By Pastor Suzanne Clemenz
Scripture: Acts 9: 1-20
Many years ago, when I was adjunct faculty in English at Ivy Tech Community College, I had a class of about twenty students of varying ages, and several of them were high school students, homeschooled, who were eligible to take college courses. One of the high school students was a young man with significant disabilities. I don’t remember his specific condition, but he was in a wheelchair, had minimal use of his arms and hands, and he could speak, but he spoke slowly and it was difficult to understand what he said. I was teaching English composition, which requires a lot of writing, and because of his disability he had to dictate all of his compositions, which took an extraordinary amount of time and effort for him. The students did a lot of peer group work in that class, and I noticed that his group members, at the beginning of the semester, didn’t really give him the time of day. He was the last person they expected to be a strong student in the class. He was ignored, until about halfway through the semester when I called on him to read one of his brilliant essays to the class. As they watched his perseverance and listened to his gifted literary voice, I saw the sea of students literally transform in front of me. Their jaws dropped, and I could see the reshaping of their minds as they moved this young man from a mental image of “disabled” or “impaired” to a new category of “gifted genius.” After that, this young man became the most popular student in the class. The students all warmed to him, and they sought him out for conversation, and the classroom became this warm, vibrant, spirited place, and it was the most beautiful thing to behold. It was a remarkable experience of transformation and acceptance, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything else quite like it.
The scripture from the book of Acts is also a remarkable account of mistaken assumptions and transformation in the early church. Who in the early Christians would have ever imagined that God would call Saul, a well educated, high-powered, ambitious persecutor of Christians, to be the most visible, influential preacher and missionary of his generation? I don’t think anyone could have seen that coming. It must have sounded incredulous to Ananias to be told by Christ, there’s this guy I want you to go visit, pray over and bless, because he’s the person I’ve chosen to spread the good news of the resurrection and to launch the global church. And when Ananias realizes this person is Saul, he points this out to God: “Hey Lord, don’t you know this guy has been pursuing us, and he has state power on his side?” Saul was turning Christians out of their homes, having them arrested, and he was implicated in the death of Steven, one of first to be stoned to death for following Christ. Saul literally has blood on his hands. This had to make no sense to Ananias. Last Sunday, Pastor Mack preached about having questions and doubts and bringing those before God, and Ananias certainly has his doubts, yet he listens and he follows, even in the midst of his fears and his doubts.
And then there’s Saul. Saul and Ananias are both faithful religious men. It’s worth stressing that Saul fully believes he is living righteously. He is devout in his faith; he is standing up and zealously obeying the Jewish law as he understands it. The problem is, what he is doing is causing pain and suffering for others. One of the lessons here is that this is always a red flag for us. Any time what we are saying or doing is undermining the safety or wellbeing of another person, we must pause and seek God earnestly and humbly, because something is off track. But Saul doesn’t see that what he is doing is counter to God’s will. He’s so determined and moralistic that he’s blind to the fact that he’s gone off course. The literal blindness that strikes him on the road to Damascus exemplifies the spiritual blindness that’s already manifest in his life. In his commentary on this passage, Scott Hoezee writes that Saul believed God needed him to keep the faith pure, to make sure the “true” believers maintained right belief and continued to determine who was “in” and who was “out “of the church. In an amazing, mysterious act of grace, Jesus comes directly to Saul, blinding him and speaking to him, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This moment is so startling and profound for Saul that it changes the trajectory of his entire life. The realization that instead of punishing him for killing Christians, God is saving him and turning him around to prepare him to minister to people he had considered his worst enemy – well, Saul, soon-to-be-called Paul, is moved and transformed by this saving moment, such that he is going to tell about God’s boundless grace and mercy the rest of his life.
It is significant that the first thing the Spirit tells Saul after he is blinded is go to Damascus and wait to be told what to do. God doesn’t there, on the spot, give Saul any directive other than this, to go and wait for the faith community to instruct him. The role of those who lead Saul, and especially Ananias who prays over him, lays hands on him, and heals him, is essential to Saul’s conversion. Saul is receiving guidance from the Holy Spirit and the community. The transformation of Saul is not an individual, personal phenomenon; it’s not a private encounter between Saul and God. To draw upon an often-quoted observation by John Wesley, “There is no religion that is not social, no holiness that is not social.” Our faith is simply not something that we can do alone. We need each other as the church. Together, we make up the body of Christ. And as this story illustrates, the body of Christ is comprised of folks, by God’s intentional, mysterious design, that we might never imagine sitting in the pews with us. We’ve already reflected on how stunned Ananias must have been when God sent him to Saul, who had been persecuting Christians. Now imagine how Saul must have felt to have his sight restored, and the first person he sees hovering over him is Ananias, who had been a sworn enemy. It’s such an amazing story, this story of the early church and the emerging body of Christ. It shows us that we are called to be together in real, authentic, often surprising community.
The truth is that It can be hard to be in real community with others who have pasts that trouble us. It can be hard to be in real community with folks who we don’t fully understand. It can be hard to be in real community with folks who communicate differently than us, and who have different interests and needs than us. I’m reminded of a former pastor of mine who, when new members would join the church, would make it very clear to them that if they stayed at the church long enough, someone was going to disappoint them. It might be another member, or it might be one of the pastors! But at some point, they were going to be let down. Because we are all flawed human beings, apt to misunderstand each other. We’re going to sometimes disagree on things. And sometimes, we might just really mess up with each other. And my former pastor was upfront about this – it’s not a matter of if, but when, if you stay long enough, that you’ll be disappointed. We are going to let you down.
We are called to be the church together, on our good days and our bad days, when we are generous and when we are selfish, when we are hopeful, and when we are discouraged. God loves us and accepts us as we are, though he never leaves us there, and he never stops speaking into our hearts and shining his light into our lives so that we can know him more clearly and follow him with more and more of our being. One of my ongoing prayers to God, which I began praying in my mid-20s and which I still pray, is “God, make my heart like yours. Because on my own I can’t picture what perfect love looks like, nor can I love perfectly, so I need you, God, to shape me and change me. I need your Spirit within me.” And scripture assures us that if we love God with all our heart and seek to follow, God will lead us.
Furthermore, none of us has a past or a history that is too dark for God to redeem – Paul’s story makes this very clear. And all of our stories can be used for God’s glory to bring God’s goodness into our world. God saves us, not because of what we can do for God, but just for sheer grace alone. And God will work through anyone’s life, and will bring God’s church together in surprising and unexpected ways, in order to achieve God’s purposes. We are the church together.
Recently I have been delving into Trinity’s history, into the history of this church together. We have an amazing church story, folks. In two years we will reach the 200-year mark of being the church together. Many of you know that we are the oldest worshipping congregation in the Greater Lafayette area, formed just within a year or so of Indiana becoming a state. At the time, Lafayette wasn’t called Lafayette yet; the city was called “Star City.” In 1824 a group of about 10 people began having church meetings together in a log courthouse. Over time, the numbers grew, the location of the church meetings changed a few times, and eventually our sanctuary was erected in 1873. Every time we celebrate communion, we come forward and join with all the saints of this church who have preceded us in our Trinity history of almost 200 years. How many saints of this church are there? I have no idea how to even begin to calculate what that number would be. Maybe there’s a historian here who could tell us. Or to begin to imagine how many lives have been touched in that 200 years by the love and compassion that’s been shown through the ministries of this church. What we do know is that what brought those original ten people together, and what sustains us to this day, is the power of God’s grace moving through our disparate, flawed, beautiful lives together. When we are channels of that grace, open and yielding to the powerful and mysterious ways that God works through us together, there’s nothing that God can’t do. We are the church together. Thanks be to God
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