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Sunday, April 14, 2013

Belonging to the Way

We who are disciples, baptized into Christ, belong to Jesus’ Way, and that means who are, how we live shows ourselves to be part of that Way.  Here is Jesus’ Way: taking broken sinners, forgiving them, and sending them out to find more.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Third Sunday of Easter C; texts: Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

That was a chilling opening to our first reading today: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord . . . .”  Luke goes on to say that Saul took that hatred and obtained permission from the high priest to bind and bring to Jerusalem any whom he found in Damascus who “belonged to the Way,” men or women.  Then if you look back to chapter 8 of Acts to see the other reference to Saul’s attitude and behavior, you find this in verse three: “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house.”  Paul himself, known to us much more by his Roman name than his Hebrew name, says this in the first chapter of Galatians: “I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it.” (Gal. 1:13)  This Saul of Tarsus, this Roman citizen named Paul, was an angry, vengeful man, a religious zealot who was willing to do violence in order to punish those whom he felt were evil in the sight of God.

It’s hard to read such descriptors today and not think of angry young men going schools and malls with guns, entering room after room, eager to kill, or angry young men and women blowing themselves up on buses in the Middle East.  Surely the images in so many videos the perpetrators will often make before they act can be summarized in these same words: “breathing threats and murder.”  And likewise the actions when they do what they are planning could be described by those other words: “ravaging, by entering house after house.”  In both our modern day and in this story of a young Saul, we find people who are acting in a way that only can be described as deranged, acting in hate and self-righteous, often religious arrogance, seeking the destruction of others.

Isn’t it stunning, then, that one of these young men became a powerful advocate of the Prince of Peace, a preacher of the unlimited and unmerited grace of God given to us in Jesus, and the clearest articulator after Jesus of the Lord’s message of self-giving love and a way of living in the grace-filled fruits of the Spirit, not in rage and hatred.  Paul was completely transformed.  In fact, the Way of Jesus made him into a new person, almost unrecognizable from who he used to be.  Paul goes from murderously seeking those who belong to “the Way,” to joyfully and fearlessly inviting people all over the known world to join him in belonging to the Way themselves.

We need to understand why and how Jesus did this, and continues to do it.  It won’t change the tragedies we continue to see in the news every day, not at first.  But if we who claim to belong to the Way ourselves can understand what Jesus is doing and calling us to be in this Way, maybe we’ll begin to see and be a part of the new creation Jesus promises to make in the world.

To better understand what our Lord Jesus is doing, let’s back away a little from the picture of Paul’s story and look at it next to the Gospel story today.

There are remarkable parallels.  In both stories, sinful people are forgiven by the risen Lord and offered life.

Peter and the other disciples failed miserably, and betrayed Jesus.  But, alive again, Jesus offers them breakfast – a sign of his forgiveness – and fellowship again.  They are welcomed back as friends, as beloved.  And of course Paul, we’ve seen his sinfulness.  It’s described in detail in today’s reading and before.  But in this story there is also this remarkable call of Jesus.  He looks at this awful persecutor and sees potential, gifts.  Jesus sees an instrument to bring God’s love to the world.

And so in both stories, people who are forgiven by Jesus are sent out, are given a task.

Peter is told to live his love for Jesus by feeding Jesus’ flock, his lambs, those who need God’s love.  Ananias is sent to bring the grace of Jesus to someone who has been persecuting Jesus.  We’ll speak a little more about him in a moment.  And Paul has a small job, too: all Jesus needs him to do is bring the whole Gentile world the Good News of God’s love in Jesus!

Think of who these two become, and what a marvel this is: there are not two more well-known or beloved leaders of the early Church.  And yet today it is clear to us that they weren’t heroic figures at all, they weren’t people to admire.  Peter and Paul were broken, sinful people who were transformed by the risen Jesus.  It’s as simple as that.

A critically important part of the Way of Jesus, then, is this: it seems that sinful people are needed, are necessary, for the future of the Way.  Jesus’ redemption projects are central to his Way for the world.

This is so important for us to understand, for two reasons.  First, it gives us hope and promise: even though we know our own sinfulness before God, our Lord Christ looks at us and sees potential, sees gifts in us we can share, has need of us.  But second, it also takes out the “me-only” aspect that Christian faith sometimes gets.  “I believe so I know I’m forgiven, and that’s all I need to know.”  We don’t have that option anymore, because we are forgiven so that we can go out and bring others into God’s love.

And that we learn from the crucial part of both these stories: what happens to the forgiven ones after they’re sent.

What’s interesting is that we don’t learn that from Peter and Paul today; we actually don’t see what they become.  Not in our readings today at any rate.  What we know so far as these readings go is that they both answer the call of Jesus.  But at the point these stories stop, neither has done anything.

It turns out that today Ananias is our central character, the one we should pay attention to.  Ananias, one who “belongs to the Way,” obeys his Lord, and is sent to become the love of his Lord.  He acts toward Paul as Jesus would act, as Jesus asks him to act.  It’s the only thing we know about him from Scripture, but today it’s enough: Christ sends Ananias to be Christ to an enemy.

And we also notice that he doesn’t want to.  He knows who this monster is.  He tells Jesus, “I’ve heard from many about this one, his evil, what his authority is.”  He wants nothing to do with him.

Yet Jesus just says, “Go.  Go, because he will be an instrument for me to bring my name to the world.”  Ananias becomes Jesus’ intervention into Saul’s life, Jesus’ words of grace for Paul.

Imagine what it meant to Paul to have this leader of the Damascus church come and offer kindness and grace in Jesus’ name, knowing what he would have done to Ananias if Jesus hadn’t stepped in.

Imagine what it meant for Ananias to embody Christ, to act in the love of Christ even though he was terrified of this man, and probably disagreed with the Lord’s assessment of him.

But it is in the actions of the disciple that the love of the Master is known in the world.  This is the heart of belonging to the Way.  In the actions of the disciple, the heart of the Master is known.  This is the center of Jesus’ hope for us.

In some ways this brings full circle some of the thoughts I’ve been working through in these past four weeks.

I didn’t quite know that would happen when we came up to Passion Sunday.   That we’d end up considering more than once the problem of evil and terror in the world and our response to it. And what it means for us to faithfully follow our risen Lord with our lives.  And even the reality of the transformation that happens to disciples of Jesus when met by the risen Lord and filled with the Spirit, something we’ve seen in each of the past three weeks including today.

But today, once again, the readings lead us to these questions and truths.  And once again we are reminded that as followers of Jesus, people who belong to the Way, we, along with Jesus, reject using power or violence or force to effect even God’s will in the world.

We instead learn to live without fear of death – though death is real – because we know Jesus is alive, and all our lives are forever capable of being lived without fear.

And that leads us to Ananias and Peter, and eventually Paul, though it took him a little more time.  It’s the difference between Ananias’ actions and Paul’s earlier behavior, the difference between vengefully defending our idea of God and reaching out to all in Christ’s love, even those who hate us.

This is the mystery of our baptism: we ourselves become anointed ones, literally Christs.  We become and are Christ to each other.  And to the world, sent to bring God’s love and grace into the world.  Not with force or violence or power, but by living, embodying, like Ananias, Jesus’ self-giving, sacrificial love.

So Christ our Lord, risen from the dead, calls to us as he did to Ananias, to Paul, to Peter.  He calls us to become Christ ourselves, to belong to his Way.  And to live by that Way in all we do in our lives.

And this is why our Lord needs sinful people, seeks sinful people, to be a part of the Way.  If the heart of the Master will be seen in the actions of the disciple, his disciples need to know that heart.

How better than to find broken, sinful, evil people and love them into life, forgive them into grace, embrace them into a new Way of being?  Transformed by the forgiving love of the risen Christ, we are filled with the very thing we need to witness to such love in the world.

Here are the words you and I need to hear today from our Lord:  “Feed my sheep.”  and “Go.”

No more hedging, no more waiting, no more thinking it’s someone else’s job.  God’s lambs – the people of this world – need feeding, need love, need grace.  Even the ones we think are bad.  Because the Lord has need of their love, too.  It’s all part of the plan.

And yes, that’s frightening, to consider responding with love to hatred, responding with peace to violence, responding with justice to oppression.  But like Ananias, Jesus is simply saying to us, Go.  Do it.  I will be with you.  I will fill you with all the love you need.  But go.

You’re the only ones, he says, you’re the only ones who know what it means to be so forgiven, so you are the only ones who can share that with others.  So go.

And I will change the world in you.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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