West, Benjamin, 1738-1820. Conversion of St. Paul, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54208 [retrieved November 12, 2018]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/2401656220/.
Scripture Reading • Romans 12.9-21 (NIV)
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction,faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Last week we started a sermon series I’m calling, “Continuing the Conversations.”
Lately I have been reminded of something one of my Sunday School teacher’s in High School said, quite often (that’s probably why I remember it so well) – that the devil want’s nothing more than to sow division and push people away from each other and away from God. And that God wants to bring people together – together with God, and with each other.
So much of the biblical vision God offers us of his will and kingdom work being done is people who had once been separated coming together … Lions and calves … snakes and young children … all these creatures that had seemed like threats to each other, now living in peace.
In our faith and as a country, it seems like we are at our best when we are engaged in conversations with people who are different from us … we don’t have to always agree … but we need to talk to each other. In these sermons I am hoping to offer some resources from our faith that can help us bridge the polarization and division we are experiencing so much of in our world.
There is a lot from our Christian convictions and traditions that can help us to keep these conversations, that are so essential to the wellbeing of our churches, communities, and world, from getting stuck.
That passage from Romans Dave read to us is beautiful … convicting … and it is very challenging as we seek to live as Christ’s disciples.
In this Christian “to do list,” Paul shows us what it can look like to put God’s love in action as we seek to live an authentic Christian life.
“Be devoted to one another in love … honor one another above yourselves … Share with the Lord’s people who are in need … Practice hospitality … rejoice with those who rejoice … mourn with those who mourn … live in harmony … don’t be conceited … do not repay evil for evil … live at peace with everyone … do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good “
This is the love of Christ, the love that as disciples we want to have growing in us and flowing out of our lives ….
This passage from Romans also sparks my curiosity about Paul’s life. I wonder about all the interactions, relationships, and experiences that must have shaped his understanding of Christian love and life.
Paul interacted with so many people.
What if it wasn’t just Paul’s conversion experience with Jesus on the road to Damascus that led him to see faith and life in this way –maybe his experiences with the Christians and churches he met along his journeys helped develop his picture of Christian love. He experienced so much grace … so much support and kindness from so many of his brothers and sisters in Christ.
At first, the Christian community would have had good reason to be skeptical of Paul’s commitment to Christ … after all in the Book of Acts, Paul (or Saul) is introduced as the church’s enemy and number one threat.
In Acts chapter 7 we first meet Saul.
While an angry crowd attacked and killed Stephen (one of the churches’ first deacons) Saul watched the crowds’ coats. He supported their actions. Later, in Acts chapter 8 we learn that on the same day Stephen died, Saul unleashed more pain onto the church:
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison (Acts 8.1-3 NIV).
The beginning of Acts 9 tells us Saul was, “Still breathing out murderous threats against the church.”
He was traveling to the synagogue in Damascus intending to arrest any Christians he found and drag them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.
Those early Christians must have known Saul as a danger, someone who threatened their very existence.
What happens next would have caught everyone off guard.
A light flashed. Saul fell to the ground.
A voice asked, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The guys traveling with Saul could hear everything, but they couldn’t see anything.
They didn’t know what to say.
They led Saul into Damascus and for three days Saul waited, not eating or drinking anything.
This is when a Christian named Ananias was asked to take a risk.
(I am curious if Ananias part in this story could have helped shape Paul’s understanding of Christian love that we read about in Romans 12.)
READ • Acts 9.10-19 (NIV)
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
- What do you imagine Ananias could have been feeling when he was given these instructions to find Saul?
- How do you think Saul would be feeling in this situation – not able to see … not eating or drinking, waiting for someone he didn’t know (and couldn’t see) to tell him what he should do next.
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.
Man, Ananias is a courageous and faithful guy … We don’t hear enough about him.
To walk up to this person he had only known as an enemy, to encounter this guy who for everything Ananias knew wanted to arrest him and haul him off to prison – to reach out … touch Saul … call him brother … this is an amazing act of faith.
How is that for a picture of Christian love – Bless those who persecute you … do not repay anyone evil for evil … Share with the Lord’s people who are in need … practice hospitality … live at peace with everyone … overcome evil with good …
What would it have felt like for Ananias to step out in faith like that?
What would it have been like for Paul to receive that kind of hospitality … to receive that kind of welcome into the Christian community?
Ananias and Paul, both encountered Christ, they both stepped out in faith, God did something new and beautiful through them.
That is such a vivid picture of loving enemies … moving toward someone with love instead of turning our backs on them or shutting them down … trying to understand what is going on inside of someone, instead of just judging based on what we have heard or assume from outside appearances.
One of most helpful and challenging books I have read lately is called, “Difficult Conversations.” It has been really useful as I have tried to learn ways to build bridges across division. The authors of the book talk a lot about empathy and how to better understand what life might be like from the perspective of someone we disagree with. Thy write,
The deepest form of understanding another person is empathy. Empathy involves a shift from my observing how you seem on the outside, to my imagining what it feels like to be you on the inside, wrapped in your skin with your set of experiences and background, and looking out at the world through your eyes. As an empathetic listener, you are on a journey with a direction but no destination. You will never “arrive.” You will never be able to say, “I truly understand you.” We are all too complex for that, and our skills to imagine ourselves into other people’s lives too limited. But in a sense this is good news. Psychologists have found that we are each more interested in knowing that the other person is trying to empathize with us – that they are willing to struggle to understand how we feel and see how we see – than we are in believing that they have actually accomplished that goal. Good listening, as we’ve said, is profoundly communicative. And struggling to understand communicates the most positive message of all (Difficult Conversations, Kindle Locations 2975-2982).
That insight of the power of just making attempts to understand someone, seems, to me, to be consistent with how God works in the Bible – God calls us to move toward each other with love … with empathy and hospitality.
To continue the conversations … to engage people who we might have understood to be our enemies, or who might intimidate us, we need Ananias’ courageous faith and Paul’s understanding of Christian love