August 7, 2016

Pentecost 12   August 7, 2016   Psalm 27, Acts 18:24-28; 19:1-7; 18:1-11

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Today we’ve heard a cluster of brief stories from the book of Acts, tied together thematically by each story’s relationship to the others, and the whole story of Acts.

The book of Acts is all about our spiritual journey to closer relationship with God and neighbor. A journey in which, as we travel, we also need to frequently step back, and spread out the biblical road map before us on the table.  And try to figure out where we are in the story…

We need to see the big picture… to see the meaning of our smaller stories… Just as we also need to see the details of each smaller scene…to see the big picture.

In our last reading (which actually comes first chronologically) we learn Paul, in addition to serving as an apostle, is also a tentmaker. He works alongside fellow tentmakers Aquila and Priscilla, a married couple whom he lives and works with in Corinth, a large seaport city of Greece, that’s become Paul’s next stop after his time in Athens, where we were last week.

And a detail we notice as they’re introduced, is that Aquila, the husband, is named first – no surprise. This was the custom (and still is) in much of the world.

Yet after this first introduction, now it’s Priscilla who is named first – twice, actually – as this couple takes Apollos aside to teach him the way of Jesus in more detail (in our first reading). Probably this indicates, many bible scholars say, she’s the lead teacher here, of Apollos. A detail well-worth noticing, since the role of women in teaching is still debated in some parts of the church, and because the bible is thought by some to be a sexist, gender-biased story.

(All scripture is God-breathed, we know, from 2 Timothy 3:16-17. All scripture we also know, bears the fingerprints of human authors, all of whom heard God speak to them in their own cultural languages, in earlier times and places. One of the many reasons we study Acts is because it’s set in a time when older ways are rapidly changing, and people of God are interpreting the word of God in ways that seek to be both true to ancient promises… while faithfully adapting worship and witness to new cultural realities and opportunities. Exactly the challenge we face today…)

And the more we know the whole biblical story, the better we’re able to communicate the word of God as the life-giving, life-saving word it is… And the angels are often in the details…

Another major detail here is that Paul has considerable learning – a relatively rare thing in those days – he’s trained as a Pharisee in the law and prophets of Israel, he’s also trained in Greek rhetoric.  Yet Paul doesn’t mind working with his hands. He’ll use the money to support his ministry. And perhaps at least as important for him, his tent-making work helps him know and identify with the working people of Corinth – which his first letter to the Corinthians indicates was a large majority of his congregation.

(In several of his letters Paul also makes it clear – he will always choose to work with his hands whenever depending on wealthy patrons of the church might give the appearance of compromising the gospel message.)

Paul is never shy about preaching the gospel boldly – he tells the congregation of the synagogue their blood’s on their own heads when they refuse to hear the gospel. But he’s not as rough-edged here as it might sound to our ears. What he says about the people’s blood being on their own heads is actually a familiar phrase, spoken by God to the prophet Ezekiel, 600 years earlier – telling the prophet the blood of the people will be on him if he doesn’t proclaim God’s word boldly – but as long as the prophet does his part, the people’s blood, meaning the outcome of their lives, will be on those who hear yet fail to obey. Paul will say nearly this same phrase again later to the elders of the Ephesian church whom he loves, and who dearly love him, in chapter 20 of Acts. The word of God, like human words, needs to be heard in context…

And apart from speaking the gospel boldly, the Paul we meet in Acts is notable for his humility. He’s never out to call attention to himself.  He’s always willing to sacrifice himself and his preferences…. to support the spread of the gospel and help the church…

We should also notice here that Paul’s not a control freak. He shares in ministry with Priscilla, Aquila, Timothy, Silas, Apollos and others… Once people are well- trained in the gospel, Paul’s very willing to share the work of teaching the gospel. He doesn’t hover or micro-manage. He appoints leaders in every church he plants and delegates authority to them and to other traveling evangelists and church planters… and…

Now we see others also willingly sharing in ministries. Priscilla takes the lead in teaching Apollos, and her husband, Aquila, is wise enough to let her… (Reminding me of a country pastor in Vermont I knew, a bi-vocational guy like Paul, a dairy farmer as well as a pastor, who told us during his retirement service – “My wife and I are willing workers. She’s willing to work. I’m willing to let her.”)

It helps to know – we all need help, and we all have a human need to be helpful… In all our readings we notice – willingness to learn and willingness to share – and these are two of the open-secrets of the early church’s growth… They’re willing to work, and let others help with the work… Willing to listen and learn… Willing to give and receive help… Apollos, who is eloquent and well-trained already, is still willing to keep learning. The apostle Paul is the most experienced evangelist and teacher we have, and he too is still learning. We notice as we see…

In our last reading, as Paul leaves the synagogue, just as he’s left other synagogues before, saying once again ‘from now on I’ll be taking the gospel to the Gentiles.’ Something he says at least three times in Acts… Reminding me of an old song – (I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard him holler, ‘I’m leaving and I’m never coming back….’)

And Paul does leave…But he also keeps coming back… Back again to the traditions of his people…. Teaching in the synagogues again and yet again, in every town he visits. No matter what he says, he never quite gives up on God’s ancient promises to his people.

But now here in Corinth we see him pitch his tent next door to the synagogue, making his new base camp for pitching the gospel in the home of a Gentile convert to Christian faith…

And this shift of venue does seem to open up the way for some new believers… Who perhaps don’t feel comfortable coming inside the synagogue. Much like some don’t seem comfortable coming inside a church… but may be  willing to come to somebody’s home to listen and hang out and maybe learn… Maybe we should be praying about opening our homes for teaching of the word… In case some may be willing to listen and learn…in different settings…Please let’s pray about this possibility…Because …

Now, two-thirds of the way through the book of Acts, we see the gospel going out in many directions – ministry happening in multiple places, multiple dimensions…All at once…  Much like all over our world today…

Last Tuesday our daughter Rohi received her Jr. Ranger’s patch at the Cape Cod Visitors Center in Sagamore, upon completion of five weeks of Jr. Ranger’s learning sessions – young people learning about the maritime environment and proper safe practices on and around ocean waters…

Which reminds me again of our study of the book of Acts – which is also about understanding the spiritual environment we live in – and about best practices for our spiritual journey…

At the Visitors Center that morning, I kept noticing a small version of a larger mural I’ve seen on the wall of the Herring Run Visitor’s Center. This mural has a title straight out of the book of Acts, that asks: Where in the world are we? This mural was painted by a group of home school students and teachers. (You can find it on-line or see it at either Visitor’s Center.) In the mural we see a very big picture of the Upper Cape, alongside smaller pictures of the globe and Massachusetts in one corner. Most of the mural’s filled with people spread out all across the Upper Cape and nearby mainland, engaged in many types of work and recreation…

We also see people like Myles Standish from the past, in the picture, alongside us today.

Which is again also how the book of Acts tells it’s story. Here we all are in the story…Still in the book of Acts, chapter 29 million and counting… All of us, all engaged in our life-long-learning of the gospel. All of us, co-teachers, co-learners, together in the story. Most of us, like Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, with other jobs we do in addition to our work of serving the gospel of Jesus Christ. And like them, we also know – our source of life – our reason for life – all our blessings in life – all flow from God our Creator – from Jesus our Savior – from the Holy Spirit our Comforter. God, three-in-One and One-in-three…

All of us have been given gifts for ministry through God’s Spirit. All of us still have more to learn about God and the gospel…

All of us, like Paul – listening, day and night for the voice of Jesus.

Listening well, to hear Jesus say – “Do not be afraid. Continue to speak my word. Don’t  be silent… For I am with you…”

For which we now say –

Thanks be to God.

Amen.