I’m ‘retiring’ this sermon based on Acts 23: 12-22 I’ve been using on the road for a little while. Enjoy!
It was a beautiful fall afternoon on the campus of Park University in Parkville, Missouri. A group of adults and youth from several UCC conferences sat around a large table, sometimes staring longingly out the windows at the beautiful fall weather that had settled in this hilly place on the Missouri River. We were beginning to plan the next summer’s Regional Youth Event. At first, nothing we were discussing was out of the ordinary for one of these meetings. We talked about what kinds of workshops we’d have, what the schedule would look like, where people would stay on campus and on and on …
But, one brief conversation really made me sit up and take notice. We were talking about the purpose of these kinds of youth events and I mentioned that the Iowa Conference focuses its programming on leadership development – for youth and adults. After making that statement one young woman at the table was exasperated. She challenged my statement. I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it was something like this: “Everything is about the leaders. At school all they talk is about the leaders. Why does everything have to be about the leaders” She made it clear that she was tired of all this leadership stuff.
Quickly, I figured out that the image she carried of leaders were of people who were out there in front of people – the people who gives speeches and chair committees and coordinate events. I’m sure at her school these leaders tended to be the “over-achiever” types – the ones with the best grades and the most popularity. I tried to explain to her that I don’t just mean those people when I use the word, leader. I told her that I believe that, as people of faith, we are ALL called to be leaders in our own way. Most often that doesn’t mean giving speeches or chairing committees or starting movements.
Although she stopped arguing with me, I’m not sure that I altered her image of leadership very much. The reality is that when we think about leadership – both inside and outside of church – we usually think about the outgoing, charismatic people who inspire others to get behind beliefs and ideas and causes. They are usually politicians, pastors or other kinds of well-known people. Those leaders are often from an elite class of people – the ones with the best educations and the most money.
Our scripture today is centered on one such elite person – Paul. As the primary subject in the book of Acts, Paul has one of those dramatic leadership stories. As a Roman soldier, he starts out as a first-rate persecutor of Jesus followers. Then, in a flash of blinding light, God converts Paul to Christianity on the road to Damascus. Paul then emerges from this conversion as one of the most fervent followers of Jesus and helps found many of the early churches throughout the Roman Empire.
If I had wanted to write this sermon about Paul, I could have consulted countless books and articles that dissect who he is and what effect he had on the early church. We could talk about his public speaking, his theology, his political savvy and his personality. But, I don’t want to talk about Paul today. I want to talk about another character in this story who you probably didn’t think much about when we read the scripture a few moments ago – the unnamed young man.
You didn’t much think about him because this story centers on a plot that is formed to kill Paul. Paul, who is both a Roman citizen and a Jew, is being ushered back and forth between two the Roman and Jewish tribunes. They are questioning him about his religious beliefs and his actions of supporting the formation of the early church. He uses his considerable political savvy to weasel yet again out of the questions. (If you haven’t read the entire book of Acts, this sort of situation is one that Paul finds himself in quite often.) Paul’s weaseling ability infuriates some of the Jewish authorities and they make a solemn pact to fast until they have killed him. They decide that they are going to request that Paul be transferred from the Roman prison back to the Jewish tribune for more questioning; while he is being moved, they are going to kill him.
Now, here comes the character that I find the most interesting in this story. A young man, who happens to be Paul’s nephew, overhears the details of this plot, goes to prison to visit his uncle and tells him what he knows. Paul then tells him to go back to the Roman tribune and inform him of the plot so that he won’t allow Paul to be transferred to the Jewish tribune. The young man does what Paul asks and foils the plot. If he hadn’t done this, what would have happened to Paul? What would have happened to the early church? We can’t be sure, but it wouldn’t have been good.
Despite the important role this young man plays in this story, we don’t even know this name. The only detail we know about him is that he is Paul’s nephew, the son of his sister. Clearly the author of Acts was not trying to draw too much attention to him. But, when you start wondering about him, the questions never end: How could this twenty-something know about this plot to kill Paul? Did he spy regularly for Paul? Or was he just hanging out in the courtyard and heard people talk about it in whispers? What was his relationship to Paul like? Did he also believe in Jesus or was he just looking out for his uncle? All we can do is speculate about the answers.
Even though the author of Acts is concerned with telling Paul’s story, I am going to suggest the radical idea that this unnamed young man is actually as much or more of a leader than Paul is.
Just imagine that you are this young man. You’re a young person who somehow discovers that there is a plot to kill your uncle; your uncle just happens to be one of the most notorious religious radicals out there. What do you do? I bet most of you just thought, “Of course, I’d help him out. He’s my uncle!”
Really, would it be that easy? If you’re a young man who’s clever enough to discover this murder plot; you’d also know that becoming publicly associated with Paul, who is constantly being imprisoned and receiving death threats, would mean that you’d also set yourself up for the same fate. If you stick up for him, you’d risk being imprisoned or threatened with death yourself. You’d probably also know that your youthful age would work against you. People might not even believe what you said about this plot!
This decision is a lot more complicated than we might have originally imagined. Just like any of us, Paul’s young nephew could have easily walked away and done nothing.
But, he does do something. This young man, whose name we don’t even know, demonstrates true leadership in this situation. He risks his own safety and security and comfort in order to do the right thing. I would imagine that this decision had something to do with what he believed about the world and about God. To me, this is the most important kind of leadership – the kind of leadership that connects what we BELIEVE with how we live our lives. We show people, rather than just talk about what we believe.
I don’t know about you, but I can think of many situations in which I fail to be the kind of leader that this young man was in this story. Now, I don’t mean that I often overhear murder plots. But, I do regularly overhear family and friends or even strangers make comments that I know to be racist and do nothing. Now, I believe that all people are created in the image of God; and, because of that, ALL people should be treated with dignity and respect, regardless of race. Still, I often allow these statements to fly by me without making a comment. When I let these things go, I’ve missed an opportunity to let my life lead. If I did these things more often, I would probably have a bigger impact on people than if I preached a sermon or planned an event dealing with racism.
Few of us are going to be Pauls, but ALL of us have the opportunity to be the kind of leader that this young man became in this story. I would even say that the Paul’s in the world only exist in order to create opportunities for ALL people to become faithful leaders. If the Paul’s do not do this, the church becomes irrelevant, full of people who come to church on Sunday, but who do not live their faith in any meaningful way any other day of the week.
I believe that the church only exists in order to raise up young leaders who use their faith to figure out what’s right and wrong and then ACT upon it. These are leaders who do not learn pat answers, but instead ask faithful questions. These leaders are mentored by other faithful leaders in their church, regularly seeing examples of how they live their faith in each and every part of their lives. These leaders are taught from an early age that God is calling them to be and to do something important in the world, and they know that because they have been raised up in leadership positions in the church from very young ages. They have been taught to engage frightening, sometimes even unsafe situations in which their faith is being tested. They know that confronting these difficult and conflictual situations is just part of living this faithful life.
As part of my work for the Iowa Conference, I am often asked to teach Sunday School or short workshops following worship in our churches. During these sessions, I often ask people to remember and describe the best disciple they’ve ever known. Rarely do people name the “Pauls,” instead they tell stories about the unnamed leaders — the relatives and friends who quietly lived their lives doing the right thing. They named their aunt who adopted dozens of orphans and raised them like they were her own family. They name the Sunday School teacher who always had a kind word for them, even when they didn’t deserve it. They name the regular church folk who welcomed them to church even though they didn’t look like they belonged. Tears often well up in their eyes as they recount the impact these regular people, these unnamed leaders, had on their lives.
Take a moment right now and remember the person you have known that was the best disciple, the person who best LIVED their faith. Picture them in your mind. Thank God for them.
These unnamed leaders are the reasons you stay in church, even when things aren’t so good. THEY are the reason you keep going back to God, even when your lives seem hopeless. THEY are the reason you are inspired to live your own faith in meaningful ways.
Let’s pray now that we ALL become these unnamed leaders – the ones who REALLY have an impact on the church and the world. Amen.