Sunday, November 12th's terrific message “Paul’s Final Days” by Rev. Toni Carmer continuing week 30 of a 31 week study of “The Story – The Bible as One Continuous Story of God and His People.”
Paul's Final Days
Acts 20:17-24; 36-38
First United Methodist Church, November 12, 2017
Pastor Toni L. Carmer
This week our reading in Chapter 30 of The Story leads us through Paul's Final Days. The scripture in this chapter takes us from chapter 20 to the end of the book of Acts, and lifts out sections of Paul's Letter to the Ephesians, as well as his final letter to Timothy. As he writes to Timothy, Paul is expecting to die, and wants to offer a final word of encouragement to this young man who has been his student, companion and friend. He seeks to warn him about those who have fallen away, and who have not proven helpful to Paul or to the mission that both he and Timothy have been called—which is to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.
There are so many twists and turns and recalculations in Paul's story that it can be hard to keep up with. I've found it helpful to have a map sitting next to me where I can follow Paul's travels as I read to help me see and understand. But as I read, it seems to me that if Paul didn't have bad luck, he had no luck at all. Yet he keeps moving forward. There are plots to kill him, times when he is beaten and left for dead, and times when completely unexpected people step in and save the day. There are literal storms that send him off-course, a ship-wreck, drama beyond what any Hollywood script writer would even consider adding to a story because it would just be too much—but Paul is persistent. He continues forward, remaining faithful, desiring nothing more—or less—than to fulfill his mission.
The challenges he faces makes this a hard read, so I have to tell you about something that happens at the beginning of Paul's story today that Randy Frazee doesn't include, but I have to, because it's just too good not to share.
In chapter 19 of Acts, we read about Paul's stay in Ephesus. Many good things happen while he's there and there are many healings and conversations, but that comes with an impact on the local economy: there is a reduced need for the production of pagan idols. The silversmiths and other manufacturers of these items are not pleased. There ends up being a huge riot that surprisingly DOESN'T end with Paul being bloodied and bruised, but when it's over he gathers his followers together and encourages them before setting off for Macedonia.
Paul stops in Greece, preaches for 3 months, makes good strides, with the usual end result of some folks plotting to kill him, so off he goes again, through Macedonia to Troas in Asia, where some of his companions have already gone ahead to wait for him.
Paul arrives and stays for a week. On their last evening together, they share a meal, and because he has so much to tell them, he keeps on talking till midnight. There are lots of lamps in the room, but apparently not lots of seating; a young man named Eutychus is sitting in the window, and he is having a hard time staying awake. Scripture (actually) says that Paul talks on and on, and Eutychus falls into a deep sleep, falls out of the window and lands on the ground 3 stories below. The fall kills him. But Paul comes down, throws himself on the young man and puts his arms around him. "Don't be alarmed," he tells everyone, "he's alive!" And he is. Well enough to go back upstairs, and have a bite to eat. Then Paul resumes talking until daylight, when they finally all go home, including the young man, who they're all glad is still alive (Acts 20:7-12).
Paul knows the significance of his message and is passionate/urgent about sharing it. His frequent brushes with death are an ongoing reminder of the need to pour out all that God has placed within him.
The Book of Acts provides a basic outline of Paul's travels, while his letters, written to particular people and churches where he has visited or hopes to visit reveal his heart, his passion, his teaching, and his response to the various challenges that the followers of Jesus face in the first century of Christianity. There are other writers of the time who help to fill in some of the gaps, who help to provide dates and details, but there is still so much that we don't know and can't fully understand about him.
In the final verses of the Book of Acts, we're left with a positive word: that over a 2 year time frame, Paul is able to teach and proclaim the word of God, even while under Roman guard. And yet at some point after that two year period, between the years 62 and 64, we know Paul was martyred for his faith during the reign of Nero, whose persecution of the early church was compulsive and cruel.
These final words of Paul to the Ephesians in Acts 20 reveal his heart:
“You know how I lived the whole time I was with you, from the first day I came into the province of Asia. I served the Lord with great humility and with tears and in the midst of severe testing by the plots of my Jewish opponents. You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house. I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.
“And now, 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; my only aim is to finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me—the task of testifying to the good news of God’s grace."
Paul's life and words continue to teach and inspire us. Some are poetic, others are instructional: all are meant to lift up, to build up and encourage, to provide the church with what was and perhaps still is needed to be our best selves.
In the same way that we skimmed through the Gospels which included Jesus' teaching and parables, we've skimmed through Paul's work. We'll dig in deeper as we continue to study over time. But this morning I want to lift up some major learnings that Paul has for us…that come from his own life and experience that are important for us to consider today.
1. The first is this: People change. Change is possible.
I was just talking to a friend this past week who said—people don't change. They are who they are. But Paul shows us pretty clearly that this isn't true. He experiences a complete conversion—from one who leads the persecution of Christians, to one who passionately proclaims Christ risen. I understand why those who see his transformation don't trust it at first. I understand why we're not always convinced when someone makes a complete turn-around. Wait and see, we say, time will tell. But Paul's experience shows us that—by the power of God—through the presence of the Holy Spirit—people can change.
I have seen addicts get clean, rebuild their lives and commit themselves to helping others to do the same thing. I have seen love transform a cold heart. I have seen hope where there once wasn't any. I trust you have, too. So don't give up on the possibility of a person changing. Conversions can happen just like that, but so often it takes time. It's a process. Keep praying. Have faith. Trust. People can change.
2. Grace is real and it keeps showing itself.
I think grace may be Paul's favorite word. If you look in a concordance, a book where you can find the location of various words in the Bible, the word is used 3 times in the OT, 3 times in the Gospel of John, and a gazillion times in Acts and each of the Epistle letters. It's not that it didn't exist before, it's that God's people finally recognized it, I think.
Grace can be defined as the free and unmerited act through which God restores us to God's self. It's not what we do (Paul can tell us that), it's not something we deserve (yep, he can tell us that, too), and yet it's a gift freely offered. It is a gift from God, offered (again, ultimately) through Jesus, who seeks to reconcile us to God.
We've been reading for the last 30 weeks, of God's continued desire to pull us back, to be in relationship. That's all grace. And it continues to work in our lives today.
3. We need mentors/companions on the journey.
Maybe we can learn about religion on our own, but we can't live out our faith on our own. It's not possible.
We need each other. There are times when we need to be encouraged, and there are times when what we have will be an encouragement for others.
We've been given gifts. Paul tells us that. And they're for the common good. We can't be all that we can be without sharing our gifts with others. And we need to experience the gifts that others have been given. We aren't completely self-sufficient.
I've had mentors all along the way. I've had companions all along the way. I need help sometimes. Sometimes I just need a friend. And so do you.
4. Sometimes unexpected people step into our lives and bless us in amazing ways.
There were all kinds of unexpected people who stepped into Paul's story and paved a way for him or (simply and very importantly!) kept the crowds from killing him. A city clerk who brought order to the people in Ephesus and calmed a riot by pointing out a better way of dealing with their discontent. An army commander who listened to a relative of Paul's and transferred him to another province, before a group of men could act on their vow to kill him. A king who listened. A centurion who intervened in his soldiers' plan to kill the prisoners when they thought they'd all escape after their shipwreck. A sick man who was healed and the word got out and others came to Paul to be healed as well.
These were ordinary people who you wouldn't have expected to contribute to the story, but each did. Every day Paul lived was another day available for him to share about Jesus.
And finally, unlike Paul and his contemporaries, I don't think about you and I living in a time or place when we have to be on alert because we're Christians, or fearful because we want to worship or be open about our faith, but then things happen like they did last Sunday in Sutherland Springs, Texas. And then we're not so sure.
Former Bishop Mike Coyner was attending a Council of Bishops meeting with colleagues from around the world when he heard about what happened. He wrote in a note that one African bishop offered this perspective: “In our country it always takes courage to go to church for worship. All Christians are targets of violence.”
"Here in the US," Coyner continues, "we are used to feeling safe, comfortable, and even apathetic about going to church. So we are likely to over-react to this latest shooting and demand more “security” in our churches, perhaps even wanting armed ushers to protect us. Without in any way downplaying the terrible events in Texas (and other such tragedies in our churches), it might be good for us to realize that being a Christian is not about being safe and living an easy life. Maybe we need to learn that being a Christian requires courage. May God help us to be a courageous witness to the ways of peace."
As we've read about Paul's missionary journeys, the way he taught, the way he kept getting up after getting knocked down, the way he kept moving forward even though he was convinced that the Holy Spirit was telling him that "prison and hardships were facing" him. He kept going. He kept teaching. He kept proclaiming.
Our last learning from Paul is this: Being a Christian requires courage. It did then. It does now.
May God help us to be courageous witnesses to the ways of peace, to the ways of love, to the ways of Jesus.