Sunday, 1 July 2018

Paul the Prisoner - Acts 16, 22, 25 and 26

Acts reads like an action adventure story, especially the way it unfolds for Paul. His full CV of beatings, trials and other events can be found in 2 Corinthians 11, but note that even there Paul does not claim super-hero status or to be some kind of SAS christian. He is just another believer clinging to faith in Jesus.

We think of Paul as the great apostle - which of course he was. He could drive out a bad spirit in someone in just a single sentence, for example. Yet even with that power Paul never plays power games. That is because spiritual power is not the classic male assertion kind of power, but doing things right by Christ. Paul would always go the faith route rather than the fist route (remember 2 Corinthians 10:3). But for Paul this does mean taking a stand. My worry is that often we actually do neither fist nor faith, which means we take no stand.

Paul took a stand in Acts 16, which led to him having a horrible flogging and prison. This was because the bad spirit in a fortune telling girl was now gone, which meant her masters lost their revenue source. Yet it was also because the magistrates were weak: they succumbed to crowd pressure. Only the next day, with crowd dispersed, did they then want to let Paul go on the quiet.

But Paul confronted again. For he knew his rights and the injustice he had suffered. As a Roman citizen it was illegal for him to have been treated this way. So he shamed the magistrates by making them escort him out. Note this is a 'righteous shaming', presenting them head on with what was right. It is the same principle as 'going the extra mile' advocated by Jesus - it is a way of non-violent opposition.

We should note that Paul picked his battles. There were surely loads of things Paul could have stood against, loads of episodes and things in society around him. We don't see Paul picking battles with unbelievers about ethical or moral issues of his day (though he did do this with believers, e.g. in Corinth). Instead his battles always centred on the Lordship of Jesus and His Kingdom. This is not to say that we should never speak out on moral issues - we are called to do this prophetically. Yet we should only do that carefully, ensuring we somehow point to Jesus as Lord and Saviour, the discovery of which will surely lead people to better moral decisions.

For men and women in the church the sklll for us to learn is to recognise the battles to fight: where are the power encounters? They might be a specific instance (e.g. Paul with the fortune girl's spirit), they might be underlying everyday culture (e.g. we face culture programming us to be individual consumers, rather than the call of Jesus to live in relationship with God, others and His creation). For Paul, his biggest battle was in fact geo-political on a grand scale.

Read Acts 21 - 28 as one big story (that occupies 25% of the book). It starts in chapter 21 with Paul in Jerusalem, the spiritual centre for the Jewish people. Yet a dispute there leads to another angry mob, becoming prisoner, and appeal to be tried in Rome. Why did Paul want to go to Rome? Was it for sight-seeing? No! It was because in Rome was Caesar, the emperor who claimed god-status. The journey to Rome was therefore about a power encounter: the Roman empire versus Jesus as Lord - that is what Paul's life became all about!

That was Paul, but what about us as a church? What is God's calling on us to stand together to set Jesus as Lord? This current series 'Be the Man' is about being those who apply their faith, being sold out for Jesus, standing up for Jesus as Lord out in the everyday. What cause would we go to prison for? 100 years ago the suffragettes (mostly women) would go for the right to vote. Would we be willing for the cause of Christ?

For Paul prison wasn't a problem: whether in chains or free his life was about the declaration that Jesus is Lord. Of course he didn't want to be in prison. With the chance to speak to the regional King Agrippa he said "be like me, sold out for Jesus, except for these chains!". Yet Paul had a spiritual toughness that accepted the chains when they came.

So for us the new key question/challenge is:

Key Qn: [IN] Do you perceive God toughening us ready for future power encounters?
Challenge: When Jesus as Lord is questioned, make your stand

As a church we want to see Kingdom Life across the city, and for that we organise ourselves as a church in mission across the city. But maybe for that to happen God might need to toughen us up? For to stand for Jesus is to inevitably be faced with some kind of power encounter - things are not always going to go smoothly, just as Paul ran into trouble. What centres of power is God leading us to face head on? And do we have the guts to go there: men (and women) - are we tough enough?

There used to be a TV programmed titled "SAS: Are You Tough Enough" which did mock SAS selection training. Now it doesn't actually matter if you are not a super-hero, or you don't see yourself as a SAS grade believer. It is okay even if you are effectively the lowest rank foot soldier, barely out of phase one training. For it is not about us, but the power of Christ in us.

All we need is our resolve to be faithful - to stand in His power. So that whatever happens, be it the terrible flogging or the chains, we will still confidently declare Jesus is our Lord and Saviour - there is no other - He reigns!

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