Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Good News Spreads: That Church

Our story today is about Paul. Or Saul, depending what language you are speaking. Saul didn’t change his name to Paul after his conversation. Saul is simply the Hebrew version of Paul, which is Greek. It’s like the difference between John, which is English, and Johannes, which is the German form of John. And vice versa. 

Now that we’ve got that straight, we can move forward with our story. We’re making a bit a leap forward from last Sunday’s text about Thomas and about his experience with Jesus. Saul appears in the New Testament after Jesus has ascended. And after the Holy Spirit - promised by Jesus - has been poured out onto the believers at Pentecost. 

This Jewish community of Jesus followers is growing by leaps and bounds. If you remember that Pentecost story, something three or four thousand were baptized in one day. The early disciples are speaking truth to their religious leaders - the Jewish religious leaders - about Jesus. This truth-speaking is not without consequence. Just before today’s story, is the story of the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of these Jesus followers, these people who called themselves “The Way.” At the edges of the scene of Stephen’s martyrdom is where we first meet Saul, where we read at the beginning of Acts 8, rather ominously, “Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.”

Stephen’s death was the beginning of vicious harassment of the people of The Way. They quickly left Jerusalem and scattered through the surrounding regions to get away from the violence. Soon after, we again read these words in the early verses of Acts 8: “Saul began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.”

Saul. Devout. Faithful. Was a zealot. What he was doing was, in his mind, the right thing to do. It’s at this point that our story opens today, which we will read in three scenes.

Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything. --Acts 9:1-9 (CEB)

Paul was desperate to stop these people who were undermining his religious tradition. So desperate in fact that he went to high priest to get letters for the synagogues in Damascus about 200 miles away. These letters introduce him to the synagogue leaders and authorize him, on behalf of the high priest, to capture and take Jesus believers - men and women - back to prison in Jerusalem. Paul was acting under the authority of the religious leaders. 

But along the way to Damascus, something completely unexpected happened to him. Like the Thomas narrative last week, the theme of believing without seeing is picked up in today’s story. But, in Saul’s conversion it is the story of believing by not seeing. Like Thomas last week, Saul has his own unique experience with Jesus. An experience that completely disrupts his life. An experience that makes him vulnerable - a vulnerability that he can’t run away from, or try to deny, or try to reason away. Saul has an experience in which he meets Jesus and is forever changed. 

Do you notice what Jesus says to him is this brief interchange on the road? Jesus’ first words to Saul are “Why are you persecuting me?” Why are you persecuting me? Jesus asks him. Saul isn’t persecuting Jesus. Or so we think. But, whenever we persecute any follower of Jesus, any member of the body of Christ, we - like Saul - are persecuting Jesus himself. 

Saul’s friends lead him to a house in Damascus, where he waits in his blindness for three days. For his own resurrection.

Our story continues. Scene 2.

In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He answered, “Yes, Lord.”

The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”

Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”

The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” --Acts 9:10-16 (CEB)

Like Paul, Jesus comes to Ananias in a vision. Ananias was, as our text tells us, a faithful disciple living in Damascus. God directs him to go to Saul, staying in a house on Straight Street (no pun intended). And just as most faithful disciples - or prophets - respond to God’s call, his first question to Jesus, is “Are you crazy?” You want me to go to this man - this persecutor of my fellow believers, my friends, those whom I love - so that I can lay hands on him and heal him of his blindness. Yeah. No.

It’s interesting isn’t it. That just as this is a story of Saul’s conversion, it is just as much a story of the conversion of Ananias. He has his own blind spot, not only with Saul, but also with regard to the power of God to transform. He knows Saul as an enemy of God’s saints. He knows Saul as having free reign to bind those who invoke the name of Jesus. And, not so surprising to us, probably much like we would respond, he doesn’t want to go anywhere near him.

But God has plans for Saul. For this agent - this vessel - that God intends to use to spread the good news of abundant life in Jesus. Ananias will be called to serve Saul, so that he, in turn, can serve those whom he persecuted. Gentiles. Then, kings. And the people of Israel. God will, in time, reveal to Saul how much he must suffer for the sake of God’s name - suffering that Paul lists later in his letter to the church in Corinth. Beatings. A shipwreck. Imprisonment. And on and on. Not that God desires this suffering, but that God knows the fearful human response that comes from living according to the Way of Jesus Christ, this way of peace, of truth, of life. The human response is a violent response that comes out of fear. Fear of being vulnerable. Of being open to a new Way. Open to Jesus. Where death leads to life. Oppression, freedom. Hatred, love.

We continue with Scene 3, our closing scene.

Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength. --Acts 9:17-19a (CEB)

What a powerful response by Ananias! He lets go of the fear. Of the hurt. Of the possibility of his own death. And goes to Saul. Lays his hands on him. Calls him, “Brother.” Then baptizes him, by which Saul is cleansed and purified, reborn and brought to new life through the Holy Spirit. And welcomed into the community - into the body of Christ. With a snack to boot!

This story of Saul’s conversion. This is the story of mutual conversion - Saul and Ananias. Is a story of disruption. About the way that God works in our world, where God breaks into our lives in surprising ways. Upsetting our understanding of things or to challenge our belief system. Working through unexpected people. And changing us to be a people - a church - of hospitality and welcome. It is a story about how God calls us - the Church - to be. A place of truth, where we recognize the complexity in one another, where we have pasts that may not always be so pretty. Yet, where we are called to embrace each other in all of our differences. Where we move away from division, and violence, and fear, and retribution, to a place of invitation. Of openness. Of acceptance. And, where we, like Thomas, like Saul, and like Ananias, experience Jesus. Here. Now.

May we be that Church. Amen.

Preached May 1, 2022, at Grace & Glory, Prospect, with Third, Louisville.
Easter 3
Readings: Acts 9:1-19a, Matthew 6:24

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