THE GREATEST MISSION EVER Trinity
Acts 26:1-18 4.10.20
Who are the real ‘radicals’? Left wing extremists? Black Lives Matter protesters? People who pull down statues? Anarchists set on bringing down the government. Environmental activists? Those lobbying for the removal of gender barriers in sport?
In 5 successive court cases in these last chapters of the book of Acts, Paul is being labelled a radical. The repeated charge against him is that:
- He is agitating against Caesar and Roman law. In the trials before chapter 26 he has shown that charge has no credibility and no witnesses have come forward with evidence that it does.
- He is against the Jews, trying to destroy Judaism which is a legal religion. Here in chapter 26, his defence is that no one is a more faithful Jew than he. He has been a Jew by conviction “from my youth” v4 … he came through the most Jewish sect there is (“according to the strictest party of our religion I have lived as a Pharisee” v5) … and what he preaches now is perfectly in line with what the Jews had always believed with a “hope in the promise made by God to our fathers” (v6).
No, Paul is not a radical with a political agenda. He is NOT trying to destabilise society. He is NOT a Guy Fawkes trying to blow up the temple. He is not that kind of radical at all.
He is a radical however, a real radical. A radical goes to the root (the radix) of things.
A true radical is not satisfied with hype and noise and froth and bubble. Life is not about the gravy, but the meat and potatoes. He lives off things that are substantial not superficial.
Paul has been like that since Jesus remade him:
- He believes what is the root, at the heart of the Jewish faith, and not just floating on the surface.
- There is something substantial in his life that matters more than comfort and freedom – something that means he could sing in prison … or be held in prison for 2 years without a word of protest.
- He is sold out to something so big, that the things that others think are big don’t rate. We see that again in our passage today.
The judge in this trial here in Acts 26, is the puppet King Herod Agrippa. His great grandfather was the Herod who slaughtered all the babies under the age of 2, when Jesus was born. His grandfather was the Herod who had had John the Baptist beheaded. His father had imprisoned Peter and had James put to the sword. If he is true to family type, all the odds are stacked against Paul.
In his courtroom, the banners have been hung; trumpet fanfares sounded; great ones have processed in; Herod and Bernice enter, crowns gleaming. All displays of pomp and power. That’s got to be intimidating by anyone’s measure.
Will Paul stand with backbone, or wobble like a jellyfish? He won’t stand unless his roots are deep and strong.
No one else present has any backbone. The room is full of men who are supposedly the rigorous upholders of the law of God. How is it that no one raises questions about the legitimacy of this family to be the royal family of Israel, given its murderous history? How is that no one protests the presence of Bernice, who is not Herod’s wife but his sister, with whom he is in an incestuous relationship? Who is telling him what he really needs to know if he is to know the Living God? Who is speaking to matters of life and death with him? The room is full of spineless jellyfish who have no roots.
We need someone who is a radical. Someone who isn’t bought off by pomp and power? Someone who has roots in substance.
- Someone like Stephen who called these same people to account and confessed Jesus even as the rocks thrown at him by Jesus’ enemies smashed his body to death.
- Someone like Martin Luther who was prepared to contradict the teaching and might of the powerful Roman Catholic Church.
- Someone like Amy Carmichael who stood against death threats from Hindu and Muslim mobs in India as she rescued thousands of girls and boys from dreadful abuse in the name of Jesus.
- People like those ordinary, poorly educated Christians who meet together in the name of Jesus in China or North Korea, even though doing that may mean imprisonment.
- People like some of us here who hold to Jesus though it has meant we haven’t been able to accept a marriage proposal, or we are left out of family gatherings, or we’ve lost a job for the sake of integrity, or we hang in with loving someone who is very difficult to love.
This world has always needed real radicals. Men and women who are shaped by strong roots. Two are described here:
- THE RESURRECTION OF JESUS CHANGES EVERYTHING
In the preaching and talking and telling and dialoguing through the book of Acts, the real, physical, supernatural bodily resurrection of Jesus has been front and centre. Not just as a point of belief or of doctrine. It is something that is felt as well as told.
You know that Paul was fanatical about hating, harassing and killing Christians. He tells King Agrippa that while on his way to Damascus to capture and kill more of them …
“At midday I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, that shone around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads. (An odd phrase used by other writers to talk about trying to resist a real god.) and I said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And the Lord said ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.’” (vv13-15).
Jesus? Isn’t Jesus dead? Check the records –the same records that say he was crucified say that he was buried. Later, when his body couldn’t be found, the story got round that his disciples had made off with it.
Dead, stolen bodies stink, not shine. They certainly do not speak, but here is Jesus, resurrected Jesus, speaking to Paul. He doesn’t have sun(s-u-n)stroke but Son(S-o-n)stroke – he has been struck by the risen Jesus. From a world outside this one.
That day Paul was made a radical. You can’t see or hear a resurrected man today and go back to yesterday’s concerns or be intimidated by the things that intimidate people in this world.
Kudos and pomp and power and stuff and fame matter in this world only if there is not another world that is more real. Agrippa’s verdict matters only if there is not a superior verdict beyond his court. The resurrection of Jesus tells you there is another world – the real one.
At the end of the trial, the flags will be rolled up and the band instruments returned to barracks. Jesus will still be risen. Agrippa and Bernice will remove their crowns and get into their pyjamas, but Jesus will still be enthroned in glory. Paul may still wear his chains, but he will still be serving the Lord of the universe, free from any burden the worst judgments of mere men can lay on him.
Brothers and sisters, if Jesus is not risen, let’s pack up and go home right now. It’s all a joke. If he is, then so much that matters to us in this world is a joke and a cruel one at that.
You want to be a true radical? Your roots are in Jesus and his mighty resurrection. There is a second root.
- THE CHURCH OF JESUS IS AT THE CENTRE OF EVERYTHING
God’s story from the resurrection of Jesus forward, is the story of the church of Jesus. His focus in world history is not kings and empires. Not political parties and philosophies. The story of the move from downtown Jerusalem, to churches begun in the capital cities of Syria, Turkey, Macedonia and Greece, and hundreds of places between ... and now onto Rome, to the heart of the empire, is the big story. It all began nowhere but ends up everywhere.
It’s not as though a church of Jesus is just one more group in the culture … one more human kingdom, political party or special interest group. The church of Jesus is uniquely special.
- It is uniquely precious to Jesus
When the risen Jesus confronted Paul back there, the charge against him was not that he was simply persecuting believers. Jesus asked, “Why are you persecuting me?” To hate a small group of 10 Christians in a village out of Caesarea is to hate Jesus. You can’t say that of a political party or a Black Lives Matter march.
- Its members belong to a unique world
Paul’s was commissioned by Jesus to go to people, “to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and receive forgiveness of sins” (v17). People were being turned upside down. They saw things as they had never seen them before. They lived lives they had never lived before. They belonged to the living God as forgiven people in a way they had never belonged before.
- Its members uniquely belong together
Jesus had sent Paul to Gentiles, non-Jews. Historically, Gentiles do not belong to God. They have always been second rate, and despised, but because of Jesus, all that has changed. Now, Jesus says, they have “a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me” (v18). Jew and Gentile are brothers belong together, and belong to God equally, on the same grounds: faith in Jesus, the resurrected Lord and King of all.
Now that is radical. Black Lives Matter can’t heal divisions like Jesus does. United Nations peace efforts in Armenia and Azerbaijan are doomed from the start. What is on offer from our governments is so ordinary, because it doesn’t go to the root of things … it can never be deep enough for thirsty souls.
In the middle of a pandemic we need bigger and better messages than we are getting which only feed fear. Messages that tell us we’re going to be in debt for 50 years. Messages that pretend that staying alive is more important than living life.
Under coronavirus restrictions, some businesses have been rated as essential, and allowed to stay open. Not churches however. In New South Wales, there is now more freedom to go to the movies than there is to attend church. Is being entertained here and now really more important than seeing a world that is bigger and better than this one?
I get it that governments don’t think God’s gospel and God’s church are vital. Why would they when there is no deep root for most of the work they do?
What I don’t get is that some Christians don’t think it matters that Jesus’ gospel and Jesus’ church are written out of life. I don’t get it that we are not all straining to do all we can to be the gathered church of the risen Lord Jesus which is so special to him, and to find ways to tell his great news to a sad and frightened world. If ever there was a time when we need radicals, it is now.
Are good health or money measures going to satisfy people made with eternity in their hearts? Are they designed to point us to the real world? What policies are there that can set us free from slavery to death, or to our man-made empires?
One of the saddest aspects of the coronavirus measures is that they have resulted in disaster for many who have saved and slogged and hoped and planned, to establish a good business, but who have now found that it’s all gone. There is now nothing to show for it all.
Might it be like that in the radical cause of Jesus? The odds against Paul succeeding in stamping out Christianity were such that he didn’t have a chance of success. Even while Paul was working hard to destroy it, Jesus was pricking him and goading him so that his conversion to Jesus was inevitable. The expansion of Jesus’ kingdom was equally inevitable. Its future was bound to be glorious.
Psalm 67, among others, looked forward to the day when Jesus would “be known on earth, his saving power among all nations.” It ends “let all the ends of the earth fear him”. All the ends of the earth? It is as though Jesus knew the Psalm when he told his disciples in Acts 1:8 that they would be “witnesses to him in Jerusalem and Judaea and Samaria and to the end of the earth”.
We’re not there yet but it is inevitable. Regardless of coronavirus restrictions or anything else, and it will be glorious.
Will we be radicals in this mission … rooted in something bigger than votes and stuff and personal comfort? With our feet planted in the world-shattering resurrection of Jesus, and prizing the church of Jesus like nothing else?
We could not do anything that was more significant.