Sermon: "Surprised by Grace", May 5, 2019, Rev. Ingrid Brown

Acts 9: 1-20 (NRSV)
The Conversion of Saul
9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision[a] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[b] and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul Preaches in Damascus
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

Surprised by Grace

“I do not understand the mystery of grace,” Anne Lamott writes in her book Traveling Mercies, “I do not understand the mystery of grace – only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”[1]

 

Thank God for that.

 

We are wading deep into the book of Acts this Easter season – Acts is all about the early church.  And its most widely understood as the follow up to the book of Luke.  So basically, Luke ends with Jesus’ ascension, after the resurrection, and the disciples watch him go.  (looking up) this is how the Gospel of Luke ends.  (still looking up) And Acts starts just like this, with the disciples just having watched Jesus ascend.  And then these two angels show up and they’re like, what are you guys doing?  So, the disciples sort of look around at each other – I guess we gotta, be the church?

 

And then, the disciples go on ahead, being the church – they received the Holy Spirit, miracles began to happen – signs and wonders, the Scriptures say.  These disciples who, while Jesus was alive, were bickering about who was the best and not understanding Jesus’ teaching have finally got their you know what together and are living the Gospel.  Serving the neighbourhood, putting their collective work ahead of their individual wants and desires, living in a Christ-like way.  And so what happened?  They got the same kind of response that Jesus did from the religious authorities – persecution.  The Scripture reads that the high priest was “filled with jealousy” (5:17) and threw them in prison, telling them to stop preaching Jesus Christ.  What happens?  Another miracle – angel comes and busts them out, they head back to the temple to keep preaching and teaching.  And now these authorities are really mad.  People don’t disobey them!  So they confront the apostles, saying we told you to stop this and Peter says, “we must obey God above any human authority.” (5:29) This is high drama – forget HBO, this is the juicy stuff.  We must obey the God of our ancestors, our God, you know, the one who raised Jesus from the dead after your “hung him on a tree” (5:30)?  (he said that to him!) We obey Him over you.

 

And they were incensed, turning to violent beatings, trying to intimidate them into stopping to preach the Gospel.  But they didn’t stop, they kept right on preaching, teaching, healing, and serving the poor, and baptising new members all over.  Then Stephen was arrested and stoned to death.  And then we are introduced to Saul – Saul watched approvingly as the rocks pummelled Stephen’s body until the life drained out of it.  Saul is so on fire with hate for these Christians, he ups the ante: he lead the charge in the relentless ravaging of the church.

 

What I am trying to convey here is background as to how high the tensions were between the religious authorities and the early church.  The stakes were so high and Saul was ramping them up even further.  At the beginning of our reading for today, in another translation, it says, “Saul was breathing down the necks of the Master’s disciples, out for the kill.”[2]  Saul is headed out to gather up Christians to put an end to this Jesus story once and for all.

 

Except, God.  God as a blinding light interrupts Saul’s plans to ferret out these Jesus loving religious renegades and knocks him on his behind.

Saul is knocked off his feet and blinded by Jesus.

Saul.  Jesus calls him by name.  Saul.  The one breathing threats, overseeing stonings, scheming against the men and women of Jesus’ way.  Saul, whose feet were moved to murder.  Jesus calls him by name and says I have something I want you to do.

 

This is grace.  The ridiculous and unabashed love of God intrudes into our places of self-righteousness; barges into our self-centred egos; and interrupts our most flagrant prejudices.

 

In the Gospels Jesus always met people at their point of pain.  He proclaimed God’s presence in the midst of that pain.  And here Jesus shows up in the worst of Saul’s behaviour – this tells us that Jesus doesn’t stop meeting us in our pain just because he had moved on from his earthly body.

 

And then, on the other side of town, poor Ananias doesn’t know what’s coming. If you were here last week, this is not the same Ananias, married to Sapphira, both of whom are now dead – we are in Damascus at this point in the story.

We don’t know much about this Ananias, other than he is a disciple living nearby where Saul has had this experience.  Which means that he is living in fear of being beaten, jailed, or killed and has just heard word of a man from Tarsus who is coming to round up the Christians.

 

Ananias.  Jesus called him by name.  Ananias, one of the persecuted, terrorized.  Jesus calls him by name and says I have something I want you to do.

And Ananias, God Bless him, is like, Ummmm, I think we have a bad connection here God, I know you didn’t just ask me to go lay hands on and heal this guy who is going to try and kill us all…Right? And God’s like yup, I did say that, go on now, I need him to do some stuff.

 

And you know what?  He does.  Ananias goes, puts his hands on this violent, venomous, awful man, calls him Brother, and prays for his healing.  Prays that he might be filled with the Holy Spirit.  He prays for Saul that he would receive the very gifts that the disciples were receiving. 

 

This is grace.  The ridiculous, unabashed love of God intrudes into our fear; faces our terror head on; and tells us to extend hands of love, of peace, of generosity to the very worst of our enemies.

 

 

 

 

We might not admit it, but we want God to be like us.  We want a God that keeps records of wrongs, tears down enemies, and serves up bitter justice to those who deserve it.  We want God to be like us, but the Good News, the Gospel is that God is not like us at all.[3]  Instead, Jesus reveals to us that God doles out Grace upon Grace in unimaginable ways to unthinkable people. 

 

God doesn’t smite Saul – God knocks Saul down and turns him into a Christian. God doesn’t send Ananias to Saul in his blindness to take down the disciples’ biggest threat – God sends Ananias to pray for and heal Saul.

 

It isn’t fair, and that’s the point. 

 

We are all Saul – we have done the very worst; said the very worst.  We have acted selfishly, stubbornly, arrogantly.  We have been close-minded and shallow.  We have completely missed the most important things and devoted ourselves to that which is meaningless.  We have lived lives with sentences, paragraphs, and whole chapters that we couldn’t imagine telling anyone for our shame. 

 

And in the midst of that ugliness, that God calls us by our name – using whatever level of attention grabbing is necessary, calls us by our name and says, hey I have something important for you to do.

 

And Grace…grace begins to seep in.  And our eyes are opened, we our relieved of our blindness to God’s abundant love and we are changed.  Sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. 

 

But we aren’t changed for our own sakes.  Ananias was a follower, a disciple of Jesus, living a Christ like life.  And God called him by his name to do the unthinkable – to enter into the den of his persecutor, call him brother, and pray for his healing. 

 

We are all Ananias – God calls us by our names in love, transforms us through Grace, and prepares us, like Ananias, to listen for our call to serve.  As followers of Jesus, we can absolutely count on the fact that God will surprise us in the midst of a time of great fear, calling us to unimaginable depths of faith and love.

 

Grace isn’t fair, and that’s the point: if it were fair, we’d all be screwed.

God’s love extends beyond the wrong thing, beyond the worst thing a person has ever done, and melts away all that stands in the way, allowing grace to flow into us, through us, and out into a world that is desperately thirsty for it.

 

Grace is real, unlimited, completely irrational, and totally unconditional.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Saul’s encounter with Jesus was dramatic, no doubt. A blockbuster event.  This is not the only way to encounter Jesus – with a flash of light and a clap of thunder, a voice from beyond.  Some here may have had these God claps.  For others, their walk with Jesus is slow and steady like this (hand rubbing) or a popcorn of intermittent revelation (snapping).  Some have had lives of greed and righteousness and anger miraculously changed into lives of love and peace and joy...some have walked a slow and winding path with God through ups and downs. 

 

The way God shows up in our lives is not the point here – the point is that God does show up in our lives.  Not because we deserve it – never because of what we have done or not done, but because of who God is. 

God chooses us, in our muck and mire, knowing our most messy selves, and surrounds us with a forgiveness and love that makes no sense.  And then God calls us to do something profound, something ridiculous, something absurd and extravagant: God calls us to live a life of love from that place of amazing grace.

 

Amen.

 

 

 

"Grace...meets you exactly where you are, at your most pathetic and hopeless, and it loads you into its wheelbarrow and then tips you out somewhere else"

 


[1] Anne Lamott, “Travelling Mercies: Some thoughts on Faith,” 147.

[2] Eugene Peterson, The Message, Acts 9:1-2.

[3] Mockingcast, “Jesus is Aunt Becky,” Episode 153, 22 March 2019.