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July 5th, 2015

Who Has My Back?

What’s the worst that can happen to me? What then?

Acts 21:27-36

Landmark ruling

This is at least an interesting, and for some an unsettling, weekend to celebrate America. Nine days ago the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) gave same gender couples equal access to the legal right to marry, a decision that divides Americans, even American Christians, down the middle. As someone who has opposed and still disagrees with that decision, I nevertheless found myself (along with my wife Linda and Pastor Lori) among those who celebrated it at the General Synod of the United Church of Christ last weekend. Ten years ago, on July 4, 1995, the UCC was the first Protestant church in America to formally advocate for “marriage equality.”

For many people, the SCOTUS decision represents a landmark ruling for freedom, the freedom to be who you are, the freedom to live choose your sexual and religious expression. For others, this decision isn’t about freedom at all. It’s about the loss of morals and the breakdown of the family. And for some, it’s about the loss, or at least the potential loss of religious freedom. A Barna Institute poll released after the SCOTUS decision revealed that 56% of all Americans and 93% of evangelical Christians are concerned about the loss of religious freedom after the Supreme Court ruling.

According to Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, these fears have no basis: “The First Amendment ensures that religious organizations and persons are given proper protection as they seek to teach the principles that are so fulfilling and so central to their lives and faiths…” The dissenting justices are not so sure. Chief Justice Kennedy wrote, “Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today.”

In other words, when it comes to religious freedom many people are no longer sure their government has their back. That’s a perfect segue into today’s text from Acts.

Miracles and warnings

Let’s catch up a bit. I was away last Sunday, and many of you, even if you were in town, were participating in Service Sunday.

Two weeks ago we left Paul in Ephesus on his third missionary journey. Ephesus is on the western coast of Asia Minor (Turkey today), and Paul had made a thousand-mile trek across Asia Minor from Antioch to get there, checking in along the way with churches he had founded on his previous journeys. In Ephesus, Paul encountered some disciples of Jesus who had only been baptized in response to the message of John the Baptist, which was a message of preparation for Jesus’ coming. Paul baptized them in the name of Jesus, at which time the Holy Spirit came on them and they spoke in tongues (Acts 19:1-7). We discussed what that means in a sermon titled “Did You Receive the Holy Spirit?”

So much more happened in Ephesus and on that third journey! Paul attempted, as always, to reach synagogue Jews first, but when the Jews became obstinate he turned to the Gentiles (19:8-10). Paul’s ministry of “extraordinary miracles” healing and exorcism looked more like that of Jesus and Peter (19:11-16). Paul set his sights on Rome for his future travel, but first he sensed an urgency to go the opposite direction to Jerusalem. And before he went there, he wanted to return to Greece (19:21). That’s like saying you want to get to Wilmington, NC, but first you’re going to Asheville. And on the way to Asheville you’re going to stop in Greensboro.

Before they left Ephesus, Paul and his team encountered a near-riot over the economic impact of people turning away from their idols (19:23-41). Then Paul left for Greece where he again faced opposition from the Jews (20:1-3). As they crossed the Aegean Sea to the port of Troas, Luke and Timothy rejoined the team, as did several newcomers (20:4-6) – including Trophimus (remember that name).

Now an eyewitness again, Luke inserts a superb story about a young man named Eutychus who was sitting on the ledge of an open window during a late night sermon by Paul who, Luke says, “talked on and on.” Eutychus fell asleep and plummeted two stories to the pavement below, apparently dead. But not with Paul around! Paul picked him up alive, took him back upstairs, and then kept talking until dawn (20:7-12).

Then we have last week’s passage covered by Pastor Bill and Steve Brackett. Paul seemed concerned that if he went to Ephesus he would get delayed from his urgent sense of getting to Jerusalem by Pentecost, so he asked the elders of that church to meet him at Miletus so he could instruct them on their duty to keep watch over God’s flock (20:13-38). As he moved from place to place, Paul was determined to leave well-equipped leaders for the churches he founded. An ominous cloud hung over this farewell address, because Paul told the Ephesian elders he has been compelled by the Spirit to go to Jerusalem, but expects “prison and hardships” and that they will never see him again (20:22-25). With many tears Paul said goodbye at Miletus.

Paul then boarded the ship for Jerusalem, making several stops around the southeast corner of Asia Minor. His ship docked at the port city of Tyre in the region of Phoenicia. Some disciples of Jesus were there, and by the Holy Spirit they warned him not to go to Jerusalem (21:1-6). After prayer, he re-boarded the ship and went south to Caesarea. There he connected with another strong Christian community, apparently led by Philip the evangelist and his four daughters. A prophet named Agabus came down from Jerusalem to Caesarea, took Paul’s belt and tied his own hands and feet, warning Paul, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jews of Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” That didn’t dissuade Paul either. “I am read not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” And on he went adding, “The Lord’s will be done” (21:7-16).

Away with him!

We’ll spend the rest of our time in chapter 21 as Paul arrives in Jerusalem. The story even continues into chapter 22, where we’ll pick up next Sunday.

We know from Paul’s letters that his insistence on going to Jerusalem by way of Greece had to do with money. Having witnessed on his earlier journey the poverty of Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, Paul had instructed the disciples in Greece to take up an offering for their suffering brothers and sisters in the mother church. He wanted to collect that money personally in Philippi and Corinth and then deliver it personally to Judea. Oddly enough, Luke does not mention this offering in Acts. He only says that Paul and his team were received “warmly”, and that James (Jesus’ half-brother, the leader of the Jerusalem church) and the other elders “praised God” when they heard the report of all God had done among the Gentiles (21:17-19).

But there was a problem. Christian Jews living in Jerusalem had heard that Paul is teaching Jews in the diaspora to forsake the law of Moses. It’s one thing not to lay the law on Gentile converts. That issue had been settled in Acts 15. But if Paul was telling Jews it’s unimportant to circumcise their children or live according to Jewish custom, that’s a problem. So the Jerusalem elders asked Paul to demonstrate his ongoing advocacy of the law and traditions for Jews by joining four men in a Jewish purity ritual (21:20-26). The details have been debated by scholars, but all we need to know is that the purpose of whatever Paul does is to show he’s a good Jew and still advocates Jewish law and rituals for Jews.

And finally we are at this Sunday’s text. Jewish Christians were not the only ones Paul needed to be concerned about. Remember that Paul has faced opposition, and sometimes violent reactions, from Jews in almost every city on his missionary journeys. Well, some of those Asian Jews are also in Jerusalem for Pentecost (27). If you think Paul has trouble from within the Jewish Christian community, the mistrust from unbelieving Jews is much deeper. They make the same charge: that Paul is undermining the law and the temple everywhere he travels (28a). (They apparently haven’t heard how Paul and his team almost got themselves killed in the Ephesus riot as overzealous Jewish monotheists.) Shouting to the gathering crowd, these men seize Paul and add another, even more serious, charge.

The first century Jewish historian Josephus, backed by archaeological evidence, records that the temple in Jerusalem included a warning that said, “No man of another nation is to enter within the fence and enclosure round the temple. And whoever is caught will have himself to blame that his death ensues.” If even a Roman citizen entered the forbidden area, the Roman authorities would look the other way while his skull was cracked open by beating. Some Jews believed that the temple itself remained unclean until the offender was executed. There was hardly a greater crime to stir passions in Jerusalem.

Stirring passion is precisely what Paul’s detractors intended. Paul had been acting like a tour guide, showing his team around Jerusalem – including Trophimus the Ephesian (29) – remember him? I can imagine that people who saw Paul with this Greek started saying, “I bet he took that man into the temple court as well.” Whether by unfounded assumption or outright lie, that charge was shouted to the unruly mob: “He has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place” (28). They should have tried to find and seize Trophimus, the actual offender, but Paul was their target.

That only enlarged and enraged the mob (30). Paul was dragged from the temple area and the gates were slammed shut – presumably to protect the temple from this lynching. Fortunately for Paul, the Roman commander Lysias also heard the uproar (31) and brought the military in to quell the disturbance. Paul had a reprieve (32).

Paul was arrested for his own protection and bound. I’m sure Agabus’ prophecy played in his head. At the northwest corner of the temple mount stood the Antonio Fortress, connected to the Court of the Gentiles by two large sets of stairs, but also built above it so that the Romans could oversee what happened on the Temple Mount. The Roman commander tried to get some sense from the crowd as to what Paul had done, but to no avail. People were shouting over each other (34). The Roman soldiers had to carry Paul to keep him away from the mob (35).

As Paul reached the steps to the fortress the mob shouted, “Away with him!” For anyone who read Luke’s gospel before Acts, that thunderous shout took them right back to Jesus’ trial (Luke 23:38).

The Lord’s will be done

As Paul returned to Jerusalem keenly aware of the danger, he had to be asking, “Who’s got my back? Whom can I count on for security, for unconditional support, for protection, for hope? Who will make sure my freedom to live and preach the Gospel is uninhibited?” This is the same question many Christians are asking today in America.

Will it be other Christians? Maybe. Paul’s first thought might have been his brothers and sisters in blood and faith – the Jewish Christians. Once they received the gift from the Gentiles and heard what great things God had done, wouldn’t they give him carte blanche to keep doing what he was doing and stand by him come what may? Instead, as soon as he arrived, they asked him to undergo a Jewish ritual because they weren’t sure they could have his back against the onslaught of other Jewish Christians. When there’s disagreement within the body of Christ, you can’t always count on other believers to have your back.

Will it be other religious people? Maybe. One would think Paul could count on the Jewish leaders, who knew him. Those in power were his schoolmates of a generation earlier. He had undoubtedly joined the mob shouting “Away with him!” at Jesus, and then had become the leader of the first major persecution of Stephen and others. They had long ago turned on him. I’d like to think that proponents of any religious faith would defend the idea of the free exercise of religious faith. Historically, the opposite is true.

Will it be the state? Maybe. Paul’s protection on a human level came from the least likely of all human sources – the Roman government led by Nero. They had his back – for now. But that same government had sanctioned earlier arrests and imprisonments and beatings. Paul used his Roman citizenship when he need to, but he also knew that ultimately he couldn’t count on Rome to save his skin. Eventually Rome made him a martyr.

If you are among those right now asking, “Who has my back?” if government begins to restrict religious rights, remember that no human, no institution, no court, no legislature, no government ultimately is responsible for my freedom. Freedom doesn’t come from government, and no government can guarantee it. Even our currency says it: “In God we trust.”

This was why Paul was able to head into what he knew would be danger. Would you have gone to Jerusalem knowing what the Holy Spirit kept saying? Paul was asking, “What’s the worst that can happen to me?” His response: “If it’s the Lord’s will, so be it.” He genuinely trusted God’s sovereignty and care, whether in life, in death, or in suffering.

What’s the worst that can happen to us, government-wise? That we lose our tax exempt status? That somebody thinks we’re bigots? That we lose income? That we get sued? That the government doesn’t protect our religious freedom? How does any of that compare to what Paul faced or what Christians around the world today face for their open expression of faith, for evangelism, or even for meeting in secret?

What’s the worst that can happen to me? And if it happens, who has my back? I love asking that question and finding great comfort in the answer. “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, today, and forever.”

The freedom most important to me is not the freedom to express or live out my religion or to speak my mind or to own a gun or anything else. The only freedom that ultimately matters is the freedom won by Christ on the cross – the freedom from sin, from resentment, from the need to control, from fear, from hopelessness. It is that freedom we celebrate and remember today as we gather around the table of the Lord. Amen.

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