Easter 3C: Conversion Tales

 

The Conversion of St. Paul, Ethiopian iconography
The Conversion of St. Paul, Ethiopian iconography

FIRST LESSON:  Acts 9: 1-6 (7-20)

The importance of this passage is emphasized by the repetition.  This is the quintessential conversion tale—a human, sure that he or she is right, passionate about what he or she thinks, is suddenly shown something else, something beyond what they had allowed themselves to see before.

Here, the success of the church’s mission even beyond Jerusalem prompts Saul to aim his hostilities northward toward the Syrian area of Damascus.  But on his way to destroy the disciples of the Lord, he experiences what can only be characterized as the most Divine of reversals.  Damascus at that time was an important Syrian city and a leading commercial center of the Roman Empire.  It is inhabited at this time by many Jews and it is apparent that Saul felt that the religion and the belief systems of these Jews was somehow being threatened by this new Messianic movement.  Now, the famous Damascus Road (which can barely be seen from GulonHeights on the northward part of Israel overlooking Syria) is usually read as a description of transformation.  But what is interesting is how Saul (now Paul) became so quickly well-versed in the Christian faith.  It’s as if he took some sort of crash course in Christian theology before hammering out his masterpiece of a treatise that we call Romans.  But, regardless, we know of Christ’s purpose for Saul / Paul—to bring Jesus’ name to the Gentiles.  Perhaps Saul, now Paul, was incredibly smart.  But, more likely, he was just searching like all of us do.

This whole thing for us 21st century educated Christians borders on the unbelievable.  What does it mean for us?  Do things like that really happen today?  Well, there are times when someone’s closed mind and shadowed eyes are suddenly opened, right?  Perhaps that’s what happened.  Perhaps Paul was denying what he knew all along.  I don’t know.  Emilie Griffin writes that “it is clear that conversion begins with a restlessness of the human heart, which can find no resting place on earth.”  In other words, it is not so much that God picks and chooses who of us is called to do God’s work but rather that there is something within each one of us that, prompted by restlessness, by the awareness that something is “missing”, or that there is something that needs to change, begins to listen to the voice that was there all along.  Maybe conversion is more about listening than anything else.

The truth is, though, there is a question as to whether this was a conversion or a calling.  Either way, Paul was still Jewish.  He still honored his heritage.  He had changed not from Jew to Christian, but from one kind of Jew to another.  And ironically, this strong, zealous, somewhat angry young man, finds himself led into the city by another.  Even that could be a conversion.  But notice…God was not done with Saul once he saw the light, so to speak.  Paul would begin a journey of discovery with God there beside him all the time.   

 1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      How believable is this for you?

3)      What does “conversion” mean to you?

4)      What is the difference between a “conversion” and a “calling”?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Revelation 5: 11-14

This passage presents two hymns of praise, one to the Lamb and one to God (“the one seated on the throne”) and to the Lamb.  The hymns acknowledge the Lamb’s great deeds through the death and Resurrection of Christ.  The Lamb is worthy of this worship that is depicted here.  The scene occurs in the so-called “heavenly throne room”.  The scene includes God, who is seated on the throne and surrounded by four living creatures and twenty-four elders.  And there’s lots of singing.  Singing depicts hope for the writer of Revelation.  In fact, there are more than fifteen hymns in the book and, probably thanks to George Frideric Handel, we recognize most of them.  These are hymns that appear in the midst of darkness and despair.  They are hymns of hope.  But this is the Lamb’s first appearance in Revelation.  The thought of the worshipped One being portrayed as a diminutive lamb is pretty new.  This is different.  This is not the strong and overpowering warrior but rather one that is humble enough to call us toward the Divine.

Now keep in mind the context in which this was written.  In Asia Minor, religion was prevalent and was also very woven into the fabric of the political and social landscape.  The people essentially worshiped and showered high acclaim upon the emperor (the one who sat on the throne).  Groups of singers would be appointed to sing for the royal household for festivals.  And those who were the highest followers, the religious leaders,  would earn a high place surrounding the throne.  So, here the writer is using that context to depict the sovereignty of God and God in Christ.  As worship names what is worthy of that worship, it also dismisses competing claims; here, that dismissal would be of the political emperor, the earthly lord.  You could almost think of it as a veiled expose’ of what was really wrong with the society.  (In a commentary on this passage, Barbara Rossing, equates Revelation to the climactic scene in the Wizard of Oz, when the small and innocent Toto pulls the curtain back to expose that the great Oz was not what it seemed to be., available at http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=4/14/2013&tab=3).  So, essentially, the writer is saying that Rome, the great and final power, is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Here, the passage names the Lamb as the one who sets people free, makes them a people, and owns their destiny.  And for this, the Lamb is worthy of praise.

This passage turns us away from our own concerns.  It talks about who we should look to, who we should worship and praise.  It brings to mind wonder and awe, things that we don’t have a lot of all the time.  It reminds us to contemplate what God has done in Christ.  We are used to worshipping that which is higher than us, something that we can “look up to”.  But here, we read that it is the lowly, suffering Lamb that is truly worthy.  And Revelation, in its simplicity, with singing and humility, depicts the veritable hope of the world found in the brokenness of life.  What does that do to our sense of wonder and awe when we find God in the brokenness of life?

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does “worship” and “praise” mean for us?

3)      What does it mean to express “awe” or “wonder” about God?  In other words, how do we honor God’s “God-ness”?

4)      What does it mean for us to proclaim Jesus as Lord?

5)      How does the context in which this was written change our understanding of this passage?

 

 GOSPEL:  John 21: 1-19

From the beginning, Peter seems to be portrayed as the leader.  They have been fishing all night.  Now it is day—a new beginning.  And when their nets, empty before, are now beginning to tear from the weight of the fish, it is the Beloved Disciple who recognizes Jesus.  Now, for me, the question as to why Peter was naked is something completely different.  But St. John Chrysostom, the 4th century Bishop of Constantinople, writes this about this passage:  When they recognized him, the disciples Peter and John again exhibited their different temperaments.  The one was fervent, the other more contemplative.  The one was ready to go, the other more penetrating.  John is the one who first recognized Jesus, but Peter is the first to come to him.

The truth is that Peter, naked, baring all, holding nothing back, came to Jesus.  Perhaps he was not the first to “get it”, but when he got it, he responded.  Perhaps it is saying, once again, that we do not get it alone.  We need each other to open our eyes, to allow us to see things we could not see before.  We need each other to know of those places where God sets us free to jump in the water.

Here, Jesus, still the abundant Christ, feeds the Disciples yet again.  Christ is still here—still feeding, still nurturing.  The “Last Supper” was not the final meal.  There is always breakfast on the shore if you’re just willing to jump in the water.  However it happened, Peter was turned, “converted” if you will, from death to life.  This sort of bumbling fishermen who years before had just been minding his own business and trying to eek out a life for his family, this ever-questioning disciple who often said exactly the wrong thing at exactly the wrong time, this one who never quite got it, this one who, for some reason that I haven’t figured out saw fit to remove his clothes on the boat in the middle of the lake, this is the one, finally, that “got it” and was the first to show up for breakfast.

Several years ago, I was working on the historical write-up of the St. Paul’s Foundation’s first 50 years.  Somewhere buried in one of the files was a copy of the St. Paul’s bulletin from November 2, 1930.  I think that may have been the first worship service in the new sanctuary.  (It was also my grandparents’ wedding day, but that’s totally unrelated!)  Anyway, typed into the bulletin was the Apostles’ Creed…

 …He ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  From thence, he shall come to FUDGE the quick and the dead…

 Well, of course it’s incorrect.  But think about it…all during Eastertide, we have Jesus returning to earth in different ways.  Eastertide reminds us that death and life are no longer easily separated.  In fact, the two are the same.  They both mean life.  Perhaps Eastertide IS about the fudging of the quick and the dead, the living and the gone.  Perhaps that’s the whole point.  Perhaps we HAVE been converted to life.

 1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does the different responses of Peter and the Beloved Disciple mean for you?

3)      Where do you see yourself in this story?

4)      What does it mean to be “converted” from death to life?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Give me a transformed and undefended heart.  (St. Augustine)

 Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what’s next or how.  The moment you know, you begin to die a little. (Agnes de Mille)

“I won’t take no for an answer,”God began to say to me when [God] opened [God’s] arms each night wanting us to dance. (St. Catherine of Siena)

 Closing

Dear Lord, grant me the grace of wonder. Surprise me, amaze me, awe me in every crevice of Your universe. Delight me to see how Your Christ plays in ten thousand places. . .to [God] through the features of [human] faces. Each day enrapture me with Your
marvelous things without number.  I do not ask to see the reason for it all; I ask only to share the wonder of it all.  Amen.
                                                         Rabbi Abraham Heschel

Easter 2C: In Pursuit of Belief

 

"Doubting Thomas", Caravaggio, c 1603
“Doubting Thomas”, Caravaggio, c 1603

FIRST LESSON:  Acts 5: 27-32

During the Season of Eastertide, our first readings are not from the Old Testament but rather the Book of Acts—the beginnings of the believers’ story after the Resurrection.  All of a sudden this seemingly bumbling and clueless band of disciples that had followed Jesus around all through the Gospels suddenly seems to “get it”.  But remember, too, that earlier in Acts (our Pentecost story), the Holy Spirit had come upon them.  They were not alone but were empowered by faith in the Resurrected Christ.  They were, in effect, becoming the church.  Walter Brueggemann writes that “in the Book of Acts the church is a restless, transformative agent at work for emancipation and well-being in the world.” (April 9, 2007, available at http://theolog.org/2007/04/brueggemann-sermon-starter.html.)

Now they feel compelled to speak the Truth as they see it, even when the act of speaking the Truth is a dangerous one.  They speak of Jesus as one in the same as the One and only Lord, God Almighty.  And obeying and speaking this truth is above all human authority.  Peter and the apostles understood that with the Resurrection of Christ, they were to look to new leadership.  They were to follow Christ, rather than the political and religious leaders that were in place in the society.

Now it is important to not begin to fall into this account as one religion against another.  This is NOT the Christians vs. the Jews the way some of our Christian brothers and sisters may try to make it.  In fact, “Christianity”, per se is essentially a movement within the established faith.  Peter is speaking here with the “authority of our ancestors”.  He is speaking from the tradition of his people—his Jewish people.  Think of it more as a “family feud” or a difference in belief.  The words “to Israel” are important.  This is not the beginnings of a religious war between two opposing faiths.  Here, both sides were convinced that their truth was THE Truth.  But it is not unlike our own setting with our own internal struggles between conservative and progressive, traditional and contemporary, right and left, or whatever designations you care to use to fill in the blanks.

Here, Peter was a witness.  We know the end of the story.  He and others are martyred for their belief.  But the important part is that Peter was a witness, doing what all of us are called to do as followers of Christ.

I think it’s important to note, though, that being a “witness” does not call one to be mean-spirited or to wound others who do not think the same way in the process.  Peter and the disciples still viewed themselves as part of those to whom they were speaking.  They were not pulling away; they were not dismissing them as “wrong” or “evil” or anything else.  They were trying to open the conversation of faith.  But, of course, they were having to do it with authorities that had the upper hand.

There are those that will see the Scripture as a call to “war” between the so-called “secular humanists” and (I would say) so-called “people of faith”.  J. Michael Krech says this in response to that:

[Some people] will see as heir to Peter’s boldness the public high school valedictorian who inserts a prayer into her speech at graduation, despite being warned by the school principal not to do so, thus obeying God rather than human authority.  Other Christians will see as closer to the spirit of Peter the protesters whose placards and chants of “No War for Oil” break up a congressional committee hearing on Department of Defense appropriations.

In nations where governments are fairly chosen by the will of the people and orderly processes exist to hear grievances, it may be appropriate that the protesters who interrupt a congressional committee’s proceedings be removed from the room.  In nations where the constitution and national heritage encourage mutual respect for people of various faiths and those who hold no religious faith at all, the school principal is correct.  Praying your prayer to a captive audience at a public school graduation is not an act of courage but of bad manners…

When [one] speaks with the boldness of Peter and the other apostles, it does, at least over time, encourage hearers to take principled if unpopular stands in the workplace and helps lead us all to be seekers of truth and agents of reconciliation.  (J. Michael Krech, in Feasting on the Word, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. “Second Sunday of Easter”, p. 381, 383.) 

1)      What is your response to this passage?

2)      Our new United Methodist vows of membership themselves call us to vow our “prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness”.  What does that mean to you to be called as a witness?

3)      Why is that so difficult in today’s society?

4)      What does it mean that we are called to be “transformative agents”, as Brueggemann said?

 NEW TESTAMENT:  Revelation 1: 4-8

This passage is the beginning of what was essentially a formal letter for that time and two-thirds of our passage for this week is essentially the salutation for that letter.  The writer named John begins by wishing his readers grace and peace from God.  He describes God as “the One who is”, sort of like the Old Testament tradition of God interpreting God’s own name as “I am who I am.”  The “one who is and who is to come” presents the timelessness, the eternity, of God.  It also speaks to that “already and not yet” characteristic of the Kingdom of God.

The number “seven” (used here for the cities and for the spirits) is intended to mean perfect or complete.  The seven churches are named later in this collection known as the Book of Revelation, but it is possible that at the beginning, he was representing all the churches of western Asia minor (modern-day Turkey).  Perhaps the writer is trying to depict a God that is beyond what we can imagine, beyond the limits of one human.  And once again, we have the depiction of God as the ruler over all, one in our midst, always with us, guiding us.  So, in the beginning—God, in the end—God, and throughout it all—God.  God’s presence and power transcend all human notions of time.  And Jesus Christ, the third figure named in the greeting, is also presented with three corresponding titles—the “faithful witness” (in his ministry, death and resurrection), the “firstborn of the dead” (vanquishing death), and “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (a new sovereignty on the earth.)

Remember that this Revelation was written at least a generation or two after Jesus’ death and Resurrection.  The Christian faith was already solidified.  And once again, the passage draws to the witness of that faith.  There was a definite disparity for those early believers between being “Easter people” and living in the realities of what was often a harsh and cruel world.  They were being persecuted and they needed a way to make sense of their faith.  Revelation was written to encourage those Christians who were struggling to have faith in light of everything around them when evil seemed to be the only thing at work in the world.  It was intended to bring a vision of hope to those whose only way to be “safe in their faith” was to abandon it altogether.

And for those of us who have left the beauty and glory that was Easter morning, with the more than full sanctuary, the beautiful flower arrangements, the “Hallelujah Chorus”, and the high-church celebration, now what?  We are not persecuted for our faith, but it is indeed hard.  It is hard to stay faithful when there are so many things that tug at your life.  And, how in the world do we follow that exhibition on Easter morning?  How do we top that?  What next?

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does this passage say about the calling to “witness”?

3)      What does it mean to embody Christ, to embody Easter, to become “Easter people”?

4)      In what ways do we understand hope?

To understand Revelation for our day, we have to understand the nature of hope. For Christians hope is not a wish. It is not a tooth under a pillow, or fingers crossed or just one more Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes try. Hope for a Christian is an assurance, a firm and binding promise. It is a sure thing. Hope is not a feeling. It is a fact. It is a fact rooted in the reality of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and assured by the amazing, steadfast, unshakable love of God for God’s people. God will not be shaken. Hope is independent of circumstances and it will never be conquered by evil. Even if hurt seems to be winning, the battle for God has already been won.

Several years ago when I was a pastor in the Denver Colorado area, a colleague of mine told me a story of a friend of hers who was traveling home to Denver on a Sunday afternoon from a conference north along the front range of the Rocky Mountains in Fort Collins. The conference had been a good one. The man and the woman were driving home full of what they had learned and talking about how they might use their new learning in their work situations. As they rounded a curve in the road they came upon a serious motorcycle accident. The motorcycle seemed to catch on something and flip into the air. The driver, without a helmet, was thrown fifty yards or so, and the bike landed not far away.

The two were the first to arrive. The man was driving and pulled off the road just north of the accident. Before he shut off the ignition the woman was out of the car and running to the side of the accident victim. The man stopped another car and sent the occupants for help while he began to try to direct traffic. At one point in the chaos he glanced at the woman. She was crouched next to the unconscious young man, stroking his hair and talking to him.

When the ambulance arrived and the young man was whisked away, the man and the woman got back into their car in silence. There was blood on the woman’s hands and around the hem of her skirt.

After a moment, the man said, “I saw you talking to that young man. He was obviously unconscious. He may even have been dead. What could you possibly have been saying to him?”

“I just told him over and over,” she replied, “I just told him, the worst is over. The healing has already begun.”

To those long ago hurting ones to whom John wrote, to those long ago ones whose lives were marked by pain and fear, by weakness and oppression of injustice and death, whose lives were marked by the terror of the now and haunted by the past and uncertain of the future, to those ones and to us, to you, God through the words of Revelation offers us a vision of a brand new life; a life lived in a brand new order in a brand new way. Maybe the images in Revelation are frightening and confusing to you, serpents and lakes of fire, but what is that to us? What God has to say in this letter is that no matter what comes against you in this life; no matter if all of the power of pain and chaos of the universe seems to overtake you all at once; no matter if you can not control one single thing or fix one single thing in your life, the worst is over, the healing has already begun. The lamb is on the throne. Come Lord Jesus, come. (From “Saltwater Apocalypse”, a sermon by Rev. Eugenia Gamble, November 16, 1997, available at http://day1.org/821-saltwater_apocalypse.)

GOSPEL:  John 20: 19-31

You have to wonder what the disciples were thinking locked behind the door of their house.  Were they afraid that they would be next?  Were they disillusioned that things had turned out that way?  Were they feeling remorse or guilt or shame at the parts that they had played (or not played, as the case may be) in the Passion Play?  I suppose it’s possible that they were a little afraid of the rumors that Jesus HAD returned.  After all, what would he say to THEM?

But that’s not what happened.  Things were going to be OK.  Jesus was back.  The disciples rejoiced.  Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them.  They were sent.  They became the community of Christ.  And so I supposed they went off merrily praising God and being who they were called to be.  This is a premise for discipleship.  Jesus offered light and truth through his relationship with God.  Now the disciples are called to offer light and truth through their relationship with Christ.  All except Thomas.  Poor Thomas.  He wanted to see proof.  Why couldn’t he just believe?

On one level, Jesus, with all the grace that Christ offers, gives Thomas exactly what Thomas so desperately needs—proof.  Thomas missed his initial opportunity, but Jesus returns.  I think we give Thomas a bad wrap—after all, for some reason, he missed what the others had seen.  (It is interesting that he was apparently the only one who had ventured outside!)  He just wanted the same opportunity—and Jesus gave that to him.  He wanted to experience it.  The point was that the Resurrection is not a fact to be believed, but an experience to be shared.  And perhaps, part of that experience is doubt.  Constructive doubt is what forms the questions in us and leads us to search and explore our own faith understanding.  It is doubt that compels us to search for greater understanding of who God is and who we are as children of God.

Hans Kung is a Swiss-born theologian and writer.  He says it like this:  Doubt is the shadow cast by faith.  One does not always notice it, but it is always there, though concealed.  At any moment it may come into action.  There is no mystery of the faith which is immune to doubt.  Isn’t that a wonderful thought?  Doubt is the shadow cast by faith.  Faith in the resurrection does not exclude doubt, but takes doubt into itself.  It is a matter of being part of this wonderful community of disciples not because God told us to but because our doubts bring us together.  Examining our faith involves doubts, it requires us to learn the questions to ask.  And it is in the face of doubt that our faith is born.  God does not call us to a blind, unexamined faith, accepting all that we see and all that we hear as unquestionable truth; God instead calls us to an illumined doubt, through which we search and journey toward a greater understanding of God.

Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to belief.  (Remember that ALL the disciples had seen Jesus.  Thomas just wanted a more tangible showing.  The only one in John’s Gospel that really saw nothing was the so-called “Beloved Disciple”, who ran to the tomb and saw nothing.)  They have the relationship in Christ to which God calls us.  They understand the Christian community—you come together and hold on for dear life as you search for a greater understanding of something that will always be a mystery.  But what an incredible mystery it is!  And we are given the grace to embrace it.

Frederick Buechner preached a sermon on this text entitled “The Seeing Heart”.  In it, he reminds us of Thomas’ other name, the “Twin”.  It was never really clear why he was called that, but Buechner says that “if you want to know who the other twin is, I can tell you.  I am the other twin and, unless I miss my guess, so are you.”  He goes on to say this:

I don’t know of any story in the Bible that is easier to imagine ourselves into that this one from John’s Gospel because it is a story about trying to believe in Jesus in a world that is as full of shadows and ambiguities and longings and doubts and glimmers of holiness as the room where the story takes place is and as you and I are inside ourselves…To see Jesus with the heart is to know that in the long run his kind of life is the only life worth living.  To see him with the heart is not only to believe in him but little by little to become bearers to each other of his healing life until we become fully healed and whole and alive within ourselves.  To see him with the heart is to take heart, to grow true hearts, brave hearts, at last.  (“The Seeing Heart”, by Frederic Buechner, in Secrets in the Dark:  A Life in Sermons)

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does doubt mean in your faith life?

3)      What does community mean in your faith life?

4)      What is your response to the notion that those who have not seen and yet have come to belief are the Blessed?

5)      What, then, does it mean to have a “seeing heart”?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 I believe in the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth…and the resurrection of the body…as it was meant to be, the fragmented self made new; so that at the end of time all Creation will be One.  Well, maybe I don’t exactly believe it, but I know it, and knowing is what matters…The strange turning of what seemed to be a horrendous No to a glorious Yes is always the message of Easter.  (Madeleine L’Engle)

 The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth. (Pierre Abelard, 12th century)

 But the proclamation of Easter Day is that all is well…In the end, [God’s] will, not ours, is done.  Love is the victor.  Death is not the end.  The end is life.  His life and our lives through him, in him.  Existence has greater depths of beauty, mystery, and benediction than the wildest visionary has ever dared to dream.  Christ our Lord has risen! (Frederick Buechner, “The End is Life”, in Bread and Wine:  Readings for Lent and Easter, 292)

 Closing

Yours—we gladly attest—is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.  Yours—we gladly assert—are the heavens and the earth.  It is you who had made all that is, sun, moon, stars, rivers, forests, minerals, birds, beasts, fish—and us.  We say, “in your image.” Yours the kingdom and the power and the glory—and then us.

 You do not will us to be powerless either, so you endow us with the power to work, to rule, to govern.  We reflect you in our working, in our ruling, in our governing.  Ours is the chance for justice and/or injustice, for mercy and/or rigor, for peace and/or war.  We grow accustomed to our power, sometimes absolutizing, and then we are interrupted by the doxology on which we have bet everything:

 Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.  And we are glad.  Amen. (“On Creation”, by Walter Brueggeman, in Prayers for a Privileged People, p. 165)