"God's Goes to Great Lengths"

Date Sunday May 05, 2019
Service Third Sunday of Easter
Text Acts 9:1-9
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Living as Easter People"
Next Sermon "In Both Life and Death ... Our Lives Speak"

Our celebration of the Festival of Festivals continues today as we travel the road of Easter People. One of the things I like about this season of the church year is that we read the stories of the early Christians church from the book of Acts. Today’s is one the most well-known – it’s an account of “the Way”, which for Christians is a path of grace and transformation.

     So, we begin with a man named Saul, a Pharisee who believed that Israel must maintain strict observance of religious laws and traditions. For him, the greatest threat to the faith was a group called “the Way”, which claimed that Jesus of Nazareth was THE way to God. Thousands of Jews were following “the Way”, announcing that this Jesus, crucified by the Romans, had been raised from death to life. Saul was determined to stop the heretical movement.

     Let me offer an aside here – doing so was not easy because a characteristic of the Jesus followers was that they were identified not by a set of beliefs, but by how they lived in the world.

     So, as we read, Saul’s intention was to arrest and imprison the followers of “the Way” in Damascus. As commentator Jay Sunberg notes, Saul set out one morning on a mission to stamp out a wayward religious sect and he ended the day on the precipice of a new beginning, which fully unfolded three days later. After encountering the Risen Jesus on his personal Easter road, being accosted by a light from heaven and falling to the ground, blinded, Saul was led to Damascus where he fasted and prayed , no doubt afraid and confused, but clinging for hope to a vision he had, a vision which involved a man named Ananias.

     Simultaneously, that man, Ananias, a disciple of Jesus, experienced his own vision in which he was told by the Lord to go to Saul, pray and lay his hands on him, to restore his sight. Ananias resists, citing Saul’s reputation for evil acts against the followers of “the Way”. But, Jesus responds, “GO!”, so Ananias went. And not only was Saul (who we know as Paul) healed and baptized, but, “Immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,” writes Luke, “saying, ‘He (Jesus) is the Son of God!’”

     Saul became the greatest Christian missionary; the author of much of the New Testament. That’s what happens following an encounter with the Risen Jesus.

     Now, I realize that this is a familiar story to many of us, but how often do we think of it as an example of grace? Consider this – Saul did not initiate a relationship with Jesus. In fact, just the opposite was true, he wanted to destroy anyone who followed Jesus. This encounter was strictly God’s idea; the story does not suggest that God required anything of Saul. In fact, God made it difficult for him to do anything but say “yes”.

     Because of that grace, Saul was transformed to participate fully in God’s work, which would not have been the case had he not experienced Easter on the road to Damascus. As Bishop Abraham Allende noted in his “Monday Musing”, these are the lengths to which Jesus will go to claim us.

     Here's an interesting story … when I was memorizing my sermon, I could not remember the word "claim". Usually it's names that won't stick in my mind, but this time it was the word "claim"; every time I came to that sentence I'd think "call" or "catch", but not claim. So, I tried to come up with a device to jog my memory, and I decided to think of "baggage", as in "baggage claim". Then it occurred to me that there's theological significance in that … in spite of our baggage, and we all have it, God claims us. In fact, there is no limit to the lengths to which God will go to claim us. That certainly was true of Saul. 

     But, there’s a similar message of grace in today’s Gospel lesson, which is set on the Sea of Galilee, a safe harbor for the disciples of Jesus. They have been on an emotional roller coaster since the execution of Jesus, and no doubt are in a quandary following their encounter with their Risen Lord.

     Perhaps that’s why they returned to what they know, fishing. But, instead of being calmed by its familiarity, they are frustrated following a fruitless night and empty nets. But then they encounter the Risen Jesus and end up with a net full of fish and breakfast, right there on the beach.

     Did you notice? Jesus comes to them; Jesus blesses them with a tremendous catch; Jesus feeds them. Lack is transformed into abundance and despair is moved to hope. It’s grace! They receive the power and presence of their Lord, having done nothing to earn or deserve it.

     That’s especially true for Peter, he certainly has baggage, having abandoned Jesus with his denials, spoken not once, not twice, but three times. Is it a coincidence, then, that in the beach encounter Peter is given the opportunity to confess his love for Jesus three times?

     In spite of themselves, and their baggage, both Saul (Paul) and Peter are claimed by Jesus and called to lead his church, and to care for the sheep Jesus so loves. That’s what happens following an encounter with the Risen Jesus. Can the same sort of grace and transformation happen to us too, as we are on “the Way”, that is, on the road of Easter people?

     Commentator Karoline Lewis would answer that question with a firm, “Yes!” Let me quote her: “The promise for Peter, and for Paul and for us – grace beyond our imagination. Grace beyond our calculation. Grace even beyond our scriptural determination.” (1) In case of doubt, look at the end of John’s Gospel, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them was written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:25)

     And so, with grace and transformation in mind, I’d like us to consider two interesting questions posed by Pastor Sunberg, who I mentioned earlier. I’m not looking for definitive answers, just that you ponder them.

     First, how can we put our lives on the same path as the resurrected Jesus? It might be helpful to remember that in both of today’s stories, Jesus showed up; Jesus initiated; Jesus blessed. So perhaps the answer has more to do with how well we are paying attention to where we are, rather than worrying about where else we should be.

      The second question is perhaps more challenging. Who are the Sauls around us; who are the people whose current lives seem the least likely to be transformed? How can we encourage an encounter with the Risen Jesus?

     Of course, if we are to encourage, then we must believe it’s an option. If Jesus won’t write them off, who are we to do so? (Remember how Ananias thought Saul was the least possible candidate for transformation, so much so that he initially refused to go, reminding Jesus how evil Saul was? Yet, Jesus sent him to Saul as a conduit of grace.)

     As we continue traveling on the road of Easter people, baggage and all, we are transformed by God’s grace so that we too can participate more fully in God’s work. Remember … there is no limit to the lengths to which God will go to make that happen.  AMEN

 

  1. “Resurrection is Abundance” by Karoline Lewis, April 3, 2016, www.workingpreacher.org
  2. “Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)” by Jay Sunberg, April 29, 2019, Blog