Read Acts 28
The book of Acts is really divided into 2 parts. Chapters 1-12 are about the early church declaring that Jesus really is the Messiah Israel had been waiting for. He was the one who would bring about the New Exodus and bring liberation for Israel. The slaves in Egypt had cried out to God because of their slave-drivers and God rescued them from Pharaoh and took them out of Egypt.
After much toil and heartache on God’s part, they reached the Promised Land. But then they forgot about God and the consequences of their turning away from God was exile out of the Promised Land and into slavery once again but this time in Babylon. But God made a promise that he had not forgotten them and that he had plans to redeem them.
They returned to Israel but nothing was as it was before and they were waiting for the Messiah to come and liberate them from the oppression of the Romans.
The first 12 chapters of Acts are about that liberation and how the early church spread the good news that the Messiah had indeed come and had won the freedom that Israel had for so long been waiting for. But the Messiah didn’t use violence to bring about that freedom, rather he had violence inflicted upon Himself.
Rather than overthrowing the King and claiming the crown, he hung on a cross wearing a crown of thorns.
Rather than clenching his fist around a sword, he opened his hands and had nails driven into them.
Rather than holding a shield to protect himself, he hung naked and vulnerable with a spear piercing his side.
Rather than carrying armour on his back, he wore a Cross.
And it was here that Jesus won the victory.
It was here that all the powers of darkness were defeated and the New Exodus began, a freedom from slavery and oppression under the hand of death and sin.
It was this Messiah and this freedom that the early church preached to Israel that we read of in the book of Acts. And the church explodes in growth seeing thousands upon thousands becoming a part of this vibrant, dynamic and loving community.
Chapters 13-28 are how this message to the Jews spread to the Gentiles. Here we see this liberating message spreading outside of Israel to the world around. Nothing can stop this message! Oppression and persecution cannot stop the power of this message! God is on a mission and by His Spirit he is getting that message out into the whole world that the whole world may experience for themselves the freedom that can be found in Jesus!
So we begin in Chapter 28. Why? So we can retrace the steps of the early church and understand what happened and then at the end of the 6 weeks understand why it happened. Today we hear how Paul continued in the mission that God was on and, I pray, we will then know more fully the mission are continuing in. A mission that was handed to the Apostles, the early church and then continuing century after century until today. And we continue preaching the same gospel in the power of the same Spirit, this same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead is at work in us to make this message known and make Christ known in the world!
The final word in the book of Acts in the Greek is Akolytos. This means unhindered or free. This is the framework that Luke wants to paint this book in. Here we have a gospel that is unhindered and cannot be contained because the power of the Holy Spirit is making this message known in the world. Paul may be in chains at the end of the book of Acts but the gospel certainly isn’t! God Spirit is free and the gospel continues to transform lives and today continues to transform lives. Death and persecution and jail cannot stop the good news of Jesus spreading around the world!
Lets go back however to the book of Acts. What we read is of Paul taking the message of the gospel to wherever God leads and perhaps most significantly, to Rome.
Rome is the place where Caesar is and Caesar is Lord. He is the one who the people obey. He controls the political, economic and social climate of the day. He is the one who everyone must swear allegiance to. To deny Caesar is to deny his lordship and his rule. To claim another Lord is to say there is someone greater than Caesar. To say Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus has ultimate power over all things whether it is religion, politics or whatever. To say Jesus is Lord is to say Caesar is not. It is a bold and provocative statement, and Paul is on a mission to Rome to declare it.
Yet again and again persecution and trouble hit him. Yet again and again God assures Paul that he is with him and that he will get to Rome.
There is beatings and floggings that Paul endures, yet he will get to Rome to declare that Jesus is Lord
Paul is arrested and put on a ship and there is a shipwreck, yet God tells him he will get to Rome to declare that Jesus is Lord.
They are washed up in Malta and a snake bites him. Yet God heals him because he is going to Rome to declare that Jesus is Lord.
And today, we are called to declare that Jesus is Lord.
Rome was the centre of power and rule. Caesar the one who held that power. Yet Paul’s message was that Jesus is Lord and he rules the entire cosmos and that God’s Kingdom is the centre of all power and rule but not through violence and coercion, but by love and grace.
Do you know what I believe was the worst thing that ever happened to the church? Was when it became the centre of power and rule. When it became 'Rome'. And don’t hear me wrong, I am not talking about the Catholic Church, I am talking about the Church as a whole.
In 313 AD the Emperor Constantine became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Christianity went from being a religion of persecution and oppression to hold power over all the land. Christianity became the symbol of power. Christianity became Rome. And this is where it all went wrong.
Through the centuries the church became convinced that we should have the power and the sway over all affairs, that we should make the decisions. Bishops had power and sway over all government and Royal decisions. The Church persecuted those who didn't get in line. We had a powerful voice and became power hungry. We became power hungry. And this attitude still remains in the church today in the west. It is so ingrained that we don’t even realise.
Jesus was a man of lowly status and poverty. He won victory, not through coercion or power over the people, but through humility and being nailed to a cross naked. The power of the gospel spreads in the book of Acts, not through power and coercion in the worldly sense, but through persecution and oppression. As Christians we are not to Lord it over people but to be the least of all. To be the scum of the earth. To be the lowliest.
Maybe the Church in the west is in the state that its in today because we got too settled in Rome. We became Caesar.
Maybe we struggle to take the gospel into our communities because we have some idea so ingrained that we should have sway over the country that our voice needs to be heard. That we’re being treated unfairly. Yet read the gospels. Read Acts. We’re the ones called into persecution. We’re the ones whose voices are called to be silent. We are not in power, we are powerless. Yet the power that raised Christ from the dead is at work within us! Only by the power of the Holy Spirit will the gospel spread, not by our might nor by our strength.
Maybe our desire for power has caused us to be lukewarm with the gospel.
Maybe the church in the west is now a symbol for Rome and we have for so long called ourselves Lord. Yet the Spirit is blowing ships in with missionaries aboard calling us to repent and once again realise that Jesus is Lord.
The way of Christianity is one of suffering, it is one of the Cross. So as a church in Mersea we must be prepared to go through the storms of trial and tribulation yet be assured that God is with us and sent us on a mission. A mission to declare that Jesus is Lord.
We must be prepared to be shipwrecked at times but ask God to build a fire of passion within us once again for his name and his gospel. The enemy may well bite us seeking to distract us, yet God is with us and will shake the enemy off and use us to bring healing and restoration into our community.
If we believe we are Rome we must humble ourselves and once again return to the Cross and recognise our utter dependence upon the One who brought freedom, namely, Jesus.