Sermon for Sunday, November 17, 2019 || Proper 28C || Luke 21:5-19
Imagine with me the words of the Apostle Peter, spoken to his young cellmate on the eve of Peter’s death in the city of Rome around the year 64 A.D.
I heard about the great fire that swept through Rome, and I knew immediately that the authorities would blame us Christians. That’s why I came here – to support the community I knew would face persecution. And now here I am, arrested for arson – this is my fourth arrest, by the way – and I wasn’t even here at the time of the blaze. But facts don’t matter to those in power. Only keeping their power matters to them.
You asked me earlier what I might say in my defense tomorrow. Honestly, I think I’ve used up all my words. I’ve been talking for so long now. And you know what? I never planned what I would say. I trusted what Jesus told us all those years ago, that in moments of trial he would give me words, he would give me wisdom. And through the Holy Spirit, Jesus has never failed to keep that promise.
I don’t have anything to say to our captors tomorrow – let me go to my death unbroken – but tonight there are words the Spirit is prompting me to say to you. So, my young friend, let me tell you what I have learned from the words and wisdom that Jesus Christ put on my lips and in my heart in times of trial.
I first felt the presence of the promised Holy Spirit while surrounded by all of Jesus’ earliest followers. It felt like wind rushing into the house. It filled me with boldness and confidence, and I went outside and preached the good news of Jesus to any who would listen. They thought I was drunk, but no – I was simply filled to bursting with the presence of God. I said to all who would listen, “Change your hearts and lives, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39).
We baptized three thousand people that day. I could hardly believe it! Soon after, the power of Christ in me healed a man whose legs had been crippled his whole life. That caused a stir, so John and I spoke to a great crowd of people in Jerusalem. I got a little heated in the moment and started throwing accusations at the people, but then I remembered to breathe and listen for the words and wisdom of Jesus. Jesus had forgiven even those who put him to death, saying that they did not know what they were doing. So I said the same to the crowd: “And now, friends, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:17).
We kept on preaching until we got arrested. The same frightened leaders questioned us who had questioned Jesus. I breathed deep and started speaking the good news of healing in the name of Jesus. The council released us and told us to keep quiet, but that was never going to happen. When we got arrested again soon after, an angel of the Lord led us out of prison, and we went right back to teaching in the temple. The council questioned us again, and the Holy Spirit spoke through me: “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). I am so thankful for a good man of the council, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, whose wisdom allowed us to go free. He said, “If their work is not of God, it will die out on its own, but if it is of God, then we won’t be able to stop it” (Acts 5:38-39; paraphrase).
Gamaliel spoke with wisdom too, and he convinced the council to let us go. I kept spreading the good news among the people until one day God invited me to spread it among Gentiles, as well. I visited with the family of a Roman centurion named Cornelius, and again the wisdom of Christ flowed through me, revealing truth to me. And I said, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34).
That didn’t sit well with the circumcised believers. I was summoned back to Jerusalem to explain why I went to eat with uncircumcised men. I told them the whole story about how the Holy Spirit was moving in the lives of Cornelius’s family. And in the midst of the contentious conversation, I felt again the words of Jesus bubbling up in me, and I said, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” They all fell silent, and then they burst out praising God for reaching the Gentiles (Acts 11:17).
After that, persecution came from Herod. My close friend James was killed, and I was arrested a third time. But again, an angel came to me in prison and led me out. I still had work to do and still so much to teach and to learn. A few years later, the argument about the Gentiles flared up again, this time because of the work of Paul. The elders met and there was much debate. I remained quiet until I felt the same fluttering coming from my gut that I had learned to trust. I stood up and defended Paul, saying, “My brothers…God, who knows the human heart, testified to [the Gentiles] by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us” (Acts 15:8-9).
And now here I am in a city of Gentiles, arrested a fourth time and accused of burning the city to the ground.* I don’t expect an angel to deliver me this time, for my work is nearly done. The last promptings of the Spirit have told me to share my story with you. I hope you have heard the thread woven through this story. In each moment when I stood up to speak in a time of trial, I did feel the presence of my friend Jesus. I trusted that the words he would have me speak would come. And when they did, they always surprised me. His words and wisdom led me to proclaim his good news, to forgive others, to welcome everyone, and to expand my understanding of who belongs in God’s family.
In times of trial, it can be so tempting to cling hard to exclusion and pain. But that’s not the way Jesus Christ spoke in my life. He spoke only love and forgiveness and welcome. I hope you will remember that, my young friend, when they release you. And tomorrow, when the swift sunrise opens upon a far green country, and I go to my rest, remember the Holy Spirit that Jesus promised remains with you. Listen for the Spirit’s promptings, and you will find wisdom.
*Peter being accused of starting the Great Fire of Rome is a fanciful invention that weaves together two pieces of history/tradition: that Nero blamed the Christians for the fire, and that the Church remembers Peter dying in Rome during the reign of Nero.
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