Acts 28 - “There are No Detours in Mission”
Seven months ago, Cindy and I left Living Water to go start a new church community in the suburb of Bolingbrook. We talked it over with a lot of people here at the church, we prayed together, we even had a goodbye party for Cindy and me. We went out with the church’s blessing. . . . And now we’re back.
I think our story is a little like Paul’s story in Acts 28. So I’m going to spend a few minutes this morning telling my story, a little time talking about Paul’s story, and then we’ll spend some time praying together about how it relates to our stories--what God is asking of us as a church-community and what God is asking of each of us personally.
Choosing to leave Living Water to start this new ministry in Bolingbrook was a very hard decision. Cindy and I love so many people here, we feel at home, supported, known by people. We hesitated to uproot ourselves and break-off all these relationships.
Bolingbrook is a very suburban suburb. It has mile after mile of neighborhood developments, full of big, expensive houses on frequently-mown yards. In between the neighborhood developments sit big box stores, chain restaurants, and the occasional strip mall. Plus it has a gigantic open-air shopping mall called the Promenade. A friend who had lived there a few years told me that the people who live in the big houses in the neighborhood developments are most interested in what will make their own lives better, easier, and more comfortable.
I went to Bolingbrook to start what I think this suburb needed more than anything else. I went to start a church-community that would help people turn away from looking only at themselves and what they care about (something the Bible calls sin) to looking at Jesus and the way he causes us to look out more for what’s good for others than what makes us feel good. I went to Bolingbrook to bring the gospel.
And I was excited to do it. I was doing what God wants; I was starting a community that lives out Jesus’ good news message. I worked with an old (mostly retirement age), Presbyterian church in Bolingbrook. The pastor at the church wanted to start a new ministry to invite younger people into the church. So my new church-community would be their new Young Adult Ministry.
Already by the end of November the new ministry was starting to come together. We started with a worship service held on Sunday nights. It was a laid back service, the lights turned down. We’d incorporate drama alongside a lot of scripture reading and a few songs to sing. I would preach, and we’d end with prayer. In January we added a potluck after every service and a longer prayer and sharing time. It strangely resembled what we get together to do here on Sunday mornings.
By the end of February, I felt pretty good about what we were doing. It wasn’t exactly what I had first imagined, there were still plenty of kinks to work out, we still had yet to get people to open their homes to one another--and all this was complicated by the fact that Cindy and I still lived forty miles north of the church in our apartment here in Rogers Park. But overall, I was pretty pleased. People were becoming friends with on another. Social barriers were being torn down. People were opening up, sharing their deep and difficult needs with each other. People were choosing to follow Jesus. We were in the middle of the birth of a new church-community. I could honestly say to God, “You called me down to Bolingbrook to start a church-community that lived out the gospel, and that’s what’s coming together here.”
But we’re not in Bolingbrook this morning, and we’re not going back tonight for another Five O’Clock service.
Now, a lot of you have experienced that I’m not good at sports. I’ve never been good at sports, even when I was a little kid. I remember playing soccer at school one day in fifth or sixth grade. It was toward the end of the lunch hour, the game was getting really intense. And then I had my moment. Someone upfield had sent the ball flying down at chestlevel. I jumped into the air for what I thought was an amazing save. I stopped the ball and kicked it back. And then in a sickening moment I realized that I had just sent the ball in the wrong direction. I had stopped my own team. All my teammates scowled at me, and I felt pretty confused.
So, the first week of March the senior pastor pulled me aside after a staff meeting. “Josh, we need to talk about the Sunday evening service,” he said. We agreed to meet after lunch, so a couple hours later we sat together at one of the potluck tables in the church’s fellowship hall. He looked at me, “Josh, I like what you’ve been doing with the Five O’Clock service, but there are some things that really need to change.” I was confused, I thought this meeting would be about scheduling, a report and a pat on the back. But that didn’t seem to be the way things were working out. Turns out, what the church meant by a new ministry was more of a rock ‘n’ roll evangelism event and less of a potluck-eating, long-praying community focused on learning to follow Jesus better. That soccer-game feeling was coming back. I thought things were going great, but it turns my team felt like I was playing against them the whole time.
Things fell apart pretty quickly after that. The senior pastor instituted some pretty drastic changes, cutting out the prayer time, taking the focus off getting to know one another over potluck dinners, replacing hard calls to follow Jesus by loving others with the way we use our money and open our homes to strangers with friendlier sermons that would help people live better, happier, more meaningful lives with the power of Jesus. I resigned the Sunday before Easter, announced it the Sunday after Easter, and ate my slice of goodbye cake the week after that.
And I’m still fairly confused. I was really confident that I went down to Bolingbrook as part of God’s plan to share Jesus’ good news with the people who lived there. But, now what? What happened to God’s plan? Did I get detoured? ambushed? Did God forget about me and Cindy and our young community in Bolingbrook?
If I were Paul in Acts 28, I would feel this same way. Way back in Acts 19--ten chapters ago--we read, Paul decided to go to Jerusalem . . . “After I have been there,” he said, “I must visit Rome.” Rome has been on Paul’s heart for years before the shipwreck on Malta that we’re looking at today. And then later, in chapter 23, we read that Jesus appears to him confirming this plan to go to Rome: the Lord stood near Paul and said, “Take courage! As you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.”
But then what happens? He’s already in prison. The city leaders in Jerusalem plot to assassinate Paul when he’s being transfered. The Roman court system saves him from being killed, but then leaves him to sit in a prison cell for two years. Finally, when he’s in danger of another assassination plot, he asserts his rights as a Roman citizen to have a hearing before the emperor. But, then, as soon as he sets sail, a huge hurricane-force storm wrecks his ship on the rocky shore of Malta. Then to top it all off, he’s putting some wood on the fire and snake jumps out and clamps on to his arm. So he’s standing there, with a snake hanging off his arm, and the locals are thinking he’s a murderer. If I were Paul, I would look up about then and ask God, “Hey, what happened to the plan? Aren’t I supposed to be testifying about Jesus in Rome? Why am I sidetracked here in Malta? Why have I been left in prison for two years? What happened to the plan?”
But unlike me, Paul isn’t confused. He’s got every reason to feel like his life’s taken a wrong turn, that he’s on some misguided detour, to feel like God’s forgotten about him. In fact, even when he gets to Rome, things don’t appear to get much better. No trial, at least two more years under house arrest. He explains the good news about Jesus and God’s kingdom to the local Jewish religious leaders, and they walk out, disagreeing with one another about what to make of this message. But how does Paul respond? As the Jewish leaders in Rome walk out of his house in a huff, he calls after them, “God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”
This morning, this is what I want us to hear; this is what I need to hear. Look how Paul responds to what we would think of as a series of setbacks: He’s in prison in Caesarea and, like Pastor Sally told us two weeks ago, he takes this as an opportunity to tell King Agrippa about Jesus; then he’s on a storm-tossed ship with soldiers ready to execute all him along with the rest of the prisoners, and, like Drew told us last week, Paul thanks God, holds a communal meal, and tells the sailors to trust God. Now he’s washed up on this island with a snake clamped onto his arm, and what does he do? Paul shakes the snake off and begins to proclaim the good news about Jesus by healing the local ruler’s father and many of the sick people on the island. Now he’s in Rome under house arrest, and while the Jewish leaders sigh and harumph their way out the door, Paul’s already ready to proclaim the gospel to all the non-Jewish people in Rome.
This is what we need to hear. For Paul, there are no detours to the mission God has given him. When God sends us out with the mission to tell people about Jesus and God’s kingdom, there are no detours, no dead-ends, no wasted time. When we’re following Jesus, every situation, however unplanned, however frustrating, is a place where we can tell other people about who Jesus is through what we say and what we do.
So often we get a picture in our heads about what God wants, about what he must be doing. And then something comes out of nowhere--sometimes something simply unexpected, sometimes something exciting, sometimes something tragic--and the picture just doesn’t make sense anymore. Maybe some of us in the church feel this about Pastor Sally’s transition out of leadership; maybe some us of us feel this way about the unexpected ways God is asking us to enact the good news in our neighborhood. Maybe we feel this in a much more personal way--maybe a relationship suddenly fell apart, maybe a parent or relative suddenly fell severely ill. Maybe, like for me, a job just disappeared or you’ve found your life’s direction, your life’s purpose, suddenly surrounded by question marks. Where is God in all this? What does God say to us?
God says, “Tell people about Jesus.” That’s what Paul did in and through all his hard times, all the unexpected twists of his story. We have the greatest message, the truest message. We have the message that in Jesus God has made a world where there is no more pain, no more hatred, no more injustice, no more loneliness. We have the message that God invites us to work with him in this new world. As Paul says 2 Corinthians, Jesus’ love compels us to share this message with all the people we meet, in every situation, in every circumstance.
Father God, put your gospel in our mouths! Put our hands to work in this gospel. Open our homes, put strangers around our kitchen tables, share our possessions all for the sake of telling other people the good news. Oh God, there are no detours, no dead-ends with you; your mission of love overflows into every situation, every circumstance. Fill our mouths and our lives with your gospel! Amen.