Sorry that I’m a bit late on posting my “Monday’s Reflection on Sunday’s Sermon” (I’m writing this on Thursday!).
Have you ever thought about the power of “normal”? We often think of normal as being simple, taken for granted, plain, and powerless, but I think the concept of normal is one of the most powerful things in our lives. What we think is or should be normal exerts pressure on us. What we think of as a normal income, height, weight, intelligence, and so many other “normals” in our life, make us evaluate ourselves and we feel the weight of being out of line with normal. One profound way that the concept of normal impacts us is the idea that life should be relatively easy and smooth. That in general we should be happy, healthy, and comfortable.
We import this idea of normal life into our relationship with Christ on the Gospel Mission. We think that following Christ should be roses and green fields, calm waters and fresh air. This means that when our life goes through ups and downs we feel profoundly not normal which often translates into thinking something is wrong – that somehow we are wrong or doing something wrong or even that maybe God is wrong. Churches get caught up in this. We can think that any disagreement or differences of opinion are an indication of a deeper problem. We can think that if the church isn’t growing or enjoying “success” (whatever that is) then something is tragically wrong.
The problem with all of this is how we define “normal.” The picture we get from Acts chapters 21 through 28 (and really the entire book of Acts, and, come to think of it, the entire Bible!) is that life in relationship with God is filled with ups and downs. There is no normal level where we are supposed to be comfortable all the time. It is often in the ups and downs that God is profoundly at work.
On Sunday I gave an overview of Acts 21 – 28 which I won’t do here. Instead, I challenge you to read it for yourself. It is an incredible account of Paul’s arrest, multiple trials, and eventual travel and imprisonment in Rome. Acts ends there. There is no grand finale, no plot line wrapped in a bow. In fact, I would say that Acts ends with a great unwritten “to be continued…” It think it is part of the genius of God to have this incredible account of the beginning of the Gospel Mission end without an ending because the truth is that the account of the church – the followers of Jesus Christ – living the Gospel Mission in this world continues today with US.
One question I had after studying these final chapters of Acts was how it was possible for Paul to keep going when things were so difficult. Paul’s speech before King Agrippa in chapter 26 holds some key insights into Paul’s thinking and there I saw three things that really challenged me.
Good intentions do not equal right direction: In Acts 26:9-14, Paul tells about how he lived before meeting Christ. He was so sincere. So passionate. So single-minded in his devotion. So dedicated to living out his belief. Yet for all of his good intentions and sincere faith, he had to come to terms with the fact that he was sincerely wrong. Paul’s direction in his life of following Jesus wasn’t set by good intentions. When we try to just do the right thing then we might be quick to abandon that when it seems like it’s not working. Paul’s new direction in his life was shaped by the fact that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins and rose from the dead to prove He is the Messiah and offers eternal life to all who believe in him. Following Christ isn’t about having good intentions or just trying to be a better you. It is about knowing and living the reality that Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection is a truth which forever sets a direction for the Gospel Mission and that we must weigh all of our supposedly good intentions against this unchanging direction.
It really is all about Jesus: In Acts 26:15-17 and 22-29, Paul tells Agrippa what it was that changed his life. What could possibly make this persecutor of Christians and rejector (I think that’s a real word) of Christ become willing to endure beatings, imprisonments, and even death for the sake of the truth he once fought so hard against? It was the reply from the voice that stopped him on the road to Damascus and said, “I am Jesus” (26:15). The fact of Jesus’ resurrection proves everything Jesus ever said about himself. It proves that he was able to pay the penalty for our sins and offer eternal life with God. It also set an entirely new direction for Paul’s life (as it does for ours) because Jesus said, “I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen of me and what I will show you” (Acts 26:16). This is the same language Jesus used when speaking to the disciples when he said, “and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8). The reason Paul could endure so much difficulty is that he knew his life was not about him. It had nothing to do with his comfort and it had everything to do with whether or not he lived and spoke as a witness to the truth of the existence, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus. We are equipped to endure the ups and downs of the Gospel Mission only as we accept the fact that our lives are now all about Jesus.
This Changes Everything: In Acts 26:15-18, Paul tells Agrippa about the mission that Jesus gave to him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. For his entire life Paul had focused on keeping the Jewish Law and trying to preserve and purify the Jewish nation as God’s people (this is what being a Pharisee was all about). Now, Jesus tells him to leave all that behind and go to the people Paul once rejected to tell them that God is offering them salvation through Jesus. Paul’s life was (and our life still is today) radically changed by the fact of the resurrection of Jesus. Look at these statements of Paul from Philippians:
Philippians 1:12 – Speaking of his beatings and imprisonment – “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.”
Philippians 1:20-21 – “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.”
Philippians 1:27-30 – “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in one spirit, contending as one man for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.”
These are the statements of a man whose entire life has been changed by Christ. He has a new definition of “normal” – a definition that is wrapped around the idea of proclaiming the truth about Jesus no matter what happens to him.
So as we end our brief study of Acts, we have to understand that the mission continues with us today. We are now the witnesses of Jesus in this world. We must allow this incredible truth redefine our concept of normal life and accept the wonderful, but often difficult, truth that we are living out the Gospel Mission today.