It’s been said that we live in an age of outrage. Author Mark Manson writes:
Outrage is everywhere today, on the political left and right, with old people and young people, people of all races and economic backgrounds. We may live in the first period of human history where every demographic feels that they are somehow being violated and victimized. From the wealthy billionaires who have somehow convinced themselves that their 15% tax burden is simply oppressive. To the college kids who hijack stages and scream threats at people because their political views differ from their own.
Most people believe that people are becoming more polarized. According to the data, this is actually not true. People’s political beliefs are not that different than they were a few decades ago. What is changing, the data indicates, is how we deal with the viewpoints that make us uncomfortable.
It isn’t that our beliefs have changed, it’s that the way we feel about people we disagree with has changed. In short, people have become less tolerant of opposing opinions. And their reactions to those opinions has become more emotional and outrageous.
The era in which the New Testament was written has been referred to as one of these ages of outrage. Political tensions were extremely high in Palestine, and in its principle city, Jerusalem. And in Acts 21, the Apostle Paul returns to Jerusalem, led there by the prompting of the Holy Spirit, who has all along been preparing Paul that suffering and imprisonment will await him there. And in verse 17, Paul enters Jerusalem, steps into the tinderbox, and yes, is greeted by outrage. Not at first, and not by everyone, but by the end of this chapter, he is engulfed in it.
The personal journey of the apostle Paul begins in chapter 21 with Paul faced with a choice. You see, Paul knows precisely where the Spirit is leading him, yet all along the way strangers, friends, even his closest coworkers try to dissuade him from the path set before him. Even more difficult is that they seek to persuade him through so in very convincing, even spiritual means. And these first verses of chapter 21 are a bit foreign to us, a bit frightening to us, because they speak to a level of spiritual discernment, that quite frankly I don’t know how many of us would be well-prepared to sift through. What do you do when you believe the Spirit is telling you one thing, and everyone else - people you spiritually admire - is telling you something else?
Today, as we continue in the book of Acts, we see the passing of a baton, the baton from the apostles, the apostle Paul in particular, to a group of men set apart to lead the church at Ephesus. They meet and they say good bye at the beach of Miletus It’s one of the most moving stories in the Bible, perhaps it is for me because it was the passage my first youth pastor taught us on the night that he told us he was finishing up his ministry among us and would be transferring elsewhere. It’s a tale of departure. But within this sad tale of departure, the life of ministry is set before us in a compelling way, a calling way.
It sees like today we have a lot of people who are famous for very little. Celebrities who are famous for being celebrities. Today, we’re going to look at someone who tops them all, a guy who is famous for sleeping in church. Euthychus in Acts 20. Some commentators focus on anything other that the that a young man dies and is resurrected from the dead in the middle of the worship service. There’s another interpretation that focuses on the incident with Eutychus falling out of the window, and I call it the “poor Eutychus” interptreation. This is a modern interpretation which reads the passage through a somewhat humorous lens, often emphatic to young Eutychus who feel to his death an innocent victim of a preacher too in love with the sound of his own voice to get the sermon done before too long. Yet Luke’s intent with telling us the story of Eutychus is to warn us, that we might not spiritually slumber when we are so fortunate to have the word of God come to us.
In Acts chapter 19, the Apostle Paul comes to Ephesus, and encounters two groups of people who are trying to life some pale imitation of the Christian faith, for they each only possess and practice half of the gospel, to their frustration and indeed to their destruction. One group has heard the word of repentance, but knows nothing of the Spirit-empowered life. The other group tries to imitate the power of the Spirit, but has not first submitted to the word of repentance. the word of repentance which we proclaim, and the power of the Spirit in which we proclaim it are inseparable - two sides of the same coin.
We’re continuing through the missionary journeys of Paul, travelling with him from city to city, particularly as he has been called to bring the gospel to the Greeks, and here now he is in Greece with the Gospel. In Acts 18, we find Paul in Corinth. Corinth was the provincial capital of the southern province of Greece. It was nearly the size of Ottawa, and one of the leading business centres of the Ancient world. Corinth is a fascinating city, a city of staggering immorality - in fact, they Greeks had turn the name of the city into a verb referring to sexual immorality. But what’s conspicuous about this chapter, in which the gospel goes to Corinth, is how very little details Luke provides us about the mission there. We’re told that Paul spends at least 1.5 years there, the longest time spent in any city thus far, but very little is recorded out side of the the conversion of Crispus, the head of the synagogue, and the tribunal before Gallio, which surprisingly, had a pretty positive outcome for Paul. Other than that, the chapter is almost a travelogue, introducing us to some new places and people, but not much else. This is the main takeaway I am left with from the Acts chapter 18: This is God’s mission, not my mission. Not your mission. God graciously uses us and our different gifts, but it is he who sends, he who equips, He who provides the growth. There is no room for pride in Christian ministry. No room for ego, or for making our own individual kingdoms.
Idols are not limited to primitive societies; there are many sophisticated idols too. An idol is a god-substitute. Any person or thing that occupies the place which God should occupy is an idol. Covetousness is idolatry. Ideologies can be idolatries. So can fame, wealth and power, sex, food, alcohol and other drugs, parents, spouse, children and friends, work, recreation, television and possessions, even church, religion and Christian service. Idols always seem particularly dominant in cities. Jesus wept over the impenitent city of Jerusalem. Paul was deeply pained by the idolatrous city of Athens. Have we ever been provoked by the idolatrous cities of the contemporary world?
When’s the last time you found yourself in a dead end? You’re trying to move forward, but it seems that every door is now closed to you, no opportunity has presented itself. You try pushing on one door and it won’t budge. So you try another. And another. You call out to God, “just show me what to do already”. Your issue isn’t obedience - you’ll do whatever it is God’s leads you to - its just that right now you’re stuck. But if you’re in that place long enough, and enough doors close, you might even begin to doubt as to whether you’re even pursuing the right things in the first place. Have you been there?
It’s hard to be a church that sends people out. It’s hard to be sent out. We know this as a congregation, because we’ve had to say goodbye to some dearly-loved brothers and sisters, who’ve left our congregation either because they have moved, or because they’ve felt called to join another ministry, or for whatever reason. It’s really hard. Paul himself, even though he was called to this work, of which leaving was part of the work, it was still hard.
The missionaries raised up a plurality of men called elders who would preserve the way for those to come. This work of equipping and entrusting the churches to these elders was so important the the work wasn’t considered fulfilled until they had done so. Paul understood that he had to ensure that the churches be well established under faithful men that the church might stand firm as a pillar and buttress of the truth. This would allow the missionary team to continue on its way into new cities, new fields, because the churches were left in good hands. Those who stayed behind and led the churches were to guard the deposit of faith that was entrusted to them and pass it on to others, preserving the way for those to come.