Our readings this morning seem to present us with what I think of as the simultaneous “not yet” and “already” character of what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” It is not yet here. And it is already here.
It’s not that Jesus has it in for rich people. The whole problem is in that last sentence… the problem is when the rich have no compassion for those who are struggling. When they can walk by, almost without noticing a man at their gate who is so poor, his best friends are the local dogs who lick his sores; when they can walk by without seeing a man whose best hope of a meal is the food the rich man throws away after one of his daily lavish dinner parties.
The problem is, when the rich leave the poor waiting at the gate.
It is easy to thank God—so easy—for the people who make our life full and rich and happy and delightful. For the parents or grandparents who are good to us; for the spouses or partners who give us joy; for the children who carry our hopes and dreams to the next generation; for our friends, the people who get us, who stand by us, who show up for us, who worry about us. Of course we thank God for people like this, people who impact our lives for the better. Thank God for them!
But Paul wants us to thank God for those other people, too. The people who are not on our top ten favorite list—or even top 100. In fact, for the people who are on our top ten list of—well, people we don’t want to be with, or don’t like, or don’t get. Antagonists. Enemies, if we have them. Paul wants us to thank God for them. People who hate us, people who want to harm us. Paul wants us to thank God for them.
What does this even mean? What is he thinking?
Image: Otto Greiner (1869-1916), “Betende Hände” (“Praying Hands”)
Every Sunday we gather and we listen for the words of Jesus to tell us… what? What God really thinks? How God really feels about us? What God really wants from us? We want something real from Jesus, a real connection to God. So we listen, and it’s so hard, sometimes, to cut through the layers of tradition, and interpretation, and expectation... not to mention the layers of 2,000 years, of ancient cultural understandings, of language…
What if we could go back? What if we could be standing there, right there, when Jesus turned to the crowd, and lifted his head and spoke?
Image: P. Raube
So, how do we experience the Holy Spirit?
Sometimes, it feels like fire has come down from heaven, and is perched, right here, on your head.
Sometimes, it feels like you’re standing in a wind so powerful it takes everything you have to stay standing.
Sometimes, if feels like your inability to express yourself, your tongue-tied-ness just disappears, and instead, words—the right words—come from you. And you suspect you had help.
Sometimes, it feels like that verse from Romans: you just can’t pray, you are beyond words, but you sigh, you know that sigh is the deepest prayer you have ever prayed.
“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
Image: Kossowski, Adam. Veni Sancti Spiritus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56946 [retrieved September 1, 2019]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/8750321716 - Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P..
What image do you see, when I say: “Jesus”?
Do you see a picture from a childhood Sunday School page? Do you see one of the actors who took on what has to be the hardest role in the world…. a Jesus who looks like Jeffrey Hunter from “King of Kings,” or perhaps Ted Neeley from “Jesus Christ, Superstar”?
Or maybe the image of Jesus that sticks with you is the famous, traditional one you can find hanging in my office, the one many of us affectionately call “Blonde Jesus.” Or, the multi-racial “Jesus of the Millennium” by artist Janet McKenzie. Or maybe the image released in 2001 by a forensic anthropologist for a BBC documentary. That image was based on 2000-year-old skeletal remains of a Galilean man, with tightly curly dark-brown or black hair, and a dark, middle-Eastern complexion.
We all grow up with our ideas of what Jesus looked like, even if we don’t grow up in church, because images of Jesus are pretty ubiquitous in our American culture. So, when we come to the part of the Apostles’ Creed that is about God the Christ, there’s a good chance each of us has a somewhat specific image in our heads or in our hearts.
Image: The Wales Window at the 16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, AL. Photographer unknown.
Every statement of faith you will find in our Book of Confessions was written to provide the church’s best answer to a question that was being asked at the time. That’s a nice way to say: the church was then, as it is now, involved in disputes. Disagreements. You might even say, fights. The Apostles’ Creed seeks to answer one of the burning questions of the second century of Christianity: Is the God of the Old Testament the same God as the God of Jesus Christ?
Image: Divine Service in the Catacombs of St. Calixtus, A.D. 50. Public Domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Jesus was praying in a certain place.
Jesus prays a lot in the gospel of Luke. He is a pray-er. He prays when he is baptized. He prays when he is healing people, before, during, and after. He prays when word starts to get out about him—when he becomes a sensation, and people start following him everywhere—sometimes, huge crowds of them.
Jesus prays after he has unsettling encounters with the religious authorities, when they tell him that his acts of healing and kindness are breaking the law. Not long after that, he tells his disciples to pray for people who abuse them, and to bless those who curse them.
Jesus prays about who he is, and what he is supposed to be doing with his life. He prays about his call to ministry, and what it means.
He prays for his disciples, his friends, that their faith will be strong, whatever may come. He tells them to pray for that, too.
On the night on which he is betrayed, Jesus tells his friends to pray that they won’t come to a time of trial. Then he weeps, and he prays the very same for himself.
And then, as he is dying, Jesus sends up two prayers from the cross. He prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And he prays, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Jesus prays a lot. And so, on this occasion when he is praying, one of his friends says, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Image: Prayer Hearts, Presbyterian Youth Triennium, 2019.
A sermon on Amos 8:1-12; Colossians 1:15-28.
We love this story. We know this story so well. We love hearing this story, because it reminds us of our calling to love one another and help one another.
Only, we don’t know this story, not really. Or, even if we do know it, it goes so hard against the grain of our basic human instincts for self-preservation, we can hardly take it in. It’s a story that wants to transform us, and that is the hardest task of all.
When you think about it, it might make more sense if we hated this story.
But wait. This isn’t even a story. Not really. It’s a parable. Stories are narratives we tell that tend to shore us up, confirm our common identities and world view. Stories often give us a feeling of security.
Parables are the opposite of stories. They destabilize us. They remove the security of what we thought we knew, and, when Jesus is sharing them, give us a glimpse of God’s view of things…
Image: Ernst Barlach, Barnherzige Samariter, 1919. Public Doman, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
I’ve been telling everyone who will listen that I’m going on a trip very soon! In one week plus one day I will be boarding a bus in Chenango Bridge, along with two of our UPC youth, sixteen other Susquehanna Valley Youth, three other Susquehanna Valley Presbytery Adult Chaperones, PLUS a bunch of people from the Cayuga-Syracuse Presbytery. We will then set out for points west—West Lafayette, Indiana, to be precise. This is the location, as always, of the Presbyterian Youth Triennium, a big youth conference that takes place every three years. And… I have this packing list. As you can see. Actually, of the eleven pages in this packet, only…. seven of them are devoted to what we should bring…. and what we should not bring….
Image: Mural, People’s Presbyterian Church, Milan, Michigan
The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus has “set his face for Jerusalem.” Jesus is pointing himself in a particular direction, towards a particular goal, and he is steadfast. He is resolved.
I think we have all “set our faces” for something, some time.
For having a conversation we dread.
For encountering a person who has hurt us.
For beginning a hard task… something that really matters, that a lot depends on.
We set our faces, and then we go and do that hard thing.
Image: Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, Edgardo De Guzman, Philippines.
Last week we had a glorious service of worship here,
and a good part of the reason for that glory was the music.
The choir, a brass quintet, the full bell choir, a commissioned anthem and hymn…
and with almost every seat taken, the congregational singing was inspiring.
What a wonder-filled celebration of Pentecost we had!
So I got to thinking again about the power of music,
and the mystery of its making!
I wondered why it is that some people can play more than one instrument and sing,
and others of us can hardly hum.
I wondered why one person is a prodigy,
another can play or sing only because of years of commitment to technical skills
and practice, practice, practice.
And others can play only MP3s and sing badly in the shower.
And, added to these wonderings,
I wondered how all this might lead to a sermon for Trinity Sunday!
And then it struck me! How “Trinitarian” the orchestra is!
For all its instruments, from the smallest piccolo to the most grand grand piano,
from the triangle to the tympani, all the sounds come from only three sources:
percussion, winds, and strings.
Which came first, do you suppose?
Percussion: foot tapping on cave floor? Stick against rock or stretched hide?
Winds: whistling? breath through a blade of grass or cupped hand?
Strings: plucked gut string? (Yes, so much more sophisticated!)
Does chronology matter? No.
Is one instrument more important than the others? No.
Oh, the musicians may debate that, but the mystery for the rest of us
is that all those sounds come together with melody, harmony, and rhythm
to calm, to excite, to inspire, to move us to join in the power of music, even to dance.
When it comes to understanding the Triune God,
God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
we are like children first plopped on a piano bench and told to play something.
What?! So many keys, and so many cracks between them!
Long white keys and short black ones.
And the child is wondering what’s inside the box that makes the sound anyway?
It’s all a mystery!
Like the Trinity.
So, we learn to play, one note, another, a chord, a ditty, an etude, a concerto.
But, it remains always and forever, a mystery.
Some folks try to explain the Trinity in chronological terms.
First came the Father, or Creator, and then the Son, and then the Spirit.
but the Spirit was there at the very beginning, in Genesis, chapter one.
And John’s gospel says the Logos, the Word, which we take to be Christ,
was in the beginning with God.
So, no, chronology doesn’t help us at all.
So, maybe “function” would be a good way to break God into manageable pieces.
Father: that would be Creator.
But God is also the Divine Judge at the end of all things!
Son: the Savior, dying on the cross to save us.
But wait! There’s more! He’s risen and he continues to pray for us, even now!
Spirit: Holy Comforter, inspirer, guide.
Like a shepherd…but, the Lord is my shepherd.
There’s no easy way to grasp this in a totally rational way.
Again, can we not learn from the orchestra that the instruments
do not play one at a time, or have certain defined roles in every composition?
The percussion, the winds, the strings — though many, all are one.
So, explain the Trinity?
That’s why, though the Bible speaks of the Triune God,
it never uses the term, and certainly never tries to explain its theology!
Let’s turn to the epistle reading for a moment.
Paul’s words in this excerpt from Romans 5,
include the vocabulary of this festival day: God, Christ, Holy Spirit,
and later in chapter 8, Paul writes of Abba (Father), Christ, and Spirit.
And Paul weaves these images of God into a tapestry of relationship.
Inseparable are the images of Trinity,
and that powerful union builds relationship with humanity,
adopting us all to make us children of God.
The Apostle Paul writes so graphically.
The musician can hear the symphony in the images Paul suggests.
Paul’s words are full of color and sound:
sufferings, grace, glory, eager longing, revealing, futility, hope,
bondage, freedom, groaning, redemption.
Take any word and give it a shape or a sound, a color, a texture, a rhythm.
But now it occurs to me that Paul’s words,
the Psalmist’s song of glory and human dignity (Ps. 8)
and all the Kingdom parables of Jesus
find their center in the good news of God’s steadfast love.
So, inspired by the music I’ve enjoyed over the past few weeks,
I’ve written a cantata.
Percussion, winds, strings…and human voices!
+ + + + +
The cantata opens with all sixty-six performers introducing the central theme.
For sixteen measures you would hear a musical theme
that sets the spiritual foundation of the composition,
a theme that found me by the grace of God, a theme both simple and majestic, unpretentious, yet gloriously uplifting.
My imagination cannot take credit for it, yet I heard it in my spirit.
It came not from any memory, it was not borrowed from somewhere,
but it may have belonged to the ages.
I consider the theme to be God's gift, and even without text,
the music itself brings to mind images of creation, rebellion, and redemption.
You only sense the theme the first time you encounter it, this first movement.
You hear it again, and perceive it more clearly.
And you hear it a third time and it is as much as planted within you,
even before the chorus begins to sing of God's steadfast love,
a lyric set to the main theme, cantus firmus.
The harmonies are rich and stirring.
Psalm-like, the words tell story through prayer—or pray through story—
and as the first movement ends,
the listener will barely distinguish a solo voice singing just beyond the chorus,
the same words, the same musical theme,
a fragile line between individual and community.
The second movement introduces variations on the main theme,
beginning with a Mid-eastern setting, a hint of an Israeli folk dance,
timbrel and strings and pipes, rhythm and joy.
But the pipes grow quiet, the timbrel's rhythm fades, the strings give way to voices,
and a cappella male voices chant a Gregorian variation on the theme,
with a note of profound mystery,
as voices are joined by the natural echo of the surrounding space.
Within this movement comes another variation on the theme,
as women's voices join the chorus with a sound reminiscent of a German chorale. Polyphonic variations intrude with welcome reminders
of French and other European styles.
An Alpine horn (made in Geneva) sounds from the center of the hall,
and this movement ends with the startling sound of bagpipes, from an outside hallway. With all these variations, or in spite of them, the main theme is still in mind,
still anchoring the piece at its very center.
When the bagpipes have wheezed their last,
we are not surprised to hear the third movement begin with a variety of folk instruments plainly stating the cantus firmus in their own musical language.
What is surprising is that these folk variations are coming from little ensembles
scattered throughout the hall.
A Korean folk tune back there. South African voices over there.
Mexican trumpets and Brazilian guitars. An Irish flute. An American banjo.
Each ensemble plays quickly through the theme,
and the movement ends with the only notes borrowed from another composition,
"In Christ, There Is No East or West."
The fourth movement begins with a bow toward the African-American spiritual.
A contralto voice is lifted in praise, breaks, and bends the main theme toward the blues. Now comes the biggest risk: the orchestra begins to sound like a big band,
and the central theme is syncopated, a joyous celebration of good news
that would move fingers to snappin’, hands to clappin' and toes to tappin'.
This movement is dangerous because the ensemble has the composer's permission
to re-interpret the theme through free-flowing improvisation.
Take these notes and go with them!
Let the influence of the seamier side of Kansas City, the dives of Chicago,
the smoky clubs of New Orleans move this grace-filled gift of song
into the gritty lives of people who know they are sinners and pretend to be no better,
but lean with desperation on the hope of the gospel.
The risk is that the main theme will be lost as saxophone wails its lament,
and trumpet cries its complaint and drums rage toward liberation.
If the improvisation breaks the central theme into riffs too cacophonous to be called music, all may be lost: the performance could end in discordant anarchy.
But if the musicians have embraced the thematic heart of the cantata,
their free (but Spirit-led) reflections may enrich the whole work
and keep it always reforming, always a new thing altogether.
Finally, all voices and all instruments return to the familiar original theme.
Sixteen measures in unison, one voice honoring one God.
The work concludes with a hymn which invites, indeed demands,
that the listeners join their hearts and voices in a melody
that will follow them into the streets and neighborhoods that lead home to Kingdom Come. In music, as in life, the inexpressible Word is central to our common pilgrimage
from Creation to Eternity.
+ + +
(I suppose it might be interesting to include in the score
a footnote at the bottom of the last page suggesting the powerful symbol
of the conductor laying aside her baton, picking up a towel and basin,
and washing the feet of the musicians.
But that might distract from the central theme, rather than interpret it.)
One cannot appreciate or enjoy any musical masterpiece
by pulling individual notes out of the score,
no matter how well or how loudly those scattered notes are played or sung.
The heart must sense the whole sweep of the work,
aware of, in awe of its unity.
On this Trinity Sunday, one might expect that my imagined cantata
had been composed and performed to the glory of the Triune God,
and God’s saving message of grace and love and peace.
That is our common bond. Our unity. Our vocation. Our fulfillment.
So, now, go write your own cantata!
Imagine what you could do with percussion, winds, and strings, and voices!
But begin by listening for the Spirit's music in your heart.
And center your life on the good news of Jesus Christ.
Let it be your only rule of faith and practice, practice, practice.
And all God’s children will follow the Lord of the Dance into Glory!
[Oh, one more thing….I’m afraid if one has to explain a parable, it sucks the life out of it.
But—my cantata was about the history of the church, in the Reformed tradition.
Sixty-six musicians? How many books are there in the Bible?
From an Israeli folk dance to a horn from Geneva,
from Scottish bagpipes to jazz improvisation –
the main theme, the cantus firmus, is God’s steadfast love.
And that, my friends, is to be the cantus firmus of our lives, day by day, and forevermore.]
Into our circle of women, one day, walked three men. One was young, still a youth. One was old but sprightly—he had the look of those philosophers who sometimes stand in the middle of the city to give lectures; I learned later he was a doctor. And one was not young, but not old. A balding man, thin and small in stature—I was probably a bit taller that he was. And his coloring was all red—red hair, and a red face animated by eyes so dark they were nearly black. But they shined. All three of them carried an air of excitement.
Honestly? This felt like an intrusion. I wondered what time it was. I wondered whether I ought to get back to the shop. But then, a small voice somewhere near my heart spoke.
“Listen,” it said. “Listen.”
How many times in church have you heard something like this: The Hebrew Scriptures are Law; and the New Testament is Love? Or, The God of the Hebrew Scriptures is all about punishment, but Jesus is all about forgiveness?
I’ve heard those things, and I’ve heard them a lot. Heck, I’ve even preached some version of them. There are so many ways we Christians have been encouraged to think about Judaism as a religion that was profoundly flawed, and which Jesus came to fix. And while there is no doubt that Jesus critiqued the religious practices of his own community, that can be a sign of love and hope for the future…
Image: He Qi, Holy Spirit Coming.
The Hebrew Scriptures lift up three categories of people who deserve the particular care of the faith community: widows, orphans, and aliens—which is to say, immigrants. Widows, if they do not have adult children to help them, are incredibly vulnerable. They can’t go out and get work. They are entirely dependent on the kindness of those who have means. Underneath these strong commandments is the memory of when God’s people were vulnerable—when they were immigrants in Egypt, who were exploited and made slaves. That memory reminds them to care for the vulnerable.
Care for the widows—it could be your own mother, your own wife who is penniless.
Care for the orphans: it could be your own children who are hungry.
Care for the immigrants—your ancestors wandered in lands far from home, and you might well be in the same position yourself, someday…
Image: “The Raising of Tabitha: Sketch” by Guercino (1591-1666), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In the reading from the Book of Acts this morning,
we have not one, but two conversion stories.
The first is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.
Saul encounters the last person he expected to meet on the road to Damascus:
the Risen Christ.
It is a powerful story of divine reorientation,
an abrupt encounter with a Light so brilliant that a man
is literally knocked off his feet, blinded, humbled, and turned so completely around
that he leaves even his name behind.
The second conversion story is less dramatic, almost to the point of being overlooked.
But we may learn more from it than from Paul’s story,
and for that reason, maybe it’s the more relevant of the two
as we consider the meaning of conversion in our faith journeys.
First, what do we mean by conversion, anyway?
It has to do with change or transformation, even rebirth.
A friend of mine once converted from listening to country and western music
to being a fan of opera.
A young baseball player might change from batting left-handed to right-handed.
A person might switch from one political party to another.
But mostly we think of conversion in religious terms,
converting from one religion to another.
Or, converting from no religion to a zealous commitment to religious faith...
like a person on death row meeting Jesus,
getting “born again,” and being transformed into a new person altogether.
If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creature.
I believe it.
But it is such a personal change, we can’t judge what it means from person to person.
I think about Boyd and Floyd,
the folk-singing twins I knew many years ago back in Virginia.
After I’d been out of touch with them for a couple of years,
I bumped into them outside the youth center where I volunteered as a counselor,
and I asked them how they were doing.
“We’re born again,” Boyd said. (Or, was it Floyd?)
“Yep. We follow the Lord now,” Floyd said. (Or, was it Boyd?)
I was curious what that meant for their music careers.
“Well, we’re going to sing only for the Lord now.
All our music will be for praising his name.”
I suppose that meant no more songs about romantic love,
the meaning of friendship, or just sailing on a silver lake.
I wondered then, and I still wonder now, what that means for other artists.
Does it mean that born again carpenters will only make pews now, and altars,
but no more beds or kitchen cabinets?
Or that a house painter must convert to painting only churches?
Then I realized I had no right to judge the way the twins had managed their conversion.
(or more to the point, how God was managing the twins).
Because conversion, new birth, spiritual transformation ... it’s an intensely personal thing,
certainly an intimate covenant between a person and the God who speaks to the heart,
and sometimes it’s quite a confusing thing to friends and families
who haven’t seen the vision or heard the voice
or otherwise met the Lord in such a dramatic way.
When someone we know undergoes what we call a “conversion experience”
sometimes we feel suspicious, sometimes puzzled, and maybe even jealous.
I wonder what Saul’s friends thought
when that Voice rumbled over the Damascus Road that day.
Saul was struck blind, and his friends were struck speechless!
I wish we knew more about what happened to his friends; but Luke focuses on Saul.
Saul is present at the martyrdom of Stephen.
Luke tells us that Saul approved of the stoning death of Stephen,
and that it was at Saul’s feet that witnesses laid their coats.
The most damaging words are in the third verse of Acts 8:
“But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house;
dragging off both men and women, he committed them to jail.”
Saul believes himself to be acting on behalf of the God of Israel
to rid the world of the followers of Jesus.
We can imagine the fire in his eyes as he enters a home, announces God’s judgment,
and physically ties up the occupants, hauling them off to jail.
When we come to the first verse of chapter 9,
Luke makes sure we have the picture:
Saul is still breathing threats and murder against disciples of Jesus.
He is the church’s number one enemy,
a man who thinks slaughter is the most effective way
to curb the growth of this sect of Jesus people.
Saul goes to the high priest for papers that would authorize a “seek and destroy” mission.
He recruits some strong armed helpers and sets out for Damascus,
eager to find anyone, even women, who belong to this group called “The Way.”
He’ll arrest them and drag them off to Jerusalem.
The only light in Saul is the zeal with which he rages against the church.
Until the God he thinks he is serving turns his world upside down and inside out...
as a sudden explosion of intense light surrounds the hunters,
and the sky, the road, every face is white with the blinding light of a thousand suns.
Knocked to the ground, unable to see anything, Saul hears a voice.
It calls him by name, “Saul, Saul.”
In days gone by, the voice had called,
But now, the voice says, Saul, Saul.
And then there is the question:
“Why do you persecute me?”
Do you hear the question Saul hears?
Not, “Why are you persecuting my people?”
but, “Why do you persecute me?”
You see, Jesus and his people are one now.
Inasmuch as you accuse them, berate them, push them around,
tie them up, and drag them away ...
you do it to Jesus.
Saul answers with a question of his own,
but he asks it as if he already knows the answer.
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus...get up...and go...”
Saul has new orders now, from the highest command,
and he has no alternative but to follow the orders he hears.
Eyes once filled with murderous zeal are dark now.
The man who breathed threats of slaughter has had the breath knocked out of him.
The man once so powerful and so feared is now helpless.
Once he gets to his feet, he doesn’t know which way to go,
and his speechless friends take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus.
He is entering the Kingdom of God as humble and dependent as a stumbling child.
He is as much as entombed for three days,
three days of darkness, hunger, and thirst.
Is he confused? Yes.
Is he converted? Not yet.
There is another conversion story that Luke must tell first.
We have no idea how Ananias first came to faith.
There is no record of how this man became a disciple,
or how this disciple got to be a leader in the Damascus church.
What Luke does tell us is that Ananias had a dream,
a vision that would upset his universe.
The Lord called him by name,
and he answered with the very familiar words,
“Here I am, Lord.”
And the Lord has familiar words for him.
“Get up and go...”
When the assignment is explained, Ananias balks.
Like other unwilling servants and prophets,
he resists the Lord’s call.
Imagine the absurdity of this scene.
Here is a disciple who is confronted by both vision and voice,
who recognizes that it is the Lord who is speaking,
and who has no trouble discerning the Lord’s will.
Yet, this disciple says, “Lord, you don’t know what you’re doing.
Let me tell you what I’ve heard about this man Saul.
He is bad news! “
Now, don’t you agree that this is our kind of disciple?
If we had the power to grant sainthood, wouldn’t Ananias be a great candidate?
Like so many of us, he says,
“Lord, I hear what you’re saying, but you’re wrong.
I know what you’re asking, but I guess you don’t.”
So much of what Jesus taught is so impractical here in the “real world.”
So much of what Jesus expects of us is so impossible here in the real world.
Blessed are the meek? Are you kidding?
Love your enemies? Feed all these people? Cast the nets here? Put away the sword?
The first will be last and the last first?
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed.”
No, I won’t. I’ll be embarrassed…and broke!
Lord, I hear what you’re saying, and I’m sure you’re right, because you are the Lord.
But, you don’t know what you’re asking.
Or, maybe you don’t know whom you’re asking.
You’ve got the wrong person here.
Yes, Ananias is our kind of disciple.
Reluctant. Afraid. Half-hearted. Maybe even whiny.
But with enough chutzpah to tell the Lord where it’s at.
And the Lord, having heard the wisdom of Ananias,
responds, saying, “Go...”
Then, the Lord explains what Ananias apparently didn’t know.
And that is that the Lord is in charge, has a plan, and will work it out,
through Ananias, if he will just go and do as he is told.
Saul, it turns out, is the Lord’s vessel, the Lord’s instrument,
the Lord’s “way” of inviting Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel
to become followers of “The Way.”
Here is that more subtle conversion I was talking about.
No big flash of blinding light for Ananias.
Just a change of heart, a nod of acceptance, maybe just a deep breath, or a sigh.
The reluctant disciple is converted to a faithful servant with a key role to play.
And Luke says, “And Ananias went...”
And he did as he was told.
He laid eyes on the man who couldn’t see,
and laid his hands on Saul,
and called him “Brother.”
The enemy of the church is now a brother in the faith.
The man who breathed murderous threats is now filled with the Holy Breath of God.
The blind man (who has been metaphorically blind longer than a mere three days) now sees.
The persecutor of the baptized is now baptized himself.
He eats and regains his strength and for several days he is taught,
reoriented, born again.
An upsetting vision has set him right!
In the synagogue, he says the words that once deserved a death sentence:
Jesus is the Son of God!
That is now the creed of his new life.
So, there are the two conversion stories in this 9th chapter of Acts.
The subtle conversion of Ananias,
and the legendary Damascus Road conversion of Saul.
We don’t know anything more about Ananias after this.
But he played his crucial part in the drama of Saul’s conversion.
And in a way, I think of Ananias as the hero of this story,
even as he stands in the shadow of the story’s main character,
the archenemy of the church who became the author of much of its theology,
and the founder of many of its communities, the Apostle Paul.
For those of us born into the faith of the church,
I think it is the conversion of Ananias that speaks to our own need for rebirth.
Now and then, in flashes of insight or hearing old words that speak new meaning,
we experience a little resurrection of sorts, maybe just glimpse of new life,
or a fleeting reflection of the Kingdom of God.
We come to realize that God knows best!
Whether Saul’s vision or Ananias’
all encounters with God are God’s gifts,
not something we can engineer by wishing or yearning or praying.
Saul was knocked off his feet, suddenly and unexpectedly.
Ananias, I think, expected something, and opened himself to his assignment...eventually.
Either way, God approached in the light of the Risen Lord,
and that gift brought new life in Damascus and eventually throughout the world.
Every day, then, keep open to the possibility that
no matter how perfect or how flawed your life,
God may break into your day with some new, life-changing truth.
And that will be only the beginning of your new life.
In a little book of essays by William Barclay,
he speaks of what he calls the “threefold conversion.”
The first step is for people to be convinced of the wonder of Jesus Christ,
and to know that Jesus Christ can do for us
what we can never hope to do for ourselves.
“The second step in conversion is the conviction that this experience
brings both the privilege and the responsibility
of becoming a member of the fellowship of people who have had the same experience,
and who share the same belief.” [Barclay, In the Hands of God, p. 39]
Thus we are converted from being alone in faith
to oneness in the Body of Christ, the Church.
The third conversion is to loving, caring action in the world.
As Barclay says,
“The Church must never be in any sense a little huddle of pious people,
shutting the doors against the world,
lost in prayer and praise, connoisseurs of preaching and liturgy,
busy mutually congratulating themselves on the excellence of their Christian experience.”
Our conversion, our new life,
is expressed through as a great love for others, as we have for Jesus Christ.
Our new life is not for ourselves alone,
but for all whose lives we can touch with the love of God in Christ.
And that is why, when we do see the vision or hear the voice
or simply understand in a new way that God is in the process
of transforming us as God did Saul,
or changing our minds as God did for Ananias,
... that is why God will then say to us,
“Get up, and go...”
There are sheep to be fed.
There is peace to be made...
love to be affirmed.
The world to be turned upside down, upset and set right.
Get up. Go.
Trust that God has a plan and will carry it out...through you!
Jesus, again, says, “Peace be with you.” He tells them that, now, they are the ones who are being sent, just as God has sent him. And he shares another reminder of his physical self with them—he breathes on them. He tells them to receive the Holy Spirit. And he tells them, in no uncertain terms, that they are to be about the business of forgiveness.
This is a remarkable moment. Think about who is with Jesus in this room. These are the remnant of Jesus-followers… the ones who ate with Jesus on the night before he died…the ones whose feet he washed. The ones who, instead of following Jesus to his trial and cross, ran away. Here is Simon Peter, the one who Jesus correctly predicted would deny even knowing him. And at least one person is missing who, by now, everyone knows was the one who betrayed Jesus for a bag full of silver.
And Jesus has just told them, their work, their mission in the world, from this moment on, is forgiveness. I imagine first on their list of people to forgive—for many of them—would be themselves.
Image: “Apostle Saint Thomas” by El Greco (1541-1614), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.