Sunday, May 11, 2014

Finding the Way: A Sermon on Acts 9:1-19

 Scripture can be found here...

“The Way.” It’s a phrase we’ve been hearing for a while. We first heard it on the lips of John the Baptist, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” [John1:23]. Later Jesus will say, “I am the way” [John14.6]. And now in the Acts of the Apostles, we find that people are persecuting followers of “the Way.” One of those people is Saul.

We meet Saul for the first time at the end of chapter 7, when he looks on as angry religious leaders kill Stephen, one of the first deacons and a brilliant preacher in his own right. Stephen was the first martyr of the church, the first to die as a witness to his faith. And Saul? He is a young man looking on, nodding his head, probably. He approves of the killing. He is an enemy of the Way. We learn that Saul has been devastating, making havoc with Jesus-followers by ‘entering house after house, dragging off both men and women,’ and throwing them in prison [Acts 8:3].

The next time we meet Saul is here, in this passage. What can we say about a young man who is ‘breathing threats and murder’? I am always skeptical of faith-based calls to violence, and so, I wonder: was there an economic downturn in Judea in the year 40 CE or so? Scholars believe there is a direct correlation between economic hardship and the incidence of terrorist suicide attacks in the Middle East. Young men who are trying to find meaning in an economy with an unemployment rate of 25% or higher are fodder for extremist ideologies. I wonder whether there is a connection between our own recent economic downturn and increasingly violent political rhetoric in this country. Or maybe Saul was simply full of zeal for the Lord, a zeal that had him participating in violent acts? I am always skeptical of faith-based calls to violence. I always tend to believe there is something else operating, some other force playing into it.  But we don’t have Saul here to ask, or to submit himself to psychological testing, so we only know what we know: Saul was breathing threats and murder against followers of the Way, and getting the equivalent of search warrants for the synagogues of Damascus. He had every intention of continuing dragging people off to prison.

When we meet Saul he is on the way to Damascus. But God is preparing to show him another Way.

Have you noticed that sometimes God has to do something fairly dramatic to get our attention? That God will occasionally stage a grand intervention, or an interruption of our plans, in order to persuade us to change course? It is hard to imagine a more dramatic interruption than flashes of what seems to be lightning, followed a fall, followed by Jesus speaking directly to you, followed by blindness. God pulls out all the stops to get Saul’s attention. And it is only then, lying on the ground, that Saul is able to hear God’s voice.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” [Acts 9:4].

And now we are in that strange theological territory in which Jesus reminds us again that what we do to one another, we are really doing to him. “When I was hungry, you gave me food; when I was thirsty, you gave me a drink…each time you did it to the least of these, you did it to me” [Matthew 25:31-46]. Apparently, this holds true for the negatives as well. Persecute Jesus’ people, you persecute him. Harm Jesus’ people, and do harm to him. Breathe threats and murder against Jesus’ people… you get the idea.

Saul truly doesn’t know what is happening to him, or whose voice is addressing him, and so he asks: “Who are you, Lord?” And the reply: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Saul was on his way to do what he saw as good in the eyes of God, only have the Divine GPS interrupt and re-calculate his route. His traveling companions take him by the hand, and lead him to the city, where spiritually speaking, Saul experiences his own three days in the tomb. The old Saul, the one breathing threats and murder, has died. And the new Saul has yet to be born. He lies there, not eating. Later, we will learn he has been praying. But this is Saul’s in-between time, his neither-here-nor-there time, his tomb-time.

Somewhere else in the city of Damascus, Jesus calls upon a follower of the Way named Ananias. Imagine this conversation:

“Ananias, Jesus here. I have an important job for you.”

“Here I am, Lord.”

“Go to such-and-such a place, and find Saul of Tarsus.”

It’s your classic “good news, bad news” kind of situation. The good news! Ananias is a faithful follower of Jesus, of the Way. And Ananias is ready, willing and able to do as the Lord asks. And Jesus asks Ananias to go to find someone, and lay hands on him, and heal him of his blindness. Which means, God has given Ananias the gift of healing. All, very, very good news.

The bad news: Jesus is sending Ananias to Saul of Tarsus. The Saul who stood by while Stephen was being killed and all but applauded. The Saul who has been throwing Jesus-followers in prison, and has been eager to do more than that. Threat-and-murder-breathing Saul, who, himself, might have been described as bad news. THAT Saul.

This is the equivalent of a Jew being sent to provide care to Hitler or Eichmann in Nazi Germany. This is a death row inmate being sent to heal the executioner. This is the slave being commissioned to heal the brutal master. Or so Ananias believes.

You are Ananias. What do you do?

Well, first, because you hope to live another day to spread the good news of the gospel, you try to talk Jesus out of it.

“You do know who we are talking about, Lord. Right? This Saul who has done all kinds of evil against followers of yours?”

And Jesus replies, “Go. I have work for him to do. He will join you in showing people the Way. And, by the way”—(could this be the part that got Ananias on board?)—“I will show him how much he will suffer for the sake of my name.”

I am going to choose not to be cynical about this, and I’ll tell you, specifically, why. Because in the next moment, Ananias has gone to Saul to lay hands upon him, to restore his vision, and he calls him “Brother.”

“Brother Saul,” he says, “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” [Acts 9:17].

And that is what “the Way” means. It means, God sends us places, to do things, and we say yes, even when it’s hard. In your bulletin is a quote from Luther Seminary Professor Eric Barreto, and I’m going to read it now.

“The Way” is a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. Instead of being identified by a set of beliefs, these faithful communities were known by their character in the world. Christian faith was a way of life and one that impelled individuals and communities to leave the safe confines of home and church to walk on the road God had set out. “The Way” suggests that faith is a living, active way of life.[i]

Many people, in Ananias’ position, would have used this inside information to warn others of Saul’s whereabouts, or worse—perhaps they would have done him harm. But Ananias is a follower of the Way of Jesus Christ. And because of that simple fact, Ananias leaves the safe confines of his home, and goes out to the place he will find his former persecutor, calls that man his “brother,” and reaches out with a gentle touch to heal him. To be a follower of Jesus is to refuse to use violent solutions, even to violent problems. To be a follower of Jesus is to trust when God is leading you to reconciliation, even with someone you have regarded as an enemy. To be a follower of Jesus is to extend welcome to even the ultimate outsiders: those who have meant you harm.

There is an exception to this last mandate: the situation of abuse. God never calls us to submit ourselves to those who make us unsafe in our homes or in our personal relationships. That is not the abundant life promised to us by the gospel. But does God call us to be peacemakers between warring factions, or between warring worldviews? Yes, I believe that is very much what God calls us to do. This is the Way of Jesus.

I am not going to pretend it is not a tall order, following this Way. It is. It is walking the walk.  It is putting your faith in action. It is letting yourself be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Did I mention that the Acts of the Apostles is the story of the early church as pulled along by the Holy Spirit? And the Holy Spirit has one distinct feature in all these stories: the Spirit gets way out in front of people. We think we know what it is to love God, and the Spirit spins us around and shows us new people to love. We think we know who are friends and who are enemies, and the Spirit strips away all the old, familiar categories. We think we know what it is to be a follower of the Way, and even that gets redefined and reconfigured.

And that is the gift that God gives to Saul: the Holy Spirit to open his eyes and help him find his way. Not Saul’s way. Not even Ananias’ way. Not my way or your way, but God’s way.

God seeks him out. God stages a grand intervention, interrupting his plans, and re-routes Saul’s entire life. God sends him a companion and healer for the journey, and gives him work to do that changes the world forever.

And this is still the call of Jesus today. God seeks us out. God stages interventions and interruptions in our plans to re-orient and re-route us. God sends kind messengers to teach us lessons in healing and forgiveness. God gives us work to do, whether that work is teaching, or feeding, or encouraging, or praying, or preaching. God finds us where we are, and fills us with the Holy Spirit, and sets us on our way—God’s way—again. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Eric Barreto, “Commentary on Acts 9:1-6 [7-20], Working Preacher,

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