A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA
Sunday, May 17, 2015
Take a look at the cover of today’s bulletin (picture at right). He Qi’s brilliant painting of the “Calling of Paul” portrays the fire-breathing avenger, Saul, in the moment before he is knocked to the ground in a dramatic encounter with the living Christ. Is the terror in the picture meant to convey Saul’s murderous intent or his shock at the blinding light or, perhaps, something of each? With fresh orders in hand from the religious authorities in Jerusalem, he is off to persecute the followers of the Way in Damascus and he clearly means to do them some harm.
Why is Saul so full of venom, so hell-bent on hating these first followers of Christ? We don’t really know what drives him to such terrible action, but we do know that the name of Saul struck fear wherever Christians gather in the earliest days of the church. It’s interesting that Qi’s painting, as so many others do, shows Saul riding on or falling from a horse. However the text says nothing about a horse. It says Saul saw a dazzling light and suddenly he was down on the ground. A voice calls from the light: “Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?”
In his own state of fear, Saul manages to ask who it is that’s speaking to him. “I am Jesus, the One you’re hunting down. I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you’ll be told what to do next.”
Pretty dramatic stuff, huh? I wonder if any of you have had such an encounter with the risen Christ. It’s no small thing to meet holy as we walk the road before us. I doubt many of us have had this kind of experience, though. I imagine that most our conversions have been of a gentler, more incremental variety. Here his companions struck dumb and Saul, blinded by the light, do what they are told. It’s a pretty radical turn around as Saul has to be led by hand the rest of the way into Damascus. Not a very intimidating image!
For three days Saul’s troubled soul experiences something like PTSD. He neither eats nor drinks as he tries to make sense of what has happened to him. Don’t you think he must have been wondering, “Why me?” His companions must have been confused as well. And then there is poor Ananias.
“Uh…you want me to do what, Jesus? You can’t be serious. Everybody’s talking about this man and the terrible things he’s been doing, his reign of terror against your people in Jerusalem! And now he’s shown up here with papers from the Chief Priest that give him license to do the same to us. You want me to go help him find his way out of his troubles. Let’s just leave him confused and helpless and in the dark, OK?”
But God doesn’t work that way. Whatever the reasons, God has plans for this persecutor of his people. He’s got work for Saul to do. The trouble is, Saul can’t even begin without help. In the article I featured in this week’s Midweek Message, Beth Scibienski writes that this is “Not Just Saul’s Story.” First there are his traveling companions who have to help him find his way into the town, all the time wondering what was to become of them as well as their fiery leader. Then there was Judas, either friend of the persecutors or friend of Jesus, who opens his home and looks after the wounded warrior as he struggles to understand. And Ananias shows up finally, likely with a friend or two to serve as bodyguard in case Saul turns on him.
Scibienski writes, “There’s a full room at Judas’ house. It’s not just Saul’s story. The story is about two worlds colliding because people listen for voices, hear voices and follow voices. The story isn’t just about Saul and his new calling. It’s [also] about the new calling for his friends who had to lead their leader by the hand when needed. The story isn’t just about Saul’s blindness. It’s [also] about Ananias and the others having to see Saul as an instrument of God before it had happened. There’s a full room at Judas’ house.” She concludes, “Even we are in that room somewhere” (Beth Scibienski, “Not Just Saul’s story,” April 9, 2013, bethscib.com).
“Even we are in that room somewhere.” Are we? Can you see yourself, put yourself into the picture? Scibienski is suggesting that God’s work cannot be done by any one person alone, even if it’s the Apostle Paul, who will eventually become a principle architect of Christianity. As Paul himself will proclaim in time, there are many parts necessary to the Body of Christ and no one part can dismiss another as unimportant to the functioning of the whole. Regardless of role, it takes all of us together to make the church, to bring the Body of Christ alive. Some of us may be out front leading the way while others offer support, some may be doers and some healers, some may be teachers and others pray-ers, some may work from home and others at the ends of the earth. but God has a place and task for each of us in bringing the Beloved Community into the fullness of being. Think about it this morning. If this is not just Saul’s story and you are somehow, somewhere in that room, who are you and what is your role in the emerging witness of the Good News?
Let’s leap ahead. It’s some years later and Saul, now Paul, is nearing the end of his remarkable ministry and, indeed, his life. He is in prison in Rome, writing another letter or two to that contentious bunch at First Church, Corinth. Brian McLaren speculates, “Paul is getting older now. He is constantly plagued by eye troubles and other aches and pains. Being under house arrest means poor food, cold, restricted movement, and uncertainty about what the future holds…And he carries constant concern for the ecclesia [the fledgling church] spread out across the empire, the way a mother carries her children in her heart even after they’re grown” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 198).
In this very spirit of concern he writes to these problematic Corinthians in hope that he can keep them on the “straight and narrow” to being the church that he has envisioned them to be. One of the things the old Apostle has to contend with among the Corinthians is a a challenge to his authority. In chapter 11, he gets carried away in defense of his right to claim authority in proclaiming the Good News. Let’s listen in on what he has to say.
16-21 Let me come back to where I started—and don’t hold it against me if I continue to sound a little foolish. Or if you’d rather, just accept that I am a fool and let me rant on a little. I didn’t learn this kind of talk from Christ. Oh, no, it’s a bad habit I picked up from the three-ring preachers that are so popular these days. Since you sit there in the judgment seat observing all these shenanigans, you can afford to humor an occasional fool who happens along. You have such admirable tolerance for impostors who rob your freedom, rip you off, steal you blind, put you down—even slap your face! I shouldn’t admit it to you, but our stomachs aren’t strong enough to tolerate that kind of stuff.
21-23 Since you admire the egomaniacs of the pulpit so much (remember, this is your old friend, the fool, talking), let me try my hand at it. Do they brag of being Hebrews, Israelites, the pure race of Abraham? I’m their match. Are they servants of Christ? I can go them one better. (I can’t believe I’m saying these things. It’s crazy to talk this way! But I started, and I’m going to finish.)
23-27 I’ve worked much harder, been jailed more often, beaten up more times than I can count, and at death’s door time after time. I’ve been flogged five times with the Jews’ thirty-nine lashes, beaten by Roman rods three times, pummeled with rocks once. I’ve been shipwrecked three times, and immersed in the open sea for a night and a day. In hard traveling year in and year out, I’ve had to ford rivers, fend off robbers, struggle with friends, struggle with foes. I’ve been at risk in the city, at risk in the country, endangered by desert sun and sea storm, and betrayed by those I thought were my brothers. I’ve known drudgery and hard labor, many a long and lonely night without sleep, many a missed meal, blasted by the cold, naked to the weather.
28-29 And that’s not the half of it, when you throw in the daily pressures and anxieties of all the churches. When someone gets to the end of his rope, I feel the desperation in my bones. When someone is duped into sin, an angry fire burns in my gut. (The Message).
The fire still burns in the belly of the old warrior. Many are the dangers, toils and snares he’s already faced in his years of ministry, Still, he looks to God’s grace to lead him home. He trusts that “The Holy One is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth [and that] God does not faint or grow weary…” In fact, he believes with all his heart that “God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” He knows from experience that “those who wait for the Holy One shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” And so he presses on.
We now sit with Paul in that prison room. He looks deep into our eyes, desperately desiring that we understand. In the face of hardship, in any season of dangers, toils and snares, he has a word for us, for the church, which he loves like a mother, and it is this,
… now is the right time to listen, the day to be helped. Don’t put it off; don’t frustrate God’s work by showing up late, throwing a question mark over everything we’re doing. Our work as God’s servants gets validated—or not—in the details. People are watching us as we stay at our post, alertly, unswervingly . . . in hard times, tough times, bad times; when we’re beaten up, jailed, and mobbed; working hard, working late, working without eating; with pure heart, clear head, steady hand; in gentleness, holiness, and honest love; when we’re telling the truth, and when God’s showing his power; when we’re doing our best setting things right; when we’re praised, and when we’re blamed; slandered, and honored; true to our word, though distrusted; ignored by the world, but recognized by God; terrifically alive, though rumored to be dead; beaten within an inch of our lives, but refusing to die; immersed in tears, yet always filled with deep joy; living on handouts, yet enriching many; having nothing, having it all (2 Corinthians 6:1-10 The Message).
Today, when we live in an environment that is at least tolerant and often hospitable to the church, I wonder if we don’t have it too easy. I’m not advocating increased suffering as a means of strengthening our faith, but these texts make me think of those people around the world who hold on to their faith at great risk. I think of Christians in Myanmar, India, the Middle East, parts of Africa, who are persecuted and even killed for holding fast to what they believe about the Gospel. There is something stirring about sisters and brothers in the family of faith who are willing to lay down their lives for what we often profess so easily and glibly.
So McLaren – and Paul – challenge us to see the Gospel as fomenting a “global uprising” for peace and justice, for love and compassion, for establishing the Beloved Community of God on earth today. As people of privilege we have unique challenges in keeping the faith and living into that Beloved Community. How do we let the Gospel be so rooted in our lives that it transforms us in the way it transformed the lives of those in the early church and now transforms those around the world willing to risk their lives to make it real? But it’s not just their story alone. How do we partner with them in bringing the Body of Christ fully alive?
Could it be that “in this very room there’s quite enough love, joy, hope, power for all of us, indeed, for all the world? For Jesus, Christ Jesus, is in this very room.” Amen.