april 12 the way forward
In the film, The Way, Martin Sheen plays the part of a father, Tom Avery, who travels to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago, a route of Christian pilgrimage that dates all the way back to the Middle Ages. In the movie, Tom’s son has died while walking the Camino and Tom wishes to follow his steps, while carrying his son’s ashes with him. The film was written by Martin Sheen’s son, Emilio Estevez. Emilio’s son, Taylor, had journeyed the Camino trail with his grandfather, Martin. Although their trip together was the impetus for the movie, it is impossible not to wunder about the plot line of a father mourning the loss of his son. Emilio wrote the script with the intention that his father would fill the lead role. But one can detect the shadowy presence of Martin’s other son; that wayward child, Charlie Sheen; the one who has so frequently drifted off the path into dangerous territory with his life. Within the movie, from time to time, the father looks off the trail into the distance and imagines that he sees the face of his lost son. Indeed, at the time the movie was in production, Charlie was in the midst of one of his worst throes of addiction.
It is likely you have heard the cliché, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” We can go as far back as Father Abraham in the Old Testament and discover that physical movement, a physical journey, can often be symbolic of our spiritual journey; our walk with God and our following of God’s call over our lives. In Genesis, chapter 12, we first read the divine call and covenant promise God makes to Abram. God’s very first words to him are “Go.” And go Abraham does. At 75 years of age, he leaves familiar territory to follow the call God places on his life. He strikes out for the land that has been promised. And that passage of Genesis closes with these words, “And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.” Life is a journey in which one stage of growth follows another.
In the gospel of Luke, on the very day of Jesus’ resurrection, two of his followers are traveling from Jerusalem to the town of Emmaus. As they walk, another journeyman joins them, and our narrator tells us it is the risen Lord. But he is not recognized by these two disciples. Jesus, almost comically, prompts them by asking what they’ve been talking about. They express surprise that Jesus wouldn’t already know what all of Jerusalem has been a buzz about… this Jesus of Nazareth: the one on whom they pinned all their hopes; the one who was put to death on a cross, but whose tomb now lays empty. As Jesus walks with them, he talks with them, teaching them what all of this means in light of scripture. They reach their destination and invite Jesus to join them. As they sit down to an evening meal and Jesus blesses the bread, suddenly they recognize him. All along that Emmaus journey, he’d been their companion. He’d been there walking with them all along the way.
And so it may seem appropriate that the author of Luke and Acts identifies the early Jesus movement by the name The Way. A myriad of bible scholars speculate on how the term came to be. Retired Bishop William Willimon writes, “Nearly every religion sees its converts as pilgrims, wayfarers embarked on a journey… Luke is fond of using the image of a journey as a metaphor for what it feels like to be a follower of Christ.”
We are followers of Jesus. And because we are, we are not called to play it safe and stay put. Our lives are dynamic and our spiritual journey is ongoing. We are followers of Jesus, called to respond to the Spirit’s leading.
Over the next six weeks, we’re going to be looking at stories from the Book of Acts to compare the development of the early Church with our spiritual journey today. It is important to remember that our journey begins with God’s movement toward us. We name that movement toward us as “grace.” No matter how far off the beaten path we have strayed, our God is always near because our God is a seeking God.
This morning’s reading from Acts is a well known story of the apostle Paul on the road to Damascus. It is a story of a journey interrupted and redirected. Paul is on his way in order to arrest members of The Way. But he is abruptly stopped in his tracks when a blinding light from the heavens is accompanied by the voice of Jesus calling Paul to account for the persecution he’s been committing.
We often refer to this story as Paul’s conversion. But what does that mean, really? After all, Paul was no heathen before his Damascus Road experience. We (and by that I mean Christians in general), we way too easily and too narrowly define conversion as that one moment in time when our lives are changed and we first decide to follow Jesus. But conversion is bigger and broader – and far more prevalent – than that. The change God works in our lives through his grace is ongoing and there are many times throughout our lives when God needs to surprise us and to redirect us. Paul was no heathen, but a good Jew and, after all, Judaism had been around for a long time. It would be wrong and rather self-aggrandizing for us to degrade this story with anti-Semitism. It would be far more helpful were we to recognize a little of Paul in all of us. We like religion to be predictable and comfortable; to be what we have already learned and come to expect. But our God is a God of surprises and it is more than a little unsettling when God goes off script. Saul begins his journey to Damascus believing he is a defender of religious truth. But, he is in the dark until the risen Christ sheds light on his spiritual short-sightedness.
But, how does that work? Should we all be waiting for a blinding light or earthquakes or storms or other inexplicable cosmic phenomenon? Well, I wouldn’t rule out the dramatic. And yet, that blinding light and heavenly voice are only one piece of Paul’s conversion. We dare not miss what is, perhaps, the most intriguing part of this story: the presence of an otherwise unimportant and unknown Christian named Ananias. I mean, God struck Paul with a blinding light; he spoke to him in a voice heard not only by Paul, but by the men who accompanied him. I have no doubt Jesus had gotten Paul’s attention. And yet, the Lord chooses this reluctant Ananias to bring his message home. It is through Ananias’ hands and words that God will restore sight to the blind Paul. Before his arrival, Paul is just stumbling around in the dark – literally. The only vision Paul experiences for three days straight is a holy vision sent from God of this guy named Ananias about whom we, as readers of this story, know nothing, except that he is a disciple of Jesus. One of the most important and famous scenes in the entire book of Acts has as a crucial character a man we’ve never heard of before and will never hear of again. In Acts, quite frequently, characters give lengthy speeches. At Pentecost, the apostle Peter’s sermon to the crowd stretches over 22 verses. Just before his martyrdom, Stephen gives a speech to the council that is 53 verses long. If there is one thing the writer of Acts enjoys; it’s characters who talk a lot. But not Ananias. He is a man of few words. He gets one verse, one sentence. That’s it. But it is a verse that begins with a shocking salutation: “Brother.” “Brother Saul.” That is an address used among fellow disciples. Can you imagine what it must have felt like for Paul to hear himself addressed in that way by this member of the The Way that, three days prior, Paul would have arrested for heresy?
The story of Paul and Ananias is a reminder to all of us that God is always at work and often in ways that take us completely by surprise.
But it is even more a reminder that we need one another on this spiritual journey. We need one another. We need those who will call us brother or sister. We need those who care to such a degree that, even though they dread the very thought of it, they will still muster up the courage to speak God’s word to us. After all, Ananias was pretty apprehensive about this encounter. Yet he still did what God called him to do.
We need one another because this is not a journey we can walk on our own, this life of Christian discipleship. As many of you know, we are currently in the midst of a Visioning process here at Trinity. Just a few weeks ago, we adopted a new vision statement and the statement we developed reflects this fact that we cannot mature as Christian disciples on our own. Our vision statement is this: Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community. Say it with me: Growing in love and service through relationships with God and community. We need one another. And we need to do more together than worship. Worship is important. But it is not enough. In the weeks ahead, you’re going to hear a lot about Trinity coming together through small groups to cultivate deeper relationships with Christ and with one another. And you’re going to hear a lot about us getting out into the Centennial community to connect with people. And I guess you could say that it’s a new plan we’re developing; a new strategy for church growth and revitalization; except that there really isn’t anything new about it. Being a follower of Jesus has always been about a life-long commitment to spiritual growth and maturity. It’s not a “flash in the pan,” just-say-you-love-Jesus kind of thing. The Book of Acts tells us in chapter 2 that those early Christians “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer…” We’re told that day after day, they spent time together in worship and at table fellowship. They knew that if they were going to mature as disciples and that if the church was going to be healthy and grow, they would need to be fully committed not only to Jesus, but to one another. Friends, we can’t just come to worship and go home. That’s not Church. That’s just attending a worship service…. And maybe you don’t think your role in the church is really that essential. But let me remind you, some guy named Ananias – this guy who drifted on stage for a one-sentence line – forever altered the course of Christendom simply because he obeyed God’s command to “go” and to minister to Paul.
Friends, to be a Christian means to be on a lifelong journey during which we experience God’s grace through a multitude of means… not the least of which is one another.
I hope some of you, during the Lenten season, checked out the Voices of Trinity blog on our church website. We’ll be using it again during this sermon series. A testimony from Betty Ruth Jackson will be posted tomorrow morning. But I want to close this morning with a bit of what Betty shared. She wrote:
My spiritual journey began when my parents taught me “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. One Sunday morning the Baptist minister of our little church offered a chance to respond to the gospel. I went forward and went home to tell my parents. Their response was “You are too young and would have to give up too much”. Later I reported this to the minister, with a little fear in my heart, and did not become a member but did continue attending Sunday School.
The Youth Fellowship at the local Methodist Church had special emphasis on inviting people to their church when I was a freshman in high school. The experiences in this church family, especially the MYF and the mentoring of the pastor’s wife, opened the possibility of going to a Christian college.
Taylor University was my “home” for four years, offering some challenges and opportunities, but looking back I do not see myself asking questions about the Bible, my faith and the world that others have talked about in describing their journeys of faith.
A short term in Korea began to open up some different pathways to show love for God and others. In Seminary at Candler School of Theology, the great message of the Gospel, God loves me, became very real. [Yet] even here I somehow dodged some of the challenging questions of mature faith.
One of our pastors at Trinity encouraged us to read “The Bible in a Year.” It was as if I had never read the Bible before. About this same time our Lamplighters Sunday School class began some challenging studies and discussions about the meaning of the Bible, as well as how it was written, and what difference our understanding could make in our witness/living for Christ. My questioning period has come about 60 years later than for most people and continues as the Vision Team and Trinity Church members wrestle with how we can be God’s Church in the 21st Century.
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On a lifelong journey of seeking to live out God's call on my life and to reflect His grace.
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