Two Sundays ago I began a two-week stint of pulpit supply – guest preaching and leading worship – at Bethany Presbyterian Church, in Sacramento. As someone who has embraced a more conversational as opposed to speech-like form of preaching, I adjusted my style to better fit how this church typically worships. To allow more participation in worship, although the few times I have visited the congregation is quite engaged, I asked them a few questions to discuss among themselves in the pews as a lead in to the scripture reading. I gave them a few minutes and after it seemed most everyone had shared, I began reading Acts 9:1-31. Here are the questions I asked and my sermon text (and thanks to one of them for editing and posting it to their website). The sermon came after an instrumental anthem. If I get my hands on the audio I’ll post it here as well.
Questions for discussion:
- Have you ever had a knocked-down-to-the-ground moment with God or Jesus? Where you felt like God stopped you in your tracks?
- What were you doing when that happened?
- What did you realize?
At The WordHouse, our sermons are conversations over scripture, so doing this sermon monologue will be a little different for me. It’s been a nice challenge to put it together without working it through on the spot with others. I hope what I say will spur you to wrestle with the text and with God, to continue the conversation about what God is saying and desiring you, and all of us, to do.
This passage begins a shift in Acts to focus on Saul (or Paul as he will soon be named) and God’s good news in Jesus Christ made known to the Gentiles –those who aren’t Jewish religiously — and Peter, who is ministering to Jews in Jesus’ name. Next week we’ll see Peter at miraculous work and focus on a woman named Dorcas in the following verses after today’s scripture reading, which will then lead to a big moment for Peter (and followers of the Way) with his further conversion to grace and trusting in God and Jesus as Lord of all. You’ll have to read ahead or come back in two weeks for Peter’s wildly important dream. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves; there is much to be gained as we read the account of what happened to this religious zealot named Saul, God’s intervention in his life and the response from scared Christians because of his inclusion in their community.
And what absolutely crazy happenings, to be sure, in this part of the extended Gospel story of Acts:
Saul (who, as I just mentioned–his name will be changed later on–would also become pastor of many of the first Christians and write several of the letters we have in the New Testament) was trying to physically take hostage, and even kill, Christians. Let me say that again: he was trying to physically take hostage, and even kill, Christians. Earlier in Acts he was said to be at the killing of Stephen, one of the first deacons, and helped stone him to death; to bludgeon this fellow Christian man and essentially execute him. On Saul’s way to capture Christians and continue to bring these heretics to what he thought was justice, God, however, intervenes and Saul hits the floor.
What happened to Saul–what Saul was doing–is obviously extremely horrendous. But, to be completely honest, I think even I’ve been there myself. Not in killing someone per se, but I’ve basically been a part of death. I’ve fallen to the ground and been stopped cold in my tracks more times than I care to count. I’ve been at the place where I realized my desperate, desperate need for a savior. In a moment I’ve known how my anger and sexual lust are equivalent to speaking murder and creating a living hell for others, let alone myself. This realization is excruciating, and yet it’s the truth. I think if we’re honest, we’ve all been there; we’ve all heard these words spoken directly to us, “What are you doing? Do you realize what you’ve done?” And even “Why do you persecute me?”
Regardless of how we think we’ve sinned or royally screwed up, could there be anything more harmful or sinful that what Saul was doing? Perhaps we know we’re like him, caught in the depth of our unknown atrocities, but no one has done worse.
So we can imagine why Annais is so concerned about welcoming this awful man into his midst, let alone to help heal him and make him better — he’s afraid for his life and perhaps the other fellow Christians he would bring in harm’s way if he took a chance on welcoming Saul. He takes his protest to God in his vision, explaining:
“Lord, I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your people in Jerusalem (where Stephen was killed). And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
What is God’s response? Does God say, you’re right; you should hold him in contempt, treat him as if he is a traitor and don’t have anything to do with him? Get away from him, now! No, quite the opposite. Hear these words again from our scripture:
“Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Instead of telling this disciple of Christ to abandon the persecutor of Christians who has been praying and heard that Annais would come to him … Instead of leaving him alone and not risking getting harmed … God tells Annais to go to Saul. It makes sense that Annais would not only be hesitant, but scared and confused. But perhaps his response to question meeting with Saul reveals a deeper issue — that Annais, in this moment, is not trusting God; that God is in control, that God cares for someone even like Saul. While perhaps Annais is more concerned for being safe than risking his life for another of God’s people — while his life would be in danger — could it also be that Annais is not seeing the bigger picture of God wanting to use all people for his glory — even those who have harmed others and who are not a part of the Jesus community yet? That God wants to use Saul for the furthering of his kingdom? Yes, even that Saul is one of God’s people.
God does seem to reassure Annais that Saul will certainly not have it easy, but God’s point is that this person is chosen by God, not by man or because he has proven he knows the gospel and all the right precepts and orthodox views on God and people … or has fulfilled the 10 commandments and not harmed anyone. No, it is because God says Saul is God’s instrument, and that he will proclaim God’s name. That’s it.
Of course what one does matters, even after conversion; it doesn’t mean one can do whatever you want to people. Even Saul would argue against that thought in one of his letters later on. And I need to be clear here: abuse and the continuing of physical violence is another issue altogether. It would one thing if Saul tricked Annais and captured him and brought him back to Jerusalem to be punished or even killed. But that’s not what Saul does. He begins to build some trust. It’s pretty basic, even with the heat he gets for betraying his former religious friends and leaders, but he does make a change: He spends time with other disciples and proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God. Those are the only two things — besides discontinuing to breath threats against them — that he does to prove he is one of them.
The question for us here is this: How much do we trust God to intervene? Do we trust Jesus to really be Lord of all, to be able to intervene when God sees fit? If we’re concerned about engaging with people we think are unsafe to our theology or have a worldly view on things or otherwise unworthy of our fellowship, particularly those who claim to be a follower of Jesus, how often do we then fearfully hesitate to trust Jesus is Lord of our lives, let alone theirs, and fail to extend hospitality? Do we actually show that we aren’t trusting God? It’s really cheesy, but it reminds me of the saying, “When you point a finger at someone, three fingers are pointing back at you.”
It may be obvious to you, but I think we need to talk about it openly: In many of us there is a huge distrust among those who claim to be followers of Jesus or in the way of Jesus, but have different thoughts and beliefs about God and humankind. We think it’s preposterous. Maybe it even scares us. Whether we’re afraid of conservative or evangelical folks and the views we associate with them. Or our liberal or progressive brothers and sisters and their beliefs. Even moderates or centrists are in the same boat when they vehemently can’t understand why those on either “side” hold to their positions so fundamentally. Churches are leaving the Presbyterian Church USA because they feel like they cannot serve God with others who do not believe the same as they do. And while it’s less of the case, there are churches that also think we’re too narrow and are actually harming others by allowing folks to maintain more traditional views on scripture. To believe such is fine, but to withhold and abstain from continuing our relationships, to cut ties and not offer to bring one another into the fold or embrace them may actually be a lack of faith and trust in God on our part. Based on our scripture today, that we all draw from, God calls us to Go! To reach out and heal others, maybe even those who threaten how we worship God. God calls us to the bond of fellowship because we are all God’s instruments, because if we are proclaiming Jesus is the Son of God and spending time being accountable within the Christian community, that is enough. Will we look at the work people are doing, the fellowship they have, the way that Jesus is Lord of their lives? Will we trust them? Will we trust God?
Do we forget what God had done for us? If we believe that we all have fallen short of the glory of God, that we ourselves are in desperate need of God, why do we not extend that same grace God has shown us to others? God has been more than kind to us — God has forgiven us. We are not our own, we are God’s.
The Marin Foundation, based in Chicago, is one example of some people seeking to create better relationships and to build trust amongst differing people. This organization was founded by Andrew Marin, who after three friends all within a short amount of time “came out” to him, later moved into the Boystown district of Chicago, home to one of the largest LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) communities in the country, and found among them to be some of the most loving and gracious people he’s ever known, even though he was a Christian most of his life. He went on to create space and change the scorecard game between the LGBT community and the straight, particularly conservative Christians — to build bridges between the two. The Marin Foundation is attempting to help others live into the tension, whether they are in agreement or not on issues, to seek, as part of their overview states, “reconciliation based on a love of God giving us the strength to relentlessly pursue those that are thought to be most unlike ourselves (and) will ultimately connect humanity on new levels of faith, relationship, action and sustainable impact.” Like this organization is trying to do, there is a way we can and should be in relationship with one another, even though we disagree.
How beautiful would it be, how God-honoring and Spirit-drenched would we be, if we took this reconciling approach with those across the aisle, those in our denomination and others across denominations. How would God’s good news spread because we trusted God when God tells us to go — a “go” that does not tell us to leave, but to reach out to someone who threatens us because of some differing views? How might our church session meetings run? How about our Presbytery meetings? How might we begin to thrive? Even in our own lives? In our conversations with others with different views, would there be more light than heat? There would be less strife and more cooperation. More peace and strengthening of our churches and communities. How many more people would know and experience the love of Jesus and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit because our church was a reconciling, trusting God’s word and obeying church? What goodness and graciousness we would find because we trusted God was with us and with the other person!
“Then the church throughout all Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.” This is what happened to the church then, and it can happen to us now.
Let us live into the tension — it’s there, so let’s not run away from it — the same tension that in which God put Annais and Barnabas and Saul. May we repent from the ways we have withheld and caused others to walk in darkness instead of light. May we do the hard, unnatural work of choosing to follow God’s command to get up and care for the one on the other side. “You are my brother and sister in Christ. You are a part of us; I am a part of you.”
This risk that Annais and the rest of the community of the Way would take, despite their fear and anxiousness, is incredibly inspiring. It enabled God’s word to spread in ways it hadn’t done before. Their trust, humility and welcoming behavior changed the course of history and brought many to know the good news of Jesus Christ. May the same be said of us today, especially in turbulent times. Amen.