Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Good News Spreads: Transforming

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Acts 9:1-19a (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from our Lord and resurrected Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In our reading last week, we heard the story of how the Good News was beginning to spread. From Mary Magdalene, word of Jesus’ resurrection had spread to Peter and John and, then, last week to the remaining followers, including Thomas. We heard last week how Jesus breathed on the disciples. That he breathed into them the Holy Spirit and commissioned them to continue to spread the Good News. The Good News of the complete reversal that God had performed in raising Jesus from the dead.

This week and for the next few weeks, we are in the book of Acts. This is the book in the Bible that gives us stories of the early church--stories of how this first community of believers lived together and, particularly, stories of how the Good News continued to spread.

In the chapters before today’s lesson, the news of Jesus’s resurrection has spread throughout Jerusalem and beyond. The number of believers has continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem. So much that, as their numbers have grown, so has opposition among the Jewish and Roman leadership. This growing tension reaches a climax with the arrest of Stephen, who gives testimony about Jesus’ death and resurrection and, particularly, about the complicity of the religious and political leadership in his crucifixion. It is this testimony--this truth--that results in Stephen’s stoning and death as the first Christian martyr. It is after his death that we are first introduced to Saul--one of two main characters in our lesson today. We know Saul better as Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles and prolific writer of letters to the various faith communities he helped found throughout the Mediterranean area.

But, before he became Paul, he was Saul. We first hear of him in Acts 7. “Then they (speaking of the people Stephen had angered with his testimony)--then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him: and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul...And Saul approved of their killing him."

After Stephen died, a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem. All of the disciples except for the small group of apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. In the third verse of chapter 8, we read that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” and committing them to prison.

As the disciples were scattered, the Good News continued to spread. Not only throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, but also into other places. One of those places was Damascus in Syria. It’s the same Damascus, Syria, we know today. Saul was determined to destroy the new believers, those who belonged to “The Way,” which is what they called this movement. Wherever members of “The Way” went, Saul was determined to go after them and imprison or even kill them. 

The city of Damascus, which was 135 miles away from Jerusalem, was one of his target cities. It was on Saul’s first journey to Damascus to hunt out the people of “The Way” that we witness a great reversal. These reversals are characteristic of the Good News. These moments when God completely disrupts expectations and unexpectedly reverses everything. Reversals that indicate to the early disciples that God is at work. That, when God’s intentions are realized, the normal state of affairs is turned completely upside down.

This is what happens with Saul. He experiences a series of reversals. Of great change. Of transformation. God disrupts his experience along the road to Damascus. He changes from seeing to being blind. From a confident and zealous persecutor to one who confesses ignorance about the “lord” he can’t recognize. From a man planning to lead captives back to Jerusalem in chains to one who must be led into Damascus by others. From having authority over others’ bodies to becoming completely dependent with his own. From a man on a mission to one who must now wait to learn what he is to do next. From a man exercising great power over the church to one who has been completely overpowered. Completely overpowered by Jesus. 

Reversal. Transformation.

But, Saul is not the only one. As we move through our story, we are introduced to Ananias, one of Jesus’ disciples in Damascus. Ananias has heard about Saul and his reputation. So, when Jesus appears to Ananias and tells him to go meet Saul, he argues with Jesus. Unaware of the reversals that Saul has already experienced, Ananias is determined that he will not confront this arch-enemy of his and of all of the other believers of The Way. So, he argues with Jesus. But, Jesus responds. “Go, for he is an instrument who I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” 

In his conversation with Ananias, Jesus has redefined Saul for him. Saul’s past or his reputation no longer fully express who he now is. Jesus has chosen Paul as his own “instrument” or, better, “vessel” through which to continue to spread the Good News among those who have not yet heard. And not by himself, but as a member of the community of disciples, as one of the The Way.

Reversal. Transformation.

As part of the process of becoming ordained, I was required to participate in CPE. CPE stands for Clinical Pastoral Experience. It consists of 400 hours of chaplaincy training in a hospital or other care situation, where trainees learn how to provide pastoral care for people who are sick or hospitalized, or in need of help to make meaning of a difficult time or situation in their lives. 

In my CPE training at a hospital in Minneapolis, I was grouped with 4 other trainees. All of us came to the group with no or very little practical experience, other than a class or two we had taken in seminary. After one week of orientation, each of us was assigned as a chaplain to one or two of the medical units in the hospital.  

I was terrified. We were all terrified. None of us felt ready to do this important work. Each week we would meet and process our experiences together and tell each other over and over that we were enough. That each one of us was enough. That God had chosen us as God’s instruments--as God’s vessels--and that, as broken and inexperienced as we were, we were enough. 

By the end of our training, each one of us was transformed. Transformed with the understanding that we were enough and beginning to see all of the possibilities that God had in store for us. 

Reversal. Transformation.

This is what God does. God dramatically re-orients our expectations and causes us to reassess what is possible. God did it with my CPE group. God does it with Saul. God does it with Ananias. God does it with you, too.  You, a broken vessel. A chosen, broken vessel. Chosen by God to come into community here and together do the impossible. 

This is the church that Acts imagines. A gathering of broken vessels chosen by God, coming together in a cooperative existence and building a community that lives into a future that completely defies human expectations. What if God continues to surprise and disrupt us as with the Acts church? To surprise us just as God surprised Saul and Ananias with promises of a different identity and an expanded future? To completely reverse and transform our expectation of what is possible? To nudge us to a new experience with new possibilities?

What if?


Preached April 15, 2018, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Fourth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Matthew 6:24; Acts 9:1-19a.

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