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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert

Holy Spirit Persists

Walk in the Spirit, a sermon series after Easter on Spirit, Holy Spirit, our spirit, week 7 of 7, preached May 26, 2024







This is the 7th Sunday, the last in our series called “Walk in the Spirit.” Our goal was to see and feel God more often in our daily walk. Instead of the wildly beyond us God, or the fully human among us God, we want to also recognize the present, ethereal, fiery, breathy God that is Holy Spirit.

We have given seven Sundays to HER, and we’ve been reading and preaching from First Corinthians and Acts of the Apostles, the two books that name Holy Spirit more than any others. What have we heard?

Holy Spirit INSPIRES us to challenge religious theologies and traditions, and

ENCOURAGES us to serve not just our own but ALL, even if it there is risk or resistance.

Holy Spirit REFRAMES what we used to think Scripture or Law say, and CONVERTS us from our former ways that hurt or judge, so we are more loving and inclusive.

Holy Spirit AWAKENS us to deeper curiosity, to go down different roads and start new relationships, and Holy Spirit REVEALS to us the joy, passion, and power of a Pentcost community.

Today, we finish our Walk with Holy Spirit at the last verses from the last chapter of Acts. Paul is under house arrest in Rome. Let’s pray and listen for the word of the Lord from…

Prayer for Illumination

Scripture               Acts 28:16-30

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,[a] 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. 18 When they had examined me, the Romans[b] wanted to release me because there was no reason for the death penalty in my case. 19 But when the Jews objected, I was compelled to appeal to the emperor — even though I had no charge to bring against my people. 20 For this reason therefore I asked to see you and speak with you all, since it is for the sake of the hope of (all) Israel that I am bound with this chain.”

21 The (local Jewish leaders) 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. 22 But 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 set a day to meet with him, they came to him at his lodgings with great numbers. From morning until evening he explained the matter to (all of) them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to persuade them about Jesus, both from the law of Moses and from the prophets. 24 Some were convinced by what he had said, while others refused to believe. 25 So 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;

        otherwise they might look with their eyes

    and listen with their ears

and understand with their heart, and turn—

    and I would heal them.’

28 “Let it be known to you all, then, that this salvation of God has been sent to the gentiles; (and) they will listen.”[c]

30 He lived there two whole years at his own expense[d] and welcomed all who came to him, 31 proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

Sermon                Let it be Known

This Paul used to be Saul, the loyal Roman citizen and zealous faith leader of Israel who held onto Roman law and Jewish Torah, and designed his life (and everyone else’s around him) so all laws were honored. He had been taught, and had come to believe, that peace depends on justice, and justice depends on following the law.

Does that perspective sounds familiar? Maybe you’ve heard people in our nation or community say something like, “No justice? No peace!”? Saul expected a fair, equitable treatment of all peoples for his community to be at peace with one another. At the same time, maybe you’ve heard people in our nation or community say something like, “we are a nation of laws,” or “we must respect the rule of law”, or “we need law and order”. Saul assumed, without everyone first showing peaceful respect of the laws and those who enforce them, we as a community will fall into violence and chaos, and will never get to justice.

Peace and justice are a bit like chicken and egg. Which comes first? Saul would have said… law first to guarantee peace, then we can work on justice. That’s why Saul went around enforcing the law, Roman or Jewish law, or both, believing doing so was necessary and a reasonable response to lawlessness, to speed up the return of peace then justice.

Something changed in Saul though, when he met Jesus. A few Sundays ago, we heard what Jesus asked Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul was going around arresting anyone breaking the law, and Jesus stopped him, and asked, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Persecuting? That word must have stung. In Saul’s mind, enforcing obedience to the law is not persecution. If someone suffers under the law, Saul would have said those are natural consequences of their disobedience, not persecution. Persecution requires prejudice, bad intent. Its unfair and evil. From Saul’s perspective, those who break the law are the evil ones, not the ones who enforce the law. How could God in Jesus accuse Saul of persecuting anyone by enforcing the law?

Saul went blind on that road. He lost his old way of seeing. He began to see, sometimes, the law of Rome and the law of Moses are NOT used to maintain peace or bring about a just and loving community. Sometimes, the law is used to maintain a peaceful veneer on an unjust community that favors masters over slaves, wealthy over poor, healthy over sick, men over women, adults over children, citizens over immigrants.

Saul changed. His name changed to Paul, the same Paul in today’s scripture, now under house arrest for breaking Roman law and Jewish law.

In the long story of Christianity, there are many saints who have known the law, and yet challenged it or blatantly disobeyed it, spoken or acted against the law for the peace and justice of the Kingdom of God, even if it might cost them physical harm, their freedom, or even their life.

For one person, it was the way black people were treated in America. The laws prevented them from getting a fair education, from sharing lunch counters, from registering to vote, from sharing community pools or buses or water fountains. He saw his black brothers and sisters being sent off to war or to prison and dying at an alarming rate. So he stepped forward and broke the law. He committed to put his body in public streets, public parks, in front of public buildings and block the status quo until justice, love, and peace became the real law of the land for all people. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested 29 times. He wrote in one of his letters from jail, “Sometimes a law is just on its face, and unjust in its application.”

For another person, it was the way Jewish people were treated in Germany. In the 1930s, he spoke out against the actions and words of German Chancellor Hitler, and the brown shirt clergy that saluted him. He was arrested in April 1943 for his words and actions of resistance, and for helping Jews escape Germany. In April 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged. He once wrote, ““Costly grace …. is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life…. what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”

Paul, a grand master of both Roman and Jewish law, saw how the law, too often, was being used to protect the ways things have been for some, against others. And Paul begins rereading the law and reteaching the law to help bring about the Kingdom of God, a community of real justice, love, and peace for all people, right here, right now.

In some of Paul’s letters, he spends considerable paragraphs explaining his new found appreciation for law under grace. He still loves the law, and believes God sent it to us, to convict us of our sinfulness, and to show us a better way to live. Then he also shows us that the law is like a babysitter for us, that can never lead us to shalom, to peace, to fullness of life. Only grace can do that. Only the love of God for us in Jesus the Christ can unravel us from our addiction to the law, which for some looks like dangerous arrogance in presuming we know the law so perfectly we can judge others as if we are God, and in others looks like painful shame in presuming we are so lawless and broken, we are unworthy and undeserving of God’s love. Paul meets Christ and realizes the law is not to condemn others or ourselves, because in the faithfulness of Christ, the most lawful might be lost, and the most lawless can be saved, all by the grace of this God in Jesus the Christ.

And because Paul does that, he’s arrested for breaking the law. He’s dragged before Roman courts. Religious leaders demand of politicians they silence him. They explain, Paul’s lawlessness is a threat to peace.

Under house arrest in Rome, waiting for his appeal to the emperor, religious leaders came to Paul. As Paul speaks with them, some cannot imagine what Paul is offering. Others hear the wisdom and hope of it, and began to see. So they all begin arguing with one another and Paul’s heart goes back to Isaiah.

When the people of the northern kingdom of Israel were still an independent nation, Isaiah and other prophets like Amos, Hosea, Micah begged the people of Israel to repent, to change their ways, to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. Paul remembered the people of ancient Israel didn’t embrace God’s warning and vision of better community. Too many held onto their old understandings and use of law, obedience first, justice and peace later. Isaiah warne them. They didn’t listen. Israel lost everything. They were conquered by Assyria, and exiled. Paul quotes Isaiah to his fellow Roman Jewish leaders as they argue. “Holy Spirit saw long ago in the ancestors of Israel what I now see in you. Your eyes see law first, your ears cannot hear grace, and your hearts are so hard.” Paul spends the rest of his life trying anyway to bring healing to oppressor and oppressed, to Jews and Gentiles.

What would it take for you or me to break the law and get arrested? I don’t mean laws like stealing, lying, or killing. I mean… What would it take for you and me to do or say something that brings justice and peace to oppressor and oppressed, to Jew and Palestinian, to white, black, and brown, to Christian, Jew, Muslim, and atheist… Would we risk being arrested for that kind of wholeness for all people, all neighbors, strangers, and enemies? What if some with authority over us might grab us, shackle and restrain us, take us away, separate us from one another, from family and community, fine us, stain our career, and scar our reputation? Would we do it anyway?

That’s what Holy Spirit does. She convinces us and convicts us to put grace over law, and work for justice and peace for all people. Holy Spirit convinced Dietrich and Martin, Isaiah and Paul and convicted them to that level of commitment. Holy Spirit is calling us to commit to peace, justice, and grace, even if it means opposing law to do so. Will you pray with me…


Amen? Amen.


So they argued about it.


Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you this day, this night, this moment, and forever more. Amen? Amen.

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