If you worship with us regularly, then you know that I always begin our Sunday services with a question: How has God been working in your life this past week?
And I’m always grateful when a few brave souls share a story about a “God moment” that they experienced.
I’m grateful because your stories of encountering the Lord are powerful. Sharing your stories of how you experienced God working in your life are your testimonies to the honest-to-goodness truth that the Lord is alive and well, and dwelling among us, and working unto good in the midst of all things. Sharing your stories of God’s grace flowing into your lives provides hope and assurance to others who just might be wallowing in places of hopelessness and doubt. Sharing your stories of the Lord’s very-real presence in your life might just end up changing the outlook and course of someone else’s life.
The power of story is on full display in this morning’s Scripture lesson from the book of Acts, which drops us in the middle of a tense encounter between the apostle Paul and an angry crowd. The Roman authorities have just saved the Paul from an unruly mob of Jews in Jerusalem who’ve physically attacked him and accused him of breaking ranks with Jewish faith.
As the authorities carry the injured Paul to safety, he asks to speak to the angry crowd in hopes of defending his beliefs and actions – his belief in Jesus Christ as the Savior that God promised to send to the Jews, and his actions of spreading the Good News of the Gospel to – of all people – the reviled Gentiles.
A Roman official grants Paul’s request to speak, but Paul doesn’t preach a grand sermon. He simply shares his story – the story of his conversion from being a nasty, mean persecutor of Christ’s followers to becoming one of them. Listen with all your senses for the living, breathing Word of the Lord.
When the Roman official had given him permission, Paul stood on the steps and motioned to the people for silence; and when there was a great hush, he addressed them in the Hebrew language, saying:
“Brothers and fathers, listen to the defense that I now make before you.” When they heard him addressing them in Hebrew, they became even more quiet. Then he said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.
“While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’’ I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.’
“Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.
“”A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, came to me; and standing beside me, he said, ‘Brother Saul, regain your sight!’ In that very hour I regained my sight and saw him. Then he said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’”(Acts 21:40-22:16)
Age may determine whether you know who these guys are.
If you’re younger, you’ll likely recognize the guy on the right as Napoleon Dynamite, the “hero” in the movie of the same name. Napoleon Dynamite doesn’t fit in anywhere. He is the nerdiest, geekiest, drippiest kid you’ll ever meet –frizzy-haired, buck-toothed, thickly-bespeckled, gangly built, and so socially awkward that it’s painful to watch him try to interact with others. Napoleon is the very essence of the agony of not fitting in – of being that square peg of a person who definitely does not fit the round hole of the world.
Howard Butt – the guy on the left, whom you might recognize if you’re in a “more mature” demographic – is a wealthy and successful businessman. He writes in his book, “The Velvet-Covered Brick,” about his lifelong struggle with finding his place in the world when it comes to faith. Maybe you can relate to his feelings as much as I can:
“I am too conservative for liberals, too liberal for conservatives, too unpredictable for the middle-of-the-roaders, too contemporary for the traditionalists, too old-fashioned for the avant garde. My friendliness toward psychiatry and social involvement makes old-line evangelicals suspicious, but my evangelism puts me out-of-step with the social-action crowd. The world-changers don’t like my [beliefs about death and the afterlife]; the group-therapy addicts reject my [belief in healing and salvation through Christ]; the fundamentalists abhor my small-group openness. The Baptists fear my [ecumenical nature]; the [ecumenical folks] avoid my independence; the independents [are] suspect my churchmanship.”
Howard Butt is a velvet-covered brick, an oddly shaped stone – like Napoleon Dynamite, another square pegger who just doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere, unable find his place in the world or feel any sense of belonging in the places where, by all rights, he should be able to belong.
Like Napoleon, Howard suffers from an identity crisis. and you can count the apostle Paul as having the same problem.
Paul knows who he is – first and foremost, a devout Jew who’s devoted his entire life to learning about God and following God’s commands. Paul also vividly remembers his personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ, and that meeting with Christ on the Damascus road puts a whole new spin on his Jewish being.
Once a zealous persecutor of those who believe in Jesus, Paul now devotes his days to telling others about Christ –bound and determined to go where the Lord wants him to go and do the things the Lord wants him to do – all in faithful obedience to his God and his ancestors’ God: the God who was, and is, and forever shall be our God and everyone’s God,the loving, gracious God of both Jew and non-Jew.
And that’s where the trouble starts.
The stirred-up crowd that day in Jerusalem consists of the people whom Paul considers to be family. His “fathers and brothers” who ought to welcome one of their own with open arms instead slap him in the face and punch him in the gut. Paul tries to defend himself by telling his family his story – his very personal story about the great things that the Lord has done in his life.
Paul pleads that he is still a member of the Jewish family, even though his beliefs and actions seem to make him the square peg in the round hole of family values and traditions.
But the family won’t hear any of it, and they’re hungry for blood – Paul’s blood. His supposed crime? Abandoning the faith by hanging around with Gentiles – non Jews – and speaking the profanity of suggestion that God now invites these untouchable Gentiles to join the ranks of God’s people, which the Jews believe is an exclusive club open only to them. Even worse, Paul proclaims that entrance into God’s kingdomnow comes not through following the Jewish Law but through belief in Christ.
Paul’s new identity in Christ re-arranges his old identity, and to that angry mob, that makes him an alien, a stranger among the people where he ought to belong – an outsider among the people who just can’t get their heads around the idea that God is doing something new and who have no interest in being part of this divine movement if it means re-thinking what they think they know to be true about God.
They simply cannot sign-on to an understanding of God that includes those whom they exclude by tradition. They want no part of giving an all-access pass to anyone who’s touched by God’s amazing grace in any other way than what they’ve experienced.
That’s what’s so dangerous and upsetting about the Gospel – it makes particular and absolute claims about who God is, what God does, and to whom God belongs, and these claims sometimes challenge our current beliefs and traditional sensibilities.
Paul tries to justify himself by claiming that he has gone to the Gentiles not because he has turned his back on Jewish belief and tradition but because he is trying to keep up with this new direction that God is going. The mob before Paul seeks to kill him because of their white-knuckle hold on “tradition,” but Paul believes he’s the real follower of tradition, because he tries to be faithfully obedient to God’s leading – even what that leading takes him into places of surprising and unexpected divine graciousness, like what he experienced among the Gentiles.
To be faithful, Paul believes, is to be led into strange and surprising areas where God’s grace is at work. That, Paul believes, is a tradition worth defending, worth living out in our own day, as opposed to the dry and often dead following of tradition that’s nothing more than doing things the way they’ve always been done or expecting God to work in ways that God’s always worked.
Like Paul, you and I are given a new divine calling, a new revealing of God in Jesus Christ, so we ought to be listening carefully and taking note –our beloved tradition, our regular habits, our usual ways of doing things, can make us deaf to the call of the Lord and blind to his revealing light.
And we cannot expect the Lord’s call to us to be without trouble or pain.
Not everyone “sees” God’s call the same as we see it. The light we see, which shines upon us and helps us make sense of our journey, only baffles and blinds others. In our attempts to do the work that the Lord calls us to do, we may be misunderstood – even hated, by those who have not been so called, have not heard as we have heard, have not seen as we have seen.
The same light that enlightened Paul blinded many and broke the hearts of others. It is capable of doing the same today. But it also is capable – by God’s grace – of doing some amazing things.
God has chosen us for a privileged place and an important purpose. God has chosen us precisely so that we can tell the world about God’s saving work in Christ. Unless people hear that message, they can’t believe.
So go share your story with sincerity and with courage – and expect some amazing things to happen.
Perhaps sharing your story of God’s grace flowing through your life might just help someone else see and feel God’s grace flowing through theirs.
Perhaps someone will finally experience a sense of welcome belonging among the people of God.
Perhaps someone will feel a little less like the square peg that just doesn’t fit it.
To the audience that fateful day in the temple, Paul issues an intimidating-yet-game-changing challenge: “What are you waiting for? Go be baptized in Christ, and have your sins washed away!”
To us, Paul might just issue a similar test: “Remember that you have been baptized in Christ. Your sins have been washed away, and you’re blessed with an eternal place of belonging.
Now, go share that Good News with all those feeling beaten down and pushed away by sin and brokenness, and assure those who are hurting and wounded that love and grace of God’s Kingdom is for them, too.
What are you waiting for? The healing and rescue that God longs to bring to someone lost and lonely might just begin with the story you share.
You are many things because of Jesus and by your baptism in Christ, and the greatest of these is being the bearer of love in the Good News of Christ Jesus.
Amen, and amen.
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021. The service included celebration of baptism and confirmation. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee, L.T. Johnson, and Robert W. Wall inform the message.