Acts 9: 1-20
This week is the final week in the sermon series that Steve and I began several weeks ago, a series on call stories– the ways that God acts, speaks, and uses people throughout the Bible to do wonderful, amazing and challenging things for the work of the Kingdom of God. These stories, we hope, have inspired you to recognize your own call in your life, the ways or places that God is speaking into your life, calling you to be a messenger of Christ in the world. This week we conclude our series with the call of Saul, who later becomes known as Paul, the great evangelist of the Church. This passage comes from the book of Acts, the 9th chapter. Saul’s conversion takes place several chapters after he is identified as one of the great persecutors of Christians, a man dedicated to destroying the church and oppressing Christ’s believers. Listen now to the word of the Lord that comes fresh to us this morning from the book of Acts 9:1-20.
Will you join your hearts with mine in prayer—God, we give you thanks this morning, thanks for the opportunity to join together as we worship you, thanks for a day filled with joy and love, moments filled with your spirit. As we turn ourselves to hear your word, open our ears to hear these words fresh and new coming from your spirit, open our hearts to listen to the ways you move in us, open our lives to be moved by the ways you act in our world. And now, God, let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
The New Yorker in me comes out every so often, I’ve lived in different parts of the country, I’ve lived in North Carolina for a few months now, but the New Yorker still comes out sometimes. Usually in traffic, I hate traffic and I don’t handle it well, I do what no one in North Carolina does, I use my horn, I honk at people who stay at the stoplight after the light has turned green, I honk at people who cut me off, I honk at people who are driving too slowly. Driving is neither my best skill nor the place where the best of me comes out.
Sometimes when I leave church on a Sunday morning, filled with gratitude, overwhelmed by joy, certain that I was in the presence of the Holy Spirit during our Sunday morning worship services with the voices of our choir speaking to my soul, the laughter of our children reminding me of God’s presence, the fellowship of our church a sign of Christ’s love in the world—sometimes I leave church, get in my car and start driving and if I hit traffic, I turn right back into that aggressive, mean, bad driver.
And then I wonder, how was I changed? How was I in any way changed by that morning spent, undeniably, with Christ? How did that moment of the Holy Spirit pouring over me and our church, how did that change me? How did that recognition of Jesus in our prayers, how did that cause me to live differently? As I sit there, honking my horn and throwing my hands up in the air, did my experience in worship not make me act any differently in these moments after leaving?
I wonder if I am not the only one? Perhaps it’s not in your aggressive and bad driving like it is with me—perhaps it is in the way we run home, quick to return to our to-do lists, our to-do lists of running from here to there, too busy to recognize Jesus in our lives, perhaps its in the way we get home and talk about how “good” or “bad” today’s service was, not mentioning the way we heard the Spirit of the Lord stirring in our midst, or perhaps its as we drive down the highway and as we pull off the exit upon seeing a woman holding a cardboard sign asking for help, we avert our eyes, looking down at our cell phones as we’re stopped in traffic. It comes in different ways for all of us, but it comes, we leave this sacred space and we return to our lives often unchanged, unmoved, the same.
Saul’s call story, really Saul’s conversion story tells a different tale. It tells of Saul’s dramatic, sincere, intense, bold change, it tells of how Saul leaves his interaction with Jesus different:
- He leaves with a new name—no longer Saul, now Paul
- He leaves with a new job—no longer persecuter, now evangelist, missionary, disciple
- He leaves with a new God—no longer the world, now Jesus
- He leaves with a new purpose—no longer hate, now a purpose of love
- He leaves with a life lived completely differently – no longer a destroyer, now a messenger of love and grace
Paul, no longer the greatest persecutor of the church, becomes the great evangelist of the church, one of the greatest stories of the transformative love and grace of our Lord—the ability of Jesus to take our lives, to call on us, to speak to us and to dramatically change the way we live our lives, to drastically alter who we serve, to greatly impact who and how we are in the world.
So, then, how do we leave our experience of meeting Jesus different? How do we respond to God’s presence in our lives?
How do we move beyond simply remarking on today’s experiences and instead responding to the experiences of today? — How do we move beyond simply remarking on today’s experiences and instead responding to the experiences of today?
This sermon series, Steve and I have focused on call stories, narratives throughout the Bible of people called by God, people who heard the voice of God, felt a nudge from a friend, people who experienced the presence of God and were thus called, called to be prophets, called to be healers, called to be protectors, fishers of men, disciples. All of these call stories tell the same story of Paul’s call and Paul’s conversion—the story of acting in the name of the Lord, the story of going as a sent people, the story of responding in action to God.
One of the most prime examples of this, of responding to the presence of God, comes 10 verses after Saul’s conversion, in the call of Ananias, the oft overlooked character of this story.
Ananias, a devout man of God, already a follower of Jesus, receives a vision from God, an experience with Jesus in verse 17. Ananias, a disciple of Christ, a man who needs not be converted, a man who is already serving Christ, already deemed “good,” experiences the presence of Christ- experiences a sense of call from God. And what he does is exactly the idea of living your life differently in response to Christ I mentioned earlier.
Ananias goes to the person best known for persecuting his people, best known for hating, hurting, jailing, oppressing the very people that Ananias comes from- Christians- and offers him healing. He goes to the very person, the very place where he should be most afraid to go, walking directly into the face of danger- walking to the face of the person he ought to fear most. And he does it because of his experience with Christ, because his Christ-moment was so profound, he was confident that Jesus called him to live differently. To live his life in a way that he goes to the places he fears most, he goes to the people he dislikes most and he lives life the way Christ lived- offering healing to the broken, offering love to the stranger, offering grace to the one you hate, the one who hates you.
We’re all familiar with the hymn, Amazing Grace—the spiritual sung across the nation in churches. As familiar as this hymn is to many of us, the story behind its writer, John Newton is much less familiar. John Newton wrong the hymn after being ordained as an Anglican priest but years before, he was part of the crew for several slave ships. He traveled back and forth not simply participating in the slave trade, but being one of the driving forces of the trade.
One night caught in a storm—facing the very real possibility of sinking, Newton stopped and prayed. And in that storm, somehow the boat was fixed, the storm was ridden out and the crew and Newton made it home safely. Having seen the power of God, having been moved by the Spirit, Newton’s life began to change, he began reading the Bible, praying, seeking God’s presence in his life. And as that shifted, he began fighting the very thing he used to stand for, his livelihood, his beliefs, he became an abolitionist, fighting against slavery, advocating for an end to the slave trade, being a friend to the slave. Having recognized the presence of God, he responded by living his life differently- by advocating for the very people he persecuted, by seeking hope for his enemy.
So, who then is Jesus calling us to? Where then is Christ calling us? How then is Christ using us the way he used Ananias or the way he used Paul or the way he used John Newton?
- Is Christ calling us to our enemy?
- Is Christ calling us to the places we fear?
- Is Christ calling us to people we don’t like?
- Is Christ calling us to the homeless person on the street we pass by?
- Is Christ calling us to the refugee whose name we do not know?
- Is Christ calling us to the part of town that scares us?
Brothers and sisters, yes. Yes, indeed, Christ is calling us to live a life changed, to live a life in response to Christ’s life, in response to Christ’s presence in our lives.
This Wednesday, on Ash Wednesday, when we begin our Lenten journey, we will offer the congregation the opportunity to join in a Lenten devotional and spiritual practice. The devotional, “Encountering God—Encountering Each Other” written by our congregation, builds story after story and tells of the ways we have been called to live life changed, to live life differently, to live life as a people called by God. These stories, are remarkable, beautiful, testimonies to the ways that our church, the people sitting in the pews this morning have seen God, seen God in experiences with people, in experiences in this sanctuary, and the way those stories have changed them, have affected them, have in some way shaped the way they live life differently having experienced God.
These stories are real, they are beautiful, they are encouraging, they are your stories, my stories, the stories of our church, the stories of our faith, they are our stories. I invite you to read these stories, to meditate on them, to be inspired by them, for they tell them better than I ever could. Listen to these stories and let them call you, see how they stir you, watch how they call you.
Brothers and Sisters- Christ has called us to live life differently because of who he is, because we know Christ, because we have experienced in some moment or experience, vision, person, place, we have experienced Jesus.
In a short while, we will all leave this space, this sacred place, a thin place, a place where we gather together and meet Jesus, gather together and feel the spirit. And as we leave this place, let us not simply remark, but let us respond, let us not simply leave, but let us go forth, let us not simply be different today, but let us live differently.
In the name of God our Creator, our sustainer and our redeemer. Amen.