(Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 4/10/2016)
Third Sunday of Easter, Year C
I remember when I was in the process of being appointed to this church as your pastor. I was a senior in college, and I got a call from Steve Bennett, the District Superintendent at the time, saying that he knew that I was starting the path toward ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. He said that there were a few churches close to ONU that would be a good appointment for a student pastor, and asked if I was interested in serving as a student pastor as I finished my studies at ONU. Through meeting with him and praying deeply about it over several weeks, I said yes.
My fiancé Lauren and I had only been dating for a couple months at this time, so it’s really proof of her awesomeness that she just kind of went with it when I talked to her about it and so eloquently said
“So…uh…I guess I’m gonna be a pastor in a few months.”
In the several months between then and July 2014 when I started here, I was introduced to the PPRC, met a couple times with your previous pastor, Pastor Casey, and started planning for my first several months, the common thought was “Is this really happening? Am I really going to become a pastor in a few months? There’s got to be a joke here somewhere.”
Some of you may have had thoughts similar to that when you heard your new pastor was a 21-year-old senior in college. You weren’t alone in thinking that was crazy.
It was a big stretch for me, and it still is. Saying yes to this appointment has stretched my faith, stretched my talents and abilities, it’s sometimes stretched my sanity as I try to keep up with my life as a seminary student now and my life as your pastor. There was and still is a lot of stretching. But good has come out of that stretching, good that wouldn’t have come if I’d said no to this appointment. And besides, I wouldn’t be anywhere else right now than right here.
Now, I’m sure you’ve all had similar experiences of stretching in your life. Maybe you’ve come upon a new opportunity-a new career opportunity, an opportunity for further education, a new opportunity in your personal life-and you know it would stretch you if you took it, so you’re not sure. Maybe it’s an obviously godly kind of stretching-maybe it was a call to go on a mission trip or help in some kind of outreach ministry, and you knew it would stretch you, so you weren’t sure if you should say yes. Maybe there’s an annoying person at work, and it’s a stretch for you to just work with them. Maybe your kids, or your parents, or your spouse really gets on your nerves and it’s a stretch to just not speak your mind to them.
Our reading from Acts for today can really help us with this kind of stretching that we all experience. But first, let me set the context. This is the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion. Paul, or Saul as he was known first, is a Pharisee. He and the other Pharisees believed that the best hope for their country was a return to a strict observance of religious rituals and rules that had been growing and developing over thousands of years. This stringent form of religion had totally formed and shaped their lives, to the point where they weren’t able to see or consider anything outside of it. So when this new movement around some prophet named Jesus Christ springs up, threatening to take power away from the Pharisees and authorities, as well as reviving a revolution that might bring the wrath of the Roman Empire down upon them, you can see why they would want to quash this movement before it becomes a big deal.
Saul was last seen at the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Saul was giving approval of his death. Since then, he’s begun to terrorize the followers of the Way, the followers of Jesus, driving them out of Jerusalem and hounding them even in the surrounding towns and villages.
Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”
Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”
Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.
In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
He answered, “Yes, Lord.”
The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem.He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”
The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength.
He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared. (Acts 9:1-20, CEB)
Luke, the author of Acts, isn’t he a great story teller? Especially this story. I mean, talk about a night and day difference, right? Now, like I introduced this story, we normally think of this as Paul’s conversion story, but if we look close, there are really two stories here-one about Saul and the other about Ananias.
Saul or Paul is changed dramatically from a persecutor, a terrorizer out to destroy the Way, to a follower of the Way after he encountered the resurrected Jesus Christ. A dramatic conversion story if I’ve ever heard one.
Then there’s Ananias, a follower of the Way in Damascus. He’s called by Jesus to go to the great persecutor and harasser of the Jesus people. He’s supposed to believe that Saul, the one who came to Damascus to imprison people just like Ananias has actually changed and become a follower of The Way. I think that’s a huge change, a huge conversion.
But are these really conversion stories? I want to call our attention to the language we use to talk about these stories, because language is important. When we think of a “conversion story,” we normally think of something passive, submissive, inactive. The basic scope of a conversion story is “Once I didn’t believe, but now I do believe.” Right? You see, for us, conversion is primarily all about a change in beliefs. We talk about life change, we talk about how Jesus came in and changed our life, so that’s involved, but it comes after you believe. Changing belief, not action-that’s what we’re mostly concerned with.
That’s important. Because when you start talking about believing in something, you’re not talking about action. You’re talking about agreeing with some statement or system of beliefs, either explicitly written down, or implicitly expected of you. We don’t necessarily like to think of it that way, but as I see it, that’s what we mean a lot of the time when we talk about Christian belief or faith.
Think of the Apostles’ Creed. We’re not going to read it through, but if you want to look at it, it’s #716 in your hymnals. It’s one of the standards of Christian belief, kind of setting the boundaries of what it means to believe like a Christian. Do you know how it goes?
I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again and ascended into heaven. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.
Now that’s a great Creed, a lot of great beliefs and a lot of stuff to chew on there. And I’m sure most of us would agree with that and say “Ok, if that defines Christian belief, then I guess I’m a Christian!” But there’s a problem here.
If you really think about it, and if you really look at what this creed says, you could feasibly believe everything it says and still be an awful person.
You could agree with it and still treat other people horribly.
You could agree with it and not have any intention of changing your life.
So I talked about stretching at the beginning, right? There’s no stretching here. There’s no life change. This creed doesn’t have to leave your mind and heart to influence your actions. And that’s a problem, because in the story I read for you, there’s not much emphasis at all on accepting a whole system of belief, agreeing with any kind of creed. But there is emphasis on action and life change.
So maybe we could think of this story as a commissioning, not a conversion. With commissioning, there’s action, there’s no passivity. You’re commissioned to go do something, right? Whenever I would go on a mission trip in high school, the church I was a part of would commission us to go out and do the work of God wherever we were going. When this church a few decades ago commissioned Tom and Sharon Crowe to go to Africa as missionaries, you sent them out to go bring Jesus to new people. Commissioning is active, not passive. And this is what really happened with Saul or Paul and Ananias. Jesus stretched them into action, not to sit still and think about a system of beliefs.
Now, if you look really closely, you can see that this theme of action and life change as being more important than agreeing with a system of beliefs was common among the followers of Jesus. Do you remember what Acts called them? They were followers of The Way, right? They weren’t Christians yet, that word hadn’t been invented yet. They were followers of The Way. And that name is significant. Because it suggests that the Christian faith was not a set of doctrines or beliefs, but is a living, active Way of life. Action and life change was a Way of life. Now, I’m not romanticizing the early church. They were people just like you and I, they hated change like we do and they were stubborn just like we are. But for them, simply believing and agreeing with a set of standardized doctrines was not the way to salvation.
The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed did not exist for these first century followers of Jesus, of the Way. The New Testament did not exist yet. At this point in the story, Paul has obviously not even started writing his letters that make up the majority of the New Testament. They had no “hard evidence” from which to draw their beliefs, no standardized writings. What the early church, the followers of the Way, had was the witness of the 12 Apostles and the others who knew Jesus, most of whom were still alive at this point in the story. They had their memories of the resurrection, and their memories of their life with Jesus, the life led by Jesus and the life Jesus called everyone to lead. It was a life of action, a life of being stretched to change and grow into the image of Christ and stretching others to do the same.
So I think it should be clear why I chose the title of this sermon-Expect to Be Stretched. In a way, that’s the life of a follower of Christ boiled down to four words-expect to be stretched.
Think of the stretching that happened in this story. Paul was stretched all the way from a persecutor of the Way to a follower of the Way. The one who breathed out murderous threats against the followers of the Way now becomes a follower himself. It’s a stretch for us to even understand that!
It was a stretch for Ananias to go to Saul. Ananias could’ve gotten arrested and worse. He’d heard what happened to Stephen, he knew why Saul had come to Damascus. But God called him to go to his worst enemy—and he found Saul to be his friend.
And think of the stretching in the community of followers in Damascus itself. This community of followers of Jesus accepted Saul, the collective worst enemy, as a member of their community. What if Paul was just faking it? What if he was trying to find out where they all lived so he could drag them out in the middle of the night? This was a huge stretch.
But as followers of The Way in the 21st century, that shouldn’t surprise us. Expect to be stretched. When you encounter the resurrected Jesus Christ, expect to be stretched.
So maybe our call this morning is to find these places of stretching. What is God calling you to do that you don’t really want do? Who is God calling you to love who you don’t really want to love? Where is God calling you to go where you don’t really want to go? What behavior is God calling you to change that you don’t really want to change?
(If you’re really wondering about that last one, I’m sure your spouse can clue you in on what behaviors God is calling you to change…)
As a church, God is calling us to stretch into our Community Outreach Center. Starting new ministries to reach new people in new places, do things we’ve never done before as a church and bring the life-changing message of the Gospel to our community.
When you encounter the resurrected Christ, as we have the opportunity of doing at least every Sunday, if not every day, expect to be stretched. How is God stretching you? How is God stretching us as a church? Into what newness is God calling you? To whom is God calling you? To where is God calling you? What about this church? Those are the questions I’m giving you church. Wrestle with them. The Christian life is one of stretching into newness, one of action and life change. So where does God want to do some of that in your life?
Church, why do we read the Bible? One of the reasons is because these old stories continue to reflect truths about our lives today. God is still stretching us like God stretched Saul, Ananias, and the early church community into new life. And the great thing is that in this book, we can read the ends of these stories and see how they turned out. Ananias ended up going to Saul, baptized him, and the community of followers gained another person that day. Saul ended up getting his name changed to Paul and began planting churches all around the Mediterranean, reaching brand new people everywhere with this brand new message of the all-expansive love, grace, and mercy of God.
And it was all through the power of the resurrected Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, sent by Christ to be with the church forever, empowering us, shaping us, and stretching us still today. This power is still available for us today as we lean into those places of stretching with the faith that it will all turn out for good in the end.