“Paul proclaimed the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Or as some translations read: “The gospel continued, unhindered.”
It’s the very last line of the book of Acts. Normally, I wouldn’t base an entire sermon on one verse, and you wouldn’t accept that sort of thing: removing a verse from its context. As my former professor A.-J. Levine is fond of saying, “A text without a context is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” Of course, in the case of this verse, the contextis the entire book of Acts. Acts is the story of the gospel unhindered. It’s the story of how the Spirit of God, through the faithfulness of the followers of Jesus, finds a way wherever humanity tries to hinder it.
You’ll recognize that word, hinder. It’s part of the story. The same Greek word, ἀκωλύτως is found throughout Acts. Like in the story of the Ehtiopian Eunuch, who sees the water and knows he wants to follow Jesus. “What is it that would hinder me?” he asks, and Acts answers back emphatically, “Nothing! Absolutely nothing!” As in Acts 10, after Peter tells Roman soldier Cornelius and his household all about Jesus and sees the Holy Spirit come upon them, he says, “These ones have received the Holy Spirit just as we have. Surely no one can hinder them from being baptized, can they?” Absolutely not. The gospel is unhindered.
Luke — one of our most careful biblical authors — is deliberate in this last line, evoking other episodes and themes in Acts, and bringing a sense of closure to its reading.
It’s not so different than the artistry of F Scott Fitzgerald, in one of literature’s classic closing lines: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” summing up The Great Gatsbyin tone and meaning.
It’s not so different than the way Mark Twain captures adventure, restlessness and teenage disaffection when Huckleberry Finn says at the close of the novel, “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
It’s not so different than the realization that “The scar had not pained Harry for 19 years. All was well,” as JK Rowling sums up the Harry Potter series.
In the same way, this last line of Acts is a confirmation of what we readers have seen throughout the book — the themes and stories we’ve seen over the last eight weeks of preaching and worship here at First Baptist Greensboro. The gospel is unhindered, despite circumstance, and situation, and the best coordinated efforts of this world, and nowhere is this more true than in the life and ministry of the central character of the second half of Acts, Paul. Just look at this chapter in its entirety. Paul is already met with challenge, on his way to Rome, under guard and awaiting audience with the emperor. In Chapter 28, he endures shipwreck, survival, even a snake bite, and yet he continues.
As Acts closes, he’s continuing to follow his calling. In the last two verses we hear that he “proclaimed the kingdom of God,” returning to the central theme of gospel preaching since that we first hear from Jesus. He “welcomed all who came to him,” reflecting the hospitality of the early church, and the effort to gather wherever space could be found. He “preached with all boldness,” reminding of the prayers of the apostles for the Holy Spirit to empower them with courage. And he did it all under his own expense, beholden to no one. At the end, Paul was unhindered.
Since the close of Acts evokes other stories and themes, I want to look this morning at some episodes from the life of Paul, and 5 ways the gospel is unhindered through the work of the Spirit.
First, the Gospel is unhindered by Paul’s failures. When we meet Paul, then Saul, he is the epitome of the antagonist. He is the embodiment of hindrance. He’s the coatcheck for the mob, as they stone the apostle Stephen after his bold proclamation of the kingdom of God. He approves of the killing, we learn. And then by Acts 8, he’s left the coats and picked up his own weapons, organized his own ruffians, and is traveling great distances with focus on “ravaging the church, entering house after house; dragging off both men and women and committing them to prison.” He hits the road to Damascus, “breathing threats and murder the whole way.”
We know the story. Mick Jagger once summarized it in his song, “Saint of Me”:
“Saint Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man,
Jesus hit him with a blinding light and then his life began.”
Life began for Paul on that Damascus Road, and then standing before Ananias later, as the generosity of Christian witness helps him to see again and begin again. It must have felt like being born again.
It’s a reminder of what the writer Anne Lamott has said, that “God loves us just the way we are, but God loves us too much to simply leave us that way.”
Paul knew this as well as any of us. It’s not the last time that his failures would plague him. Later in his life, in his own writing, he would acknowledge himself the chief of sinners. He’d write about a “thorn in the flesh,” which has been the subject of much speculation as we wonder the specifics of this thorn, this fault, this failure. Whatever it was, it reminded Paul of the promise of God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is made perfect in weakness.”
From the Damascus Road to the Roman house arrest, Paul knew that the gospel of grace is unhindered by any human failure.
As it is also unhindered in a second way: the gospel is unhindered by external opposition. Paul faces great opposition, recorded throughout Acts: beatings, attempts on his life, four separate trials, and imprisonment.
In one particular instance, Paul and Silas are on the road with a community of followers. Arriving in Philippi, Paul begins to share what he knows of Jesus Christ. At the river, they come upon a slave girl who made money for her owners as a fortune teller. “Come out of her,” Paul cries to the demon that possesses her, to the system that oppresses her, to the people that keep her in chains. All hindrances are removed. It comes at a cost to her owners, you’ll notice, as freedom always comes at a cost to the systems of this world. They have Paul and Silas hauled before the authorities and attacked by the crowd. They are beaten and thrown into jail.
It’s there that they begin to sing. Through the miracle of the Spirit, they are joined by other prisoners and the song crescendos until walls come down and chains are loosened — the work of the Spirit of the one who came to set captives free. Even the jailer, the agent of the local authorities, is taught this song of God’s mercy.
Acts 16:25 says that these songs of freedom occur right in the middle of the jail at a specific time: “About midnight Paul and Silas were singing hymns to God.” In Luke, timing is everything. In the gospel, the death of Jesus occurs at noon, yet darkness descends, overwhelming. The burial occurs in the evening, with the stone sealing the tomb just as the last light of day drops behind the hills in the distance. The resurrection occurs at dawn.
Time of day is important to Luke, not just for storytelling and light cues, but because of its symbolic and theological value. More than the time of deep blue darkness, midnight is the time when you feel chained to a wall, stripped of your dignity, beaten down. You know midnight. It’s that time of day when your wholeness is threatened, when you’re overwhelmed, when you feel vulnerable or forgotten, when you sense you’re limited or encased and can’t see anything hopeful 2 ft in front of your face. It’s when you lie awake for worry and fear. It’s that time St. John of the Cross, the 16thcentury mystic, once described as a dark night of the soul, when in all of your striving you experience a crisis of faith and wonder “Where is God in this darkness?”
And in that time and place, we learn along with Paul and Silas that the gospel is unhindered by such external opposition; so much so that later in his own writings, Paul even boasts of his sufferings, remembering perhaps the Spirit that helps him sing even at midnight.
The gospel is unhindered by failure and opposition, as it is also unhindered in a third way: it’s unhindered by Paul’s own fear. In Acts 18, Paul has traveled from Athens to Corinth, meeting Priscilla and Aquila, and sharing in their trade. He begins to teach in the synagogues, which turns to arguing with local authorities. The leaders continue to hear in him a threat, and he tries to insist again that the God he proclaims is the God of Israel, and that the God of Israel has always moved out more widely and broadly, with love for people close and those far away, unbound by custom, unrestrained by human restrictions, unhindered. The message becomes ever more threatening, until Paul is fearful. In fact, the Lord says to Paul in a vision one night, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent, for I am with you.”
You recognize those familiar words of scripture, “Do not fear,” which even the boldest and most dedicated of apostles needs to hear. “So my dear will it be faith or fear?” This is the question of the songwriter, Deb Talan. Will it be faith or fear? But the truth is, for those proclaiming the way of Jesus, it will always be both. Paul knew this. You’ve known it, too.
I’ve been grieving the last couple days, remembering a friend and teacher who died last night. Mr. Hughes was the local theater guru in my hometown, whom I first met doing children’s theatre, before he became my high school teacher at the local arts high school, where he founded the theatre program. I credit him to this day with helping a fairly traditional, safe young man with a conventional background learn to take some risks, encounter difference, and open up to the world in all of its wonder and diversity. Like in one particular exercise, as he gathered us around in a circle, and invited everyone to take a piece of paper. “Write down on this piece of paper one of your most treasured secrets. One of your greatest hopes. Something you find it hard to tell others. Maybe something you’ve never told anyone else.”
We took some time to do so, guarding our slips of paper, folding them up quickly and tightly, and then he said, “Now with it folded, pass it to the person next to you.” We hesitated, but he urged us to trust. And there we sat, holding one another’s secrets for what seemed like forever, before Mr. Hughes finally broke the tension and we gave the still folded papers back to one another. Then he said, “What you felt in those moments when someone else was holding your secret: that’s what art should feel like. That’s what your life’s work should feel like.”
My life’s work has moved me in directions other than theater, and in the same way Mr. Hughes and I didn’t stay in regular contact after high school. But we did circle back to one another from time to time, as he attended our wedding, or we visited when passing through — like the last time I saw him. I was starting a Sunday service at our church in New York, when in walked the large, burly, animated teacher from my childhood, in the City to see former students, and stopping for our service along with the shows he was attending. He was always hopeful, but also proudly irreverent, so I was somewhat shocked to see him in church. After the service, we shared a moment. He had some notes on my diction and delivery. But mainly he told me how proud he was, how moved he was. He said something about my aura that I didn’t quite understand, but then with absolute passion he said, “You’re doing your life’s work. You’re telling your secret.”
Mr. Hughes’ first name was Paul, as it happens. And this is something the apostle knew. It’s the secret Jesus whispered, that to find your life you have to be prepared to give it away.
Because ultimately this secret is unhindered in a fourth way: unhindered by all human limitation. Notice these last words of Acts, just before our reading today, include a quote from Isaiah. Jesus quotes the same passage in Matthew 13. When the disciples ask him why he uses parables in his teaching, Jesus explains what God was also explaining to Isaiah when he was being commissioned as a prophet, which is what is being reiterated here for the passionate proclaimer, the Apostle Paul:
“Go to this people and say,
‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.’
For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them”
There will be hardened hearts, unhearing ears, unseeing eyes. There will be hindrances of all kinds, but they don’t stop the gospel, and they don’t stop us from proclaiming it. Because ultimately this is not the work of human capacity as much as it is the work of the Spirit — the relentless, bold, always moving Spirit that extends this work to us today, unhindered by our faults, unhindered by opposition, unhindered by our own fears, and unhindered by all human limitation.
I told you we’d look at five instances in which the gospel is unhindered, and the fifth story is our story.Sometimes we act as though the story of the Spirit concludes at the end of the book. We behave as though the revelation of God ends with the last line of Scripture. But I love what biblical scholar Robert Wall says: “The ending of Acts does what good endings to excellent stories always do: it moves the readers from the world of the story to their own more complicated real worlds.” (1)
In our complicated, real world, there’s so much that can hinder: our fears, our assumptions, our prejudices, our hesitations, our conflicts, our limitations. But our story is yet untold. It’s your story individually — of how you will follow in the life of the Spirit, that still comes rushing through our world. And it’s our collective story here at First Baptist Greensboro. It’s a story about how through the power of the Spirit, God has come among us, even amidst our failures and faults. God is still inspiring us, even amidst our fears and limitations. It’s a story of how the gospel of Christ can endure all opposition and still be proclaimed, awaken our lives with vibrant hope that we can pass around broadly to this world.
But we get to decide how we will respond. We decide how we will bring the life of the Spirit into this real and complicated world of ours. That story is still being written. Let us commit ourselves that its last line might be something like: “The gospel continued, unhindered.”
- Robert Wall, The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, p. 368.