Preaching on Easter's third Sunday

April 26th, 2022

Acts 9:1-20. We don’t always think of Paul’s conversion story as a resurrection appearance – but he sure did: check out the creedal 1 Corinthians 15! Our Old Testament reading, which laughably (to me) is Acts 9, reveals something of the nature of the risen Christ. Not just a dead guy resuscitated, but a spiritual body, a body, recognizable, able to be seen and heard, yet utterly transformed, transfigured. Well after he’s ascended into heaven, the risen Jesus is still on the loose, changing everything. Appearing to Saul. Fulfilling Martin Luther King's admonition that "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." A blinding vision from heaven works pretty well too.

 I’m struck enthusiastically by Willie Jennings’s brilliant commentary on Acts, here pondering how the Spirit has this habit of interrupting lives. Recalling that Saul is a killer: “He killed in the name of righteousness. No one is more dangerous than one with the power to take life… Such a person is a closed circle relying on the inner coherence of their logic. Their authority confirms their argument.” Implications abound.

But, Saul does not yet know that “the road to Damascus has changed. It is space now inhabited by the wayfaring Spirit of the Lord. Saul pursues, but he is being pursued.” Jesus asks Saul/Paul, “Why are you persecuting me?” or “Why are you harming me?” “In our world, this question flows most often out of the mouths of the poor, women and children.” Indeed, “the only good answer is to stop.” Saul/Paul’s “Who are you?” question mirrors Moses’s, and the answer, “I am Jesus” echoes Exodus 3 as well. Indeed, the particularity of Jesus: Saul/Paul “turns from the abstract Lord to the concrete Jesus” (Jennings, still).

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” – namely, in the bodies of Jesus’ followers. Jennings again on verses 10ff: these visions “seem to be auditory, visual and cinematic.” “The visions are less about what we can capture in sight and sound and more about being captured.”

Here’s Willie’s best stuff: Ananias says “I have heard about this man.” “Saul is a killer of disciples. Do I act on a truth about someone, a truth that may put me in danger, or do I follow the word of the Lord and touch this dangerous person?” Ananias is so very honest – always the starting point of spiritual progress. Jennings again: “Ananias goes to Saul armed with Saul’s future and not his own.”

“The truth we know of a person or people must move to the background, and what we know of God’s desire for them must move to the foreground.” Indeed, scales fall from Saul/Paul’s eyes – but doesn’t Ananias also enjoy some new vision of reality?

F.F. Bruce points to Sundar Singh’s conversion. After years of hostility to the Gospel, he saw a great light one night (in 1904): “I saw the form of the Lord Jesus Christ, an appearance of glory and love. If it had been a Hindu incarnation, I would have prostrated myself. But it was the Lord Jesus Christ I’d been insulting the day before. A voice asked, ‘How long will you persecute me? I have come to save you.’ I realized Jesus is not dead but living. So I fell at his feet and received this wonderful peace, and the joy I was wishing for.”

I love the suggestion, “Go into the city, and you will be told what to do,” which makes me wonder if that’s the word to us, that we discern our calling, the point of being a Christian, when we go into the city, and listen to the challenges and sorrows, the injustices and agonies of where real, and usually unchurched people live, work and play. You won’t take Jesus into the city. He’s already there.

Ananias intrigues. The greatest of Christians are debtors to someone who ushered them into the Body. Naming yours, or others will make great illustrations. He said “Here I am” – and so perhaps models the readiness for Paul, and for us. We’ll sing #593 from the Methodist hymnal…

Notice Church isn’t an institution just yet. It’s still called “the way” – and it might be a way, a path, a journey even for us as we reimagine things. Quirky thought: is there any irony that he is at the “house of Judas”? A common name, yes – but foes of Jesus aren’t tossed aside but redeemed in this story. Unlikely instruments everywhere.

The scales falling from his eyes – symbolic of the spiritually blind now seeing, such a key miracle in Jesus’ ministry – reminds me of Puff the Magic Dragon: “His head was bent in sorrow, green scales fell like rain.” Childhood lost – so what did Paul lose when he saw the light? Plenty – and we hear the pain of his loss repeatedly in his letters: family, reputation, the security of the Law, much more.

John 21:1-19. John 21 wasn’t long after Easter; Acts 9 many months later. Both are startling and transformative; conversion in both entails commissioning. I love the statue by the Sea of Galilee at The Primacy of Peter, a church built over a flat stone, allegedly the table where Jesus served breakfast to his disciples. This story has so many riveting details. Jesus cooking breakfast? Eating fish together? The fishing: notice in the Gospels the disciples never catch any fish without Jesus’ help!

The haunting conversation between Peter and Jesus is memorable, and cuts to the heart of what adherence to the risen Christ is all about. Jesus doesn’t ask him Are you doing what I told you to do? or Have you been good? Jesus wants to know from him and from us, Do you love me? Way too much gets made about the variation in the Greek between agapé and philo – as if Jesus yearns for agapé but Peter can only muster philo? These two terms are pretty much interchangeable in John’s lexicon – and Jesus and Peter would have been chatting in Aramaic anyhow.

Mary Magdalene’s plaintive puzzlement in Jesus Christ Superstar, “I don’t know how to love him,” is a fair starting point. What does this peculiar love feel like? Or look like? By the time Jesus parts from Peter, he has told him and us how. But the question itself: I love the moment in Fiddler on the Roof when Tevye surprises his wife Golde by asking “Do you love me?” Her reply? “Do I what? With our daughters getting married and this trouble in the town, you’re upset, you’re worn out, maybe it’s indigestion. Do I love you? For 25 years I’ve washed your clothes, cooked your meals, cleaned your house, given you children, milked the cow – After 25 years, why talk about love now?”

Without oversimplifying, church folks (and clergy) might hear themselves responding to Jesus’ query by saying For years I’ve read your book, sat in your pew, given money, tried to be nice, volunteered at the shelter, gone to seminary…  But do you love me? I wonder about preaching a sermon that might list 3 or 4 simple, doable ways to love Jesus. 

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