Wednesday, 24 April 2013 00:00

“Persecution and Patience”, April 14, 2013

“Persecution and Patience”
Acts 9:1-20
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 14, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Today is a big day.  It’s Commitment Sunday, when we bring forward representations of our commitments to be a part of God’s action plan here at UBC and beyond.  It’s also a day when we give thanks for Tubby and Donna Smith for their presence among us.  At the end of the service, we’ll lay hands on them and pray them off as they embark on their new journey.

But before we get to any of that, we need to come to terms with today’s scripture readings.  They are all about conversions.  How have we been converted?  How do we respond to another’s conversion?  How will we live differently because of what has happened to us in this context and beyond?

In today’s scripture lesson from the Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells the story of the conversion of Saul and his encounter with Ananias.  Saul isn’t just a traveler on the road.  He’s a persecutor of the Christians.  He’s perhaps a bit paranoid and a bit Machiavellian.  He’s looking for people who are Christians so he can prosecute and persecute them.

We know what happens.  He has an encounter with Jesus, is blinded by the light and is directed to make a change in his life.  He became one of the most prolific and effective evangelists of the early church.  Talk about a remarkable change.  Most of us don’t have that kind of dramatic change in our lives.  Although some of us do.


But that’s only half of the story.  The other half is Ananias—one of the Christian target of Saul’s pogrom.  Ananias also has an encounter with God who asks him to do something much more difficult than Jesus had Saul do.  Saul had to change his ways and become a Christian.  He was a leader and would simply change his leadership tactics.  He could use his oratory skills to convert people to his way of thinking.

Ananias, on the other hand had to befriend Saul.  He had to trust someone that had persecuted him and his family.  He had to put into practice Jesus’ words to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Jesus, can’t we just admire you from afar?  It’s too hard to actually follow you.

Imagine your deepest enemy, your persecutor.  Imagine the person who wants your job; who wants to come after your family; who wants to fight against you.  Imagine a bully who actually exacts the death penalty. This is who Saul was to the early believers in Jesus, the followers of the Way.  God chose this Saul to lead the transformation of the disparate people of the Way into the transforming church of Jesus Christ.

But first, Saul gets accosted by Jesus.  He is told to give up his persecuting ways.  This is an identity crisis for Saul.  Who was he if he was not a persecutor.  He had such zeal for his faith that he pursued Christians.  He might have even gotten a bit of pleasure from his persecuting.  It can feel good to be better than another. To put them in their place.  All felt right with the world.  Until it didn’t.

Saul encountered Jesus and had his life and his focus hijacked. He needed to be changed. I attended the inauguration of the Rev. Dr. Barbara Holmes as the new president of United Seminary on Friday night.  One of the people introducing her said that she had been a Wall Street trader before her life was hijacked by Jesus.  Think of who we were before our lives were changed by that light in the road.  The light didn’t just say, “follow me.”  It said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”

And so Saul was blinded by the light.  He was told to wait until someone else would help him regain his sight.  So Saul needed to stay there, patiently for three days.  That time frame is no accident.  It took three days for Jesus to rise from the dead.  Paul needed to be patient.  I’m not sure that was a gift he had.  Patience.

But he had no choice.  He had to wait for someone to open his eyes.  And who would open his eyes but good old Ananias.  I can just imagine the protests.  The Scriptures give us the highlights, but I imagine the tirades of Ananias.  I’ll call anyone brother. Anyone but Saul. I would not, I could not trust him in a box, with a fox, on a train, in the rain, I would not could not trust him here or there, I will not trust him anywhere.  But God was persistent with Ananias. I’m glad God is persistent and patient with us.  Aren’t you?

I have told you before that trust is behavior plus time.

The true conversion in this story is Ananias.  God told him to use his best energy not hating his persecutor, but imagining his persecutor transformed—and to trust God that the transformation has already happened.  We don’t get that opportunity much, but we do havea  choice of where we spend our energy.  Ananias had expended a lot of energy hating Saul and for good reason.  But God gave him an opportunity to transform the use of his energy.  Use all of that passion to imagine the possibility of peace.  Ananias had his life hijacked and helped Saul the persecutor become Paul the apostle to the gentiles.

Ananias, perhaps reluctantly, took a hold of Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  I can just see the cringing of Ananias, wondering if it were true.  And the scales fell off Saul’s eyes.  Actually they fell off both of their eyes.  For they saw each other as brothers.

How have you been changed?  Who has called you brother, sister that you did not expect?

Hear this, in God’s plan, we are to transform enemies into friends. It was one thing to hear love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.  It’s totally another to embrace your former enemies with kinship ties.

Imagine Kim Jong Un and Barack Obama calling each other brother.

Imagine Benjamin Netanyahu and ­­­­­­Mahmoud Abbas calling each other brother.

They said that Nelson Mandela and PW Botha could never do it, but they did.

Imagine the most rabid tea partier and the bluest liberal democrat calling each other sister or brother.

Stranger things have happened.  And we need to have the sense of purpose, commitment and even persistence to make it so.

In Revelation, the holy people are called the people who exercise patient endurance.  Paulo Friere says that a better translation is persistent resistance.  Imagine if we thought of patience as being persistent.  Persistently praying for our enemy’s conversion and at the same time expecting our own conversion.  That’s what Ananias experienced: his persecutor’s transformation and his own transformation.  That is good news.

So what does this have to do with Commitment Sunday, you might ask?  Well, just this.  Since the days of those first disciples and even the early church, the people have made decisions to follow in the ways of discipleship.  They have been blinded by the light or strangely warmed or nurtured in the faith in such a way that they imagine a new way to be.  And the church is those people coming together to imagine a movement of spirit that will be the antithesis of persecution. It will be the welcome table of forgiveness.  It will be the strong voice for justice and peace.  It will be the group of people that gather to inspire and gain the strength and tools to do great things.  
So we write down our pledges of time, talent and treasure as a response to our conversion and in faithful hope and trust that together we can do amazing things.

Think of the things we have done:

Worked to defeat the marriage amendment.

Enjoyed great music from our Choir.

Been delighted by our Student Minister, Matty Strickler.

We support two other seminarians, Ginny Gray and Karen Swenson.

We hosted the BPFNA’s summer conference with 41 of us in attendance.

Our fabulous Bell Choir toured Nicaragua.  While there, we had a deep and profound visit with our sister church and we gave them over $7500 that we had raised for their church and school.

We give a tremendous amount to the poor and needy in our community and through our generous mission giving.

We use this building as a place of sanctuary for students, seekers, artists, and others seeking health and hope.

We continue to imagine a world of peace with justice.

Our little church touches more people per capita than any other church I know.

We do this all because we have been transformed.  And we seek to be a transforming presence in this world.  What we fill out on those forms is simply an outward sign of our conversion, our being hijacked by Jesus on the road. And we are bold enough to enter the next step with patience and hopefulness.

My sisters and brothers, we have a great responsibility and blessing in the gospel of Jesus Christ.

It is a gospel that models the welcoming of the stranger and the courage to see everyone as a sister or brother in need of companions along the way.

It’s a gospel that loves enemies and prays for those who persecute us.

It is a gospel that does justice, loves mercy and walks humbly with God.

It is a gospel that restores sight to the blind, preaches good news to the poor, proclaims liberty to the captives, lets the oppressed go free and declares the year of God’s favor.

It is a gospel that unbinds, and sets us free.

And so, we are bold to say that since we have been in this community, with the people of the Way, we have had our old lives hijacked.

The way of persecution is no longer an option.

The way of patience and persistence is the method.

The way of passion, possibility and peace is our new goal.

And so we respond by imagining and committing ourselves to a life reflective of our own conversion so that we can set others free and bring the Good News to a people in need.  We are to be the Good News.