The Sunday Sermon: Third Sunday of Easter – April 26, 2020
Scripture: Acts 9:1-9
Our journey continues … into the book of Acts and the first century of the Common Era. We are traveling with the first apostles and they spread the Word and the Way of Jesus of Nazareth to see whether and how it will be received in the wider world. Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem just over two weeks ago. Exactly two weeks ago we celebrated the Risen Christ and the experience of Resurrection – new life, re-newed life, transformed life. That experience first happened in those who lived with Jesus most closely when he was teaching and healing – the women and men called disciples and followers.
A Resurrection experience can’t be kept to oneself. It’s a profoundly personal thing, but it’s not a private one! So, at least three days after his death, Jesus’ disciples began to share their experience of Resurrection: Jesus was alive in them. His teaching and his healing, his Word and his Way, were now theirs to share with all who would listen. So their experience turned to expression, their proclamation to explanation and they began to share with others.
They began right where they were in Jerusalem. The Book of Acts says they began there when the Holy Spirit came from heaven with “a sound like the rush of a violent wind.” Peter and the others began to speak with the authority they had been given by Jesus when he was alive and with the conviction of their new faith now that he was no longer with them
Last week we began our journey with them. Peter and the others began to preach, and … they were arrested by the high priests who “were enraged and wanted to kill them.” But a pharisee named Gamaliel stepped in. “If this endeavor is not of God, it will fail. If it is, you won’t stop it no matter how many you imprison or kill.” Last week the Way was saved, but for how long? This morning another Pharisee is on his way to the synagogues at Damascus once again “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”
Let us pray …
This morning, the well known story of Saul … on the road to Damascus … with no idea that much more than a name-change is in store for him. Listen for the Word of God from the ninth chapter of Acts, the first nine verses.
Read Acts 9:1-9. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
What a fantastic and fascinating word in any story. Our lives, our stories, are full of “meanwhiles” these days! I was hit immediately by it as I re-read the passage for this morning. It communicates a breadth and a depth to what is going on in Jerusalem and to what is extending into neighboring communities, notably northward to Damascus this morning. It discloses an intricacy to the story of the spread of the Gospel of Jesus in the community first called “the Way.” There’s a lot going on in the first years after Jesus’ death. There’s this over here, and then such-and-such went to this place, and then so-and-so preached here, and … Meanwhile, Paul wanted to go to Damascus … I’m fascinated. And there’s more …
“Meanwhile” not only indicates a complexity to the story of the early movement, it also places what is about to be told in a broader context. I don’t think there’s any question that this scriptural telling of Saul’s conversion is the most familiar conversion in our bible, I might even suggest of all time. No passage in our Book of Acts is more familiar and this story of the “Damascus Road experience” has passed into the lore of Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, as the “paradigm” of conversion to the faith. But the use of this word “meanwhile” signals to us that it is taking place in a broader context. This is not the only thing going on – special as we’ve made it.
As dramatic as Saul’s conversion is and as much attention and credit that we like to give him for doing so much on his own, he is never alone. Back in chapter 8 the conversions began … with the Samaritans and then an Ethiopian, and they continue immediately after Paul. With each story the conversions become more dramatic (read them when you get home later), taking us further from the center of the original community in Jerusalem. Our story this morning, marvelous as it is, is but another account of the movement of our gospel and the early church “unto the ends of the earth.”
We miss Luke’s “point” about what’s happening if we focus too exclusively on Saul himself, here, and don’t understand the larger picture. By placing this narrative here Luke is telling the reader, and reminding us, that following the “Way of Jesus” is far too demanding for an individual, even Saul/Paul! Only within a caring community – with others who are experiencing the same things – will anyone who gives their heart to the Way of God in Christ forge an enduring faith. That community has preceded Paul, even as it will grow exponentially because of Paul. Moments of disclosure may happen all too rarely, but they happen to us all.
Every once in a while, often after long periods of frustration and confusion, the light dawns, and what has been shrouded in darkness can suddenly be glimpsed – if only for an instant. That disclosure, fleeting as it may be, is liberating. It frees us to go on with life and to do so with a new sense of direction and enthusiasm. It’s not really a matter of new information that has made a difference, not just something more we know. It is a revelation, a gift beyond ourselves, something “More” we experience. The light that flashed on the Damascus road and the voice that guided Paul in this most notable revelation liberated him from old ways of thinking and destructive ways of acting.
The revelations, these moments of disclosure, these epiphanies, happen to us all when our hearts are open to change. And I suggest to you that they don’t happen simply through a sermon message or even the Christian nurture and guidance of loving parents or church members. They happen – it happened for Saul/Paul, and it happens for us – in the experience of the risen Christ. When we realize that we are alive and not dead and accept our call to go into the world to rescue everyone from all that kills. It is what Easter is all about: Not about a day in the year, but a life in the world.
We can be encouraged and take heart that God in Christ will come to each one of us according to who we are. Paul has his Damascus Road experience, is nursed by Ananias, begins his preaching and heads back to Jerusalem changed, transformed.
Meanwhile … we open ourselves to the divine mystery to discover who God is calling us to be, to respond to God’s grace and love, to receive for ourselves some new sense of direction and enthusiasm for life. We may find it in bright and dazzling lights from heaven, but more likely these days we’ll find it in the relative silence of a living room, in the phone conversations with family or friends or Zoom video-conferences with work colleagues. Most likely, these days, we’ll find it in the memories we have of the “story-formed community” called the church that is constantly trying to reveal a God who cares for all of us and who loves us into eternal life. We will be together again.
Meanwhile … God is revealed in our lives now, and our story goes on. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / April 26, 2020