We have left the Gospel of John after many months, I really enjoyed it. But now, we are gonna spend a couple of weeks in the book of Acts. It’s historically and academically understood to be written by the same author of the gospel of Luke, and it tells the story of the giving of the spirit to the disciples and the work of the spirit, through the disciples, bringing the Good News of Jesus to further and further from being centered in Jerusalem and part of Judaism. It had started with a relatively small group in Jerusalem but we can see in our story that the teachings of Jesus had already made it to the ancient city of Damascus in Syria.
And I just want to say one thing about names as we look at this story of Saul. Often preachers, and I’m sure I’ve done it too, teach this story of Saul as one who converts to following Jesus and then after than is named Paul, the change of the name marking a change in religion. And honestly, I think that’s a really interesting and compelling story: having an experience so life-changing a person needs to public mark that fact, as if they are completely different. We find it in Genesis after Jacob wrestles with the divine and is named Israel. But that is not the story we have here. We will still call Saul “Saul” throughout this story, even after he is knocked to the ground and after he is healed. Saul’s name doesn’t change to Paul, They are the same name in 2 different languages Sal seems to speak: Sha-ul in Hebrew and Pavlas in Greek. The Hebrew-speaking followers of Jesus would call him Saul and as he spends more and more time teaching and healing in Roman colonies and Greek-speaking communities, of course, they would call him Paul.
It was like being in the Spanish class in high school and you had to come up The Spanish version of your name and some people’s names don’t have a 1 to 1 translation But Joseph and Jose do. Saul and Paul too.
The story we heard today shows up two more times in the Book of Acts, and Paul tells it in the letters he writes to various churches. And we, the modern church, like to tell this story. When we teach it in Sunday school, it’s just prime for being dramatic. One of the kids can play the loud voice of Jesus and one of the kids can fall dramatically to the ground. And then, you do trust walks, where kids are blindfolded trying to walk around not being able to see, maybe one of the other offering spoken directions, trying to avoid obstacles like walls. It reminds the kids, and us, that there is nothing that can separate us from block God’s Love even being so filled with anger that you’re just oozing and breathing threats and murder.
Now I didn’t have a dramatic conversion experience like Saul. I did grow up in a religious community much like Paul. I also trained to be a leader in my religious community. I might have more of a common with Paul than I think because when I was younger, was really zealous and kind of legalistic in my view of faith. I guess I wouldn’t call either Saul’s or mine a conversion urgent but rather a transformation from one way of seeing a faith to another. One of the differences is that I didn’t have a moment where everything changed, it was more gradual until a moment when I looked back and I realized that I was completely different, I just hadn’t put the pieces together to see that yet. I find the stories of the dramatic transformation super compelling and really good for stage telling, And they happen for some people but not me.
Saul was knocked down and vulnerable. He wasn’t able to take care of himself, he wasn’t able to get himself to the places he needed to be. He had to place His trust completely and the people around him and as it turns out the people that he was trying to kill.
This makes me think that Ananias is the hero of the whole story. Imagine being Ananias and God has told you that the person who was coming to your city to kill you and your community is close and vulnerable. Then God goes on to say that Saul, the murderer, is going to be doing God’s work in this way of Jesus. God tells Ananias that Saul is going to spreading the news of Jesus. And Ananias response—are you sure? Do you know this one? He’s kinda… a killer. But no one is beyond God. And God tells Ananias to go, so Ananias does.
Probably against his better judgment, Ananias walks in, calls Saul brother, lays hands on him, Saul is healed, is welcomed, eats with the community, studies with them, joins them, is baptized. Some scholars suggest that what is described as 3 days is really three years. Ananias Could have responded to Saul the way that saw was approaching the city change the city reading threats and murder, but instead, Ananias welcomes Saul as family.
In the United Church of Christ we baptized infants we don’t do so out of a fear of hell, but we do so out of the promise of community. Baptism has layers. Part of it is to remind us that the child or the adult is already beloved by God. part of baptism is to remind ourselves that we are beloved by God. Part of baptism is a ritual that welcomes the child into the family of Christ which spans all of time and all of space and makes us siblings to one another. And part of baptism is a covenant we hold with each other. We are both baptized into the church universal and into the community in which we are being baptized.
That is why baptism is a public part of our church services, that is why you are here for Arlo today. That is why you Have a response and have prayers and make promises. Those promises are to show up, to be present, to care for each other, to care for the child who’s baptized, and I would argue every child of God whether that child is tiny baby or having lived 100 years old so far. It is a promise that we the community will gather around this person in times of need or celebration, to support growth and learning and abundant life throughout their lifetime. Baptism is at least a reminder to us that our spirituality and our faith and our religion and our church is not an individual activity but it is communal. It is what we do together and it is the promises we have made to each other whether at baptism or joining in membership.
“Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, known for her multiple tattoos, her use of profanity, and her sarcastic humor. Once upon a time she had a Saul-like conversion, was saved from a rough and destructive life. She found herself drawn to the church, yet never quite at home. And when she eventually came to be a pastor, she wanted to lead a church where people from backgrounds like hers would feel comfortable, would feel welcome.
So this cursing, tattooed pastor starts a church and sure enough, the people you think might show up did, in fact, show up. Recovered and not-quite-recovered drug addicts, misfits and artistic types, gay and transgender people. Lots of young people. Lots of tattoos and piercings in the crowd.
The thing is, though, Nadia is not just someone with a bunch of tattoos and a colorful vocabulary. She is also a gifted speaker, a deep theological thinker, a woman who is passionate about sharing the love and grace of Jesus with everyone. And you know, it’s not just addicts and tattooed people who long to experience grace.
So after a while of a nice, comfortable church community filled with rejects and outcasts—very hip and Jesusy—new people started to show up. People with clean, trimmed hair. People with no visible tattoos and no body piercings. People with no Damascus-road conversion stories to tell. People who wore suits and had been going to church their whole lives!
Nadia worried about accepting these newcomers. She was afraid, she says, that they were “messing up our weird.” These churchy people had so many options of where to go to church, but her people—the druggies and drag queens—they didn’t have many options. This church was for them. For the people who couldn’t just walk into First Generic Lutheran Church and feel welcomed any Sunday morning.
So she was kind of resentful about the new, normal, people coming to the church.
Then she was talking with a guy in her church, a young gay guy. While Nadia was a bit horrified to see people who “looked like” her “parents” showing up to church, this guy had a different perspective. “You know,” he said, “my parents kicked me out of the house when I told them I was gay. And now, here are people at church, people who look like my parents, except they accept me as I am and they love me. I need these people to be part of our church.”
Welcoming those churchy people has converted, has changed, Nadia’s church. And I imagine that attending a church with addicts and gay people has converted, has changed, many of the churchy folks who show up there.” https://spaciousfaith.com/
What Ananias offered to Saul was incredible hospitality. What Ananias offered was an opportunity for Saul to start again. What Ananias offered was to make space for Saul and for everything to change. Ananias had to know that things would be different once Saul was involved—God had told him as much. That the expansion of the way of Jesus to the Roman Empire and to the Greek-speaking people would change things, but that is part of what we do by welcoming people.
Each time we welcome someone new into our church it’s sort of a conversion, a spark of new life. Each person brings new gifts new ideas new energy new needs. And often we won’t know for years what that shift is going to look like. Like when you look at Arlo, and you don’t know the gifts that he will bring, but the The whole structure shifts just a bit to make room for a whole new member.
Or in some cases the whole structure shifts a lot. Saul’s preaching after his time of education move education seems to baffle the Jewish community until they run him out of their city. They’ll change how this community functions by Changing the rules on circumcision or how one eats with people of different faiths print faith. And Saul’s preaching will baffle the Roman citizens we’re there and prison him and send him a trial before the emperor.
It may be at this point that the church is beginning to wonder if this new guy is more trouble than he’s worth. But he was baptized. He is part of them now, he is a member of their community, their family. And because he is part of them, part of the community, part of the church, the early church grows ands changes. Understandings of God and Jesus begin to settle, how we live together begins to take shape in a way that will carry this community for centuries, as more are baptized and the community grows and continues to shift for each new person.
Our story is certainly a transformation story for Saul, from someone who breathed murderous threats to one who opened wide the love of Christ to people–the transformation of the church: setting in motion how we will be, how we will welcome, how we, the church will be a living organism. And this transformation of Saul and this transformation of the church happen through the radical hospitality, calling each other beloved siblings, through touch, and food, and water. This happens because Ananias made room for Saul, and it happens because we make room for each other, welcome each other in love, call each other beloved. It happens through the water and at the table–where all are invited, loved, and family.