November 13, 2016
St. Simon’s on the Sound
Several years ago, I was lucky enough to be included in a two-week pilgrimage to Greece and Turkey. The theme of the pilgrimage was the Apostle Paul and his journey through these two countries. A journey that was, at least in my mind, the epitome of evangelism. A journey on which Paul, in the face of every hardship imaginable, over the course of 15 years and four major journeys brought the good news of Jesus Christ to communities throughout Arabia, Damascus, Syria, Lebanon, Malta, Greece, Italy and modern-day Turkey.
Amazingly, in those 15 years Paul traveled a total of approximately 9,150 miles by foot, by ship, and on the backs of donkeys to bring the good news to all nations. During this time, he was beaten, stoned, imprisoned and suffered from several long-term and disabling illnesses. Seemingly, nothing stopped him. He just kept on going.
Our little pilgrim band of 25 Episcopalians from various churches throughout the US began our journey in Athens, Greece. From there we traveled through Corinth and up into the very northern parts of Greece, ending up in Thessaloniki in Central Macedonia. After an astounding experience in Thyatira where Paul met and converted Lydia, we crossed by ferry into Turkey. Our first stop was Troy – Wow that horse was big… Then on through Turkey until we reached Ephesus.
It was in Ephesus, as I stood at the top of the long marble-paved boulevard that stretches almost as far as the eye could see, and ends at the incredibly beautiful Celsus Library, that I finally realized the enormity of Paul’s missionary work.
Little Paul, with his various and frequently disabling afflictions – passionate Paul who has been described as "A man of small stature, with a bald head and crooked legs,” – walked into this bustling community of perhaps 56,000 Roman citizens determined to spread the gospel of Jesus. Imperial Roman Centurions were policing the streets at every turn; Jews eager to run Paul out of town stoned and then imprisoned him. Yet, Paul stood firm in the face of all these challenges.
Paul’s courage, determination and faith prevailed. He remained in Ephesus for three years. It was here that he preached frequently at the open marketplace, established a church, wrote his First Letter to the Corinthians, and was imprisoned for several months.
I cannot tell you how physically present Paul was for me that afternoon in Ephesus. I was both electrified and deeply humbled by my new understanding of the incredible courage and determination that drove Paul’s good news journey. It was there on that marble-paved boulevard surrounded by the amazing history and architecture of Ephesus, that being a missionary for Jesus – being an evangelist committed to spreading the good news and the light and love of Jesus Christ became very real for me.
Earlier this summer Luke’s gospel informed us that “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” In this passage, we learned that Jesus sent messengers ahead of him and encouraged others to join him on his journey to God’s temple where he would confront those who were using the temple for the benefit of the Roman Empire – where he would attempt to reclaim the Temple as God’s House, a sacred place – a place of worship to the God of the Jews.
As Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he encouraged the villagers to become members of his entourage. Some expressed interest, but most indicated that they could not leave quite yet – Jesus would have to wait - they had family and other business to take care of. They had things to do before taking up their cross and following Jesus. Jesus replied to these would-be disciples, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Tough rules to play by – but, that’s what Jesus was asking of those who claimed that they wanted to join his followers. They are the rules that Jesus set if one wanted to be part of the Jesus Movement. You’re either in, or you’re not.
In today’s gospel reading, many weeks have passed since that determined journey to Jerusalem began. Many encounters along the road traveled provided Jesus and his disciples with the opportunity to proclaim the gospel. With each teaching that same mandate was conveyed – God expects us to commit to him totally and with complete faith. The difficult challenges that will most certainly face us as we travel our life’s journey must be met with courage and steadfastness. We’re either in, or we’re not.
Now, Jesus has arrived in Jerusalem He has been teaching in one of the temple courtyards for several days. Each day crowds surge into his small space, the din of their voices making it difficult to hear this much talked about teacher who has finally arrived.
Intense and, at times, overpowering smells from the ongoing slaughter and burning sacrifice of animals fill the air. On the sidelines and in corners, bitter and sour-faced Pharisees and Sadducees who want to see Jesus “gone” loiter, grumble, and plot. Menacing Roman Centurions patrol the temple parapets, eager to bring punishment to any who cause a disruption.
It is in this context that we hear today’s gospel reading.
We hear Jesus’s “what comes next” message and it is not so pretty. In fact, it is downright grim and scary. Jesus warns of wars and revolutions; earthquakes, famines and plagues; dreadful portents and great signs from heaven; persecution and being handed over to synagogues and prisons where trials before highly placed judges will end in grim sentences; and, finally Jesus forewarns of the destruction of the Temple itself – the destruction of God’s house.
After naming these daunting events, Jesus once again tells his followers that he expects them to meet all challenges “head on” and to be “all in.” He says, “They will arrest you and persecute you. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons. This will give you an opportunity to testify…. You will be betrayed even by your parents and brothers, by relatives and friends…. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
I don’t know about you, but at that point I might have decided to go home to the comfort of the known, the safe “same old, same old.” I might have completely failed the “either you’re in, or you’re not” test. I might have turned right around and rushed home to Galilee, or Jericho, or wherever home had been before I met up with Jesus.
But, Paul didn’t. And, so many others who have come after Paul have not. They have not turned and run back to the comfort of home. They have faced challenges head on, taking every opportunity to testify – to evangelize – to spread the gospel of Jesus – to be “all in.”
What does this message of courage and endurance, of total commitment to Jesus mean for us today – here at St. Simon’s, throughout our diocese and in the world in general? What is Jesus calling us to do – how are we being called to “follow Jesus;” to be part of the Jesus Movement in today’s troubled, confusing, complex and at times frightening world?
Indeed, do we even have the eyes of our hearts open to hearing Jesus. Are we like that eager temple crowd that strained to hear Jesus as he proclaimed the good news, or have the noise and distractions of the world left us dazed, numb, closed off? Are we ready to be “All in?” Or, are we “All out?”
When I feel that my mind and my heart are getting to that numb, closed off place, I think of Jesus facing Pilate, unwavering in the face of certain death. Jesus, certain in his relationship with God. And then, I think of Paul, and his seemingly endless journeys in the face of every hardship imaginable. Paul, certain in his relationship with Jesus; with God.
And then, I remember how electrified I felt as I stood on the marble-paved boulevard in Ephesus, my heart filled with the joy of knowing, in my mind, my body and my soul, the power of evangelism – the power of proclaiming the good news of Jesus. The power of bringing God’s love to the world. The power of going into the world loving and through that love liberating and giving life to those who are in darkness.
The power of being certain in my relationship with Jesus; with God.
How do we stay in that place of certainty – certain of our relationship with Jesus; with God? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter written while he was imprisoned in Nazi Germany during the 2nd World War wrote. “This is what I mean by worldliness – taking one’s life in stride, with all its duties and problems…It is such a life that we throw ourselves utterly into the arms of God and participate in his sufferings in the world.”
What a powerful image... “…We throw ourselves into the arms of God and participate – participate – in his sufferings in the world.” Perhaps this is what Jesus meant in today’s gospel reading when he said, “This will give you an opportunity to testify…. You will be betrayed…. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair on your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.”
Can we as members of St. Simon’s “throw ourselves into the arms of God?” Can we be the voice, the hands and the feet of Jesus? Can we seize the opportunity to testify? Can we participate in God’s sufferings in the world? Can we be the Light of Christ in our community and wherever else we may go – the light that sheds love and liberation? I know that we can. I know that we can be “all in.” AMEN