September 6, 2020
Acts 28: 1-10, 16, 30-31
“How the Story Doesn’t End”
In preaching these last several sermons on Acts, I feel a bit like an old time radio serial narrator: “When we last saw our intrepid hero, the ship carrying him had run aground. He narrowly escaped being killed by soldiers and finally made it to land. But what land is he on? Will the people there be friend or foe? Will the soldiers carry out their earlier murderous intent? We’ll find out in today’s exciting conclusion of ‘The Book of Acts’!”
And there is, certainly, some excitement here in this final chapter of Acts.
–Paul survives a venomous snake bite.
–He heals Publius’ father,
–then ends up healing “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases.”
–And we have another sea voyage—this time to Rome.
But the very end, the rousing conclusion to this entire saga, is anti-climactic. Once in Rome, Paul, though still in Roman custody, is on a sort of house arrest where he is allowed to meet with people and continue his ministry. He talks to some of the Jewish people there about Jesus. And the final verses of Acts read:
He lived there two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
That’s it. Story over. I suppose as Christians we should find this a good ending—that the message of Jesus has spread to the center of power in the ancient world; that Paul continues to teach about Jesus and insist on the inclusion of Gentiles in the church. . . . It’s . . . good.
But it’s not exciting. It’s not dramatic. It’s not the Hollywood-worthy action-packed adventure we’ve come to expect. And what is most strange about the failure of Acts to reach its dramatic potential is that the life of Paul did end in a dramatic way. In Rome.
If the writer, “Luke” had been going for drama, all he had to do was include what other ancient writers and church tradition have handed down to us; what is depicted in etchings from the Martyrs’ Mirror: that Paul and Peter were martyred in Rome under Nero around 66 A.D. Paul was beheaded and Peter was crucified upside down.
Now THAT is how to end a story.
But Luke doesn’t end the story with martyrdom. He ends with Paul “proclaiming the kingdom of God” with not even a hint of the violent death to come.
The question is why. Why does a skilled storyteller like Luke leave out the exciting climax of the story he is telling?
There are lots of theories to explain this glaring omission. Two of these theories that we discussed in our Wednesday night Bible study seem particularly noteworthy.
First, we need to read Luke’s writings—the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts—through a theological lens—not just a historical lens. Luke’s focus throughout Acts is on the spread of the Good News of Jesus. It starts with the apostles hiding out in Jerusalem; then it is miraculously proclaimed in various languages to thousands of people at Pentecost. Then the Jesus story moves beyond the Jewish people to the Gentiles. From this perspective, Paul teaching and preaching in Rome IS the climax of the story. Jesus is being proclaimed in the heart of the Roman empire.
It’s easy for us to read the book of Acts as a story about Peter and then Paul—especially these last chapters where Paul has grand, dramatic adventures. But the story was never about Peter or Paul or any of the human characters that make an appearance here. Like the first book in the series, the Gospel of Luke, Acts is a story about Jesus—about how the Holy Spirit works to spread the Good News of Jesus and build up Jesus’ church.
At the end of our Bible study Wednesday night, I asked the group what lessons the book of Acts might have for the church today. And for me this is one of the lessons—it’s not about us. It’s not about how good my sermons are or how many people show up on a Zoom call or how many hits our web page gets. And with all due respect and appreciation for the good work so many of you do, it’s not even about having well-crafted policies or fun and friendly worship videos or a “full house” at our upcoming Justice Matters meetings.
Don’t get me wrong. I think those things are important. I think they can be a sign of the Spirit’s presence, a witness to our faithfulness, a tool for building up the kingdom of God. Still, these things we do are not the point. They are not the end. The point is that the work of the Spirit continues—from the days of Peter and Stephen, Lydia and Priscilla, Paul and Silas until now—the Spirit continues to spread Good News and build up the Kingdom of God.
So the martyrdom of Peter and Paul, while tragic and dramatic, isn’t necessary in the book of Acts. Because Acts isn’t really about them.
Here is another reason that, perhaps, the story in Acts stops before we get to Paul’s death: because the Jesus story isn’t about death. It’s a resurrection story!
The primary message of all of the apostles in the book of Acts is focused on the resurrection of Jesus. And this is a message we hear in the letters that Paul writes to churches as well. In his letter to the church in Rome, we read:
[I]f we have been united with [Christ] in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. (Romans 6:5-9)
The fact of resurrection is the Good News: that Jesus was raised from the dead and that we can be united with Christ in resurrection.
From this perspective, death is not news, so why would Luke conclude the book of Acts with stories of death?
Throughout the book, Jesus’ resurrection is mentioned twenty times, while his death is only mentioned four times. Perhaps this, too, is a lesson from Acts for today’s church.
It seems a bit of a challenge to live as people of resurrection while not ignoring the very real death that occurs around us every day. We would have to live in a place of very deep denial to claim that there is no sorrow or death in the world.
As I thought about this challenge, though, I realized something about resurrection: You can’t claim resurrection unless you first acknowledge the existence of death. So the way to be resurrection people is not to deny death’s existence or try to gloss over the world’s problems, but to speak truth about the reality of death AND truth about the more powerful reality of life in, with, and through God.
Paul and the other apostles in Acts are speaking of capital “R” Resurrection: the Resurrection of Jesus, Resurrection into eternal life. To be clear, THAT Resurrection is something only God does; only the power of God accomplishes capital “R” Resurrection.
There are also, I think, lots of little “r” resurrections that we participate in here and now. Resurrections we can experience and be part of. Spots of life that we are called to focus on—not in denial of death, but in acknowledgement that death is real but the life of God is more powerful.
There are many examples. A few I’ve been thinking about:
The resurrections of the people who gathered at Standing Rock and created community to protect the land and the water.
The resurrection of youth from this church going to First Baptist to volunteer at the food pantry to make sure that people who need food have food.
The resurrection of the gathering held recently in Kenosha, Wisconsin. While the president was in town, the family of Jacob Blake, the man recently shot by police, held a community event that provided opportunities for voter registration and COVID-19 testing.
The resurrection that we advocate for with Justice Matters in our work for restorative justice in schools, for alternatives for incarceration, for an end to homelessness in Lawrence.
The resurrection happening in Atlanta as they transform their city jail into a space for community services.
The resurrection of the church—this church and so many others who are facing this time of COVID when it’s not safe to gather in person in the regular way. And we are finding ways to still be the church.
These are the things, as followers of the Resurrected One, that we are called to focus on and to live out. This is the story that Acts is telling; this is the story the early church lived into; this is the story that we, as privileged members of the church today, continue to live out: Not a story of death, but a story of resurrection.
Thanks be to God.