September 10, 2000
"And So I Stand Here"
Sermon by Rev. Sherry Parker
Dundee United Methodist Church
Rally Sunday and the 12th Sunday after Pentecost
Please note: Because I do not use notes when I preach, the text in the written sermon may vary slightly from the spoken sermon. My prayer is that in both my writing and my speaking the Holy Spirit works to make this message worthy of God's purpose.
Scripture: Acts 26:19-29
The last chapters of Acts, from chapter 22 on, tell about Paul's journey from Asia Minor to Jerusalem to Caesarea and finally to Rome. I wish we had time to talk about more parts of the story. Instead, I urge you to read about Paul in these chapters and then to go on and read some of the letters he sent to the churches that he established and left behind. Read the letter to the Ephesians and the first letter to the Corinthians.
The setting for our scripture reading this morning is Caesarea. Paul had planned to go to Rome, but he was not going to get there in the way he expected. Paul had been welcomed in Jerusalem by the Christian faithful, but not by the temple leaders. They didn't like what he was preaching in Jesus' name. They accused him of being a "pestilent fellow" and "an agitator," whose cohorts had sought to defile the temple (24:5-6). The Sanhedrin, or Jewish court of justice, had him arrested by the Roman army, but Paul was eventually released. They then plotted to kill him. For his safety, more than anything else, Roman centurions took him to the coastal city of Caesarea under the care of 400 guards. Felix, the Roman governor there held a trial, and detained Paul in the city for two years. When Felix was called back to Rome and Festus took his place, he wanted to clear up the matter and get rid of Paul. Paul refused to return to Jerusalem to face his accusers because he was a Roman citizen. He wanted an audience with Caesar. Festus said, "Fine. I'll send you to Rome." But he had one problem. He could send Paul to Rome , but he didn't really have any charges against him. About that time King Agrippa and his sister Bernice were visiting from north of Galilee and Festus consulted them. Agrippa asked to hear Paul speak. Paul stood before them all to speak his defense. He talked about the power of Jesus Christ and described for all present what had happened on the day of his conversion; Jesus found him and changed his life. Then he continued to speak: Read Acts 26:19-29
Paul was in trouble. Eventually, he'd be sent to Rome, and despite a ship wreck, he made it there and was placed under house arrest. Some time later he died. It was by his own choice that he was in so much trouble. If he'd just been quiet, if he'd just stopped insisting on talking about Jesus and what Jesus had done for him everywhere he went, all the leaders would have left him alone.
Paul talked as if he had some inside protection from God. In his travels he was threatened, chased and beaten for his teachings. And yet he stood before Agrippa and Festus and said "I have had God's help to this very day." It was as if he was commissioned to preach the word and nothing, not even the Roman army, will stop him.
I can picture Paul, his arm outstretched as he stood before the rulers, a great orator of the day and said, "So I stand here and testify to small and great alike." Any fear that he had for the future, any doubt, was eclipsed by the certainty that he was supposed to stand there and tell these people about Jesus. Later in a letter to Peter believers would read, "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you" (1 Peter 3:15b). Paul took this direction seriously and fearlessly.
Paul told of Jesus who would was born and suffered as a man, and rose from the dead. Jesus the Christ was the one who proclaimed the light to all people. Festus interrupted Paul. He called Paul crazy, supposing that all Paul's education had made him lose his mind. Paul reasoned with Agrippa. Agrippa was not convinced, but Paul was not discouraged. He declared, "Short time or long--I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am." (v. 29) This was Paul's last word in the Holy Land. Shortly after this he was taken to Rome.
All the meaning of the Book of Acts is in the power of Paul's speech before these Gentile leaders. "So I stand here before you proclaiming Christ, born a man and the very son of God. And I pray that all who hear me will become what I am." God loved the people who heard Paul speak enough to put a witness before them, a powerful witness who could turn them toward the light. (Willimon, p. 181)
So, figuratively, we stand here today, as a church, in our families and in our community. And the challenging question is: Who has God loved so much that they have been placed before us to hear a witness? Who have we been called to turn toward the light of God? It is not a question of "if" we have been called. As people of the resurrection, Easter people, each of us has a story to tell. It's the story of how Jesus has changed our lives, supports us and is our direction.
Certainly we do not stand accused as Paul did, in chains and bound over to the government for the crime of our beliefs. Perhaps we face a greater, more insidious trail, apathy, even apathy in the guise of tolerance. Our society, our friends and neighbors don't really want to hear what we believe, and we oblige by talking about everything else imaginable and avoiding voicing our beliefs. And there is an apathy that rises from within us, that leaves us content to allow our Sunday attendance in church and our personal acts devotion to be enough time spent on our faith.
The story of Paul, the story of the other passionate disciples of Christ in Acts, show us where we must stand. And through their stories we are also given the assurance that God stands with us.
And so some stand to teach Sunday school and lead other Christian Education opportunities, not because they always feel adequate to the task, but because they trust that by God's grace they will turn others to the light. And so some stand to open the Word of God and be in deliberate study and fellowship with other seekers. And some stand to give praise to God through music. It is a gift, a passion, and a witness to God's glory. (If you have a passion for music and right now feel that you've been sitting too long, be part of the choir, lead the children in music, seek out other opportunities.) And some stand to give glory to God through the skills they possess, building, cleaning, organizing, leading, cooking.
And so we stand here as the Body of Christ, a witness to our Savior who has brought light to our lives. And so we stand here, a beacon in this community that can only grow brighter by God's grace.
For the challenges ahead, for the doubts and resistance that lie within us and the criticism, protests, and ridicule we may receive, let Paul's response be ours: We're not crazy; we have been freed by the love of God through Jesus Christ. Whether it takes a short time or a long time, let us pray that the people we stand before, the people we witness to will come to know Jesus.
Smith, Dennis E. and Michael E. Williams, The Storytellers's Companion to the Bible: Acts of the Apostles. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1999. Williamson, Charles C. Interpretation Bible Studies: Acts. Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2000. Willimon, William. Interpretation: Acts. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1988.