*Sermon preached on 05 May 2019 at First Christian Church of Hampton. As we continue to look at what being “church” really means, let’s be honest with ourselves. Do we want to take comfort in being a people of a noun (“Christian”) or a people of a verb by accepting those folks we don’t want Jesus to accept, because we don’t. It is our first witness in an age when the faith is held suspect by skeptics because those speak of following in the “way” of Jesus… aren’t. – Vinson
Book of Acts 9:1-20 (New Revised Standard Version)
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. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
Sometimes, if we are honest, sometimes we push back against the vision God has for us, like the Biblical Jonah who had no intention of going to Nineveh, considering the people there detestable and unworthy of salvation. He would find himself there before it was all over. In the same way, when we listen to the reading from the Book of Acts, we read how Ananias is asked by God in a vision to go to this man Saul – a man already well-known and just as much feared, in the early Christian community.
Ananias’ reaction could be best summed up as “You want me to do WHAT, God?!”
Are you serious? This guy is terrible! Ananias pushes back against God with a not unreasonable objection to the instruction of the vision. After all, he has already heard all he needs to know about this man Saul. Word of his ensuring the brutal execution of the first martyr, Stephen, and his imprisonment of believers had traveled to Damascus. How can God send Ananias to such a person?
God doesn’t argue with Ananias, but simply repeats “GO.” And, oh, by the way, Saul has been chosen to be “my chosen instrument.”
WHY I BRING THIS UP
One could say that this is a “rubber meets the road” passage. Do we believe in what we are selling – Jesus – or not? But I think it’s more complex that just overcoming fear… but taking in what really makes church – “church.”
If Acts is where we start, even if in Acts 11:26 it’s recounted that it was at Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians.” A noun. What’s easy to miss is that prior being known as “Christians,” they were know by a verb – known for their following in “the Way” of Jesus.
One is a name. The other is what one’s doing.
It seems to me that the “doing” is what Jesus was actually teaching, and what caught fire in people. Thus, rather than being identified by a name and its attendant defined set of beliefs – not that there weren’t clear beliefs – these communities were instead known by their character in the world… How they expressed their faith in Jesus Christ. How they lived in the “Way” that defined their relationship with God and one another. They held tightly to love, support, belonging, and mutual respect.
It would appear that what people and churches apart is indeed their character. In essence, how do values… beliefs coalesce in the nature of the person… or an organization? Faith. Integrity. Love in word and deed for others. Courage, and so forth. The marks… the fruits of the spirit visible. No wonder that Paul would later write in his First Letter to the Corinthians, the 13th chapter, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.” It is coming to people without any agenda other than to receive them as they are and to love them as they desire to be loved. Resting in the safety of that, they begin to be transformed.
Paul was talking character.
Character defined the followers of Jesus. It still does, for better or worse.
But it isn’t static. It can change. That is the message of the Gospel.
At the earlier point, when he was still known as Saul, the first time we hear about him, in Acts 7:58, Luke recounts how he stood guard over the coats of those who were preparing to brutally execute Stephen – the first Christ follower to die. Saul wasn’t some passive observer, but had been he who “approved of their killing him” [Acts 8:1a]. Then, as the 8th chapter details, Saul is seen as one “ravaging the church … dragging off both men and women,” jailing them. Centered in Jesus, this new kind of relationship with God that was inseparable from a community of those living together in a way that continued the way of Jesus. It had, in the language of our age, gone “viral” – this open table of our Lord’s. It brought in people seeking such a life. It also brought the attention of those who just didn’t get it. Like Saul.
Luke’s readers know who this Saul is; they know what turns his life will take. They know how the episode will end, but in describing the complete shift to take place in Saul’s life, Luke draws a portrait of God’s graceful but not always subtle or easy pull on our lives. So, as Saul draws near to Damascus with expansive plans for a slew of persecutions, he is struck by a heavenly light and addressed by a heavenly voice – that of Jesus himself.
Saul had been so sure of himself and what he was doing, but he was about to be taken down a peg. Actually quite a few, as Jesus asks Saul why he has sought to persecute him.
Three days later, Jesus calls upon Ananias, who resists the direction, but submits – in the knowledge that just being in Saul’s presence could be a death sentence. The Saul he had heard of…
Sometimes, God ask us to do difficult things, to go to unexpected places, and perhaps be surprised by who we are called to serve alongside. It may, for instance, take us from a perspective that looks at the community and asks, “How can we get these people to come to our church?” to one that asks “How can we go and be engaged with our neighbors and those on the margins?” Amid this, the Book of Acts is a teaching portrait of the early church community, and a potent reminder of how we are to function as church, across the centuries.
I would suggest that it’s offered as a template, not as a rigid example of structure, but an example of pragmatism and – always – inclusivity and transparency.
I would suggest that it’s a witness as to how God intends his people to stay in the PROCESS of becoming church, and to not see it “church” as some fixed point of achievement – and that’s one reason it continued to grow.
I would suggest that, using contemporary terms, it was marked primarily by a transformational style holding forth a vision of what could be, thinking outside the proverbial box wherever needed – bringing the vision into reality. This congregational style of the church expanded in the face of stresses far greater than any we are experiencing; while addressing the need to keep things running smoothly – which is how we ended up with Deacons – but both reaching out and doing the “rather tedious, sometimes boring, slow process of nurturing deep relationships” which is disciplining, not merely the simple, measurable data of new folk in the door.” [A Bigger Table, p 97]
Pastor John Pavlovitz, in his book A Bigger Table, writes that “We wrongly imagine the Gospel stories as one continual, thirty-three year tent revival, a never-ending rock-show crusade, and we miss the reality that the pages of the story of Jesus are filled with quiet conversations, with walks in the field, with hands upon weary shoulders, with loving meals around the table. We forget the wounds that were tended, the feet that were washed, the break that was broken. Those were as real and powerful and life altering as any tearful worship service prayer.” [A Bigger Table, p. 99-100].
Sharing the gospel, then and now,, in the time of Ananias and Paul or the present, is really a matter of giving people a daily front row seat to a life that looks like Christ….” the BEST way “to make disciples is by showing people the fullest incarnation that we can manage and resting in that.” [A Bigger Table, p. 100]