I’ve been preaching on the book of Acts for the past six months or so. Here’s the closing sermon:
When you’re writing — whether it’s an article or a poem or a book — beginning and endings are critical. They often carry great weight as to a story’s meaning.
One way we write stories is to begin with an image or an idea, then write the story in a circle, coming back to conclude with some sort of comment on the beginning.
Jeannette Walls’ memoir, The Glass Castle, is like that.
Jeannette’s book opens with a scene in which she is all dressed up for a night out in New York City. She is in a taxi on a New York street, headed to a party.
Her taxi stops at a traffic light, and she idly looks out the window. And she sees her mother, rifling through a trash can.
Jeannette is horrified. Her mother is dressed in layers of dirty rags, wild-haired, grabbing items from someone else’s garbage.
But it turns out she was only partly horrified that her mother was homeless. She’d gotten used to that long before. She was more horrified that someone might see her, might find out her mother was homeless.
So she tells the cab driver to turn around, and she runs into her apartment, the party forgotten.
That is how her book begins. And then Jeannette tells the almost unbelievable story of her life. She tells about catching herself on fire at age 3, trying to cook hot dogs because her mother didn’t cook for the family.
She tells about the family constantly packing up and leaving homes in the middle of the night because they could not pay the rent.
She tells about being hungry.
She tells about falling out of a moving car and waiting by the roadside for hours until her parents realized she was gone.
She tells about her brother sleeping for years with a rubber raft over his bed to keep the rain off from where it poured through the ceiling.
And she tells about her father’s plans to build a glass castle where they all would live.
Of course, it was a fairy tale because her father was an alcoholic and her mother was mentally ill, and they were incapable of raising their four children in any kind of stable environment. They managed to hang onto shacks while the children grew up, although the roofs leaked, the doors were blocked and they had to crawl in and out of windows.
But after the children were grown, the parents became homeless in New York, living in abandoned warehouses and on the streets.
After a harrowing ride through 22 years of her life, that’s what Jeannette’s book circled back to – her mother’s life on the streets, going through trash cans as her daughter’s taxi idled 10 feet away. It is an extremely effective writing technique.
Jeannette’s beginning and her ending are exquisite bookends for the life that lies between.
It is the same with the two-volume biblical set that we know as Luke-Acts. In the first few chapters of the gospel of Luke, the writer carefully places Jesus in the heart of Judaism.
He tells the story of Zachariah, the temple priest, and Elizabeth, who become parents to John the Baptist.
He tells the story of Mary and Joseph, devout Jews.
He tells how Jesus was received in the temple as an infant, by first Simeon, then Anna, both devout Jews worshipping in the temple.
But then, BAM! In chapter four, he tells the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth. And Jesus inflamed his people, the Jews, because he favorably mentioned the widow of Zarephath and the Syrian army commander Naaman. Both of them were Gentiles featured in the Old Testament.
The crowd got so angry at Jesus’s suggestion that God would favor a Gentile widow and a Gentile army commander that they tried to hurl him off a cliff.
The issue of inclusion and exclusion, of who’s in and who’s out, becomes the theme of Luke-Acts.
This is apparent in the gospel of Luke. He’s the gospel writer who tells us Jesus was first recognized by lowly shepherds.
He’s the writer who talks about the women who followed Jesus – unimportant women who were barely citizens in ancient Israel.
And he’s the only gospel writer who relates the parable of the Good Samaritan – about a scorned half-breed who tended a fellow traveler when the good religious folks would not.
So it is hardly surprising that we see the same theme develop in the sequel to Luke’s gospel, the book of Acts. All through this book, we have seen the tensions between those who wanted to keep their cultic and ethnic and religious circle tight, and those who wanted to cut the circle and swing its welcoming embrace wide open.
In the last few weeks, we have followed Paul’s progress to Rome. After his arrest in Jerusalem, he gave testimonies at all his trials. Then he got on a ship that was pounded by storms until it wrecked on the island of Malta. He was bitten by a snake, and when he survived, the islanders proclaimed him a god.
Today, we’re going to end our study by showing how the last passage of Acts wraps up everything that has come before. Paul and his entourage finally arrive in Rome. Acts 28: 16-31.
16 When we came into Rome, Paul was allowed to live by himself, with the soldier who was guarding him.
17 Three days later he called together the local leaders of the Jews. When they had assembled, he said to them, ‘Brothers, though I had done nothing against our people or the customs of our ancestors, yet I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans.
‘18When they had examined me, the Romans wanted to release me, because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. 19But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor — even though I had no charge to bring against my nation. 20For this reason therefore I have asked to see you and speak with you, since it is for the sake of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.’
21They replied, ‘We have received no letters from Judea about you, and none of the brothers coming here has reported or spoken anything evil about you. 22But we would like to hear from you what you think, for with regard to this sect we know that everywhere it is spoken against.’
23 After they had fixed a day to meet him, they came to him at his lodgings in great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the law of Moses and from the prophets.
24Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. 25So they disagreed with each other; and as they were leaving, Paul made one further statement: ‘The Holy Spirit was right in saying to your ancestors through the prophet Isaiah,
26 “Go to this people and say,
You will indeed listen, but never understand,
and you will indeed look, but never perceive.
27 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and their ears are hard of hearing,
and they have shut their eyes;
so that they might not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and understand with their heart and turn—
and I would heal them.”
28Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen.’
30 He lived there for two whole years at his own expense and welcomed all who came to him, 31proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
This closing passage is a microcosm of all that has come before. After all the times Paul has said he was sent to the Gentiles, after all the meetings with the Jewish leader James, after all the trials instigated by his people, Paul arrived in Rome and called together the leaders of the Jews.
Rome was light years away from Jerusalem, and the Jews there had not heard about Paul’s trials. But they had heard about the Christian Way, and they knew that “everywhere it is spoken against.”
So yet again, Paul launched into the gospel. We know from our earlier study of Eutychus falling asleep and pitching out the window that Paul could be long-winded. Now we read he preached from morning to evening.
And as has happened so many times before, some believed and some did not.
But this time, Paul told them that the Lord had always known that would be the case. He quoted the prophet Isaiah about the non-hearing, non-understanding hearts of some. And so, he said, salvation has been made available to the Gentiles as well.
For the next two years, Luke concludes, Paul proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ without hindrance. A better way to translate those last words, I think, is unhindered. “Paul was proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, unhindered.”
The very last word of the book of Acts is a deliberate and unusual adverb, unhindered.
Some scholars think that one word is the exclamation mark for the whole book. Now the gospel would go forth unhindered by cultic and ethnic and religious squabbles, unhindered by requirements of circumcision and dietary laws, unhindered by musts and have-tos and shoulds.
Three times previously Luke dropped a form of this word into his story, but he used its opposite, hindered. Like Hansel and Gretel dropping crumbs to lead them out of the woods, Luke dropped his word like clues.
But this is where we can get into trouble with translations.
Hindered is not a word we ordinarily use. And so, while Luke used the same word in Greek, the NRSV and the NIV don’t always translate it as the same word in English.
But in the original Greek, Luke used the same word, and I think very deliberately so.
In chapter 8, the evangelist Philip met a Gentile eunuch from Ethiopia and explained the gospel to him. And Scripture says, “As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to hinder me from being baptized?’ ” (Acts 8: 36)
In chapter 10, Peter met with the Gentile Cornelius after being sent a vision of a sheet full of unclean animals. Peter was persuaded that God was reaching out to Cornelius and his family and friends, and so he asked, “Can anyone hinder baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10: 47)
And finally, when Peter had to explain his actions back in Jerusalem, he argued, “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?” (Acts 11: 17)
In all three cases, the hindering was related to Gentiles. The Ethiopian eunuch. Cornelius. And Cornelius’s household.
In all three cases, Luke used the word to indicate there was no reason to hinder these Gentile believers from believing in Jesus, to hinder them from baptism, to hinder their entrance into the kingdom of God.
And that, in a nutshell, is the theme of Luke-Acts.
Yes, this Messiah was born a Jew and came first to the Jews. But his message will spread throughout the world, unhindered. Exclamation mark!
This is the message of Acts. And this is the message to our church today.
We don’t check for the same beliefs they checked for in the first century – who’s been circumcised, who’s eating clean and unclean, who’s following marriage laws.
But we can place barriers to Christianity all the same.
Some of us think you cannot be a Christian and smoke. You cannot be a Christian and drink. You cannot be a Christian and dance. Play cards. Gamble. Do drugs. Lie. Steal. Have an affair. Have an abortion.
Some of us think you cannot be a Christian and be gay. Be pro-choice. Be pro-death penalty. Be pro-euthanasia. Be pro-gun control. Be pro-environment.
Some of those things are silly. Some are morally offensive and wrong. Some are opinions.
But Paul, that unhindered one, wrote to the church he founded right here in Rome: “… I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 35, 37-39)
There is nothing that cannot be forgiven in the unhindered gospel of Jesus Christ.
There is no one who cannot rest in his grace, unhindered.