Sermon by Justin Beatty, MPC's Youth Director
it was last september when dr. rick sacra became the patient.
he started exhibiting the symptoms and later received the diagnosis that he and everyone else at that time feared most.
that he had been infected with the ebola virus.
later that fall, in an interview with nbc news’ andrea mitchell, after being treated for and surviving the disease, dr. sacra shared some insight that surprised many.
he said that he wanted to go back.
that he still wanted to help others who were infected the disease that had already almost killed him.
if you think about it though, it shouldn’t have been that surprising.
it was in that same interview that dr. sacra confessed that he had known the risks of traveling to liberia, especially considering his plans there, when he initially decided to go as a missionary and use his expertise to serve those who had been stricken with the disease that summer.
dr. kent brantley knew the risks as well, or at least he knew them before it was too late.
he traveled to do missionary work with samaritan’s purse in liberia before the outbreak of the disease,
however even after he started to see the highly-infectious patients flood into the clinic where he was working, he didn’t pull back in fear, but poured himself even more voraciously into his work,
crossing the divide into the isolation units, and doing everything he could to fight what at the time surely must have felt like a losing battle, and which last july and august almost claimed him as a victim as well.
and while this was going on, back at home, concerns about an outbreak here played on news channels non-stop for weeks,
theories were devised that it was a secret government plot.
the virus was compared to isis,
and the suggestion was made that we should stop all travel, if not everywhere than at least to a third of the world’s largest continent, and that we shut down our borders completely.
in hindsight, that may have been a bit of an overreaction,
when all was said and done, 18,000 times fewer people contracted ebola on american soil than died of the common flu here,
as one intrepid writer, seth borenstein, noted, less americans have contracted ebola on american soil than have married kim kardashian,
or, on the off chance you don’t spend your days watching trashy reality television…
the amount of people who wed elizabeth taylor is more than triple that which were infected with ebola within these borders.
but yeah, stop all flights and shut down the borders, sounds reasonable.
the contrast between those two sets of people is astounding.
by knowing the danger of going/staying in liberia, and treating patients with ebola instead of running around like chickens with their heads cut off, drs. sacra and brantley were making themselves a part of a grand tradition.
the tradition of mother theresa, who opened a home for those who were suffering from leprosy.
the tradition of the christians of the fourteenth century who, at great risk to themselves, provided humanity to the dying when they needed it most while the black death wiped out up to sixty percent of europe’s population.
the tradition as the early church, who cared for the diseased while the romans ran in fear.
that the church did this was one of the primary reasons why the church spread so fast in those early years, by the way.
a tradition that started with christ himself, who routinely went out of his way to seek out and not only heal those whom most people would run away from in fear, but by engaging them would restore their sense of humanity.
if you would turn with me in your bibles to matthew 8.
“when jesus had come down from the mountain, great crowds followed him,
and there was a leper who came to him and knelt before him, saying,
“lord if you choose, you can make me clean,”
he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying,
“i do choose.
be made clean!”
immediately his leprosy was cleansed.
then jesus said to him,
“see that you say nothing to anyone;
but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer the gift that moses commanded, as a testimony to them.”
a couple things about leprosy:
there were a lot of things within the hebrew tradition that made someone to be considered unclean.
leviticus is full of situations that would render one unclean.
childbirth made you unclean.
for that matter everything that had anything remotely to do with childbirth made you unclean.
for most of those things though, the person made unclean was only unclean for a short period of time.
you left town for a week or two, then the priest declared you clean and things returned to the status quo.
not so with leprosy.
when you had leprosy, you were unclean forever, or at least until you were cured of your leprosy, and that’s if you were ever healed of you your affliction.
you were made to leave your community, to leave society, and to be by yourself, maybe forever.
also, leprosy wasn’t treated like most diseases.
most diseases, even the really scary ones like ebola, you are “healed” of or you “recover” from.
when you have those diseases you are said to be “sick”, that’s the word we use.
not so with leprosy.
lepers aren’t “healed”, they don’t “recover”, they are “made clean”.
likewise, they aren’t “sick”, they are “unclean”.
this could be us looking back and assuming things based on our own context, but it feels like there would be an extra bit of stigma attached to that word “unclean”, if you catch a stomach bug, it’s no big deal, but if you are “unclean” then you are dirty, you are somehow worse than the rest of us.
also, also, because leprosy was considered to be very contagious, people were terrified to come into contact with someone who had been infected.
which is understandable.
we try to avoid people who have contagious diseases too.
a couple weeks ago one of the girls who works for me at my other job sent me a text message.
“i have pink-eye, i can still come in, but everything i touch will get pink eye on it”.
suffice it to say, we got the shift covered.
i mean, we share a desk, and a computer, and a phone.
i don’t want pink eye.
however, fear of contracting leprosy tended to be closer to “stop all the flights and shut down the border” than it was “take a day off work”.
so terrified were the people that they would catch leprosy, they made those who were already afflicted announce their arrival…loudly, so they would know when to run away.
that was the existence of a leper, not only would you not be allowed to live in the city not be allowed to hang out with people, but anywhere you went, you were required to scream “unclean” so that everyone could scatter away from you like birds hearing a gunshot.
and that’s just what people’s reaction to you becomes, that says nothing about the symptoms of the disease itself, the indirect result of which caused you to have bloody sores over much of your body.
given that reality, a leper could be forgiven if at some point they started to feel as thought they were something less than human.
and into that reality steps jesus.
there is something to be said for the faith of the leper himself.
he is the one who initiates this interaction.
he breaks the rules, instead of warning jesus so that he can run away, the leper approaches jesus, kneeling before who he hopes will be his savior and letting jesus know that he believes that jesus can make him clean.
and jesus does not disappoint.
the verse says “he reached out his hand and touched him”.
now understandably, the fact that jesus heals this man of his leprosy is the big takeaway from the story, and it is a big deal, jesus is essentially giving this man his life back.
but let’s not skip over this clause.
jesus “reached out his hand and touched him”.
i would guess it’s a hand on his shoulder or something.
nothing that we would think is that significant, but then, people touch us all the time.
the verse doesn’t say how long the unnamed man had been afflicted, in theory it could have been but a few minutes.
more likely, it had been weeks or months, it could quite possibly have been years.
and in all that time, he had never had physical contact with another human being.
there is something special about touch, about physical interaction with other people.
when i was in college i lived in this christian house, and my freshman year the older guys made it a point to reach out to me, which was nice.
when i asked about why, one of the upper classmen told me about someone who had lived in the house the year prior, and he had left the house disappointed, depressed and distraught, because by what i’m sure was massive coincidence, at no point during that year had anyone come into physical contact with him.
no hands on the shoulder, no handshakes or high-fives or fist bumps.
and that was a huge deal to this guy.
this man had not come into physical contact with anyone potentially for years.
it’s likely that in all that time nobody had talked to him, except to tell him to stay away.
they might not have even looked at him.
this was a man who was made separate from society, from humanity.
for years, whenever anybody saw or heard this man they ran the opposite way everybody ran.
everybody but one.
instead of running away, instead of pulling back, jesus reached out.
jesus intentionally reached out and gave this man his first physical human contact since he had first gotten sick.
jesus made him clean, but also, by reaching out and touching the man, jesus made him human again.
just as jesus, in sacrificing himself on the cross, and enduring the punishment that we deserved for our sins, made us human again.
that is the tradition that kent brantley and rick sacra, and every one of their colleagues who didn’t get in the news, joined when they braved the dangers of disease and volunteered to help ebola patients in liberia.
they reached out while most people fretted about how they were going to insulate themselves.
now, granted, they have a certain skill set that allowed them to partake in this tradition in a way that most of us cannot.
for most of us, if we were to jump headlong into a medical emergency situation, we’d just end up being in the way, and being a danger, both to ourselves and to those in need of medical attention.
i know that i certainly wouldn’t be much help in the operating room.
i faint at the sight of blood, i don’t know what are body parts are really named, or where they are, i don’t know what medicines are called, it’d be a disaster.
but there are ways to reach out to those in need even without a disease outbreak, and even without medical expertise.
in all honesty, most people, and i would include myself in this, aren’t especially excited to reach out to those who could use it even when their afflictions aren’t contagious.
leprosy would be something that’s probably relatively easy to see.
one of the symptoms was that the nerve endings in your skin would become dead, you couldn’t feel if you were bumping into or rubbing up against a wall, or the jagged surface of a rock.
and so lepers did, rub up against walls and rocks often, and enough of that tears your skin away from your body.
leprosy left its victims with scars and scabs and sores all over their body, and that was before the socially mandated verbal warning siren.
but not all scars are visible.
not all illnesses, or afflictions, not everything that would cause somebody to feel something less than human can be seen by the naked eye, and not all warning sirens that somebody might be, or at least feel like they are, detached from the rest of society can be heard from as far away as the leper screaming “unclean”.
that may be mental illness, emotional difficulties, depression or even just social awkwardness.
we’re very hesitant to move into any space where we fear we will become uncomfortable, aren’t we?
or at least, most of us are.
but what if we weren’t?
what if, when we saw somebody who was talking angrily to themselves, instead of quietly moving to the other side of the road, we engaged, provided that they don’t appear overtly dangerous, of course.
what if when we somebody we knew started to detach themselves from reality, when they started to fall into that deep dark void, we called out to them, and gently walked alongside them, and helped them to get through to the other side of the tunnel.
what if we, like those who came before us, provided that touch of grace to someone who needed it.
what if we were to be the ones to help restore someone’s humanity, like jesus restored the humanity of this man.
by seeking out those who felt like they were outside of humanity, jesus changed the world.
that’s probably setting the bar a little high, but i wonder what we could do.
please pray with me:
papa god, thank you for today.
thank you for the blessings you’ve given us.
thank you for the opportunity to come here and to learn more about you.
thank you that when your son came down to earth, that he sought out the people whom most ran away from, and that he restored their humanity.
and thank you that in dying for our sins, on the cross, he restored our humanity.
i pray that you would be with us and guide us.
that you would show us the people in our lives that need that touch of grace, that feel like they are somehow apart from humanity.
i pray that you would give us the strength to seek those people out.
and i pray that you would guide us, as we strive to follow your example.
in your name we pray,
Sermon by Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Studies of the New Testament book of Acts often focus on the major players – the original core group of apostles, with Peter at their center, and the new convert Paul (Hebrew name Saul) who was suddenly transformed from the church’s worst enemy into one of its most famous and effective advocates. It’s understandable that we pay attention to these central figures, the same way history books usually focus on the most famous kings and generals and politicians of each century.
It’s worth remembering, though, and perhaps particularly so as we head toward Memorial Day weekend this next week, that there is always more to a moment in history than we ever see in our history books. There are countless brave individuals whose stories lie behind the stories we hear more about. For every decorated general, how many soldiers have played a critical part in their every victory? For every great political or social eader, how many aides and advisors, how many supporters are really responsible for their success?
So, too, with the history of the church. As we noted last week, Peter and Paul would never have become the famous Christian leaders they were without the many saints who offered them hospitality along their missionary journeys – after all, meals to eat and place to lay their heads at night were rather critical to their being able to continue preaching and teaching. Not to mention all those who heard them proclaim the gospel and actually believed what they said – the church would have died out immediately if brave women and men hadn’t signed up all along the way, to become Jesus’ disciples too – and remember they were often risking their lives to do so.
It was in that spirit that I introduced you last Sunday to some lesser known, but equally important figures in the book of Acts: Dorcas, who was known for her great kindness in reaching out to those in need in her community, and Priscilla and Aquila, a couple of first rate Christian educators. Since this is our final Sunday on the book of Acts – at least for this round – I simply couldn’t close out this series without introducing you to a couple of my other favorite, lesser known characters too. Especially since their stories are so much fun!
The first is Eutychus, patron saint of preachers everywhere, you might say, at least in terms of encouraging us to keep it concise up here. Paul was after all known for many things – he was a great orator, a prolific writer, but brevity wasn’t exactly his strong suit. So there he is at a late night meeting, doing his thing, and he puts poor Eutychus to sleep as he goes on and on. (Three cheers, for a case being made right here in Scripture against long-winded sermons, right?) And of course the story continues as Eutychus seems to have made the mistake of choosing the window seat. (I wonder if he was hoping for a draft to keep him awake? Maybe he knew if Paul was the preacher for the evening he’d be settling in for a rather long night of it?) At any rate, the fresh air clearly didn’t do the trick, and the poor guy falls into a deep enough sleep that he actually falls to the ground three stories down, dead.
It fascinates me that this doesn’t seem to throw off Paul off his game at all. He just heads downstairs, bends over the young man, takes him in his arms, and declares that he is not dead after all. Whether Eutychus had died, and his life had been restored, or whether he had only been mostly dead, and Paul saw some signs of life (the text leaves it a bit ambiguous I think) - either way, we find a clear reminder of the resurrection here. In the end, the boy is taken away alive and his fellow church members are “not a little comforted,” (don’t you love that phrase?) I imagine they were “not a little horrified” just a little earlier, when he fell out the window! And now, “not a little comforted.”
Another of my favorite characters in the book of Acts is Rhoda, the servant girl who waits on the apostles as they gather to pray for Peter, who’s in prison. To understand the importance of her role, we first need to remember that when Peter was thrown into prison here in Acts 12, he wasn’t simply tossed in a jail cell as a warning. The apostle James has just been killed, and it appears Peter is next in line. Herod wants to rid the world of these Jesus followers once and for all, and the best way to do that is to execute their leaders, right? Putting Peter to death would be hitting the jackpot, for no follower of Jesus at that point was better known.
So there sits Peter in prison, bound with chains, with four squads of soldiers guarding him. (Where did they think he was going to go, exactly, if he was already chained up, and awaiting execution?) At any rate Peter’s asleep in this ridiculously well guarded jail cell when an angel appears to wake him– taps him on the shoulder and says, “Get up!” His chains fall off and the angel says “Quick, put on your sandals, Pete, and don’t forget your cloak - we’ve got places to go!” So Peter gets up and follows the angel though the text says he doesn’t realize what is happening at this point. He thinks he’s dreaming. But out they go, Peter in this half-awake, half-asleep daze, as the angel leads him past the first guard, and past the second guard, and through the iron gate into the city. The gate opens, and they walk into the city and it’s only then that Peter seems to wake up: “Huh! I guess I’m loose!”
So off he goes to the house of Mary where the good church people of the church are praying like crazy for his release. He knocks at the outer gate, and out comes this maid named Rhoda to answer the door. We know she’s been hanging around these church folks, and had probably heard Peter preach many times, because she immediately recognizes his voice. Since Peter was supposed to be in prison at the time, she’s thrilled to hear that voice – so thrilled that she entirely forgets to let him in! But instead runs back immediately to tell the others – “Peter’s loose! He’s standing at the gate!”
Again, Peter was supposed to be in prison. Anyone with any sense knew there was no way Herod was going to allow him to be released, so Rhoda isn’t exactly met with an enthusiastic response. I picture a bunch of annoyed looks around the prayer circle, eyebrows arched as if to say “Look, Rhoda, can’t you see we’re in the middle of praying here, for our brother Peter? This is serious stuff. We can’t have you bursting in and interrupting us!”
Still Rhoda insists it’s really him; she stands by her story … while, incidentally, Peter still stands knocking at the gate! Eventually one of the others gets up and goes to the door to check – and “Huh! It’s really Peter – he is loose! Who’d have thought?”
By the way, does Rhoda’s story remind you of another you heard not long ago? Herod’s finally got the upstart leader right where he wants him – no way he can do any more damage now. Already in a position where he can’t go anywhere, why not add a bunch of guards just to make sure. And none of it does a bit of good. For what are chains and iron gates, what are armed guards or even huge stones rolled in front of tombs, for that matter, in the face of the God of resurrection?
It was women there, too, who first learned the good news – “He’s loose!” And ran back to tell the others only to be met with “You’re nuts.” But sure enough, when the others went back to check: “Huh. I guess you were right.”
I love these two stories for showing Eutychus and Rhoda in all their humanness. Eutychus, his eyes too droopy to be able to listen even a moment longer even to one of the most powerful preachers the church has ever known. Rhoda, so excited to discover her hero is out of prison that she (oops!) leaves him standing outside the gate to run back and tell the others the good news.
But what I love even more about these two characters is the fact that each one – precisely in their moment of weakness – ends up bearing witness to an amazing resurrection moment. In fact, judging from the humor in these two stories, God seems rather to enjoy the quirks and flaws he gets to work with, in the beautifully diverse cast of characters that makes up the Church.
We celebrated Easter several weeks ago, but the Easter season never ends. On any day, in any moment, God can work new wonders among us. So what if it sometimes happens in spite of us. So what if sometimes the best response we can muster is: “Huh. I guess Jesus really is loose.” We’ll clue in eventually.
And when we do, it’ll be up to us – not a Peter or a Paul - to share that good news.
Word to the wise, though? You might want to pick your window seat carefully, as you watch and listen for Easter’s next installment. And don’t forget to open the gate, when the Holy Spirit sends a miracle your way.
 Adapted from a sermon by William Willimon entitled “Easter Continued,” Festival of Homiletics May 18, 2011 in Minneapolis, MN.
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
I imagine it was blurted out in the heat of the moment. Faces red with frustration, blood pressure rising, opponents of the Church who had just arrested a young Christian man by the name of Jason, shouted: “these people have been turning the world upside-down!” (Acts 17:6) So says the 17th chapter of the book of Acts, in the middle of one of those all-too-familiar confrontations between the early Christians and the authorities.
We’ve been making our way through a sermon series on Acts over the last several weeks, and as they’ve gone about their work of preaching and teaching and church-planting, the disciples have found themselves in scrapes like this plenty of times. In chapter 17 the particular uproar takes place in Thessalonica, and while it’s the more famous duo of Paul and Silas they’re really after, some poor guy named Jason gets arrested simply for letting the headliners stay at his place during their preaching gig in town.
But it’s really the accusation itself that interests me. For these words, in Acts 17:6 put in the mouth of someone with nothing but disdain for the early Christians, could equally well have been promoted as a team slogan by their fans: “Turning the world upside-down since A.D. 33!” That’s what we’re about after all, as followers of Jesus. World-changing reversals. Recognizing that the first are last, and the last first. Leading by serving. Losing our lives for the sake of finding them. Even turning a symbol of death, the cross, into a symbol of everlasting life. As Christian songwriter Ken Medema puts it, “the world looks different to you, when you’re flying upside down.”
And the fact that a Jason gets caught in the middle of it all in Acts 17 is so appropriate too. For it was never Paul and Silas alone … never Peter alone … who stirred up all the ruckus. Without people to house and feed them, without kind souls to pay their bus fare to the next city, and – let’s not forget – sustain the entire life of those early congregations between visits from the better-known evangelists, the Christian movement would have died out in the first year, easy. All the passionate, eloquent preaching in the world wouldn’t have stood a chance at recruiting lifelong disciples of Jesus, were it not for the fact that countless early Christians practiced what they preached. And with all their acts of faithfulness - hospitality, compassion, service, worship – with these, they convinced people there was really something here worth committing their lives to.
So last Sunday we talked about two of the headliners in the New Testament book of Acts – Peter and Paul. But today’s stories offers us helpful glimpses of what other early Christians were up to, in their own communities, while the bigger names were out preaching to the crowds.
First the story of Tabitha (her Hebrew name) or Dorcas (her Greek name). We’re told she was a disciple “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” When she died, the community gathered, weeping, and shared with one another all of the kind things she had done for each one of them. So important was her ministry among them that they couldn’t really imagine the church without her. In fact, in a miraculous twist, Peter goes into her room, kneels by her bedside and prays, and Dorcas rises from the dead so she can return to her good works and to the community that loves her! (Acts 9:36-41) Sadly for us, that’s not the kind of happy ending we get when one of our beloved church ladies passes away. But I imagine many of us have encountered a Dorcas or two along our way. Someone who acts as a sort of congregational mother or grandmother to us all. Someone whose kindness, compassion, and friendship makes an incredible difference in the life of her church family. Someone who seems always to be finding quiet ways to reach out to those in need, both within and outside the church.
And then there’s this marvelous story from Acts chapter 18. First, did you notice how Apollos is set up there? The text says he’s “eloquent,” “well-versed,” with “burning enthusiasm,” and willing to speak “boldly.” Trouble is, he doesn’t have all his facts straight! So this gracious couple, Priscilla and Aquila, recognizing his clear gifts for ministry, wanting to encourage him in every possible way for the benefit of the church, but not wanting him to preach the wrong message (eloquently or not!), gently pull him aside and straighten him out.
Chalk up another victory for the not-to-be-underestimated ministry of Christian Education! And say a prayer of thanks for every Sunday School teacher through the ages – including every one of you – who has recognized the importance not only of love and encouragement, for our youngest and newest disciples, but also a commitment to sharing the substance of our faith. It matters that the children of this church come to know and love the Bible stories many of us grew up with. It matters that our middle school and senior high youth have lessons geared especially to them, and that we invite them regularly to serve others too. And so much of this responsibility in the Church has historically fallen to those whose particular ministries keep them hidden away behind the scenes.
Once Priscilla and Aquila do spend enough time with Apollos to help him get his story straight, notice that they don’t stop there. Instead they encourage him as he discerns his particular call to ministry, write letters in advance to the churches who will receive him, and you just know there must have been a farewell potluck the night before he left, with a big hand-painted sign hanging across fellowship hall – “Bon Voyage, Apollos! May God be with you there!” Every cook that made a hot dish to bring to church that night, and every artist that added a letter to that sign, and every heart that said a prayer for that young man as he headed out the door – every one of them had a hand in turning the world upside-down too. Just as every one of us does, standing behind all those graduates we read about in this month’s church newsletter, as they head out from this congregation to make their mark in the world. I know some of you looked at their photos there and immediately remembered what they were like as little ones in your Sunday School classes years ago. We will all certainly be cheering them on, eager to hear where God’s Spirit leads them next.
As Colman McCarthy puts it, “few of us will ever be called on to do great things, but all of us can do small things in a great way.” Every time we do, the ripple effects carry farther than we know. So that no act of kindness or generosity, no word of grace, no heartfelt prayer for any of God’s children is ever wasted. Nor is the time we spend in a Sunday School classroom, or delivering canned goods to the food bank, or flowers to one of our shut-ins, or listening – really, deeply listening – to someone from another race or another culture whose life story has much to teach us. Granted, from where we stand, we can’t always see it, but from God’s vantage point, these are world-changing activities.
Any one of us, of any age, has the potential to be a modern-day Dorcas, or Priscilla or Aquila, someone whose life impacts those around us in beautiful and lasting ways. Granted, we can’t turn the world upside-down on our own. Look to any news source any day of the year and you’ll find hundreds of indications that our world is not as it should be. Violence and hatred, greed and injustice seem to be everywhere. It leaves us breathless sometimes, just thinking about all that needs to be done, in heaven’s name. Work of healing and feeding. Work of justice and peacemaking.
But just as God has done in every generation of the Church’s life, God will continue to fill us with God’s Holy Spirit. With that breath filling our lungs, our ripples can carry farther than we’d ever have thought possible.
Back there in Acts chapter 17, Jason’s accusers spoke more truly than they knew. For whether our particular Spirit-filled lives lead us bravely toward more public acts of discipleship, or just as bravely into some lesser known ministry behind the scenes … either way, we’ll be taking our Christian faith seriously, and the world won’t know what hit it.
Our hymn of response this morning may be new to you, but it was specifically requested by one of our teens, and it speaks directly to the world-changing power of the gospel.
So let’s stand, and get ourselves ready, for the world is about to turn!
 Colman McCarthy in an interview in Hope (July-August 2003). In Homiletics, May/June 2004, p. 14
Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
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?