‘What is Success?’ Acts 21:1-36 2 Corinthians 4:6,7,16,17
First - thank you for inviting me here this evening. There’s nothing I enjoy more than distilling what this book means, working it out; and sharing what I discover with others. I’ve been blessed through my discoveries in Acts 21, and as I pass them on, I hope you will be too.
As it’s God’s word we’re approaching, we’re on holy ground. So first, let’s pray.
‘Father, as Jesus is ‘You with us’, the ‘light of the world’, we pray that we may see him now, and learn how we should respond to him. We pray in his name; and for his sake, Amen’.
I wonder how you reacted to Acts 21 when we read most of it just now? The travelogue of a passionate Christian. St Paul’s ‘blog’; written by his friend Luke. It shows how difficult it was to travel the 800 miles from Ephesus (in what is now Turkey) to Jerusalem. Two ships, 4 transit stops and 3 landings! I doubt there were transit lounges in the ports! Though in three of them, no lounge was necessary; Paul’s party did the Christian thing to do. They found where the local Christians lived, and stayed with them.
Paul was looking forward to delivering the gift for Jewish Christians that he’d been collecting from Gentile believers; and to reporting back to ‘headquarters’ all that God had been doing through him and his team.
It had been an emotional journey. He’d needed to say ‘goodbye’ to the elders of the church at Ephesus who he’d got to know well during his previous years there. The week-long transit with the believers in Tyre was so meaningful that when it was time to leave them, their whole families came down to the beach, knelt and prayed with Paul and his party before they got on the boat.
Because - there was foreboding. In Tyre, and in Caesarea too, Paul was warned he was headed - for trouble. That he would be bound and imprisoned in Jerusalem because of the things the Jews had heard about him. But he was a disciple of Jesus - in life, and if necessary, in death. I mean, if we’re serving the One who made death die, what does death matter? So Paul presses on.
In Jerusalem he was received very warmly. The church elders were thrilled at what he told them. But there was a problem. Not about the ‘Way of salvation’ - there was no doubt about that. Jesus, the Son of God, had died for sin and was giving believers his life. The problem was rather, about the ‘Way of discipleship’. Should the non-Jewish Christians follow the laws of Moses? Should they circumcise their children, like Jews? On the other hand, should Jewish believers continue to observe all the Jewish cultural practices?
Paul shows great generosity of spirit. All Christians must be depending on Christ alone. And all Christians must obey the moral law. All Christians who were converts from paganism must keep away from anything to do with idol-worship - with its offerings, blood and guts, and sex. But, surely it is OK for Christians of different origins to express their faith in different ways. Jewish Christians can still go to the temple, and take the vows provided for in the Old Testament. And, on the other hand, non-Jewish Christians don’t need to be circumcised. Christians are citizens of heaven, where circumcision doesn’t count for anything.
Which means I’m not worried that in the UK, today, we have Congregationalists and Anglicans and Baptists and so on (provided they adhere to what is says in this book). Different types of Christian are like different colours of the rainbow. But I am worried when Christians are stuck in their particular denominational style, so won’t recognise the good in anything else.
Paul shows great generosity of spirit. Having been away from Jerusalem for so long, he makes a point of going through the purification he needed to enter the temple again. Not only does he join there with local Christians who’d made a temple-vow of being separated to God, but he pays their expenses. A clear act of respect for Jewish customs, and of Christian unity. He applies the principle that he’d written to the church in Corinth about: that to win Jews, one must become ‘as a Jew’, and to win Greeks, ‘as a Greek’ and so on. That he must start from where they are. The principle is the same for maintaining Christian unity. If it’s only a matter of style or culture or ceremony or tradition - get over it. Join in! These things don’t matter. (Which is why, for example, I’m wearing a tie this evening, because that’s what your minister’s style is!) What matters is not the local culture, but the centrality of Jesus, and our obedience to him.
But. The forebodings were correct. In Jewish eyes, Paul was a blasphemer and traitor. Not only was he proclaiming the upstart Jesus as Messiah, he’s surely defiled the temple by bringing a Gentile into the ‘Jews-only’ area. (This is in verses 27-36, beyond where we read). There was uproar. ‘Let’s get rid of him once for all!’ There are hysterical demands for his death. A mob tries to lynch him. Roman soldiers rush there, only just stopping the crowd from killing him, needing to carry Paul to their barracks over their heads!
Paul’s whole career abruptly changes at this point. After three successful missionary journeys, he is assaulted, arrested, bound and tried. What happened in Jerusalem was the beginning of him being taken to Rome. Till now, he’s been on the offensive. From now on he’ll be on the defensive. Is it all going wrong?
You’ll have seen from the service sheet that I’ve entitled this talk ‘What is Success?’ Because ... I want us to ask whether Paul was successful. What he was doing was fraught with difficulty. The travel. The need of the Jewish church for financial support; The different styles of Christian practice; The opposition of the Jews as a whole to what God was doing; That he would now be a prisoner for years. Is this success? He had had to travel lightly, without a home of his own. To say the least, his life was unpredictable. It was full of tension - theologically and practically. He’d been stoned several times. The task of spreading the gospel was an uphill struggle, from one crisis to another. In the passage we read from 2 Corinthians, Paul describes himself as perplexed. Why does it seem to go wrong so often? Do I have to be persecuted? Being a Christian, quite literally, is hurting me! He describes himself as struck down and wasting away. What God has commissioned him to do is shortening his life!
Which contrasts strongly, with our modern emphasis that ‘church’ and ‘the Christian life’ should be 100% love, and joy and peace. And secure. Somewhere we feel at home, where - from week to week, it’s always the same! Where the church is a safe harbour in a rapidly changing world.
There is love, and joy, and peace in the Christian life. Lots of it. And the church is a safe harbour. But, as soldiers of Christ, we also need to fight. The world is alien to him. And being a Christian, and church life, are therefore bound be difficult. We must be careful not to see ‘church’ as an escape from the frenzy of 21st century living. It is the body of Christ - Jesus in action - today. His body, on earth, again, which, if it really is living for him will have the same difficulties he had, and the same difficulties Paul had. We carry in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Christ - (with its love, and joy, and peace) may also be visible in our bodies. And to do this, as the old Church of England prayer book puts it, the Church must be, ‘militant, here on earth’. It has to fight and to count the cost, as Paul did.
Richard has told me Highbury’s currently going through a re-structuring, to make it more effective. I want to ask - from Acts 21 - a question which I hope you’ve asked already: Effective for what? For clearer lines of communication? Well, good. For more of what we Anglicans call ‘every member ministry’? That’s good too. For smoother operating? Well good, also, as long as the church is still pioneering, and fighting, the same as that Paul was.
Our rest, our peace, our joy, our ‘safe harbour’, isn’t primarily in the church. It is in Christ. The church will always be messy, and hard work, because we’re not perfect yet, apart from world-culture being against us. I’m not saying we mustn’t strive to do things as well as we can - we have to be as ‘fit’ for the task as is possible. The task of spreading the gospel, which is likely to include being perplexed, and afflicted, in one way or another. To go from place to place, sharing the Good News and strengthening new believers, like Paul did, - no matter how difficult the journey. To love - like Paul did, with a spirit that shares wealth and will enter into the style of other Christians. To persevere when things seem to go wrong - so Jesus’ life may be made visible in our bodies. Any restructuring must be preparation for work. Not for ‘easy church’.
The tenor of Acts 21, is of a person who has left everything behind because he’s seeking the prize of being a servant of Christ. There’s no security for Paul in church buildings or perfect services. He is striving for ‘an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because he knows what can be seen is temporary, while it’s what can’t be seen that is eternal’.
So, I would encourage you. In your restructuring, yes, do it as well as you can, but also ask ‘What is it for?’
Having decided that I’d call this sermon ‘What is success?’ I looked up ‘success’ in a concordance and found the word doesn’t appear in the New Testament. ‘Success’, as we use the word today, speaks of a positive outcome to something we have done. Jesus doesn’t ask us for success, he asks for our obedience so he can work through us: ‘If you love me, keep my commandments’.
In a year’s time you will naturally be asking if your re-structuring was ‘successful’. Only - if it helps Highbury in its love, in its support for others, in its pioneering the gospel. In its disregard - of itself.
One last question. Where did Paul get his encouragement from while all this was happening? From the Christian families in Tyre; from the brothers at Ptolemais; from Philip and his daughters; from Mnason in Jerusalem; from James, and the Jerusalem church elders. In a word from the love of other Christians. There is nothing more wonderful than Christian care and hospitality and prayerfulness. Paul was fortified - through fellowship. May Highbury have a reputation for the strongest of fellowship as it faces the future.
I’d like to finish with a prayer you’ll know, written by the great theologian, Ignatius.
Teach us, good Lord, to serve you as you deserve;
to give and not to count the cost;
to fight and not to heed the wounds;
to toil and not to seek for rest;
to labour and not to ask for any reward,
save that of knowing that we do your will.
In Jesus’ name. Amen.