While Paul was looking intently at the council he said, “Brothers, up to this day I have lived my life with a clear conscience before God.”2Then the high priest Ananias ordered those standing near him to strike him on the mouth. 3At this Paul said to him, “God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting there to judge me according to the law, and yet in violation of the law you order me to be struck?” 4Those standing nearby said, “Do you dare to insult God’s high priest?” 5And Paul said, “I did not realize, brothers, that he was high priest; for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a leader of your people.’”
6When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” 7When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8(The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) 9Then a great clamor arose, and certain scribes of the Pharisees’ group stood up and contended, “We find nothing wrong with this man. What if a spirit or an angel has spoken to him?” 10When the dissension became violent, the tribune, fearing that they would tear Paul to pieces, ordered the soldiers to go down, take him by force, and bring him into the barracks. 11That night the Lord stood near him and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.” (Acts 23:1-11 NRSV)
Once again, Paul finds himself standing in front of one of those crowds-slash-mobs that Luke, the author of Acts, is so fond of telling us about.
This time its the hight priest, the Sadducees, and the Pharisees who are arguing. Paul, in a really clever move, uses the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees over resurrection to his advantage and actually gets the pharisees to stand up and say that they don’t see anything wrong with Paul. Maybe, they say, Paul really did experience some sort of divine revelation. We can’t move past this too quickly. This is a big deal. One of the groups that had been in opposition to Paul and the gospel of Jesus actually says out loud, that they don’t find anything wrong with Paul.
The night after all this, while Paul was still locked up and under military supervision in the Roman barracks, Paul had another encounter with Christ:
“That night the Lord stood near him and said, ‘Keep up your courage! For just as you have testified for me in Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also in Rome.’”
Think back for a minute, what was Paul’s experience of bearing witness for Jesus in Jerusalem?
It was really difficult! It was angry and hostile crowds … it was resistance … it was getting beaten up by a mob … it was getting hit in the face by the high priest’s lackey … it was getting dragged and pushed around … it was pleading with hard hearts … Paul’s experience of witnessing for Christ in Jerusalem was rough going – hostility, chains and pain and confusion.
That night, Jesus, the Lord, stood near Paul in the midst of the difficulty and hardship … in the midst of those barracks and those chains … and said, “Keep up your courage! For just as you have borne witness for me in Jerusalem, so you must (this is a term Luke uses to communicate “divine imperative” – God’s will and purpose) so you must bear witness also in Rome.
Let me get this straight, this is not a promise to “take courage” because this whole uncomfortable mess will be over soon. This isn’t a promise that life will be any better or less painful in Rome. This is a message for Paul to keep plodding along this demanding journey because God’s mission isn’t finished yet.
Reflecting on Paul’s encounter with Jesus in Acts 23 verse 11, Justo Gonzalez writes,
“Commonly, when we try to encourage someone, we say something such as, ‘Don’t worry. Things are going to get better soon.’ But the Lord told Paul exactly the opposite. The Lord told Paul that he was to keep up his courage, not because things were going to improve, but rather because difficulties would continue for some time … the apostle needed courage precisely because there were even greater difficulties ahead. The Lord encouraged [Paul], not so that he might leave aside the task commended to him, but rather that he might have the strength necessary to fulfill it” (Gonzalez, Justo. “Three Months with the Spirit.” p. 140).
So often, I long for that kind of experience with Jesus … one of those moments when we hear Christ’s word to us so clearly, or know Christ’s presence near to us so fully … I have this expectation that it would make life easier, that it would help things to make more sense, but when I come across Paul’s experiences with Jesus in Acts, those moments when he hears the voice of Christ, those moments when he experiences the presence of Christ – instead of life getting any easier, Paul’s life seems to get more complicated and he even seems to wind up in more trouble for Christ’s sake. One of my favorite writers, Shane Claiborne, says, “The more I get to know Jesus, the more trouble he seems to get me into” (Claiborne, Shane. “The Irresistible Revolution.” p. 226).
I think from what we are learning during our time in Acts that Paul could say something similar. The more Paul experiences Jesus, the more Paul seeks to faithfully follow Jesus and live into the mission God has laid upon him, the more Paul winds up in strange and uncomfortable places … the more he gets into trouble.
For Paul, following Jesus isn’t a free pass to an easy life. For Paul, following Jesus is a calling to mission, it is a call to adventure, a call to bear witness to Jesus in some really hostile environments and difficult crowds. As Paul follows Jesus, he finds himself standing face to face with people and forces who stand in opposition to God’s purposes.
I don’t think this is just the case for Paul, I think this is the case for all of us as we seek to faithfully follow and entrust our lives to Christ. The experiences we have with Christ … those moments when we so strongly hear Christ’s word to us … those moments when we so certainly experience Christ’s nearness to us … those aren’t just for our own benefit. Those experiences give us energy and courage to live faithfully as Christ’s disciples and call us to participate in God’s work. Whether God is calling us to preach in front of intimidating crowds, councils, or emperors … or if Christ is calling us to care for our neighbors in ways that might challenge us, make us uncomfortable, or as Shane Claiborne says, “Get us into trouble.”
Maybe it is courage to be uncomfortable for the sake of faithfulness that God is calling Paul … and us, toward.
Robert Lupton is a missionary and community developer, living and working in inner-city Atlanta. In one of his reflections on life and ministry in Atlanta titled, “Please Sit in My Chair,” I think he catches this idea of courage to be uncomfortable for the sake of faithfulness that we see in Paul’s experiences with Christ.
She’s sixty-six, mildly [mentally handicapped], dangerously overweight, twice a great-grandmother and a devoted member of our church. She lives with four generations of extended family in an overcrowded, dilapidated house, but her buoyant spirit is undaunted. Since losing her youngest son in a senseless murder last Christmas Eve (he was shot while riding with his uncle in a taxi cab), she has redirected much of her affection to me.
“You’re my buddy,” she says with a broad, snaggle-toothed grin. “I pray for you every day.” Then she gives me a long bear hug. She wants to sit close beside me in every church service, and although the smell of stale sweat and excrement is often nauseating, she makes me feel a little special. Her internal plumbing doesn’t work as well as it used to, and she leaves tobacco smears when she kisses my cheek. But I am pleased to have Mrs. Smith by my side.
She often hints, sometimes blatantly, that she would like to come home with us for a visit. Nothing would delight her more than to have Sunday dinner with my family.
But there is a conflict. It has to do with values that Peggy and I learned from childhood. We believe that good stewardship means taking care of our belongings, treating them with respect, and getting long service from them. Our boys know that they are not to track in mud on the carpet or sit on the furniture with dirty clothes. To invite Mrs. Smith into our home means we will have filth and stench soil our couch. There will be stubborn offensive odors in our living room.
My greatest fear is that she will want to sit in my new corduroy recliner. I wouldn’t want to be rude and cover it with plastic to protect it from urine stains. But I know it would never be the same again. Unknowingly, Mrs. Smith is forcing a conflict, a clashing of values, upon me.
Preserve and maintain. Conserve and protect. They are the words of an ethic that has served us well. Over time these values have subtly filtered into our theology … Stewardship has become confused with insurance coverage, with certificates of deposit, and protective coverings for our stained glass … Somewhere on the way to becoming rich we picked up the idea that preserving our property is preferable to expending it for people …
Why should it be such a struggle to decide which is more godly: to welcome Mrs. Smith into my home and my corduroy recliner or to preserve the “homey aroma” of my sanctuary and get extra years of service from my furniture?
… We did finally invite Mrs. Smith to have Sunday dinner in our home. And she did just as I feared she would. She went straight for my corduroy recliner. And it never has been the same. In fact Mrs. Smith even joined a Bible study in our home the next week. Every Wednesday evening she headed right to my chair. She even referred to it as her chair!.
I thank God for Mrs. Smith and the conflict she brings me. In her more clearly than in Sunday School lessons or sermons, I encounter the Christ of scripture saying, “Inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me” (Lupton, Robert. “Theirs Is the Kingdom.” pp. 8-9).
I am challenged by the conflict Robert Lupton highlights – that conflict between being comfortable, or being uncomfortable for the sake of faithfulness to Christ. It is something we see in Paul’s life – Paul takes courage and pushes on, enduring discomfort for the sake of Christ’s calling to mission.
Today we will celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As we eat this bread and drink from this cup, together we experience Christ … we are nourished in our faith … we see and touch and taste the love of God poured out for us in Christ. As we encounter Christ, we are encouraged in our faith and called to risk being uncomfortable for the sake of faithfulness. As we encounter Christ we are called to be a part of God’s purposes in the world.