June 19, 2016

Pentecost 5   June 19, 2016   Acts 7:54-9:3, Acts 9:1-9, Acts 9:10-21  ***************************************************************

We pick up again in the story of God, working through the church, continuing all that Jesus began to do and teach… Today’s episode starts with Stephen, first martyr of the church, who is being stoned to death, while a young man named Saul watches approvingly.

Stephen has been brought before the council of elders on charges that he spoke against the law of Moses and the temple. Rather than directly rebutting these false charges, Stephen recounts Israel’s history from scripture, building finally to accusing his accusers of imitating Israel’s worst sins. His accusers then become a raging mob and stone Stephen to death… And those stoning Stephen check their coats with the young man Saul…

As he’s dying, Stephen sounds a lot like Jesus on the cross, who prayed “Father into your hands I commit my Spirit” and “Father forgive they know not what they do”… As Stephen now says “Lord receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them…” and…

The first severe persecution of the church begins; with Saul, now a leader of the persecution, breaking into homes to arrest followers of Jesus and send them to prison. When we next encounter Saul (in our second reading) he’s looking for Syrian refugees – Christians who’ve fled to Syria fleeing persecution in Jerusalem… members of what he considers the heretical sect of Jesus…

Suddenly a bright light from heaven flashes. Saul falls to the ground. A voice says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and go into the city, where you’ll be told what to do.” And Saul, who’s been binding Christians, leading them off to prison – is blinded now by the flash of light…And must be led now by the hand of companions.

And now God speaks to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, saying “go to a house on the street called Straight. Look for a man named Saul, praying there, who has just seen a vision of a man named Ananias laying hands on him to restore his sight. (That would be you, Bud.)”

Ananias must already be on familiar terms with Jesus, it seems – since, first of all, he knows who is talking to him. He doesn’t ask (as Saul asked) “who are you, Lord?” when he hears the voice of Jesus. Ananias also sounds comfortable telling Jesus his true feelings, as he says, “Lord, this guy’s one of the worst persecutors of your people!” (Like ‘Are you serious?’)

“Go,” Jesus says. “He’s part of my plan. Don’t worry. He’ll do his part for my name…”

So Ananias goes. And I bet he keeps talking with Jesus all the way, as he heads to Straight Street for the straightening-out of Saul. Because when he arrives, his tone has really changed. Now he greets Saul, saying, “Brother Saul, the Lord has sent me so you can have your sight back and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” He lays hands on Saul and prays, and something like scales falls from Saul’s eyes.

Saul rests a short while, then starts making the rounds of all the synagogues in metro Damascus, preaching the message that Jesus is Son of God…

Many are astounded. Believers ask each other ‘isn’t this the guy who has been sending our people to jail?’

***

Now I hope we’re all remembering…  Soon this young man Saul will be better known as Paul. St Paul. The apostle Paul. Paul, ambassador for Jesus among the Gentiles (meaning all who are foreigners to the God and culture of Israel). Soon Saul will be even more zealous for Christ than he used to be zealous in persecuting Christians.

Even so, it’s important to notice that Saul, who is Jewish, just like Jesus and all the first disciples – believes in the very same God Jesus and all his followers believe in. Saul is a seriously bible-believing orthodox believer in the one God who made the earth and heaven. Paul will continue to refer to himself, most of the time, as an observant Jew, trained by one of the leading Rabbis of Israel… Even as he now becomes the Original Jesus Freak, and even though he will now come to understand his Judaism differently, still Paul always remains thoroughly Jewish…

What will change in Saul, as he gets to know Jesus… is his anger, his violence, his sense of any righteousness apart from the mercies of Jesus.

Saul (St Paul) isn’t converted out of being Jewish…He’s converted out of thinking he knows everything there is to know about God and Jesus…. Most of all he’s converted – transformed (is a better word) – into being part of Christ’s new creation.

And this transformation Paul undergoes is in one sense absolutely new and unique, in Christ. Yet in another sense there are very deep parallels and precedents in the bible of old. I’m thinking of Job, hearing God speak to him, near the end of the book that bears his name, where Job now says to God: ‘I had heard about you – but now I’ve met you. Now everything is so very different.’

So too with Saul. He had heard about Jesus – and been dead-set- against-Jesus, based on what he’d heard. Now he’s met Jesus – alive, risen from the dead. Now he’s met Jesus – and experienced the grace of Jesus working through the community of faith. Now he’s heard Ananias call him “brother.” Even though he, Saul, has been an enemy, an oppressor of the church – still Ananias calls Saul “brother” and prays over Saul…And now God heals him, and Saul is welcomed into the community of followers of Jesus… Now, meeting Jesus, and his people – changes everything.

And here in the transformation of Saul, we see God’s plan of salvation. God working transformation through Jesus Christ, Son of God. God, working transformation through the church, frail and human, yet filled with God’s Spirit. Reaching out to Saul, chief persecutor of Christ’s church, for the salvation and transformation of Saul – and of the church – and of the world…(The whole world.)

This conversion of Saul (into Paul) has changed the world in more ways than we can imagine. But what I’m hearing most in the story this week… is about how wide and deep is the love of God even for God’s worst enemies… And about God’s plan to make even God’s worst enemies… into God’s friends…

And the story isn’t about just Saul long ago becoming St Paul. The story’s also about all God’s people… helping God… with the implementing of God’s plan…

***

There may be parts of the story not for replication. A blast of light that blinds our eyes, a voice from heaven speaking to us, knocking us to our knees – that’s a rather rare event. Though if we’re speaking broadly, we know – many have had encounters with Jesus that have brought about similar sweeping changes…And…

We can and should all experience…some of the changes that come to both Saul as he meets Jesus…And to Ananias, as he continues to listen to Jesus. As Christ’s people, we’re a nation of converts, a work of ongoing transformation.

On the one hand we’ve got the scandal of Jesus choosing Saul, persecutor of the church…least likely person I can think of to be a servant of Jesus… And when I find myself busily pursuing my own righteous agendas, I too have often been startled by God’s questioning what I’m doing. I too have asked along with Saul… “Who are you Lord?”

Other times, looking at other people who I’ve a hard time imagining as servants of Jesus, I too, like Ananias, have caught myself telling Jesus – ‘That won’t work, Lord… You can’t be serious, Lord!’

Wherever we are in the story today… it never hurts to be reminded… If Jesus calls us or anyone to do something, Jesus will equip us to do it…

And whenever we meet opposition – as we surely will – as the church has always faced opposition – the more we know Jesus, the more we know… Jesus has a different way of dealing with opposition… We remember Jesus said:  “Love your enemies and pray for them…” Which can still be one of the more difficult things to do… But Jesus says ‘do it.’ Because it’s still the only way that works….And Jesus will equip us to be able to do this… As we keep walking with him… And…

At the end of the Ordination Service at this year’s Methodist Annual Conference, there was an altar call invitation offered, for anyone feeling any kind of nudges from God to commit or recommit to serving God…And one of our worship leaders Friday night kept saying “Some people will be telling you that you can’t answer that call… Even some of your family, even some of your friends, even some of the church – may be telling you – you can’t serve God like the way you imagine God is saying to do…. You’re not good enough, you’re not pure enough, you’re not smart enough, you’re not competent enough to serve the Lord like that…

But guess what? (Our worship leader reminded us…) It’s far too late for that kind of nonsense…

Because God who calls you has already said “yes…Yes, I want you to serve me.” Yes I want you – and you – and you – and all the body of Christ, the church…to serve me…

I want to see all my church working together in harmony, with all diversity and all unity, working together in love, working together in prayer, working together through acts of kindness and compassion… working for all of my transformation to happen on earth as it is in heaven… Till all of you, all my beloved people… all are looking like Jesus…

And what I’ve been reminded of again and again this week, here in our parish, and away at Conference… is that whenever we do what Jesus says… Whenever we help each other on the way – whenever we love both friend and foe alike… Whenever we pray for strength to love instead of hate… Whenever we help and encourage one another in our following of Jesus… Whenever we believe God is able… Whenever we’re telling his story, living his story, loving and serving Jesus together… as he’s taught us to…

We know the peace, the grace, the love, the joy… that comes with the truth of God, always with us… God loving us onward… into all the fullness of God’s transformation…

Thanks be to God.

Amen.