The Word of the Lord

http://dustinlee.ca/index.php/whtvmzaifopbeg/139-682157/8225 The Word of the Lord

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 29, 2022

7th Sunday of Easter

Acts 16:16-34

 

Prior to our reading from The Acts of the Apostles, allow me to provide some information regarding today’s sermon, which will be interactive in nature. Dr. Graham Standish, a Presbyterian pastor, church leader, and author has written a book entitled In God’s Presence: Encountering, Experiencing, and Embracing the Holy in Worship.  In it, Standish asserts that when we gather to worship God on any given Sunday our purpose is two-fold: to offer God honor and praise and to connect to the Holy. From his perspective, what is lacking in too many churches is intentionality in allowing sacred space to connect with the Holy. He believes that too much of our worship is about maintaining what was, satisfying who is already here, attracting who is not here, or adding to our numbers. Instead, he encourages the church to consider how people experience God in diverse ways—through a variety of music styles and art, in words and silence, in performance and participation, through sensory experience and observation.

 

Over the past few years at First Presbyterian Church, we have explored a variety of ways to intentionally allow space to connect to the Holy. While words—spoken and sung—are part of our worship—so are moments of silence. We sing a variety of hymns that are provided in the Glory to God hymnal—hymns that are centuries old, contemporary hymns, Taize songs, African American spirituals, and much more. Another method of engagement that we use, particularly during the Contemplative worship services, is the spiritual practice of lectio divina. Since it is participatory in nature, that how I want us to experience Scripture this morning.

 

So, in just a moment, Walter Elliott will read our text from Acts using the NRSV translation. After a moment of silence, we will share what speaks to us from the text. Afterward, Walter will read it a second time and we will follow the same pattern of reading, silence, and sharing. Finally, I will read the Scripture passage using The Message translation, and we will do the same. Now, as you hear the Word read, open your heart to one word of phrase that strikes you as important. After a moment of silence, we will share with one another.

 

(Walter reads/ Silence/Sharing)

 

Now let us hear this passage again. This time, listen for what surprises you most about Paul and Silas’ experience.

 

(Walter reads / Silence / Sharing)

 

Finally, I will read our text aloud from the more contemporary language of The Message. As you listen, pay attention to a message that God might have for us today?

(Glenda reads / Silence / Sharing)

 

CLOSING COMMENTS

 

Last week we learned that Paul is on his second missionary trip because of a vision he has of a man from Macedonia pleading for help. In Philippi, Paul and his friends search for a place to pray and find some women down by the river doing just that. There, the seller of purple cloth, Lydia, who is already a believer in Yahweh, becomes a believer in Christ and is baptized, along with her whole household. Afterward, we find Paul and Silas again going to a place of prayer day after day. And day after day, they are aggravated by a slave girl who makes her owners a lot of money as a fortune teller. Finally, Paul has enough and says to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” When her owners realize they have lost their profitable resource, they incite the people against Paul and Silas, who are then severely flogged and locked in prison.

 

Although this is surely a dark moment in their lives, Paul and Silas are not deterred. Quite the contrary, they pray and sing hymns to God (not quite the worship setting we would expect). Still, they worship, and even when an earthquake breaks their bonds asunder, they do not escape. One wonders if they are so caught up in worship, they cannot tear themselves away. When the prison guard sees their faith, he is struck to the heart and asks, “What must I do to be saved?”  Paul and Silas speak the word of God to him and to all who are in his house—and that night he and his entire family are baptized.

 

Paul and Silas speak the word of God to them. The word of God is powerful. It is powerful when we approach it humbly and prayerfully during our private devotions. It is powerful when we reflect upon it together and it is powerful when we hear it preached. As Christians, we are people of the Word, dedicated to God’s Word—read, prayed, lived, and shared. Individually and together, let us commit to reading the Word, praying the Word, living the Word, and sharing the Word so that all peoples may come to know the love, mercy, and grace of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

(Silent Reflection)

 

*Cover Art “Icon of the Apostle Paul” via Wikimedia Commons, used by permission

A Taste of God

A Taste of God

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 22, 2022

6th Sunday of Easter

Psalm 67; Acts 16:9-15

 

During the Easter Season we have been taste-testing stories of the newborn church, particularly through the palates of Peter and Paul, and today’s story is especially enticing. Since the best meals begin with an appetizer, we will start off with a delicious selection of pita chips, hummus, and a cheese board adorned with assorted cheeses, berries, olives, grapes, pickles, and of course, peanuts and pecans from South Georgia. The appetizer provided in our story comes in the form of a vision, for Paul is, once again, experiencing extraordinary things. In many ways, Paul seems hard-wired into the Holy Spirit, even though his plans sometimes go awry, even though he sometimes ends up in places he never expects. But the important thing to remember is that no matter where his journey takes him, Paul remains faithful. He does what he believes is his to do, and the Spirit takes it from there. This time, through a vision, he is urged to take the message of the gospel into Europe. “Come, help us,” a man from Macedonia begs and the Spirit sends Paul to do just that. When Paul and his companions arrive, they case out the city, which has no synagogue—perhaps because there is not a large Jewish population in Philippi, and ten Jewish men are required to form a synagogue. So, when the Sabbath rolls around, Paul decides to look for believers in the next best place—down by the river.

 

 

A good meal calls for balance and beauty. How about a leafy green salad with spinach, strawberries, walnuts, and cucumbers, lightly dressed with a balsamic vinaigrette? Tasty! It appears that Lydia and the other women at the river have had a taste of something good, too—a taste of God. That’s why they gather to pray. Lydia is a dealer in purple cloth, accustomed to dealing with the elite class of Philippi. We know this because only the elite are allowed to wear purple. As a businesswoman, responsible for her household, surely there are other things Lydia could have been doing that day. Assuming she is not a Jew, the Sabbath would be like any other workday. But what Lydia craves will not be satisfied by more work or more riches. So, down by the river she goes with the other women to pray.

 

 

Somewhere, somehow, Lydia has gotten a taste of God. She hungers for more and more is what is about to be provided through the main course. For our culinary pleasure, we have on the menu, a delightful and hearty red lentil stew, cornbread muffins, garlicy red potatoes, and steamed asparagus. The main course is what Lydia has been craving, so Paul sits down and serves it up, just so. With all the passion he can muster, Paul tells the story of Yahweh, who has come in the flesh into the world as Jesus, to show us how to live in accordance with God’s will. Love has come to us, Love lived among us, Love died for us, Love rose again, Love ascended into heaven where Love prays for us, and Love lives on through Christ’s Spirit, who is available to every man, woman, and child who says yes to Love. You can enter into a relationship with Love through the waters of baptism. You can be sustained in your faith through bread and wine—Christ’s body given for you, Christ’s blood shed for you. Lydia listens with rapt attention. She is done with appetizers. She is finished with salads and greens. She is ready for the main course. She eats and is satisfied. God’s grace and Lydia’s longing meet on the banks of the river, and she and her whole household are baptized. Lydia, who becomes the first Christian convert in Europe, is so filled with gratitude, she immediately opens her home to Paul and his friends. Because of her conversion and her gift of hospitality, the church now has a home base for the gospel to spread throughout Philippi.

 

 

But the meal, it is not over. Surely you have saved room for dessert. Since I know that some of you are die-hard chocolate lovers and others are not, you have two choices before you—key lime pie with homemade whipped cream or a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cheesecake—and no, you cannot have both. In our story, dessert comes through a second glance at the mystical power that propels the early church forward. Did you know that in the 1990’s George Gallup asked Presbyterians if they had ever experienced a vision from God? Half the church members and over half of the clergy answered yes.[i]  Are you as surprised by that statistic as I am? And why are we surprised? Maybe it’s because visions from God and nudgings by the Spirit—well, it’s just not something we talk about. People might get the wrong idea. They might think we have joined a cult or something. Furthermore, if we did talk about such things, if we did talk about how God is involved in our everyday lives, we might be expected to live as sold-out, all-in, grown-up Christians, and who wants to make that kind of commitment?

 

 

In last week’s sermon, I spoke about how stories have the power to change lives. When it comes to visions and dreams, not only do they have the power to transform and direct our own behavior, but they may also be confirmation to the world that God is still working among us. Over the years, I have had dreams and other promptings that can only be described as mystical experiences. I daresay many of you have, too. But when and where do we share our stories? Why are we so hesitant to talk about matters of a spiritual nature? We have plenty to say about most anything else! As a minister, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if Presbyterians started sharing our stories of experiencing God through deep, intimate, even mystical ways. I wonder!

 

 

In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul laments that when he was there, he could not speak to them as grown-up Christians. He had to speak to them as infants because they were not ready for solid food—only milk would do. Friends, the church needs grown-up Christians now more than ever. The time to be sustained by baby food, by watered down Christianity, is over. It is time to step up to the Table where God invites us to a feast that will nourish us in our life as a community of believers. This feast will nurture our relationships with family and friends and strangers. We may even find ourselves creating new dishes to share with others—dishes flavored by the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

 

 

Dear church, if we belong to Christ, we live by the Spirit. We are guided by the Spirit—sometimes through visions and dreams, often through other means. Crucified with Christ, we refuse to rely on mother’s milk anymore. We don’t require a watered-down version of the gospel to make us comfortable. We are ready for the feast. Like Lydia who enthusiastically accepts the truth of the gospel and responds with generosity and hospitality, we are eager to respond to God’s love, mercy, and grace. We want to live as joyful, committed Christians who proclaim the good news in word and deed, who worship with believers in Spirit and in truth, who lift one another up in prayer and show kindness to each other, who study Scripture independently and together, who support the ministry of Jesus through time, talents, and treasures, who demonstrate what it looks like to live a transformed life in the church and in the world, who care for God’s creation, and who work for peace, justice, and freedom for all people.

 

 

This is the heavenly banquet that is ours to share. Make no mistake, there are still people in the world like Lydia who hunger for spiritual food. Might they be nourished through us? Might our story be just what they need to help them on their faith journey? As believers in the God of Love, let us look for opportunities to invite others to the Table of Grace. “Come,” we might say. “Come, taste and see, the Lord is good.”

 

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

[i] David G. Forney, Feasting on the Word.

*Cover Art “Lydia of Thyatira” by Harold Copping via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Let Love Lead

Let Love Lead

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 15, 2022

5h Sunday of Easter

Acts 11:1-18

 

Jon Batiste is a singer, songwriter, and musician, who has recorded and performed with the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, and Ed Sheeran. This 35-year-old Julliard trained musical phenom was nominated for 11 Grammys this year and walked away with 5 of them. While all this is impressive, what draws me to him is his deep faith in God and how he presents that faith to the world. He is like human sunshine, and whenever I watch him perform, I can’t help but think that he is more than a great musician. He is a great human being who uses his energy to add goodness and love to the world. He doesn’t appear to have time for negativity, doom, and gloom. He is too busy sharing his message—which just so happens to be the message of the gospel: That love is our only hope—not only to survive, but to thrive, and love—God’s love—is for everyone!

 

One of my favorite songs on Batiste’s Grammy award winning album is entitled “Let God Lead.” The chorus is an echo of two phrases: “Let love lead,” and “Let God lead.” Here are just a few of the other lyrics:

We begin to breathe when the wounds of others become relieved with the love of others… He who looks around to find who’s in need has made the best investment as a human being…the best investment in his legacy. I say that love will never force; love will never quit; love will never lose; love will never miss. Love stands up when others won’t; love prevails without want; love puts up with anything; God is love and love is God. So here is a formula for every hard situation—just let God and let love lead the way.

 

Our reading from Acts offers a snapshot of the early church and, interestingly, leaders of the church have already decided what Christ’s church will look like—who will be included and who will not. But the Spirit will have none of it which is why the Spirit is so busy in Acts—shaking things up—turning things upside down—showing the people that the Spirit of God will lead the way.

 

The Spirit visits Peter with a vision that we are told about in Acts chapter 10, a vision that is repeated almost verbatim in chapter 11. Since we are given the details twice, it alerts us to pay attention. In the second telling, there is an added caveat: News has spread to Jerusalem that Peter has gone to eat with Gentiles—the uncircumcised—the unclean. The apostles and believers call Peter on the carpet for his misbehavior. We may remember that “on the carpet” is where Peter spends a lot of time when Jesus walks the earth. But this Peter is different. This Peter is empowered the Holy Spirit. He’s seen some things and he is now ready to give account to anyone, anywhere. So, without hesitation he shares how the Lord showed him that there is no distinction between Jew and Gentile. Truly, the love of Jesus is now for everyone—man, woman, child, Jew, Gentile—everyone! When his accusers hear all that Peter’s story, they are dumbstruck. Finally, when they regain their voices, it is not words of criticism that fall from their lips. It is praise to God!

 

Millenia have passed but there is still so much for us to learn from the early church. First, what does this pericope, this selection of Scripture, teach us about how leaders in the early church interacted? What we see is believers willing and able to talk about hard things. Peter comes before his critics, hears their concerns, and then responds. He is not intimidated by his audience, and he doesn’t back down. Instead, he speaks his truth, and the leaders listen with open hearts and mind. But things are much different in modern times. One scholar notes that,

Peter entered the Jerusalem church and squarely faced his critics. Too often, we try to be nice at church. We try not to be confrontational. We try to side-step controversy. We closet our differences. We paint smiles on our church faces, even as we realize irreconcilable issues. This text reminds us that controversy needs to be voiced, not avoided, and conflict needs to be transformed, not ignored.” [i]

 

Another takeaway from the text is the power of story. It’s a lesson Peter learns from the best for, repeatedly, it is through parables (stories) that Jesus prompts those around him to have a change of heart and mind. Peter follows suit, so when he comes before the leaders who question his behavior, Peter does not argue his point. He just opens his mouth and speaks of his own transformation. You see, not too long ago, Peter agreed with them. He, too, believed that in the newborn church of Jesus, there would be insiders and outsiders. But a supernatural encounter changes him and the church, forever. Of course, Peter could have approached the problem differently. He could have argued theological points and debated doctrinal differences. But, no, he merely tells his story. Like one biblical commentator notes,

…As followers of the rabbi from Nazareth whose primary teaching was through parables, we sometimes forget the power of stories today… If we could only learn to be storytellers and tell compelling stories…we could leave the rest up to the Spirit who takes up where stories end.”[ii]

 

Another lesson we can learn from our reading is the importance of truly listening to one another. The leaders in Jerusalem have valid concerns about Peter’s decision to eat with unclean people but they are open to listening and they are open to change. Through Peter’s vision they learn that it is not in their power to exclude anyone from the message of the gospel. Echoing the words of Peter, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?”

 

Who are we to hinder God? Henri Nouwen posited that, “…we are so full of our own opinions, ideas, and convictions that we have no space left to listen to the other and learn.” But my brothers and sisters in Christ, listen and learn we must—if we want to participate in the Spirit’s work in the church today—work that will be accomplished—with or without us.

 

If God so loved the world that he sent Jesus so that all might be saved, who are we to limit the mission of God’s redemptive love? My friends, every time we exclude someone, draw a line in the sand to mark who is in and who is out, it would behoove us to proceed with caution because Jesus is always on the other side. Peter’s vision is convincing proof that no one is excluded from the love and care of God—not then—not now—now ever!

 

Maybe a statement like, “God’s love is for everyone,” doesn’t seem like radical news to Presbyterians, but folks, in many places, it is news. In society and in the church, we are still better at building higher fences than building longer tables. It’s one of the many reasons for the great exodus of church members in recent decades. On Twitter last week, a woman shared something her pastor said in a sermon: “People under 40 are not leaving the church because they do not love Jesus. They are leaving because they do, and they can’t find Jesus there.” Wow! There is no denying that the universal church has a bad reputation. We are renowned for what we are against instead of what we are for. We are reputed to be racist, homophobic, sexist, and more energized by political affiliation than by being Christ’s love in the world. Could it be that there are unchurched people who long to be in relationship with a God whose love has no bounds? And might First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta be a place where they can find that message taught and believed and lived out?

 

A few days ago, PBS journalist, Jeffrey Brown, interviewed Jon Batiste. During the conversation, Brown mentioned that when he heard Batiste’s song, “We Are,” it occurred to him that a lot of people do not see much “we” in our nation these days. But Batiste sees it differently. In his opinion we have become focused on global issues to the extent that we have lost touch with our own communities. But in his words, “In schools, hospitals, community centers across the country, there’s a lot of we.” To this I would add, here in our church, there is a lot of “we.” We are not a big church. We haven’t been for a long time. But we are a church filled with love for one another and we have plenty of love to share with the world. And make no mistake, the world is watching. The world wants to know if we have anything to offer other than discord and division. The world wants to know if we can listen to one another with open hearts and minds. The world wants to know if we are more focused on building higher walls or building longer tables.

 

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

(Silent Reflection)

[i] Stephen D. Jones, Feasting on the Word.

[ii] Ibid.

*Cover photo “Peter’s Vision of the Sheet with Animals” by Henry Davenport Northrop via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Sewing for Jesus

Sewing for Jesus

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 8, 2022

4th Sunday of Easter

Psalm 23, Acts 9:36-43

 

Last week we explored the conversion of Paul. This week we shift to Peter who, earlier in the chapter heals a paralyzed man, and now, raises a woman from the dead. It seems that Luke is bent on getting his message across and the message is that the God who created the world and raised Jesus from the dead is still at work—healing the sick and bringing hope to those in despair.

 

As the story goes, in Joppa there is a disciple named Tabitha, which is Dorcas in the Greek language. We don’t know a lot about Tabitha. We know she is a disciple. We know she is devoted to good works and charity.  We know she gets sick, dies, and her body is prepared for burial. We know she is beloved by her community because two men are sent by the disciples to fetch Peter, who just happens to be nearby. We know when Peter arrives on the scene, the widows meet him with weeping and a display of garments Tabitha made for them with her own hands. Finally, we know Peter kneels by her bed, prays, and says to her dead body: Tabitha, get up. And get up she does.

 

Tabitha appears in Scripture like a blip on a screen—seemingly small and insignificant in the great scheme of things. But Tabitha has much to teach us about how one person can make a difference in the kingdom of God. She also teaches us that in hopeless times, the Spirit can make the impossible possible. In the words of one scholar,

 

[The story of Tabitha] being raised from the dead challenges our assumption that we are left to our own devices to fix our predicaments—or, more to the point, that our predicaments are not fixable at all. We live in a world where the familiar nursery rhyme about Humpty Dumpty has tremendous influence. Humpty Dumpty is broken, and the common assumption is that putting him back together again is an impossible task. That is just the way it is—but not according to Acts. Acts tells us that those who belonged to the Way were empowered to turn the world upside down.[i]

 

Although we do not know a lot about Tabitha, let’s explore what we are given. First, we are provided both her Aramaic name, Tabitha, and her Greek name, Dorcas. Why? It has been suggested that Tabitha had a far-reaching impact as a follower of Jesus—reaching out to the needy in her immediate vicinity and beyond. Second, did you notice that she is named a disciple? In fact, this is the only time the feminine word for disciple, mathetria, is used in Scripture. (I guess those who insist women cannot be leaders in the church because it isn’t biblical forgot to check with Luke.) Third, we know that Tabitha has a particular talent. She can sew so she sews to the best of her ability. Her gift of helps and her talent of sewing are intermingled, channeled to express her faith through good works. She sews to help widows in need. Tabitha sews for Jesus.

 

Have you ever met Tabitha? I have. I have known Tabitha in every church I have served. Here in our faith community, there are those who work for Jesus—using their gifts and talents—sometimes in front of us—but often behind the scenes. Take Kim Dudley and Bryan Almand, for example. Both are incredible woodworkers, and they create beautiful things for Jesus. Kim built a miniature house for us to use when we collect items for certain mission projects. We have used it several times in the past and hope to put it on display again soon. Bryan built the Bible stand, the votive candle holder we use for the First Friday Contemplative Service, and several of the small tables we use throughout the sanctuary. (My favorite is the one he made for our Advent wreath—simple, beautiful, perfect.) Bryan and Kim—woodworking for Jesus!

 

After getting married, Libby George Clanton moved to Fort White, which is about an hour away. Yet, regularly, when she comes to Valdosta to see her mother, she coordinates her trip with Katie Altman, our office administrator, to count the offering, balance the deposit, and sign checks. She has been a wonderful help to Katie since she took on her additional role as bookkeeper. And when Libby can’t be in town for an Administration, Finance & Property Committee meeting, she often joins us via phone or Zoom. Libby—balancing deposits, signing checks, and encouraging others for Jesus.

 

Dr. Donna Gosnell is a chemist by trade—a Chemistry professor at VSU.  She is also our music director and organist. While it is true that she is an employee of the church, I have watched her repeatedly go above and beyond the call of duty to support our musical needs. For instance, she plays piano for the Generations of Faith Sunday School Class each week and she contributes beautiful contemplative pieces for our 1st Friday Service. During the pandemic, Donna embraced new technology to post hymns for us to sing when we were livestreaming the entire service from my home. Since then, she has worked hard to make sure we have a variety of worship music through piano, organ, handbells, flute, violin, soloists and duets. On Easter Sunday when Donna played our gathering music, I was sure I saw the heavens open, and heard the angels sing. Donna—making music for Jesus.

 

If you know our beloved Florence Cole, you know that as well as being a gifted teacher of God’s word, she has the gift of encouragement. She never forgets a birthday or a special event. She is always ready with a note or a card to let her church family know she is thinking of them. She prays for her church family. She prays for me, and I am grateful. She is a wise soul, who makes any group she’s a part of, better! Florence—instructing and encouraging her church family for Jesus!

 

When you think of Kinney Hollingshead, you might be glad he sings for us sometimes. But he does more than that. Often, you will find him restocking our coffee stations, setting up for First Friday, unlocking and locking doors, turning on the sound system to set up mics before worship, leading music for Generations of Faith and 1st Friday, and cleaning up trash on the church grounds. Kinney—taking care of details behind the scenes for Jesus!

 

Three years ago, we partnered with our Presbytery to expand our Facebook presence. One of the first tasks we were given was to create a Facebook Super Group and ask everyone who joined to like, share, or comment on every post added to our page. Carol Busch was one of the first to sign on and she remains faithful to the task. Recently, when she asked to be added to our private prayer group, she had trouble accessing the group. When I offered to help, she apologized and said she is not tech-savvy. I disagree. Sure, clicking like or share or making a comment on a Facebook post daily may not seem like a big deal. But because of Carol’s commitment and the commitment of many others—we are making a difference for Jesus on a social media platform. Carol—leading the way in modern-day evangelism for Jesus!

 

Tabitha was an important disciple of the new-born church. The church is over 2000 years old now, and she has certainly had her ups and down. Neither the universal church nor our own faith community look like they did 50 years ago. We don’t even look like we did 24 months ago! In response, there are surely some among us who fear that the story of Humpty Dumpty is our story. We are broken and putting us back together is impossible. But Acts offers us another story to consider—a story of people of The Way turning the world upside down for love of Jesus. Yes, our community looks different. We meet in person. We meet via livestream and on Zoom. There are those among us we know, and there are people in our virtual community we will never meet. Yet, by the grace of God, here we are—worshiping God—learning and growing and becoming and doing—together.

 

What will this worshiping community look like in 5, 10, 20 years? Only God knows. But this much we know—this much we can count on: No matter how God shapes and reshapes the church, as long as God has good work for us to do and there are Tabithas among us who say yes to the task at hand, we can trust the Good Shepherd to lead the way. The saints of First Presbyterian Church of Valdosta can trust that:

 

The Lord is our shepherd, we shall not want. He makes us lie down in green pastures; he leads us beside still waters; he restores our soul. He leads us in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though we walk through the darkest valley, we fear no evil; for he is with us; his rod and his staff— they comfort us. He prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies; he anoints our heads with oil; our cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us all the days of our lives, and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

(Silent Reflection)

[i] Feasting on the Word, Joseph S. Harvard

*Cover photo “Saint Peter Raises Tabitha” by Fabrizio Santafede via Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Damascus Road

Damascus Road

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 1, 2022

3rd Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:1-20

 

Liturgically speaking, we are in the Season of Easter. For seven Sundays, we generally consider encounters Jesus has with believers after his resurrection. We may witness his appearance to the disciples who are behind locked doors out of fear of the Jews. We may see him offer his hands and side to Thomas as evidence of who he is. We may journey with Jesus along the road to Emmaus and only realize who he is when he breaks bread at the table. We may join him for a breakfast he prepares along the Galilean shore. While these are all important, there is another encounter that I have in mind for us to explore—one that does not happen immediately after Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, it happens following his ascension when Jesus appears to Saul, or Paul as he is also known, along the road to Damascus. Since Luke tells us of this encounter three times—in Acts 9, 22, and 26—it begs our attention.

 

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s look back at what Paul is doing when we first meet him in Acts chapter 7. At the time, the disciples are increasing in number and the word of God is spreading like wildfire. Stephen, full of grace and power, does great wonders and signs. One day, some who belong to the synagogue begin to argue with him. They accuse him of blasphemy, and ultimately, they bring him before the council for questioning. When the high priest asks him to explain himself, Stephen responds boldly with a history lesson about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, about Joseph and Moses, about David and Solomon. He concludes: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Infuriated, the people rush toward him, and drag him out of the city to stone him. Witnesses place their coats at the feet of young Saul, who wholeheartedly approves of the stoning of Stephen.

 

Afterward, there’s no gentle way to put this, Paul, goes wild. He becomes what we would refer to as a terrorist, breathing threats of murder against the disciples of the Lord. He goes to the high priest and asks for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he finds any who belong to the Way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. But on his way to Damascus, his search comes to a screeching halt when a light flashes from the heavens. Falling to the ground, Paul hears these words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” the response is, “I am Jesus—whom you are persecuting.”

 

To say this is a dramatic encounter is putting it mildly. But maybe it’s so dramatic because as Flannery O’Conner put it. “…The Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Well, there is no horse mentioned, but Jesus does come calling and Jesus does knock Paul off course.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus.” Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on other places Jesus has made I Am statements. Seven times in the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims I AM: I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. I am the vine. But here, in response to Saul’s inquiry, “I am Jesus.” It’s the only time it is recorded in Scripture.

 

While all this is happening to Paul, a disciple who happens to live in Damascus is getting instructions for a “change of course” too. Imagine Ananias’ surprise when he has a vision of the Lord telling him to get up and go to Straight Street to meet Paul. Since Paul’s reputation has preceded him, Ananias knows full well who he is, and he is rightfully concerned. How could he not see Paul as a threat? How could he not doubt Paul’s change of heart? But we must never forget that when it is God who initiates change, anything is possible. Obediently, Ananias goes to Paul, and we witness an ordination service of sorts. Ananias lays hands on Paul and tells him he has come so that Paul might regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, the scales fall from Paul’s eyes and his sight is restored—his physical sight, yes—but also his spiritual sight. In place of death threats for those who follow Jesus, now he proclaims to anyone who will listen, “Jesus is the Son of God.”

 

After Paul encounters Jesus, he is forever changed. He comes away with a new job (from persecutor to missionary), and a new purpose (spreading love instead of hatred). It was Oscar Wilde who said: “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Well, these words certainly apply to Paul who starts out as a terrorist to the followers of Jesus and becomes one of the most influential leaders of the early church and a prolific contributor to Scripture as we know it.

 

Paul’s conversion is so radical, we may write it off as having nothing to do with us, especially if our faith journey began as a baptized infant, and we have no recollection of a time when we did not know and love Jesus. But the truth is, Paul’s story has everything to do with us because it is a story about what God can do with a life—any life. You see, even though we may think Paul is the main character in this story, the main character in this and any conversion story is God. It is God who is the author of changed lives. Paul’s story may not be typical, but it is critical because it teaches us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace, and everyone is in need of it.

 

Maya Angelou once said in an interview, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” For believers, conversion is an on-going process—or at least it should be. In Christ, we live and move and have our being, and with every step we take, we draw closer to the Beloved or we move further away.

 

We have all taken a wrong turn—certain we were going in the right direction—certain of our destination. We have sacrificed family for getting ahead. We have held onto anger and reaped the rewards of bitterness. We have behaved in ways that were unfair to people who do not look like us or who have not had the same advantages we have had or who do not see the world as we do. We have made demands of others that we have not made on ourselves. We have been stubborn and resisted making changes in our own lives while judging others for doing the same. But what happens when we are blinded by the light of Jesus? What happens when we reach a fork in the road that just might lead to transformation?

 

God is in the business of showing us how to correct what is ailing us. The need for a change of heart may be presented by the Word proclaimed, by a friend confronting our behavior, by a partner who speaks hard truths we desperately need to hear, by a child who tells it like it is—as only a child can, by spending time meditating on God’s word, by anyone or anything the Spirit chooses. Whenever and however it happens, a light shines within us and stops us in our tracks. Then there is a decision to be made. Will we continue on to Damascus behaving in ways that cause Jesus pain? Or will we allow our sight to be restored so that we can truly see? Afterall, Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus is Lord over every nook and cranny of our lives—or at least he should be!

 

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

 

*Cover Art by David Teniers the Elder via Wikimedia Commons used by permission.