CAN'T STOP WON'T STOP
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Well we’re here at last in Rome. It’s been a long trip. All that Jesus began. All that the Spirit continues through his church. When we started this series back in May we heard these lines from W.H. Auden describing Jesus.– “He is the Way. Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness; You will see rare beasts and have unique adventures.” When we began we heard the book of Acts described like this – “Before Peter gives his first sermon in chapter 2, Luke gathers people from Jerusalem, Asia, Egypt, and Rome. Paul preaches in the intellectual marketplace of Athens, he is driven out of the religious centre of Ephesus, and he finds hospitality on the insignificant island of Malta…. The apostle Matthias and the prophesying daughters of Phillip appear and disappear on the road as abruptly as tollbooth attendants. Rhoda and Eutychus enliven the journey with their excitement on one hand, and their somnolence on the other. Lydia and the islanders of Malta offer hospitality sorely lacking elsewhere. And Peter, who would seem to be a major figure in the journey, simply disappears without warning or explanation… An angel directs Philip to a deserted place during the heat of the day, where he encounters a marvelous Ethiopian eunuch who hears the gospel eagerly. The gift of the Holy Spirit is promised to those who repent and undergo baptism, but it falls on the Gentile Cornelius, along with his family and friends, while Peter is still in the process of explaining Jesus to them.” We’ve read of and travelled with a man who once breathed threats and murder – whose life was threats and murder and how he was the instrument by which Christ would proclaim his name to Gentiles. A man whose life has been made up of encouragement and flogging and welcomes and riots and shipwreck and trials and the presence and promise of God.
You know it happens very often that when we finish a series here at Blythwood I’m a little sad about it. Do you ever feel that? The thing about the end of this series is that’s it not really an end at all. When is an ending actually a beginning?
When we’re talking about all that Jesus began and all that Jesus continues through his bride the church. It’s the same old story. It’s the same old song. We’ve said throughout these weeks that we don’t eschew tradition and at the same time with the help of the Holy Spirit of God we imagine and enact new ways of telling that story and singing that song. It’s the same old story the same old song – all around the world. The good news has come to the ends of the earth as promised. Rome. The centre of the universe.
But not really. The universe has a different centre now. Paul and his companions and the followers of Christ who have come out from Rome to meet him walk into the city and you can imagine the scene. All around them are temples and statues and the coliseum and all the things that comprised ancient Rome and if you asked somebody the question “Whose power is at work in the world?” the answer probably wouldn’t have come back “The power that is at work in this small group of people that are surrounding a man who is in chains.”
The thing is, empires wax and wane. Dynasties come and go and leave little behind but ruins. The grass withers and the flower fades but the word of the Lord endures forever. So where are we going to find ourselves in relation to this story? In a way this is another kind of triumphal entry isn’t it? Based on the triumph of the one we call Lord. Which means these other things aren’t Lord. I’m reminded of this every time I see the Church of the Redeemer downtown.
It’s an old story and it’s for everyone. It is for everyone. There’s no immediate meeting with Roman officials or the Caesar himself. Paul is allowed to live by himself in a sort of house arrest. What’s the first thing Paul does? He calls together the local leaders of the Jews. This was always Paul’s custom because the good news is for everyone. Nothing has changed in that regard. All who are thirsty is what we sing. All who are weak. Come to the fountain. Dip your heart in the stream of life (very Baptisty that). Immerse your heart. Let your heart swim in the stream of life and stay there. Let your heart be immersed in the tide of the love of Christ and let that tide bring you home to that place where the sign is hanging up that says “Welcome – you are forgiven.”
This is the invitation. Paul is a servant and a witness. We are called to be servants and witnesses. The message is for everyone and Paul always started with his Jewish brothers and sisters. It was through their people that God brought his salvation plan about. Paul follows his usual method. He tells them what’s been going on. He’s done nothing against his people or the customs of his ancestors. He’s done nothing against the laws of Rome.
The good news is blameless you see. The gospel is blameless. Paul is about to share the good news. What he calls the hope of Israel here. Not many weeks ago we considered the words “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence.”
The world needs more gentleness and reverence does it not? May God grant us those things. The world needs hope does it not? This is for all of us. I’ve often said I believe that there is a great willingness out there to hear about faith. It’s not universal of course. For some I suppose faith might be a better best left with politics and money, a thing not to be spoken of in polite company – which is kind of funny considering how many people base their lives on one of those things. God grant us discernment and gentleness and reverence in any case. Don’t let the offence of the cross be an offence because we’re offensive, in other words.
The good news itself is blameless. We have turned it into things that are not good news. We have mixed it up with political power. We have thirsted after temporal power. We have twisted the gospel to justify all kinds of things that run directly counter to the good news of Christ. There may be times where we’re called to apologize for what’s been done in the name of Christ.
Paul’s task is to be a servant of Christ and a witness for Christ. The news is for everyone and these Jewish leaders, saying that they’ve received no letters from Judea about Paul and no one has reported or spoken anything evil of Paul, say they would like to hear more. Paul is never one to pass up an opportunity to speak and to speak at length. They come to his lodgings in great numbers and Paul speaks from morning to evening (nobody falling out of any windows here). Paul tells them about Jesus from the law of Moses and from the prophets and we’ve heard what this sounds like and most concisely it’s sounded like “To this day I have had help from God, and so I stand here, testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would take place, that the Messiah must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light both to our people and to the Gentiles.”
Because this good news is for everyone. Paul has done his job. He’s done what he has been called to do just as we are called to do what God calls us to do – serve and witness to the mighty works of God.
The faithfulness of our witness, the worthiness of our witness is not to be measured in the response. The worthiness of our witness lies in how well we live and how well we tell the love and grace and mercy and justice and faithfulness of God. Results are, as they say mixed. Some were convinced by what he said, while others refused to believe. We’re talking now about the mystery of belief and the corresponding mystery of unbelief. We might think “We’ve read the exact same thing or we’ve just been presented with the exact same story – why doesn’t everyone get it?” I would say at this point leave it to mystery. God plays a role in faith. We play a role in faith. Let us not get too self-congratulatory that we have “gotten it”. Let us not get too condemning that others haven’t “gotten it”. Paul notes that the prophet Isaiah talked about listening and not understanding, looking but not perceiving. Of hearts grown dull and ears hard of hearing rather than understanding with hearts and turning and being healed. Let us not turn this into an anti-Semitic thing and remember that Paul wrote to Roman Gentiles that God has a plan for the children of Israel, that we are a wild shoot grafted onto the olive tree.
Let us rather look to ourselves here when Paul quotes the prophet Isaiah. Let us pray that God would keep our hearts from growing dull. Let us pray that God would enlighten the eyes of our hearts. That our ears would be attentive to injustice and that our eyes would see as God sees. We talked about how the church has gotten it wrong through the years. We might ask what future generations might say about our own. What did we overlook? What did we miss? Asking for God’s grace and forgiveness as we ask too for the enablement to be the kind of people and church through whom God is turning the world right-side up.
He lived there two whole years at his expense. We don’t know how it ended up for Paul. Church tradition has it that he died in Rome. When we think back to those grief-filled parting scenes in the last third of Acts, it seems Luke is hinting at that end for Paul. Here’s the thing though. It was never about Paul. Paul was not the star of the show any more than Peter and John were. It was never about us either, hard as that might be for some of us to hear. Following Christ is not primarily about self-fulfillment or your own personal spiritual journey. It’s about being caught up in God’s grand salvation plan in Christ and being part of the Spirit-filled and Spirit-powered and Spirit-guided church that Christ left behind to continue his work until that day when we see him face to face and all things are fulfilled and we shall be like him and we shall know even as we are known.
In the meantime, the work goes on. Paul welcomed all who came to him. You know he talked to his guards and as someone has said, it wasn’t just about the weather or the results of the most recent gladiatorial games. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ. Whose power is at work in the world? The Lord’s. The same old story and the same old song. The disciples asked “Is this the time you’re going to restore the kingdom?” “It’s not for you to know,” came the answer. But you have received power from the Holy Spirit to be Christ’s witnesses from Toronto to the GTA to Canada to the ends of the earth. The word goes on unhindered – not because no one or nothing is trying to hinder it, but because you can’t stop it. When is the end the beginning? When we add our names to the list of people through whom the mighty acts of God are ongoing and new. Names like Stephen. Elizabeth. Wayne. Priscilla. Lydia. Marie. Eutychus. Juri. Phillip. Christie. Jason. Prabhu. John. Janelle. Rhoda.
It’s the same old story and the same old song. May God enable us to continue to tell it and live it and sing it until the day when we all sing it together.