September 4, 2016 – Trials

Pentecost 16 September 4, 2016   Ps 37, Acts 23:1-11; 26:1-8; 26:19-29    Trials

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For the entire last quarter of the book of Acts – from somewhere in chapter 21 through chapter 28 – the apostle Paul is a prisoner – on trial or about to be on trial or in-between trials – all the way to Rome, where the book of Acts winds up with a dot-dot-dot-to-be-continued…kind of an ending… That’s really not an ending…

We’re remembering today the trials of the early church…Following in the Way of Jesus who sets his course for Jerusalem, saying –  ‘We’re going up to Jerusalem’ –  where he knows he will be arrested, brought to trial, convicted without evidence of wrong-doing, condemned, and crucified.

In the book of Acts, volume two of Luke’s gospel, the church continues the work of Jesus. Early on (Acts 4 and 5) disciples are twice arrested and brought  before the Jewish Council of Elders. The same Council that tried Jesus, then sent him to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who sent him to Herod, governor of a next-door province – who sent him back to Pilate, who, with the egging on of a mob led by religious leaders, put Jesus on trial for the fourth and last time and sent him to the cross…

Now, in Acts, disciples are brought before the same Council, where they too are interrogated – then ordered not to preach the gospel of Jesus risen from the dead. The first time they’re set free after a warning (Acts 4). The second time (Acts 5) they’re set free after being warned and flogged. Then (Acts 6 and 7) Stephen the evangelist is arrested, tried before the Council, stoned to death by a mob, while a young man named Saul holds the coats of those doing the stoning… But.

Young Saul meets the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus (Acts 9) and his world turns upside down. Soon Saul has a new name, Paul. Soon he’s known as the apostle Paul – bringing the word of Jesus to the world outside Israel. And just before where we’ve picked up in the story, what happened to Jesus and Stephen (with Saul’s approval) is now about to happen to him…

As we pick up in the story, Paul has been charged with bringing a non-Jew into the temple. The charge isn’t true. But a mob’s trying to kill him. Roman military officials intervene, saving Paul’s life. But immediately then those who’ve saved him are preparing to torture Paul to find out what he’s guilty of. As he’s being strapped down to be flogged, Paul asks ‘is it legal to flog a Roman citizen who hasn’t been condemned?’ (Non-citizens could be presumed guilty till proven innocent, but…) Once it’s known Paul’s a citizen – with rights and privileges not many Romans had – we have to go to plan B – and let the accused speak in his defense in front of accusers – again, the Jewish council. And –

Notice how – in all of his four trial scenes – (the same number of trials Jesus went through) now in Acts closing chapters, we notice – how very little time Paul spends defending himself against specific charges. He does deny the charges, since they’re false. But he doesn’t waste time debating the specifics. He knows that’s not what his trials are really about. Even if his trials begin because of specific charges of bringing a non-Jewish man into the temple – this was never the real issue. The real issue always is Jesus. And the resurrection.

And because Paul knows what the real issue is – and knows all of life – even life itself – is really all about Jesus – who opens the way of life for all – Paul’s never really intent on being found innocent… or even being set free. He’s heard Jesus tell him – ‘Nice work, testifying for me in Jerusalem. Now you’ll be doing the same for me in Rome.’ He knows where Jesus is calling him… So nothing’s going to keep him from getting to Rome. (Like nothing could keep Jesus from going to Jerusalem.)

Now all the way to the supreme court of Rome, capitol of the Empire, Paul spends as little time as possible contesting specific charges against himself. Spends as much time as possible testifying for Jesus. Telling anyone who might listen – he’s on trial for believing in the resurrection. Knowing –

Some Jewish leaders believe in resurrection – following the prophet Daniel, who prophesies resurrection of the just and unjust – some to everlasting life, others to everlasting shame (Daniel 12). Other religious leaders, notably the Sadducees and high priests, don’t believe in resurrection. Paul knows he isn’t going to convince everyone. But he want to establish all the common ground he can with anyone he can – in this case, the Pharisees. The religious sect who often strenuously opposed Jesus in the gospels, but who have some core beliefs in common with Jesus and his followers. Now what Paul’s really out to do is to get to common ground…

Just as he’s done when preaching in the Jewish synagogues, where his sermon illustrations are drawn from Jewish culture – Abraham, King David, Moses and the prophets of Israel… Much like he’s also done in pagan Athens, where his sermon illustrations involve Greek poets, philosophers, and natural law. Even on trial for his life, Paul’s focus is on getting people to know Jesus – starting with any common ground that can be found… And we notice how–

Instead of hiring a high-powered lawyer (as his accusers do), Paul defends by deferring to Jesus. He’s innocent of the charges. Yet he “admits” (somewhere in Acts 24) – he’s guilty of believing all the prophets and Moses have said – about the God of Israel being God of all nations. Pleads guilty to believing God has sent Jesus for all the world – not just one chosen nation – but all the world. As the prophet Isaiah says – Israel is to be a light for all nations (Isaiah 49). Most of all, Paul’s out to talk about Jesus. And let the peace and joy he finds in Jesus shine… through all his trials and troubles…

(And we’re studying Paul’s trials because…) We too inevitably must face trials. Sometimes trials of our own making – sometimes of someone else’s making – sometimes some of both. However we get there, we all face trials. Mostly not courtroom dramas, but trials nonetheless. So what can we learn from Acts?

Isn’t it mostly about doing our best to imitate Paul – not in every detail, for our contexts are different – but in the basic approach? Shouldn’t we too make it our priority to testify to Jesus? To let the world know we too have met Jesus – and he is able to bring us through every trial by the power of his love, his Word, his Spirit…

We need to be reading the book of Acts, with the gospels, and Paul’s letters… We need to hear the voice of scripture – as a word of deep hope – and a necessary corrective, over and against the world’s cult and culture of the Almighty Self. The world’s worship of me, myself and I. We need to keep our own trials in gospel perspective – and not let them become any bigger than they have to be.

And at the same time, recognize we often do face real trials – real troubles – which require real sacrifices… and some truly difficult choices…

I wish I could offer easier answers. Sometimes prayer does bring quick relief. But I also remember how Paul prays to God for an un-described thorn in his side to be taken away from him (2nd Corinthians 12), and God answers by telling him “my grace is sufficient for you… My power is made perfect in weakness.”

Sometimes our prayers bring sweet relief. But we also know – we often need to pray to accept the weakness of God as the wisdom of God…  We need to keep learning to pray, as Jesus taught us, for those who persecute us. Pray for those we disagree most profoundly with….

Remembering how the early church prayed for young Saul and others who killed Stephen the evangelist. Prayed till young Saul met Jesus and became the apostle Paul… and spent the rest of his life in and out of court and jail for Jesus…

So we too should pray always for conversions and transformations. Pray for grace and joy under pressure, through all the trials of life. Pray like the early church, pray like Paul – pray, above all, like Jesus. Pray for the peace of Christ to prevail even in the most difficult times and trials…

Not that I’ve achieved anywhere near this deep level of grace and peace at all times… But now I do notice more and more often – how whenever I’m feeling sorry for myself – God has so many ways of reminding me – (yo Tim) – a lot of people are facing much greater difficulties than I am…

I’m reminded often to count my blessings – visiting a parishioner dealing with serious medical issues, who tells me the verse of the bible he remembers most is – “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Others I visit, also with significant health issues – tell me how much they feel blessed by our church and it’s members. How much they appreciate our prayers and presence. And so often, visiting in hospitals, nursing homes, and with home-bound parishioners – I’m the one ministered to, by those I visit with. And reminded, again and yet-again –

We will always face challenges as we seek to be God’s beloved community of faith and grace. Jesus assured us of this. And Jesus also told us – pray always – and see each challenge as an opportunity to witness for the gospel of his peace.

So we pray always in the Spirit, making intercessions for all believers… Pray also for all who are not yet believers… Pray always till all are gathered together at last… Before the throne of the one judge who matters far above all else…

Trusting always in Jesus and his Word… Remembering all the trials he has been through… for all of us…

Thanking him always….

Thanks be to God.  Amen.