Sunday, 9 February 2014

Acts 23 - Keep up your courage!

Each time we use a microwave oven we owe a great deal to Nobel prize winner Isidor Isaac Rabi (1898 – 1988) – “a Polish-born American physicist and Nobel laureate, recognized in 1944 for his discovery of nuclear magnetic resonance, which is used in magnetic resonance imaging. He was also involved in the development of the cavity magnetron, which is used in microwave radar and microwave ovens.”

When Nobel prize winner, Isidor Rabi, arrived home after school, his mother would talk to him about his school day. Every day she would ask him, "Isidor, did you ask a good question today?" Rabi concluded that it was the ability to ask the good questions that gave him the passion to become a scientist.

“What ‘good questions’ are you asking yourself at the moment?”

That’s a question posed on a website I stumbled across called simply ‘moments’.

 Our Christian journey is filled with many challenges and I believe it would be wise to ask ourselves some tough questions. There is a defining question that John Wesley always asked of his friends and fellow Christians - “How goes it with your soul?”

How goes it with your soul?

Maybe that’s a question I should ask as Minister more often.  I seek to ask that question in a roundabout way … and in a funny way it is an important part of ministry.

It’s possible to see the ministry in terms of the cure of souls – keeping our inner being whole and healed.

You can’t control a conscience.

It is that small voice.

But you can nurture and feed a conscience.

Conscience pricks.

It can be painful.

It can haunt.

So alongside conscience comes grace – the grace of God’s forgiving love, that touches and restores and heals and makes whole.

So how goes it with your soul?

It is a question I should ask as Minister.  But it is also a question that I as a Minister need to be asked.

Who pastors the pastor?

Something a church family shares.

Something for me to ask of myself.

As Paul is brought before the Council in Jerusalem, that body that years before had put Jesus on trial, he says quite plainly.

While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, ‘Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.’

What a claim – he speaks a great deal about conscience in his letter to the Romans written not long before this as his journeying is coming to an end.

There is evidence of the ways of God in nature, in creation – somehow built into our psyche (Romans 1:20-21)  There is a timeless truth that speaks to all people – the measure of conscience has to do with patiently doing good, seeking glory, and honour and immortality – that distinction between what is good and what is wrong is there for all to sense. (2:1ff)

And the reality Paul makes clear is that we all of us have our failings but we receive God’s kindness, that grace that leads to a whole new way of thinking.

There is no partiality.  Conscience is clear.

Paul has sought to live his life in such a way that he has lived it with a good conscience.  Not that he has done everything as he should but that he has received that grace of God for renewal.

Shortly after this occasion – when he is imprisoned in Rome he writes again of the life he can now look back on … and it is a wonderful passage.

I recall sharing with Margaret Copeland one of those staunch members of the church here who lived to a ripe old age … and the reading we shared in her memory was from Philippians 4 …

for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13I can do all things through him who strengthens me.

This is the mark of a good conscience.

How goes it with your soul?

Paul in that passage in Romans 2 castigates those who judge others.  Such a question should not be condemnatory but should be pastoral, to build people up.

Tragically that is not how this statement was received by the powers that be in the council.

2Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. 3At this Paul said to him, ‘God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?’ 4Those standing nearby said, ‘Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?’ 5And Paul said, ‘I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, “You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.” ’

This is strong stuff.  And disturbing stuff.

But it is very important to realise who this council is made up of.  It is not just ordinary Jewish people … the High Priest is part of the Roman Herodian regime in Jerusalem, appointed by the  Roman Procurator – part of the system castigated by Jesus when he acted with such rage in the Temple and accused the powers that be of turning what should have been a house of prayer into a den of thieves.

Ananias had been appointed by Herod of Chalcis – Herod Agrippa I’s brother and one of that Herodian regime.   He had been hauled over the coals and sent to Rome after treating a number of Jewish zealots harshly – he had been acquitted by Claudius and allowed to return.  A ruthless regime such that Josephus tells us that when the revolt against Rome happened one of the first things the rebels did was to assassinate this Ananias.

These next verses are fascinating ones too.  They again highlight the different groupings there are within the Jewish world of Jesus’ day and Paul’s day.

The Sadducees were the powerful, rich elite who supported the Herodian High Priests and the Temple management as it had become.

The Pharisees had reacted against the Roman Herodian way by urging people to return to the purity of the Law – Paul had studied and grown up among the Pharisees.

We learn about some of other fundamental differences.

Paul is following on from Jesus and from John the Baptist and taking a stand at being Jewish in a very particular kind of way.  And the Sadducees and the Pharisees don’t like it.

6 When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, ‘Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.’ 7When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8(The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.)

A great clamour arose.  Interestingly, the Pharisees are the ones who are more sympathetic to Paul.

9Then a great clamour arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, ‘We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?’ 10When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks.

11 That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’

This is the text I want to finish with.

Keep up your courage.

Paul was facing difficult times, troubled times, not only for him personally but politically in the land as well.

He finds himself at this moment back under guard in the safety of the barracks and yet in that very alien world he stands out agaist.

It is very much a world that demands courage.

And it is the word of God that  heartens Paul.

Keep up your courage.

He finds himself the victim of a plot – and then sent under armed guard – overnight to  Caesarea the modern Roman city build on the coast by Herod the Greeat that is the seat of Roman power in that region – you catch a glimpse here of the Roman presence.

In a little while we will hear tell the story of Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on a Donkey on Palm Sunday – and we will reflect on the way this is so different from the warrior king who comes on a fine steed.

This gives a glimpse of what the Roman force could be like – as Paul is taken under cover of dark by two centurions with 200 soldiers, 70 horsemen and 200 spearmen.

This is military occupation at its most brutal.

Paul is then kept under guard in Herod’s Praetorium, in Herod’s headquarters.

He ends up at this point imprisoned in the seat of Roman power.

How he needs to heed the word of that vision.

Keep up your courage!

What troubles do you face?

Keep up your courage.

A sense of the presence of God – a strength from beyond ourselves in times of weakness.   He’s just written of the way the  Spirit comes alongside groaning with us in those desperate moments when now words come to our prayers.

Keep up your courage for God is with you.

But there’s more.

Keep up  your courage because even now you have a job to do.

For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.

There is a sense of tension here … and of challenge.

Evven in the most adverse of circumstances there is a witness to share to this remarkable God who is with us come what may.

We can draw on those wonderful words at the end of Romans …

Keep up your courage!

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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