The following is the sermon manuscript I used on October 22, 2017, the Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.
For more on this series, see our Introduction.
Sermon Text – Acts 22:20-23:12
It all ends with Jesus.
Whatever our citizenship is, whatever our understanding of religion is, whatever our lives are – as Christians, they all end with Jesus.
This is the life of Paul. This is the direction of the Holy Spirit. This is the movements of the Holy Spirit in Acts – every journey, every interaction, every detail mentioned, every authority challenged, every death, every sermon, every affliction, every triumph, every painful episode, every miraculous convert – they all meet their end, the very destruction of what they would be in themselves, as well as their very completion, the very fulfillment of what they are in the person of Jesus Christ. Nothing remains standing that does not serve him, and that which serves him echoes into eternity forever.
It all ends with Jesus.
Paul knows his end is Jesus. When we had last left Paul, he had just completed his third missionary journey. He had left Ephesus, a place where he spent three years ministering. Then, he set his eye on Jerusalem. Luke, the author of Acts and the gospel named after him, sets up this parallel. Jesus in Luke 9, sets his face toward Jerusalem, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up.” Jesus knows he heads there to die. In Ephesus, Paul also sets his face toward Jerusalem. He does not know what will happen there, but he has many people predict it for him. He knows that it will not be pleasant. He knows there is likely to be imprisonment, torture, possibly even in death – and there are a few points on his journey back where he is reminded of this by other people, some of them prophetesses. But Paul sets his face toward Jerusalem, because that is where the Holy Spirit is leading.
He knows he won’t be welcomed there. The Jewish people, of which he is a part, have been conquered for hundreds of years. They have seen three empires tear down their temples, destroy their religious artifacts, destroy their history, attempt to eradicate their very identity. They are afraid of the nations outside of Israel, they are afraid of Rome, they are afraid of losing their identity and their religion. And Paul is heading back there as someone who has told the Gentiles that they can worship the Jewish God – the one true God – without having to become Jewish. Paul has dedicated his new life in Jesus by pronouncing the good news that the Messiah has come. But they do not see this event as the fulfillment of their dreams of a world where God rules through Israel. They only see the destruction of their ancient, sacred traditions – the destruction of their very identity.
Though Paul goes to the temple, makes a vow with fellow Jews, and attempts to demonstrate to the people in Jerusalem that he is truly one of them – they reject him. Some Jews who came from Asia where Paul had been preaching – devout people who were trying to maintain their identity in the midst of a foreign, oppressive people – tell the crowd in Jerusalem that he is not one of them, he is not one of the faithful. So, they arrest him. The text follows his arrest, up to and including our passage today, is Paul’s attempt to give an account of a life that ends with Jesus. And time and again, Paul is cut off by people who are unwilling to listen. He is stopped short by people who reject the truth about Jesus and therefore reject the truth about who Paul is.
The passage for today gives us two encounters – Paul with the political leaders and Paul with the religious leaders. It is bookended by martyrdom, by witnesses to Jesus unto death. The place we start with in 22:20 is actually the end of Paul’s attempt to tell his conversion story, his literal Damascus road experience, by recounting the event that first introduced him in Acts: the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, whose execution Paul approved. It ends with people making a death vow for the very same reasons Stephen was killed. The political, the religious, the life lived in faith – they all end, they are all completed, they are all fulfilled, in Jesus.
Paul – the man who was so zealously against Christ, he approved the killing of Christians – is now the man sent by Christ to the hated gentiles. This is enough in 22:22 to get the crowd to scream for his blood. The gentiles mean the Jew’s destruction – there is no getting around it in their eyes. The Christ was supposed to come to subdue and conquer the gentiles, not convert them.
Or so they thought.
What Paul was saying was ridiculous and very dangerous.
Paul is still at the temple, still in chains, right off of making his vow that he had hoped would convince the people that he was one of them. But at this point, Paul is so closely identified with Jesus that, like Jesus, the crowd rejects one of their own. They demand he be taken away. The Romans are confused. They don’t know what to make of all of this. So, they decide to get the truth out of Paul in the only way a Roman soldier knows how to get the truth out of anyone. They want to torture him. They want to flog him until his back is bloodied and he explains what is going on.
But Paul has a trick up his sleeve. He is not only a Jew, but a Roman citizen. He would certainly have had to prove it – impersonating a Roman citizen was a very serious crime – but he was indeed a citizen, and that granted him certain protections. Namely in this case, his citizenship allowed him to be protected from being tortured when he wasn’t being charged with any crime! Paul is not ashamed of his citizenship – he uses it whenever it is advantageous.
But this is the key point is this – the end of his citizenship is Jesus.
Paul in Philippians tells us Christians in plain language: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Our primary citizenship, our ultimate citizenship, is not an allegiance to any country or any flag but to the Lord Jesus Christ.
So what are we to make of our earthly citizenship? Like Paul, I am not ashamed of my earthly citizenship. I am not ashamed that an American flag flies on my front porch, or that the American flag that was in my office while in Afghanistan is now framed and hung on the wall end of my dining table (with a quilt of the Last Supper at the other end!). When I hear the national anthem, I stand, face the flag, and put my hand over my heart.
But I count every aspect of my citizenship as loss compared the abundant riches of the citizenship I have in heaven with Christ Jesus my Lord.
The end of my American citizenship, if it is to have any benefit at all, has to be in Jesus.
Notice how Paul uses his citizenship in this passage – it is to make sure that he gets to Rome. He’s not afraid of some whips – he’s been shipwrecked already. He’s not afraid of the crowd – he’s been stoned almost to death. No, the use of his citizenship is singular. It must serve the gospel of Jesus Christ.
An American might say “America first.” But a Christian who is an American citizen must never say that because Christ must always come first. And service to Christ can never mean using your citizenship for selfish gain. Any use of that citizenship must be for the gospel of Jesus Christ. We cannot simply say that America is the greatest nation on earth or even that it will be great again (especially if what we mean by that is that this has to be the very best place on earth to live in order to fulfill our selfish desires). If we have been blessed in America, for Christians that blessing can only have one purpose – to aid in the advancement of the Kingdom of God. But instead of understanding our citizenship this way – as only having any merit when it finds its end in Jesus – how often do we, like the crowd in Jerusalem, use our citizenship to silence the voices of those who disagree with us, the voices of those who have been oppressed by our government, the voices of those who do not have the same skin color as us, the voices of those who protest – even those who protest the very symbols and rituals of our country that we hold dear…
Sisters and brothers, I love my earthly citizenship. But unless it finds its end in Jesus Christ, unless it is a tool used by the Holy Spirit for the advancement of the Gospel, it is an idol that needs to be destroyed.
All of our citizenship ends in Jesus.
And all of our religion ends in Jesus too.
The Romans, even though they concede Paul is a citizen, are still trying to get to the bottom of this commotion. They take him to the same council that condemned Jesus. Paul again attempts to answer for himself, only to again be met with violence. Seeing that there is religious division in the group between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, between those who hope for a resurrection and those who don’t, between those who are overly spiritual and those who are overly worldly, Paul inserts a piece of doctrine to cause division. “I am on trial because of the resurrection of the dead.”
If you want to get a bunch of Baptists and Presbyterians fighting, talk about infant baptism. If you want to get a bunch Presbyterians and Lutherans fighting, talk about the Lord’s Supper. If you want to get a bunch of Protestants and Catholics fighting, talk about the Church. If you want to get faithful Jews to fight in first century Jerusalem – talk about the resurrection of the dead. Paul did that. And it doing that, Paul spared his life for another day so that he could talk about the gospel.
Of course, the real problem is that what Paul means by saying, “I am on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead,” shatters everything both the Pharisees and the Sadducees believe. When he says he has hope of the resurrection of the dead – something the Sadducees reject – he means that the resurrection of the dead has already started – something the Pharisees reject. It has started because Jesus rose from the dead, and any hope anyone has of rising from the dead has to come from a hope that Jesus rose from the dead!
All of our religion must end in Jesus.
I love being Cumberland Presbyterian. I’ve only been in this denomination for two years, but I’ve found a welcome home among people who I am truly convinced are led by the Spirit and follow Jesus. But resting on the fact that we are Cumberland Presbyterians will not advance the Kingdom of God one inch. Nor will it proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to one person. It will not. How often do we rely on our history? How often do we say that, “My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather was a Cumberland Presbyterian?” How often do we remind ourselves that, “My family has been coming to Homewood Cumberland Presbyterian Church all my life.”
Religion is a good thing. Jesus was religious. Paul was religious. Paul had just finished a week-long religious ritual at the temple when this whole mess started. But all of our religion must end, must find it’s completion in Jesus.
“Are you Cumberland Presbyterian? You do well. But even from the ashes of the log house of Samuel McAdow could God raise up Cumberland Presbyterians.”
Derek recently changed and simplified our mission statement as a church: Worship Christ. Grow in Christ. Serve Christ. All of our worship, all of our growth, all of our service – everything that we do must be centered around Jesus Christ.
Because the entirety of lives find their end in Jesus Christ. The bookends of the passage for today are deaths – the death of Stephen and the foreshadowing of the death of Paul. At the center is a word of encouragement from Christ himself: “The following night [after the Paul was with the council], the Lord stood by him and said, Take courage, for as you have testified to the facts about me in Jerusalem, so you must testify also in Rome.‘”
Our whole lives are find their end in Jesus Christ because our whole lives exist to be testimonies to Jesus Christ and not to ourselves. From a worldly perspective, this is the beginning of the end for Paul. He is on the road from Jerusalem to Rome where he will die. But in reality, he has already died with Christ and been raised with Christ.
I have been deeply saddened by so many in our community who have been afflicted with cancer in its various, evil forms. And just this week, I found out that my own step-mother has developed what is most likely ovarian cancer, possibly stage four. I’ve only heard my dad cry twice in my life – once was at my wedding, and once was this week. They are praying for and expecting a miracle. We are praying for and expecting that God will use this as a testimony – a witness to the powerful workings of God in Jesus Christ.
But while visiting with my dad and my stepmom on Thursday, we had a brief, frank conversation about death. My stepmom is strong in her faith, and she spoke confidently that if it comes to that she will be present with the Lord Christ. We are not praying for that, we are praying that she would be healed completely so that she would be able to testify to God’s goodness many years from now. But in that frank conversation with her, one truth was evident to me: however this cancer ends, it ends in Jesus.
The word “martyr” means witness. Paul and Stephen were martyrs, and in their deaths they were witnesses to Christ. We will see them again with the Lord, when we are face to face in the flesh. And a thousand, thousand years from now we will all still be singing praises to the Lamb who was slain.
And all things find their end – and their beginning – in him.
We who are gathered here today are witnesses to Jesus Christ. Regardless of what we are suffering or enjoying this morning, we have been buried with Christ and risen with him to newness of life. And our whole lives – today and any tomorrows the Lord gives us – are testimonies to him, the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.