So far in the book of Acts over the last few weeks, we’ve seen the Church gather to wait and to pray for God’s direction before beginning its work. We’ve seen the Church at worship, in prayer, at table together, and sharing their possessions with glad and generous hearts. And last week we saw the early Church being sent out to do God’s work in the world.
So I have to say I’m fascinated by the placement of these next two stories that are our focus for today. Coming several chapters after the first apostles got going with their ministry, these two back-to-back stories remind us that changes – even really big changes – can happen when we’re already underway.
Your homework for this coming week is to read both chapters 9 and 10 of the book of Acts in their entirety. For our purposes this morning, since I want to cover both stories, I’m afraid I’ll need to stick to some ESPN-style highlights.
First, Acts 9, and the story of Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus. A man with quite a reputation at the time as a sworn enemy of the Church becomes a great leader of the church. A participant in the killing of Stephen, the first Christian martyr just a chapter before, Saul (better known by his Roman name Paul) would become a preacher spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ all over the Roman Empire. Chapter 9 begins with “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” on his way to Damascus to try to capture followers of Jesus “and bring them bound to Jerusalem.” (9:1-2) Suddenly, a light from heaven flashes around him, and he falls to the ground, and a voice says to him “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And the reply comes “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” (9:2-5) Literally blinded by the light, Saul is led into Damascus and stays there for three days, unable to eat or drink. God then sends a very brave Christian disciple named Ananaias to meet him (think about how risky that must have felt, to approach this powerful enemy of the Church) but Ananaias does just what God asks him to do, and lays hands on Saul and heals him of his blindness. Saul gets up and is baptized, spends several days among the disciples in Damascus, and next thing you know, he’s off on a preaching tour, spreading the good news of Jesus in the synagogues and saying “He is the Son of God!” (9:20)
Have you ever met one? Or maybe you are one? A person who has sworn up and down their whole lives that they’d never … and then is more surprised than anyone when they finally do?
While the surprises can come in any number of forms, some of these oaths have to do with never setting foot inside a church. Whether born of an outsider’s skepticism, or of a once-insider’s deep hurt or betrayal by church folks at some regrettable moment along the way, we’ve probably all encountered people who’d say this is the last place they’d ever expect to be.
But have you ever talked with a Christian whose life and ministry you especially admire … and heard from that person the marvelous surprise in their voice as they tell of having come from such a place? Even a place of fierce opposition to the Church … only to end up profoundly affected by God’s grace, and deeply invested in the Christian community?
It’s certainly biblical, this notion that a person can have such a dramatic change of heart. In a span of three days, Saul was transformed from the Church’s worst nightmare into its biggest cheerleader. His journey forever changed by a mind-blowing encounter with God along the road to Damascus. So can God reach out and grab someone we thought was beyond redemption, to turn their life around? Can God make over a person’s life so dramatically that they don’t even recognize it anymore? Truth is stranger than fiction. It happens! Change can be so amazing that life before a certain date, and life thereafter will look entirely different. Not only for an individual, but for the Church in which they’re involved.
OK, let’s fast forward now to Acts chapter 10. Another scene rich in special effects, you might say. Paul got the blinding light and booming voice from heaven knocking him off his feet on the Damascus road. Peter gets a bizarre vision of a smorgasbord of pigs and canaries and lizards being lowered down from heaven on a giant sheet. Lowered down three separate times, by the way – God knows Peter needs repetition for things to sink in! But it’s ok that he doesn’t get it on the first try. For grace is also about second chances, and third, and fourth chances, too, for those of us who seem to grow by taking two steps forward, and one step back.
There’s no question this particular word of grace comes to Peter in a really strange way. But it’s grace all right. “See these animals? There’s no more clean and unclean, Peter. All are kosher. In other words all are welcome. All are precious in my eyes. So those folks you thought were outside the fold? The Gentiles, the ones you thought you didn’t need to include as you spread my good news to your own Jewish community? Bring ‘em on in. In doing so, you’ll not only be sharing, but also receiving, the gift of God’s grace.” How appropriate that God would choose to deliver this word to a guy we know so well for resisting new ideas at first (“you’re not washing my feet, Lord!”), but when he finally comes round, embracing them with gusto (“hey wait – what about my knees and elbows, and what the heck just dump it over my head and scrub behind my ears!”) That’s our friend Peter.
I spent my earliest years in Christian communities that seemed to feel a Paul-type Damascus road conversion to Christian faith was the only kind that counted. You needed to be able to name the day and moment you became a Christian, and frankly the more dramatic the before and after story the better. Unfortunately, I’d been a good little church kid my whole life. I was never bad enough to have a good enough testimony, of the kind they were celebrating. Nor could I remember a time in my life when I didn’t love Jesus. So I have been greatly comforted in my adult life by reflecting on Peter’s very different experience of coming to faith. One of Jesus’ very first disciples - and a faithful Jew as well – Peter’s a great example of someone who seems to have lived his whole life as a Godly man. But this didn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvement. We read about many of those lessons as he follows Jesus through the gospels. And here in Acts we find he still has lots more to learn.
Some of you may have experienced an extreme makeover, if you will, more along the lines of Paul’s Damascus road experience, that brought you to faith. For others of us, becoming disciples of Jesus has been more of a gradual, incremental process like Peter’s.
Again, one of the valuable take-aways from finding both of their stories right here in the middle of Acts is precisely that these stories happen along the way, while the Church is en route. Like a good coach encouraging his players during halftime to make important adjustments in their game, God allows each of us plenty of room for these kinds of mid-course corrections. I mean, Peter’s already been quite busy since the day of Pentecost back in Acts 2, preaching and teaching and being thrown into prison and getting out of prison and preaching some more. But here in chapter 10 we see that he still had some really important lessons to learn. Apparently he didn’t need to have everything figured out from the start, for God to be able to use him. He was sent by God to get to work, and continued to find his life and his faith transformed along the way.
So too the Church as a whole would learn a great deal as it encountered throughout the book of Acts an unlikely cast of characters who would be drawn into the fold – even characters as unlikely as Saul. To any of us who are tempted at times to think we know who’s in and who’s out, who’s really Christian and who couldn’t possibly be, Acts 9 offers a humbling lesson. If God can work with Saul, then surely God can work with anyone. Again, far be it from us to keep out those whom God would have us draw in.
God’s all about offering midcourse corrections, all about transforming hearts and lives. Whether it happens in an instant, or over a lifetime.
Do you have a story of God’s transforming power? Do you sense some ways God could be at work on you even now? How might a change of heart – however big or small - enable you to live more faithfully as a disciple of Jesus? How might it encourage you to invite others to come along for the ride?