Sermon Text: Acts 23:1-11
Date: July 12, 2014
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A
Acts 23:1–11 (NIV84)
Paul looked straight at the Sanhedrin and said, “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” At this the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near Paul to strike him on the mouth. Then Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
Those who were standing near Paul said, “You dare to insult God’s high priest?”
Paul replied, “Brothers, I did not realize that he was the high priest; for it is written: ‘Do not speak evil about the ruler of your people.’”
Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. I stand on trial because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, and that there are neither angels nor spirits, but the Pharisees acknowledge them all.)
There was a great uproar, and some of the teachers of the law who were Pharisees stood up and argued vigorously. “We find nothing wrong with this man,” they said. “What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” The dispute became so violent that the commander was afraid Paul would be torn to pieces by them. He ordered the troops to go down and take him away from them by force and bring him into the barracks.
The following night the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
Take Courage in Your Testimony!
1. You know how important it is
2. You know who goes with you
If you’ve ever started a new job or can think back to that first day of a new school year, maybe even at a new school, you know the feeling. The feeling of unease: what is happening? Where do I go? What am I supposed to be doing? You’re scared that you’re going to do something wrong. You’re even more concerned that you might make a mistake and look silly or break something or impact someone else’s ability to do their work. Ultimately, all of those fears and concerns boil down to one simple issue: uncertainty. You’re not comfortable; you’re out of your element; you’re scared.
The apostles, as they did their work, often found themselves in those situations, and whether in a Holy-Spirit-guided memory of Jesus’ words or Jesus speaking to and encouraging them directly, Jesus took care of them because they had a job to do that didn’t leave room for timidity or unease. Jesus encouraged his apostles as he encourages us, to take courage in your testimony, because you know the importance of that message and who goes with you to speak.
Paul had had a rough go of it. It seemed that in every town he went, there were some people who wanted to kill him for what he was doing. Many Jewish people felt he had betrayed his own people and their faith by becoming a follower of Jesus. Many Gentiles, those who were not Jewish, felt that the message Paul proclaimed was absolute foolishness, or in some cases, actually hindered their ability to make a living as was the case when Paul spoke against the false gods which brought in a lot of money for those in the services of those pagan deities. Paul, and the message of Christianity, were not overly popular anywhere Paul went.
At the time of our lesson this morning, Paul was on his way back to Jerusalem after his third missionary journey that took him into Greece. He had previously said to his friends in Ephesus, “Compelled by the Spirit, I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there. I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me. However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace” (Acts 20:22-24). Paul knows that his time in Jerusalem is not going to go well; the Holy Spirit had warned him of that ahead of time. But he doesn’t know what is going to happen. Is he going to be arrested? Is he going to die? He cares very little either way as long as he can testify to the truth of Jesus.
Why would Paul be so self-sacrificial when it comes to proclaiming the message of Jesus? He knows how important this is. A few weeks ago we mentioned about the apostles’ willingness to even be martyred for their faith was a strong testimony to the validity of what they proclaimed. In short, you don’t go to your death for a lie. Paul perhaps embodies that notion even more than the other apostles, as the one who didn’t walk and talk with Jesus, as the one who started out as an enemy of the Christian faith and only later becoming one of its staunchest supporters. Paul certainly wasn’t suffering all this tragedy and loss because it made him feel good; he was suffering it because it was true.
The message we have to share as Christians is so important to all people. There is no forgiveness of sins without Jesus and without the forgiveness there is no hope. Everyone that Paul met, everyone that stood before him on that day in his trial before the Sanhedrin, every person that ever heard him preach, regardless of how they reacted, were sinners who needed to hear of God’s love and forgiveness.
We are among those people who so desperately need to hear the message of this gospel. We recognize our sin on a daily basis, and as we consider the courageous testimony that Paul and the other apostles gave, we can’t help but think of the times that we have cowardly shied away from testifying to the truth, to the times that we decided we’d wait until a “better time” came up before talking to that friend or acquaintance about Jesus. There are times when that is legitimate, but we all wrestle with knowing at times it’s been an excuse we pushed to the forefront of our minds because in the end, we were scared to testify about our Savior.
And truth be told, if Paul were here with us today, he could undoubtedly share times where he wasn’t as faithful in his calling as he could have or should have been. Paul makes it clear when he writes to the Romans that he often does the evil, cowardly things that he shouldn’t do, while avoiding the good things he’d been called to do as a Christian and as an apostle (see Romans 7).
But what does Paul say before the Sanhedrin in our lesson from Acts? “My brothers, I have fulfilled my duty to God in all good conscience to this day.” Paul had been accused of bringing a Gentile into the part of the temple grounds reserved only for Jewish people. That wasn’t true, but it was the grounds on which he’s dragged before this kangaroo court. Paul’s conscience was completely clean in this matter, but his words paint with a broader brush than that. His conscience is clear, completely clear in all things. Why? Because he believes and trusts the very message he’s been proclaiming around the world. He knows that there is forgiveness for every sin he’s ever committed—from persecuting the church and even approving of the murder of some of its members to the occasionally absent testimony about Jesus—every sin is gone. That’s the grace of God, that loves and forgives even people that don’t deserve it, people like Paul, like you, and like me.
Our confidence is no different than Paul’s. We all drag around a load of guilt, knowing in all things but especially in our testimony about Jesus there was always something more or different we could have done. We regret the times we had a chance to say something and said nothing. We regret the times we did speak, but didn’t do so in a way that aided in communicating God’s love. This past week after my grandmother passed away, I’ve wrestled with my own feelings of regret in these things. When you lose someone to death, especially someone you love, there’s always a feeling of loss. But there’s especially a hole in your heart when you think that you could have done more, said more, to bring that person even more comfort from his or her Savior. Their faith and their salvation do not rest on you, but there’s always something more that you could have done or could have said. But now, after someone has passed away, it’s too late.
But there again, Jesus’ forgiveness is complete. I may have let chances slip by me as you may have as well. But for that there is forgiveness—total obliteration of that sin because Jesus paid the price. But that doesn’t give us a pass to say, “Well, I don’t really want to talk about this or I don’t think I can so I won’t because I’ll be forgiven anyway.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! But knowing how important this is, and knowing how we’ve been forgiven, gives us all the more motivation to get out there and do what we need to do.
Paul used a point of theological contention amongst the groups of the Jewish leaders to spark a bit of a riot during his trial. After he’s taken into custody there by the Romans, it’s anyone’s guess as to what is going to happen to Paul. Will the enemies of this message, but in the Jewish camp and outside of it, finally get their way and rid the earth of Paul? Is this the end of his work as an apostle?
Hardly. While in custody the next night, Jesus comes to Paul to assure him that he still has work to do. “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” Jesus was there with him as he had been throughout every step of the way. We don’t know if Jesus said more than this to Paul at this time, but undoubtedly words that Jesus had spoken before came rushing back to him, words that likely he carried with him wherever he went.
When Jesus called Paul from being a persecutor to an apostle of the church, he told him clearly, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you. I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:16-18). And he undoubtedly would have clung to the promise Jesus made to his disciples just before he ascended into heaven. Having told them to go into the whole world to tell everyone what he had done for them, Jesus promised, “Surely I am with you always to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus had been with Paul throughout the highs and lows of his ministry. That was not going to change in Rome.
We, too, go with Jesus. When we speak, we are doing his work, or more to the point, he is doing his work through us. We might look at ourselves and think, “I have no ability! I can’t do this! I’m scared!” and yet Jesus’ promises to Paul and the other apostles are promises made to us as well. Wherever you go, Jesus goes with you. Whenever you speak, Jesus is there. No matter what, he’s going to work it for good. He simply calls us to be faithful in sharing that glorious message of his death and resurrection to pay for sin, and know that he’ll get us through whatever else comes our way.
My brothers and sisters, take courage. And as you take courage, take the message that has been entrusted to you. The message you have, that we have, is so important that we absolutely have to share it; people’s souls are on the line. As you support the ministries of our congregation with your prayers and gifts, as you consider ways to serve God’s people with roles and jobs in this congregation, as you look to share Jesus with the people you come into contact with every day, take comfort and courage from knowing that everywhere you go, Jesus goes with you. Everything you do, Jesus is there to bless. And no matter what happens, he’s always there to defend his people. Thanks be to God! Amen.