The second lesson this morning continues our Easter journey in Acts. These are the accounts of the very earliest church, the men and women who were closest to Jesus during his ministry and those who had experiences with him just after the resurrection. They were preaching and teaching and forming communities of faith with the reality of the resurrection at the front of their minds. Everything they did they did because they believed that Jesus had risen, that death would not win. This Easter we’re going to look particularly at how they formed those first churches – what they valued, what they emphasized, what they knew was important to pass on, and how they lived their faith in God our Savior. From their experiences we can ask ourselves - -What does it mean for us to be a resurrection community? What does it mean for us to an Easter church?
Our Scripture passage this morning is likely a familiar one for many of you. Actually, even if you’re like me and have a hard time citing chapter and verse, you will likely recognize the experience. Acts 9:1-20 contains the story we often call the conversion of Saul, whose name is later changed to Paul – the Paul who went on to become the writer of a number of the letters in the New Testament.
In his days as Saul, he was a fierce persecutor of Christians, or followers of the Way. In fact his first appearance in the New Testament is when he participates in the stoning of Stephen, one of the original seven deacons. However, after Saul’s conversion or calling on the road to Damascus, he is a new man, changed forever in his orientation toward God known in Jesus Christ.
All that said, as you listen to this Scripture today, I ask you to listen for something possibly new. Listen to the story told not only of Saul, but also of a man in Damascus named Ananias. Listen now for a Word from God:
Acts 9:1-20A few years ago I attended a retreat for Presbyterian pastors. To open the retreat the 12 or so of us who were there were asked to go around the circle and tell our “call stories”, the story of our life and faith that brought us to ministry in the first place. The retreat leader planned one hour for this activity – giving each of us five minutes to tell our story. Well, this activity ended up stretching into something like 2 ½ or 3 hours.
The leader’s first mistake was thinking 12 preachers could each restrict themselves to only five minutes – clearly an unrealistic hope. But, secondly I think he was expecting some stories like Saul’s. I could tell that story in just five minutes. It doesn’t take long to tell why you decided to follow God if at some point in your life you have seen a flash of light from heaven, heard the voice of Jesus, been blind for three days, and then had scales fall from your eyes as a stranger speaks a message to you from God. That’s a pretty clear message from God about what you’re supposed to do with your life.
However, it takes a little longer to tell the story of a person’s experience with God when that story begins with an infant baptism, continues through the nurture of Sunday School, includes confirmation in the teen years, maybe twists and turns away from God in the later teens and parts of adulthood, before one comes to realize God’s presence or call. That’s not a five minute story – that’s a life story. That’s the kind of journey, I’m guessing, more of us are traveling. It’s a journey that, I think, relates more to the story of Ananias than it does to Saul.
We don’t get much information about Ananias in this passage. We know that he’s living in Damascus, and that he is a disciple. That’s about it. My assumption is that Ananias isn’t an extremely remarkable man, otherwise we would probably hear those remarks. But, we aren’t told that he is a great leader in the synagogue or the community. We don’t know that he is well-respected, or that he is rich, or that he is perceived to be any closer to God than anyone else. We just know that he is a disciple. I imagine him to be a faithful man, but not an extraordinary man in terms of his power or prestige.
Yet God decided to use Ananias. God decided to call Ananias to service. Notice, though, that Ananias didn’t get the luxury of a blinding experience like Saul did. He didn’t get Saul’s flash of light and voice from heaven. Ananias got what I think is a much more difficult call from God, but maybe the kind we’re more likely to run into in our own lives. It was a call that came in a vision – maybe a dream in the night while he was fast asleep, or maybe it was a conversation or thought process in his head while he worked, not really even knowing at first whether it was his own thoughts or God’s voice that he heard. However he heard it, the message that came was this, “Get up and go!”
Being a part of the Way, being a disciple of Christ, isn’t just about believing something we’re told. It isn’t about saying yes to the right questions or being able to recite the correct creed or statement. Being a follower of Jesus isn’t even just about living a certain way, according to a certain set of rules or standards. At some point in every believers’ life of faith, and very possibly at many different points in that life, God is going to come calling. Answering that call requires some sort of specific action.
“Get up and go!” God says to Ananias. Actually, it’s the same thing he said to Paul in his call, too, “Get up, and enter the city.” Get up and go do something. Rarely does God come calling and say, “Have a seat; relax. Don’t bother to do anything for me today.” No, God’s calls come expecting action, and often some sort of specific action. Sometimes they are large, this-is-what-I-want-you-to-do-with-the-rest-of-your-life actions, but sometimes they are smaller, this-is-what-I-want-you-to-do-right-now actions. The smaller ones aren’t always as small as they seem though. God has a way of using our simple actions and activities in much bigger ways.
Agreeing to prepare or serve supper at a shelter, taking a shift sorting and distributing food at a food shelf may be a specific call that uses a few hours of your time, but your presence shows the love of Christ that may last someone else a lifetime. Or maybe through that kind of service your eyes are opened to the needs of others that go beyond one meal or groceries in the pantry for now and point to systemic problems in our community you can help change. Teaching a Sunday School class, helping out with Vacation Bible School, or being involved in the youth group may be the way God calls you to serve. It requires some time and a commitment to a new action, but answering the call means nurturing children of God, and growing the community of faith. These are all specific calls to action to which God may be calling you.
Faith in God can’t be a stationary thing. It does not allow a stagnant, inactive life. If there is one thing the disciples learned from the resurrection it’s that Christ is still active in the world. His disciples as close as the twelve from Galilee and those as far away as Damascus all seemed to know that the resurrection was a call to active faithful living. Even DEATH could not stop Jesus from loving all of God’s children. Even the cross could not keep him from being with the world he came to serve, the disciples he came to feed and teach, the sick he came to heal, the captives he came to release. Christ’s ministries, like Christ himself live on and they need active leaders and today’s disciples to carry them out. Faith in the resurrected Christ requires us to be an active Easter church in God’s world; it requires us to change our individual ways of living in general, yes, but also to answer specific calls, be a part of particular jobs and assignments that God sets before us.
When God calls us to get up and go, it means that we might end up doing something we never expected. Imagine how ridiculous God’s call must have sounded at first to Ananias. He knows this man Saul, and how he goes around binding up and killing people who follow Christ. Ananias knows walking into that house into the same room as Saul is practically the kiss of death. He challenges God, and tries to talk his way out of God’s idea.
But the Lord persists, and in that persistence, the Lord provides a promise. Saul, the Lord promises, is an instrument in God’s plan, a vessel God has chosen to carry God’s name to the world. In other words, the Lord is already active in this plan set before Ananias. As unbelievable as it is, Ananias doesn’t need to go into this task thinking he’s alone or being pushed out on a limb. It doesn’t all depend on his ability or talent or strength or confidence. God is calling Ananias into a situation and a mission where God is already present.
That promise is the same to us today. God never calls us somewhere that God isn’t present already. Wherever we are called to go in God’s name, God already is. God calls us to add our gifts, attitudes, talents, and energy to the work God has already begun. We aren’t the ones beginning the work of the kingdom, but we are called to be witnesses to God’s love for the world as we are a part of that work. We may be called into difficult and even dangerous situations, but we aren’t called into them alone.
Sure Ananias is supposed to go to this house and find Saul, the notorious persecutor, but Ananias is not going alone. God has already gone before him to that house, God is already active in the plan, and God will accompany him on the adventure. And so Ananias gets up and goes. He puts his life of faith into action not simply by incorporating new behaviors or changing some habits. He very physically and very purposefully follows a specific call from God to do something different. He goes with the promise that God is already present where he is headed. He becomes a part of the work God is doing in Saul. He becomes a very important part of Saul’s conversion as he witnesses to Jesus’ healing power and the power of the Holy Spirit. He becomes a part of Saul’s ministry as Paul that stretches throughout the known world of their time.
When God calls you to get up and go, and I promise you, in some way, shape, or form, God is calling each and every one of us and this congregation as a whole to get up and go, the promise in that calling is that we are not being sent out as a lone ranger to carry the full responsibility and risk of that calling. Wherever you are told to get up and go, in your work, in your family, in your friendships, in your relationship with your enemies, in your interests, or in whole new directions, you are called to service with the living God who is already at work in your calling.
The first Easter church got up and went. It is my prayer that so will we.