May 5, 2019
The inspiration for the sermon always comes, but I never know when it’s going to hit and that almost always causes a bit of stress. Inevitably, though, each week I feel like God eventually breaks through with some guidance. Often it happens when a line of scripture hits me differently than it’s hit before.
Last week that happened when I heard Jesus’s words to “Doubting Thomas.” “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Rather than hearing Jesus’ disappointment in his unbelieving disciple, this time I heard John, the gospel writer, speaking words of encouragement to John’s church. That church was at least 60 years post resurrection. John’s church are those people who “have not seen and yet have come to believe.” They are those who are blessed! So, in the sermon we talked about the belief we have because of our life in the church. We talked about how life is better when we believe, more hopeful, more sacred. And, we talked about how when we give to the church we give this really important gift – the gift of belief – to others. So, that was the gist of it and it came from a moment of hearing a familiar passage a bit differently.
This week’s inspiration
This week it happened again. But, it wasn’t a whole line of scripture that spoke differently to me; it was just one word. I wonder if you can guess. It’s from the Acts passage. Did any particular words jump out at you? For me it was the word, “Brother.”
But, to get the impact we need a little context. It’s after Pentecost and the church that was born that day by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit had been growing and spreading with holy determination. But, a man named Saul, who is not yet the Apostle Paul, is doing his best to squash the movement. Persecuting the newly converted Christians with great passion and conviction, he’s gained a reputation. Word of Saul as the great enemy of the Church has gotten around.
That’s where our passage picks up. On his way to Damascus, intent on further persecutions, he has his great epiphany. A blinding light shines and Jesus speaks to him directly, giving him instructions to wait for what is next. It turns out that God’s plans are for Saul to become Paul, the great evangelist of the church and the writer of many of our scriptures. But, in order for that to happen Christ calls upon a Christian named Ananias to go to Saul and lay hands on him. Ananias expresses his concern to God, but God makes clear that big plans are in the work for Saul. So, Ananias goes to fulfill his mission.
And, here’s why that word “brother” is so powerful. If it were me and God wanted me to go help this jerk, forgive this guy who had done such damage, and if I mustered the grace to go do it, I can’t imagine that I would start off with the word “brother.” I can’t imagine that I would begin by proclaiming that we shared the same God, that we were siblings in faith, that we were family together. I might say, “Okay Saul, I’m helping you because God wants me to,” and I would probably stay clear of him until he had proven himself worthy of my trust and friendship. But, that’s not what Ananias does. Before anything other than Saul’s blindness has occurred, Ananias greets him with a full embrace; he greets him as one of his own, as his brother.
So, it seems to me there is remarkable grace in what Ananias does. He does what God tells him to do, but he does it with faith and love and good will in his heart. He does it as one who himself has been converted, as one in whom the Spirit of the living God dwells and through whom that Spirit works.
I’m reminded of a discussion we had a couple of weeks ago as we were trying to discern what a partnership with nOURish BRIDGEPORT might look like. I was thinking about the responsibilities that we would take on, about the specific tasks that would be ours to own, and honestly about the stress of taking on too much to handle or not enough to inspire and challenge. I was concerned about the process: how are we going to figure out exactly what we are going to do?
But, Pastor Sara put those concerns to rest. She talked about covenanting together in different terms. She talked so beautifully about covenantal language in terms of the spirit of our relationship. It was less about tasks because there needs to be room for those tasks to evolve. Instead, it was about the quality of our engagement. It was about bringing our “best selves” to the work of feeding God’s people. It was about our patience, our care, our compassion, our love. It was about a willingness to meet people where they are with understanding. It was about connecting with others and building sincere relationships. It was about a willingness to embody Jesus for others but also to meet Jesus embodied in those we come to help.
It was about coming to the work of God like Ananias – converted, loved, graced, and with the strength of our whole heart.
Beyond Nourish Bridgeport
Of course, if you think about it, this principle applies to much more than our work with NB. Really, it applies to everything that we do as people of faith. It applies to our worship: are we investing our hearts, really giving ourselves anew to God, or are we doing something less than that? It applies to prayer: are we seeking what God is offering, opening ourselves to the presence of God, or are we doing something less? It also applies to our giving. As we discern our giving for the next program year are we entering the process whole heartedly, embracing the real ministry that is happening here, appreciating that God is using our resources to make a difference in the world, or are we doing something less than that?
We need help and we have help
None of us is like Ananias all the time, and none of us are just naturally, completely whole hearted. We need the reminders that we get, and we need to be deliberate about cultivating our capacities to bring our best selves. But, the truth of the matter is that we aren’t our best selves on our own. That’s the message of this Easter season. Christ rises, and he does not rise alone. He brings each of us with him and calls us brothers and sisters. He shares what he has with the father and he shares his living spirit with us all. We can be whole hearted because Christ is whole hearted with us. The living Christ is ever living within us, ever giving himself to us.
In fact, in a little while we’ll celebrate the sacrament of Communion, which makes this very point. Christ is given to us in bread and wine, entering our bodies and flowing through our veins. Christ is enfleshed within us as he’s given to us. He is our help, placed in our hands. So, when you come practice receiving him, and nothing less. Practice receiving grace, receiving God. Practice stepping forward with your whole-hearted best selves.