it now.  That always gives me pause.

It’s not about one day, but to be honest, I think I could sometimes let my living out of the Gospel be a little more disruptive.

That’s not to say that I or anyone else missed their chance.  Because at the same time showing up at a protest or counter-protest can be a way to preach the Gospel, we can’t be fooled into thinking that racism in our society is mostly represented by people carrying torches.  That is too easy to denounce – though that kind of blatant racism does seem to be making a comeback these days.   Still, far more often, racism is simply embedded in the world as we know it.  It’s who gets called back for a second interview.  It’s how people fare in the hands of police.  It’s who gets labeled as beautiful.  It’s who has economic power.  Remember what got Paul in trouble wasn’t instigating anything but living and preaching in a way that poked at the values of a society, and specifically the profit and privilege of the people in power.  God wants to disrupt all of that.  God has work for us to do preaching and living out a Gospel that exposes all of those things as a lie.

God has plenty of chances for us, in plenty of ways, to disrupt a culture of fear, hatred, greed, exploitation, and discrimination by instead proclaiming a Gospel of hope, love, justice and grace – out loud.  And if we do it right, it might get us in trouble.

Again, Paul isn’t starting any demonstrations in these stories; he’s just proclaiming the Gospel in word and in action, in preaching and healing.  It’s just that as it turns out, the Gospel is a disruptive force.  Love is a disruptive force.  Justice is a disruptive force.  Healing is a disruptive force. Peace is a disruptive force.  Paul doesn’t set out to start a riot or go to jail but neither does he shy away from living out the Gospel, even when that tears at the fabric of a society held together by greed, exploitation, and carefully manipulated fear.

That’s an important distinction, because there is a danger here, and that is that we might make it more about us than about Jesus.  We might think that the more waves we’re making, the better we’re doing; we may want to be a martyr.  In these days when it’s cool to “resist”, it’s worth examining our motives: how much am I trying to follow the hard and risky call of Jesus to proclaim God’s reign of love and justice, and how much do I mainly want to put that selfie with the protest sign on Instagram for everyone to see?  I ask that because it is a temptation I have struggled with.

Maybe a good question is this: how much have we let this disruptive Gospel first disrupt us?

Have we let Jesus challenge both our pride and our complacency?  Have we let him challenge both the fear that holds us back and the desire for glory that makes it about us, or the need to be part of something bigger that isn’t of God?  Have we let him disrupt this idea of the Christian as a “good citizen” with the call to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God?

On the other hand, if we’re not quite sure our motives are pure, that’s hardly an excuse for doing nothing.

How does Paul do it?  How is it possible for him to keep facing the trouble that he knows awaits as he takes the Gospel to new places?  How does he remain faithful in the midst of it all?

Well, Paul knows there’s something bigger.  He knows that God’s promise is true: that love really does win over fear, and grace really does win over greed, and liberation really does win over oppression, and life really does win over death.  He knows because he’s experienced it for himself.

And with that he’s ready to walk out into the world and say so – come what may.

Church on Fire: Holy Conversation

Scripture: Acts 16:11-15

The other day I was driving along Route 50 when, at a certain intersection, I heard a strange noise.  I realized that it was a guy shouting, and I realized a minute later that he was shouting about Jesus.  I was intrigued, but the light turned green and I didn’t have a chance to catch much of what he was saying.  It was probably for the best.  As I drove away I thought, well, there’s how not to do evangelism.

The truth is, though, that if we read the book of Acts, evangelism often actually looks a lot like that.  Peter delivers a sermon out a window on Pentecost to open-jawed crowds on the street below.   Stephen gives a long and passionate sermon just before he is stoned to death. Paul preaches to the Athenians in the marketplace about their unknown god and how he can tell them who that God is.  It’s the bullhorn-wielding, shouting-guy street preaching of the first century.  (Maybe the apostles are a little more coherent than the guy on Route 50 – I didn’t really get a chance to find out.)

It seems to work out great for the apostles in a lot of cases.  People hear their message and join the church and the Holy Spirit adds to the number of believers day by day.   But if Acts is supposed to provide us modern-day followers of Jesus with a model for our own discipleship, the thought of doing something similar is probably enough to make our hearts melt in fear.  Especially for those of us who have grown up in the mainline church (so – your Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, United-Church-of-Christ-ians.)

If so, I have some good news for you today: that’s not the only way the Gospel gets shared in Acts.  For example, a couple weeks ago we heard the Ethiopian eunuch, who asked Philip for help interpreting the book of Isaiah, and Philip answered his questions and helped him understand what he was reading.  We have the story of Cornelius, the Gentile God-fearer whose house Peter teaches a Bible study in.  And, today, we have the story of Lydia.

Lydia’s story isn’t very flashy or miraculous, but that’s kind of the point.

By this time in the story Paul and his partner-in-crime Barnabas have parted ways, and Paul has teamed up with Silas and Timothy as his new missionary companions.  They are traveling around Asia Minor, showing up in synagogues and telling people about Jesus and starting churches wherever they go. Then one night, Paul has a vision.  In his vision a man from Macedonia says, “Come to Macedonia and help us!”  So the next morning Paul and Silas and Timothy pack up their bags and are off to Macedonia to proclaim the Gospel there, in the city of Philippi.

Paul and the others take a couple days to get their bearings in the city, and then on the Sabbath they wander around looking for “a place of prayer,” possibly the local synagogue, and they wander outside the city gate to the riverbank.  They don’t find a synagogue there, but they do find some women.  The implication might be that these women have gathered for prayer, but the text doesn’t explicitly say that.  People gathered at the city gates for all sort of things back in the day.

Paul and his companions meet this group of women, and they sit down and talk.

Now to be fair, knowing Paul, I’m sure that Paul is doing a lot of the talking and the women are doing a lot of the listening, but still.  This is no bullhorn-wielding, street-preaching sermon.  This is…what we might call…something resembling…a conversation.

One of the women gathered there outside the city is Lydia.  She, like, Cornelius, is a Gentile God-fearer.  She’s also a businesswoman, who sells purple cloth from the textile city of Thyatira to the uppity-ups of Philippi.  She is clearly a woman of some means, and as far as we can tell, she’s head of her own household, not tied to a husband or a father or any other man.  And she will, by the end of this short story, become the head of the first household church in Europe – the church of the Philippians – a church born of some holy conversation.

When you put it that way, maybe this whole “evangelism” thing starts to sound a little less scary.  It’s not bullhorn street preaching, not knocking on doors, not handing out tracts – it’s – just – having a conversation.

Or, you know, maybe that doesn’t actually sound less intimidating at all.  Because while I know that all of us here come from many different kinds of church backgrounds with many different experiences, we Methodists and other mainline Christians are generally really really bad at talking about our faith, even in conversation.  Even as a pastor, I include myself in that.  It’s fine to stand here and preach every Sunday to a group of people who more or less signed up to hear about Jesus.  But when it comes to talking about Jesus and God and my faith and what I believe and how God has worked in my life out in the wild – I suddenly get all shy.

I was talking about this with some colleagues the other day and one said, “Why is it that we have an easier time telling someone about our favorite laundry detergent than about our faith?”

[Question – what makes it hard to talk about our faith in public?]

Like I said, talking about my faith is often hard for me too.  But I discovered at one point in my life that I am actually an evangelist – about running.

I am a convert to running.  As a kid, I hated running probably more than anything else in the world.  I cried when we had to run the mile in gym class.  I cried and then came in last.  But then in high school I joined the rowing team, and we had to run some, and then I started running more on our off seasons to stay in shape.  And at some point, though I honestly don’t know when it was, I decided I loved running.    Or at least I had a genuine love-hate relationship with it.  I started running in races.  I still wasn’t fast, but I was only racing myself.  I started running longer races, from 5Ks to 10Ks to half marathons and even a couple marathons.  I lost weight.  I got in shape.  I was working toward and achieving goals, things I never thought I could do.

I got so energized about running these races that I told people about it.  And if they showed any interest I invited them to run them with me.  “It doesn’t matter if you’re not really a runner,” I would say.  “Neither am I.  If I can do it, anyone can do it.” I mean, I wasn’t pushy about it – it didn’t really matter if they ran or not, in the end – but running changed my life, and if people knew me, they knew that.

Once I stayed at a friend’s house the night before a race in Virginia Beach, and she told me she was thinking about starting to run.  I was surprised, because she had never shown an interest in running before.  So I said, “Really?” And she said, “Yeah, you just talked about how you loved it so much.”

For a moment I was proud, because it was my story that had gotten her excited about something I was excited about.  And then the next moment I felt convicted, because rarely if ever do I have that kind of conversation about my faith.

But it did teach me something about evangelism, which is that sometimes the best kind is talking honestly and naturally, just putting words to who I am and why.  Sometimes evangelism is nothing more than being able to tell my own story.  How did I get here?  What do I believe?  Why?

And yet I think that can still be hard for many of us.  For one thing, I suppose it’s more socially acceptable to talk about running; I’m not worried about making someone uncomfortable.  But for another – I’m not a convert to Christianity, strictly speaking.  I grew up in church and it was always an important part of my life.  Those stories are a little harder to tell, maybe even to ourselves.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to meet four or five times with some Mormon missionaries.  I know a lot of people try to avoid situations like that but I had actually never been approached by Mormon missionaries before and I was really excited to learn more about their faith and what they were up to – with no intention of converting, of course, which I told them upfront and I think they ignored.

I’ll be honest, there were a lot of things that I would not want to replicate or advise you to replicate about that evangelism experience.  But I had to give them this – they knew their stuff.  If you asked them for their story or about their beliefs, they had an answer for you.  It was frankly often too pat of an answer for me.  But I couldn’t help but wonder how much my fellow United Methodists – how much I, even, might be at a loss for words when asked the same things.

Especially for those of us who grew up Christian, how much do we really think about our own stories of faith?  How much do we think about what we believe and why?  Enough to have a real conversation about it?  We don’t even have to initiate the conversation – do we have the tools we need to at least not shy away from it when it actually comes up?  When it’s relevant?

Last year we had an event after worship where we talked some about being out in our community and reaching our neighbors, and then sent everyone out with fliers, and one of the comments someone made during that session was precisely that when it came to talking about our faith, maybe they – maybe we – could use some help.  So even though it’s been a while, it’s been on my mind since then to do just that.  That’s why for the next two weeks after worship – starting next week – we’re going to have a two-session workshop on Holy Conversation.  It’s a chance to think intentionally about our stories and what we believe AND to practice talking about it, here in a safe space, with each other.

One way we’re beginning to practice that already is by naming, at the beginning of our prayer time, how we’ve seen God at work in the past week.  If we’re going to be able to talk about it outside of church, it helps to start inside of church, intentionally recognizing these things and being able to put them into words.

Here’s a question – what do you think made Paul travel all over the world sharing the good news of what God had done in Jesus?

Because he was passionate about it, right?  Because he felt the fire of the Holy Spirit in his bones.  He knew who he had been before he met Jesus and he knew who he was after and he knew what a difference this had made in his life and he knew what a difference the Gospel could make for the world and this was the kind of thing that begged to be talked about.

Can you talk about why Jesus is meaningful to you?  Why are you here this morning, instead of at brunch?  There’s some reason there – can you put it in words?

I’ve been more aware, since I discovered I was a running evangelist, about how I talk about my faith in my own life, and especially how I do or don’t shy away from it.  I’ve tried to be a little more bold – not  necessarily in starting conversations about religion with people who don’t want to have them, but in being honest about who I am, not trying to water it down so no one gets uncomfortable.  For example, when someone asks me why I became a pastor, I might be tempted to say something wishy-washy like I want to make the world a better place – pretty unobjectionable – but instead I take a deep breath and tell them about how I felt God calling me.  Or like when a friend who is not religious but who loves Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat asked me what I made of the story, I told her how I saw God working through the whole thing, not by causing something bad to happen so something good could happen, but by working to bring good out of the bad that broken humans do.

If our faith is part of who we are, then the opportunities will be there to talk about it, if we’re willing.

You don’t have to have all the answers.  You just have to be ready to tell your own story – and have a conversation.

Nor do you really have to worry about the response.  No one’s keeping track of how many people you converted.  Maybe you’ll talk about your faith and there will be an awkward silence and a change of subject.  Or maybe your conversation partner will ask a question.  And then maybe you’ll ask them what they believe.  Maybe it will lead somewhere, and maybe it won’t.  Even in Acts, we read that the Holy Spirit opened Lydia’s ears to Paul’s message.  It’s not really up to us.

But who knows.  Maybe once in a while we will meet a Lydia of our own, who will end up bringing other people to Jesus, whose lives will be changed by God’s love and mercy just as hers was.  The Holy Spirit works that way, sometimes.

But that’s the Holy Spirit’s job.  Our job is the holy conversation.

 

*The term “Holy Conversation” comes from a book of the same title by Richard Peace.