HERE IS LIFE
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I wonder how you all feel about journeys, about trips. There seems to be something about a journey that captures our imaginations, doesn’t there? Some of the most famous, most compelling, most beloved stories are about journeys. For readers since Luke’s day there was the Odyssey – the story of the journey home of Odysseus. Will he make it? What will he find when he gets there after being away for years? In what could be called a modern classic epic we have the Lord of the Rings. The journey to Mordor to dispose of the ring. All the things that happen along the way. Animals get into the act too. Watership Down is a story of a group of rabbits who seek a new home when their current one is destroyed. Movies get into the act too. O Brother Where Art Thou is a modern retelling of the Odysseus story. Far From Home: The Adventures of Yellow Dog tells the story of a boy and his dog who are far from home and facing danger and trying to get home.
What is it about these stories that captures us so? If you’re like me you like a good road trip. A full tank of gas and the open road in front of you (hopefully), maybe even driving into the unknown. For most (though not all) of us our lives are pretty settled. We don’t do a lot of travelling outside of vacations or for work. Our lives are not ones of constant journey. What is it about these travel stories?
And what does all this have to with the 20th chapter of Acts?
Why does Luke spend so much time in what might by some be considered to be rather boring details about Paul’s travels? Why are these details in our Holy Scriptures? Look at the detail that Luke goes into. Paul goes through Macedonia and stays in Greece. We’re even told how long he stays there – three months. In order to avoid danger Paul decides against sailing back to Syria and goes back through Macedonia. We’re told who went along with Paul and where they were from. Sopater, son of Pyrrus from Beroea. Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica. Gaius from Derbe and Timothy. Tychicus and Trophimus from Asia. “They went ahead and were waiting for us in Troas,” Luke writes, “We sailed from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread and in five days joined them in Troas, where we stayed for seven days.
What do these details have to say to us today?
I’d like us to consider what they say to us in terms of how we measure time. The Psalmist sang “Teach us to count our days that we might have a wise heart.” What does this mean? How do we count our days well? How do we measure our time on this earth? Do the days of our lives really go like sands through the hourglass? Do we say along with T.S. Elliot’s Prufrock at the end of our days that we have measured are lives in coffee spoons? Do we measure them in cycles or in seasons? Do we measure them by the old adage (and I’m paraphrasing of course) “Same stuff different day?”
Or do we look at life with Christ as a journey? A journey wherein each day is another step toward home. Do we look at our lives and our life together (because that’s what we’ve been talking about since we started our journey through Acts) as the journey together of a pilgrim people who are headed not toward uncertainty but a destination that has been promised to us by a God who keeps promises? This is the great truth of which we are reminded as Luke tells of Paul’s travels. It’s a truth that we’ve heard before of course. The journey of the people of Israel going through the wilderness. A pilgrim people travelling along together toward a land of promise. The writer to the Hebrews writes of Mount Zion and echoes the psalmist and writes of the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem and to innumerable angels in festal gathering (a party!) and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven and to God judge of all and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant and we use these images and words fail as we try and get our minds around this wonderful and joyous truth.
We’re talking about a high level view of what our journey is as followers of Christ and Christ goes along with us and in us through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. This is our big story. Luke reminds us that we zoom in too. We go along together. Paul went with Sopater and Pyrrhus and Aristarchus and Secundus and Gaius and Timothy and Tychichus and Trophimus. What did they do? They encourage the believers and you can be sure they encouraged one another. I’m sure Paul looked back on his life and images of Priscilla and Aquila and Barnabas and Silas and Lydia and Timothy and…. came up on the screen of his memory. We’re pilgrim people but we’re not solitary pilgrims and we’re not called to be so. No one in this story of the church said anything like “My faith is a private matter” or “My faith is between me and God” because we have been called to do this Christian life together.
So let us take a few moments to think about the people who encourage us along our way. Think of the people who have encouraged and loved and helped form you in the faith. Parents. George and Eileen Thomas of Belfast. Sunday School teachers. Church leaders. Those who quietly went about their work for God seeking no accolades, seeking nothing for themselves. People who have gone on before us and who are waiting for us. People who are in some ways still with us as we carry their words, their deeds. Dorothy from Oruro who showed us what is was like to bridge cultures. Who showed us what it is like to commit to gathering. People who are removed from us geographically. The Longs from Malaysia by way of England who showed us the importance of getting together in smaller numbers through the week and breaking bread together and looking at the Word together and praying together.
These aren’t just words on a page and they’re not just boring details, they’re the stories of our lives together as we journey with God. The journey. The way.
So we can all go home. Great! Not yet though. You may be saying that’s great, what a great image to reflect our walk with God and it’s great to do that together and to know by faith that we are traveling toward the beautiful city of God and all that that entails.
But the journey is hard. “Life is difficult” is how a book called The Road Less Travelled begins. No kidding. I was talking about Psalm 90 earlier. Teach us how to count our days. Before that the Psalmist sings “The days of our life are seventy years, of perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” If you’ve been around for any significant length of time you say along with me “How well I know that.”
What to do, what to do…
The same thing that followers of Christ have been doing for over 2,000 years now. Look to our story: “On the first day of the week (what would become known as the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection, the day of life) when we met to break bread.” We’re talking about Paul and his companions. We journey along together as companions. Do you know what the origin of “companion” is? It’s from two Latin words. They mean “together” and “bread.” Bread together. We gather together once a week. They broke bread. We break bread once a month and we get together once every week. Someone put it like this once – “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Let us do that.
Life is difficult and we need to get together regularly and meaningfully to be reminded of the great truths of our faith and to sing them together and hear them read and be exhorted and encouraged. Unless we don’t. If we don’t we maybe feel a little too comfortable in the
world, or a little too invested in our own power and our own strength and if that’s the case I pray that God would change our hearts.
Fellowship is foundational to this whole Kingdom enterprise. Jim Wallis put it like this:
“The greatest need in our time is not simply for kerygma, the preaching of the gospel; nor for diakonia, service on behalf of justice; nor for charisma, the experience of the Spirit’s gifts, not even for propheteia, the challenging of the king. The greatest need of our time is for koinonia, the call simply to be the church, to love one another, and to offer our lives for the sake of the world. The creation of living, breathing, loving communities of faith at the local church level is the foundation of all the other answers. The community of faith incarnates a whole new order, offers a visible and concrete alternative, and issues a basic challenge to the world as it is. The church must be called to be the church, to rebuild the kind of community that gives substance to the claims of faith.”
Substance. Sustenance. How is this call to be sustained through all the demands placed on us and all the vicissitudes of life – the things that make life hard? Worship. Worship at which we gather around the table. This doesn’t happen anywhere else. Worship at which we gather to hear the Word. That doesn’t happen anywhere else. Worship at which we pray and sing. You don’t get that anywhere else. Aren’t you happy to be here?
Paul is the guest preacher. As some preachers are wont to do he goes on at some length. They’re meeting in an upper room. There’s a young man there named Eutychus. “Lucky” in Greek. Perhaps like many of us in our youth he wants to be cool. Sitting at the edge of the group in a window. He falls asleep and falls out. Now some will say Luke is presenting this humourously and some might accuse me of being overly serious, but consider the situation here. He was picked up dead. Someone has died in the middle of church. This is terrible! I remember the day our dear sister Jennie Buchanan took a turn at the back of the church during a service. Everything stopped. Doctor Brenda went back to help her. She was ok that day but she wouldn’t be with us much longer. She’s one of the ones who’ve gone on before who we still carry with us.
What does Paul do? He affirms what we do in the face of death. He puts his arms around the young man. What do we do at someone’s death bed? We put our arms around them. We take their hand. What do we do when people are grieving? We put our arms around them. We take their hand. It’s what Elijah and Elisha did when a widow’s son died. It’s a prophetic act that says “This is not the end. This is not it.” It’s what Jesus did when he came to the house of Jairus. “She’s not dead,” Jesus said. They laughed at him. Then they weren’t laughing.
This is Paul’s act. This is Paul’s message. This is the message for us today. “Do not be alarmed.” Don’t we need to hear that? “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” is how someone else put it. His life is in him. Take heart. Take comfort. In Jesus is life.
That is it. Paul goes back upstairs and breaks bread and eats. He keeps talking too because – sermon! Word and sacrament. They go together like two things that go together very well. The boy is taken away alive and in classic Luke understatement, we are told they go away not a little comforted.
We are about to gather around the table friends, and when we go from it may we be not a little comforted, for here is life. In Christ there is life. We do it imperfectly in imitation of our Lord. In some ways I see it as a sort of preparation for the day when we’ll gather at the wedding feast of the Lamb on that holy mountain to which we journey together. I liken it to young children playing restaurant or having a tea party in imitation of what they see adults doing and in preparation for what they’ll be doing one day. I remember being a child and I had a McDonald’s diner chef hat for some reason. It was my dream to work at McDonald’s – mainly for Big Mac access. I put on my hat and went around the living room taking orders from my family. I think I had the idea I could somehow sell them their own food. They indulged me the same way a parent indulges a young child having a tea party with their stuffed animals. Getting dressed up. Joining in. Saying how they take their tea. Loving that child and indulging that child in the act. Being present in it the same way God is present with us here.
Take heart dear friends. Take comfort. In Christ is there is life.