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  • Writer's pictureRev. Joel L. Tolbert


Life in the Spirit, a sermon series after Easter on Spirit, Holy Spirit, our spirit, week 4 of 7, preached May 5, 2024



What is Love? What is Love NOT? Think of two columns and let's see if this text sorts itself into what love is and isn't.

Scripture 1 Cor 13:4-8 (NL)




We are in a series called Walk in the Spirit. In the traditional church year, Holy Spirit gets one Sunday, one, Pentecost. This year, we are giving her seven Sundays. The two books of the New Testament that mention Holy Spirit more than any other are Acts of the Apostles, the sequel to Luke’s gospel all about the early church, and First Corinthians, Paul’s letter advising new Christians how to be church. Over these seven weeks, we are reading 1st Corinthians, preaching from Acts, listening for Holy Spirit in, under, and behind everything God is doing.

In Acts 4, Holy Spirit INSPIRES Peter and John to speak a broader message of healing and hope for ALL, despite the resistance they got from religious people. In Acts 6, Holy Spirit ENCOURAGES Stephen to serve not just some but ALL those in need, despite how some threaten and stone him for doing so. In Acts 10, Holy Spirit REFRAMES what Scripture and Law say about differences between Jew and Gentile, and brings them all together as one community, around one common table.

Today, let’s pray and listen for Holy Spirit in…

Scripture Acts 9:1-21

9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to “The Way,” men or women, he could bring them bound to Jerusalem.

3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, (the one) whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing;[a] so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision[b] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, 14 and here, he has authority from the chief priests to arrest all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before gentiles and rulers and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[c] and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up, and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “Jesus is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard Saul were amazed and said, “Isn’t this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And hasn’t he come here for the purpose of bringing them all bound before the chief priests?” …

Sermon Convert

Derek Black grew up in what felt like a normal family and religion to him, except his father was a former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard, and his god-father was David Duke head of the national Klan. As a child, Derek decorated his bedroom with Confederate flags. As a preteen, Derek built a children’s website with racist and anti-Semitic songs and games. By high school, he hosted an online radio program that demeaned people of color and pushed for America to be a whites-only nation. As a young adult, he attacked President Obama with racial slurs, and ran for office in Florida on a platform of white victimhood and won. In college, his classmates figured out who he was.

While most ostracized him, yelled at him, or ignored him, a few students invited him to dinners, or on boat rides, or to deeper conversations. They asked questions, and listened, and affirmed his humanity but challenged his bigotry. Gradually, almost imperceptibly, he began to shift.

In a review of a book about Derek’s conversion, titled “Rising Out of Hatred,” the Washington Post writes, “his [classmates’] exclusion (of him) had made him reconsider the ways his ideology oppressed others, and … their inclusion (of him) at Shabbat (services and meals) … helped him better empathize with minorities and Jews,” … Eventually he supported affirmative action, Black Lives Matter, and same-sex marriage… (he) typed a letter … to the Southern Poverty Law Center, (and) admitted … his actions had been “harmful to people of color, people of Jewish descent” and others. (saying) “I will not contribute to any cause that perpetuates this harm in the future.” His father and family disowned him for doing so.

Because of the way Derek’s family and religion taught him to see the world, he did great harm to so many. He was taught and accepted those former ways as righteous, religious, patriotic, and true. By Holy Spirit, Derek had to lose sight of those ways, and through a few strangers who risked loving him anyway, be converted to a new way to see and live.

Megan Phelps-Roper grew up in what felt like a normal family and religion to her, except her grandfather was Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas, and all her family were members. Megan’s church taught God hates gay people, and picketed funerals of soldiers who died for defending America’s great sin, tolerance and acceptance of gay people. As a child, Megan remembers carrying signs that said, God Hates You, or Thank God for Dead Soldiers, and as a young adult, Megan became the official twitter spokesperson for the church, spreading and defending its homophobic judgmental beliefs and practices to thousands.

Many cheered her defense of Westboro’s homophobia, and many others attacked and insulted her for it. But some started asking questions, treating her as an intelligent but misguided human, digging into her expression of their theology, and asking honest, careful questions about contractions in her answers.

In an NPR interview on the release of her book titled “Unfollow,” Megan explains her conversion saying, “That was the beginning of the end for me. I had this unshakeable belief and it had been shaken.” Megan left the church, married one of the persons who engaged her with empathy and intelligence on Twitter. They now have two children, and Megan continues writing and speaking about escaping harmful religion. Her family has given up on her, but she hasn’t given up on them, saying “I realized that if I was changed by these discussions with outsiders, if they could find a way to get through to me … — how stupid would it be, how wrong would it be not to have that same hope that my family could change…?”

Because of the way Megan’s family and religion taught her to see the world and other people, she did great harm to so many. She was taught and accepted their ways as righteous, religious, patriotic, and true. By Holy Spirit, she had to be converted from those ways, and through a few strangers who risked loving her anyway, find a new way to see and live.

Saul was a child gifted with Jewish heritage, Roman citizenship, and above average intelligence. His family and religion taught him what was righteous and patriotic, strict obedience to the law… the laws of Rome and of Torah. Honor the emperor and Rome to keep the peace, and honor the Temple and Jewish leaders to keep God satisfied. Any person of Israel who violated these norms put the whole community at risk, and Saul was taught they deserved swift consequences from government and religion.

Saul was nearby when some dragged Stephen outside for teaching and serving in Jesus’ name. They took off their cloaks and dropped them at Saul’s feet as they picked up stones and threw them at Stephen until he died. Saul didn’t flinch. That was normal and expected, the way he saw the world. And the way he had been taught, that kind of violence would set and example and bring peace sooner.

Still, people of The Way kept kept agitating, kept talking about Jesus. They were saying Jesus was the Messiah, the true leader of Israel, which challenged Rome, and they were believing what Jesus said about the Torah and Prophets, which challenged the temple. They were even saying Jesus was crucified, died, and buried by Rome and Temple leaders, but somehow he rose again from death, and gave his disciples power and wisdom to keep on leading and teaching in his name. The was Saul had been taught, there would need to be even more violence to stop this before it got out of hand.

Saul, a loyal Roman citizen and a staunch believer and enforcer of the Hebrew scriptures asked for and was granted permission to arrest anyone who was teaching about Jesus or acting against Rome or Israel in Jesus’ name. That’s the way Saul’s family and religion taught him to see the world and outsider. He believed he must use threats and violence to protect his own, and defeat them. Saul did great harm to so many Jews and Gentiles, fellow citizens and foreign guests. He was taught and accepted those judgmental ways as righteous, religious, patriotic, and true.

On the road to Damascus, with armed forces behind him ready to arrest anyone Saul names, he was confronted by God. God in Christ by Holy Spirit would convert Saul from his former way to The Way. Saul went blind for three days. He lost his power over others, and found himself dependent on others. He lost his ability to take advantage, and felt the fear of being vulnerable where others could take advantage of him.

Then, a stranger comes. This stranger knows about Saul, the dangerous one who has used words and force against his enemies, those who put Jesus over country or religion. And this stranger, Ananias, by Holy Spirit, overcomes his fear, goes to Saul, calls him brother, treats him with respect and human dignity, despite Saul not deserving such patience, forgiveness, or grace. Ananias sits with Saul, and touches him, and healing begins. Saul lost his old way of seeing. Now, through a stranger who risked loving him anyway, Saul is converted, filled with Holy Spirit, opens his eyes, begins to see a new way, and spends the rest of his life reinterpreting scripture, trying to mend Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female into one community of Christ.

Let’s pray…

Creator, Christ, Comforter… be close to us now. In each of us, we have thoughts and beliefs that do harm. Convert us. Blind us to our former ways. Humble us and block us from hurting anyone with our sense of righteousness, or patriotism, or religion, any word or way that isn’t true to you. Then send us as fearful neighbors and strangers to love our enemies and help guide them through your conversion from enemy to friend, from opponent to brother or sister. We pray this to you Holy Spirit, the one that sent Ananias and filled Saul, and converts all from hate toward love. Amen? Amen.


What did you see that you now see differently? Do you remember the one who helped your see in a new way? This week, if you are able, reach out to them and tell them that story, and tell them thank you. Then pray, pray to Holy Spirit for the courage to be someone’s Ananias, to go to someone trapped in their religion, righteousness, patriotism, or truth, and help them see the way, truth, and life that is Jesus the Christ.


Now blessing, laughter, and loving be yours, and may the love of a great God who names you and holds you as the earth turns and the flowers grow be with you this day, this night, this moment, and forever more. Amen? Amen.

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