“God is the Actor in this Great Play”

Rev. Katherine Todd
Acts 19:1, 8-20
Philippians 1:15-18

Acts 19:1, 8-20

While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus.
Paul entered the synagogue and spoke boldly there for three months, arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. But some of them became obstinate; they refused to believe and publicly maligned the Way. So Paul left them. He took the disciples with him and had discussions daily in the lecture hall of Tyrannus. This went on for two years, so that all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them.

Some Jews who went around driving out evil spirits tried to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who were demon-possessed. They would say, “In the name of the Jesus whom Paul preaches, I command you to come out.” Seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, were doing this. One day the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know about, but who are you?” Then the man who had the evil spirit jumped on them and overpowered them all. He gave them such a beating that they ran out of the house naked and bleeding.

When this became known to the Jews and Greeks living in Ephesus, they were all seized with fear, and the name of the Lord Jesus was held in high honor. Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed what they had done. A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.

Philippians 1:15-18

It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.

This story of Paul’s travels, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and making disciples is unlike anything in most of our experiences.

When we think about spreading the good news, we may think of a simple elevator pitch.  We may think of folks traveling from door to door wearing a white shirt, black pants, and a tie.  We have all seen the billboards meant to bring folks to repentance and save them from eternal damnation.  Perhaps we think of inviting folks to church.

But the way Paul did evangelism was not like any of these things.  Paul didn’t just speak the words, he traveled to new places, went into their synagogues, and began witnessing – arguing even – with the religious leaders, providing evidence, logic, reason, etc.  He would be met with belief and unbelief.  And after a season of witnessing and debating, if folks did not believe and if they became hostile, he would move on to where he would be received – preaching in the public arena, teaching and training those who believed – discipling them, …for years.

Paul was not a drive-by evangelist.  Paul was a live-in evangelist.

And he did not just preach with words, he carried on the work of Christ, healing the sick and casting out demons.  And he provided for himself, through honest work, as a tanner.  So wherever he traveled, he worked and served the community – investing in it for years at a time – while sharing the good news of Jesus Christ and discipling those who believed.

Long-term mission work most closely mirrors the evangelism we see from Paul’s life.

But how did one with such a burning passion for God accept this long labor of love – without feeling the need to jump from place to place as quickly as possible?  After all, Jesus’ last words were to go and make disciples of all nations.  How could Paul make disciples of all nations?

While I was away last week, my family traveled to my childhood home in SC, where my mother has been climbing the mountain of a minor house fire that caused all her home and belongings to be thrown into disarray.  After the long journey of Insurance adjusters and Remediators, she had paths between rooms, but each room was full of furniture & belongings boxed & bagged & strewn in the middle of rooms, as the items had been removed & treated and returned, as furniture had been rearranged, once for painting ceilings, and then again for painting walls…  It was as though she’d just been moved out of and then back into the home she’s lived in for 50 years.  You can only imagine the layers and layers of stuff needing attention.

Facing this mountain with her over the holiday, I was beside myself with discouragement.  Her needs were so great and our time so short, I couldn’t see that we’d make any more than a dent in the major work she was facing. And our first day, I was angry because I did not feel we were moving quickly enough or maximizing our labors most effectively.  I was watching this slow labor and calculating the time and realizing we were not going to get much done at all!

But God met me in the angst and anger.  God met us and together we began to level that mountain of work and disorder.

Up until the third day, our final day, it appeared we would be leaving her with no functional rooms,

…and then it all came together!

I can’t tell you how miraculous that felt.  When we left, my mother told my sister, “I can walk in every room now, and I can breathe!”

God’s work through & despite us over those 3 days was illogically effective.  It defies explanation.  It was truly miraculous.

And I believe that’s what happens when we join in what God is already doing.

So I can imagine Paul, this one who has been passionate all his life, being tempted toward a shorter, quicker pathway…an elevator pitch, a road-side chat, dinner and a pitch…  After all, Christ’s heart is for ALL nations!  He had a lot of people to reach!  But he didn’t do this.  Paul put down roots in the communities that would receive him, and he nurtured disciples.

…In fact, in this story we find that Paul stayed long enough for even a number of the unbelievers to learn through quite a disturbing experience, that Paul was a servant of the One true God.  And then we hear that this scary encounter led to many more in the town believing in Christ and turning from their false idols toward the one true God.

When we listen to the news or watch TV, the scope of need in our world is completely overwhelming. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is going to explode or unravel or fall apart.  And few of our images of evangelism really help.  No one wants to be preached at or told what to do.  Most people we know have heard of Jesus and many of them have been burned by those claiming Christ’s name.  Like the seven sons of the chief priest in this story, they’ve experienced those using Jesus and church and the Bible like a secret sauce or a weapon – to be yielded as they so choose – not understanding that Jesus cannot be co-opted into our personal revolutions.

Jesus Christ is not a weapon or a tool, a magic word, or a get-into-heaven-free card.  Jesus’ name may win us political points, but God have mercy on any who use Jesus’ name in vain.  We are not the main actor in this play.  We are not the masters of our universe.  But our God is.  God is the Subjectof this great play.

And our God is calling us into partnership – to join in the work of the Kingdom, the healing of our world.  Our God has removed the dividing wall, poured out the Spirit, and called us friends. We are invited to live as friends of God, children of God, partners in Christ’s service.  We do not invoke God.  But rather God invites us.

God leads.  We follow.

And this is not a one-time thing, for use only in emergencies.

This is a way of life.

Paul seems to have understood this.  And what did God do?  Through this pocket of the world in which Paul traveled, lived and preached, God, the primary actor, spread word of Jesus Christ near and far.  Through the pure in heart and even through those powers and authorities who would co-opt God for their own political gain, the good news spread. And God continues to use Paul to nurture disciples to this very day, all around the world.

Miraculous!

Good and evil abound in this world.  And they are not easily discernable at times.  But whether by false motives or true, the Good News still spreads – thanks be to God!  The need is great, but our God is greater, and our God is able to use ALL THINGS for good.

So let us keep the faith and
persevere in prayer,
following ever in the footsteps of Christ Jesus and
keeping our eyes fixed on the One
who can take our modest offerings and multiply them,
making us a city on a hill,
a light in the darkness,
a light that that shines in darkness
and is not overcome.

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