• Rev. Joel L. Tolbert

Courage to Love

Acts of the Apostles

A sermon series for the Easter season, preached May 1, 2022 at the 930am worship


Context

Easter is a big day for the church. But the days AFTER Easter, the Easter SEASON, are really big for the church. That’s why Caitlan and I are reading and preaching from the Acts of the Apostles, amazing stories of how those first disciples and apostles were sent to birth the church after that first Easter.


Last week, we heard how Apostles are set free from anything that tries to tie them down or hold them back, their prisons, and then sent to show and tell the world about the new life that is available to all in Jesus the Christ no matter who listens, ignores, or resists.


Today, let’s listen for the word of the Lord from…


Scripture Acts 9:1-20

9:1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to “The Way,” whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.


3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”


5 Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”


“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”


7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.


10 In Damascus, there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”


“Yes, Lord,” he answered.


11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”


13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”


15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their leaders, and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”


17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.


Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.


This is the word of the Lord… (Thanks be to God)


Sermon Courage to Love

I suppose as many times as I have read or heard this story, I have thought about it as “the conversion of Saul.” It makes some sense to put the focus there. Saul, the Pharisee of all Pharisees, the lead persecutor of the young Christian church called “the Way,” is, in a moment, converted from his violence and judgment of the church to belief.


Saul never personally met Jesus in the flesh, that we know of. He probably never heard one of Jesus’ sermons directly, and probably wasn’t there when Jesus was sentenced, crucified, buried, or when his body went missing. Still, Saul was vigilant in squelching this rebellion. He saw it as a direct challenge to his beliefs, an affront to his way of life, an undermining of his authority and power in the synagogues and the culture. Saul fought hard with whatever tactic necessary to defeat the disciples of Jesus. He was convinced he was 100% right in pushing against them, until this moment on the road to Damascus…


Saul is surrounded by a light, spoken to by a voice, falls to the ground, and will never look at things the same again. The henchmen that were with him, following his lead and his orders, lead him into Damascus and then disappear. We never hear from or about them again. But Saul regains his sight, becomes Paul, and writes (or is credited with writing) over half of the New Testament. He starts numerous churches and shapes Christianity towards grace through faith for all of us. It makes sense why this story is remembered as the conversion of Saul.


But I’m not sure Saul is the focus of this text. Saul is a known persecutor of the church. Saul is coming to Damascus with papers and powers to remove any abiders of The Way. Saul is like a commander of a National Guard squadron geared in helmets, batons, riot shields, and tear gas clearing protestors from a city park. Saul is like a head immigration official with a battalion of armed ICE officers swarming a mobile home village near a poultry plant. Saul is like the chief of police sending SWAT teams out in the middle of the night with no-knock warrants. Saul is like a Russian general equipping a convoy of tanks for their invasion of Ukraine.


The common wisdom is to steer clear of Saul. If he gets near, avoid eye contact and keep moving. If he asks a question, tell him whatever you need to in order to get out of his reach. When someone like Saul gears up and loads up, trouble is coming down on anyone he thinks smells suspicious. People will get hurt. Saul comes with authority and arrogance, papers and powers to ruin people’s lives in an instant just to maintain his sense of right, his preferred way of life.


In all this talk about the conversion of Saul, I’m realizing I was not giving enough credit to the other half of the story. Saul’s role in the story is as an angry bully, a judgmental zealot who miraculously comes around. But how? Whenever something this miraculous happens, it’s obviously God doing it. But how does God do it? The God we worship tends to choose simple unexpected people to change the world.


Ananias. Ananias is the center of this story. It’s the courage of Ananias that God chooses to enable this conversion. God picks out Ananias, calls him by name, and sends him on a dangerous mission to love his enemy, stay with him, feed him, teach him, until he sees.


I remember when Pope John Paul was shot. I was a youngish teenager. The Pope was shot by a Turkish man who felt he was on a mission for his faith to combat Christianity and capitalism. As big as the news of the shooting was, what I remember even more was when the Pope, healed enough, visited the man in prison. The Pope talked with him and listened to him. The Pope forgave him and invited him to a different way of seeing. That visit from the Pope, and the forgiveness, and the invitation made a bigger impact on me than the attempted murderer’s actions did.


Or the story of Michael Kent, a white supremacist with racist attitudes, actions, and tattoos, serving time on drug and weapons charges and was released from prison. Tiffany Whittier, a black female probation officer, was assigned to Kent’s case. She got his file, which included pictures of his tattoos, and visited him at his house alone. His house was cluttered with Nazi symbols, an image of Hitler. Whittier did her job for him, held him accountable, and constantly questioned and challenged the reasons behind his hate. He had seen a black man hurt his mother when he was little. His world taught him to hate all black people. But because of Tiffany’s presence, persistence, and patience, Kent started confiding in her through some tough times. And, he began getting his neo-Nazi tattoos removed after making the decision to leave hate behind. He once explained to Tiffany that he had started to see people differently — learning not to judge, but to accept them, because of her.


Sure, this story includes the radical conversion of Saul. But now I see it as the radical obedience of Ananias. Saul’s mind was made up and bent on blocking this invasion of traditional habitual way of life. God strips the sight from Saul, his independence, his position over others, all gone. He’s alone, dependent on the hospitality of strangers. And Ananias visits him. God made it possible, though scary, for Ananias to do so. When the Pope visited his would-be assassin, the man was locked away, shackled, guarded. When Tiffany visited Kent, he was a parolee and knew he needed Tiffany to stay free. The Pope’s visit and Tiffany’s still took courage and character. And the Pope and Tiffany go to their enemies and offer them freedom, not freedom from prison or probation, but freedom from the shackles on their soul that made them so angry, and dangerous to their fellow human beings.


I understand Aninias’ hesitation to visit Saul. I do not enjoy engaging people who do or say racist things, or who say untrue judgmental things about God. It scares me everytime. But I believe God calls us to that work, and makes it possible. Ananias goes to Saul, greets him with love and healing, engages him directly, and helps him see things differently.


We are people of the way. As people of the way, we proclaim one God of all peoples, the creator of all that is, the sustainer of all that is by Holy Spirit. We proclaim this God, who seemed to be so easily misunderstood by us and our ancestors, came to us in Jesus the Christ to show us how to live, and to set all creation free from the rolling consequences of sin. Jesus did not always follow the letter of the Law. But Jesus always obeyed and embodied the Spirit of the law in his whole being. He preached and lived peace instead of violence. He reminded us the temple, the church, was not a building but the living, breathing body of believers. He showed us the new way of being community was not impossible or far off but was all around us, even now. He led us to know and to love those we once ignored. He insisted on building up lives and relationships with those the world shuns, and he tossed over tables and leadership to do so. He lived in obedience and comfort knowing all things are in God’s hands, and God’s will will be done. This is who we worship and serve when we gather here. When we walk the way, the way of Jesus, the way of peace, and building up, awe of the Lord, comfort in the Holy Spirit, love of ourselves and our enemies, we grow.


This story may be about the conversion of Saul. But I think it’s more about walking in the way even when its scary. We are promised that walking in the way will guarantee persecution. So, let’s remember this story of Saul’s conversion. Let’s also remember how one faithful disciple can love a bully to healing and change the world.


To God be all glory and honor, now and forever more, amen.


Charge


Benediction

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.

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