Sunday, April 28, 2013

Same Gift, New People



It will be helpful, I think, before we read this story, to set it in context. The scripture we are about to hear is the earliest record we have of a serious dispute in the Christian world. In Acts 10, we read the story that is often referred to as “The Conversion of Cornelius.” If you recall, last week we left Peter in Joppa, where he had raised Dorcas back to life. After that, Peter stayed in Joppa, at the home of Simon the tanner, a man who tanned hides, and therefore was considered unclean -- someone for a good Jew like Peter to avoid. While he was in Joppa, Peter had a vision, which he describes in this text. Meanwhile, a fellow named Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile, also had a visitation, from an angel of the Lord. Following the angel’s instructions, Cornelius sent for Peter, who came to his house. Peter saw that Cornelius had believed the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and baptized the entire household. It is crucial to recognize, as you hear this story, that in Chapter 11, we have a kind of transcript of Peter’s testimony justifying that baptism. He has, in essence, been called on the carpet for including someone in the gospel who was excluded by every tradition, practice, and interpretation that the church had held to that point. This is Peter’s explanation of what God has revealed to him through his visit with Cornelius. Now listen for God’s word to the church, and to us, today:

Acts 11: 1-18
Now the apostles and the believers who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also accepted the word of God. So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him, saying, “Why did you go to uncircumcised men and eat with them?” Then Peter began to explain it to them, step by step, saying, “I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance I saw a vision. There was something like a large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners; and it came close to me. As I looked at it closely I saw four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air. I also heard a voice saying to me, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat.’ But I replied, ‘By no means, Lord; for nothing profane or unclean has ever entered my mouth.’ But a second time the voice answered from heaven, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’ This happened three times; then everything was pulled up again to heaven. At that very moment three men, sent to me from Caesarea, arrived at the house where we were. The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us. These six brothers also accompanied me, and we entered the man’s house. He told us how he had seen the angel standing in his house and saying, ‘Send to Joppa and bring Simon, who is called Peter; he will give you a message by which you and your entire household will be saved.’ And as I began to speak, the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as it had upon us at the beginning. And I remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said, ‘John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’ If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God?” When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.”


Same Gift, New People
Acts 11:1-18
April 28, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

One of the first tasks we were given in my church history class in seminary was the memorization of important dates. Those important dates were of church councils, gatherings called by Christian leaders to resolve issues that arose about interpretation, scripture, tradition and what they meant for the church. It is easy to forget, in this post-modern era, a time of seemingly endless disputation, controversy and church splits, that this has been the situation from the beginning of Christianity!

This scripture is the testimony of Peter, and forms the basis for his position at the Jerusalem Council, dated about 45 AD. This meeting in Jerusalem foreshadows that formal council, described in detail farther along in the book of Acts. That Council is the first recorded church council, called to resolve a difference in opinion about God’s word, God’s intentions, and God’s grace. In short, it is a dispute about who is in and who is out.

The crux of the argument is whether Gentiles need to follow Jewish law in order to become Christians. Do they need to be circumcised? Can they eat meat offered to idols? Do they need to follow all the Jewish law, in short, convert to Judaism in order to become Christians? To fully understand this controversy, we need to know that scripture was abundantly clear about this question.

Genesis 17:10-11 said: This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.

Exodus 12: 48 said: If an immigrant who lives with you wants to observe the Passover to the LORD, then he and all his males should be circumcised.  Then he may join in observing it. He should be regarded as a native of the land. But no uncircumcised person may eat it.

It is really impossible to interpret these scriptures in ANY other way. If you want to be Jewish, you have to be circumcised. Since the People of the Way, as the early Christians were called, were Jewish, following a Jewish Messiah who fulfilled Jewish prophecy, they need to follow Jewish law. It was obvious.

But then here comes another revelation from God. Like the appearance of Jesus to Saul on the road to Damascus, this is a dramatic vision, an in-breaking of the presence of God, and a surprising NEW disclosure of God’s will for people. You see, the people who followed Jesus thought they had gotten it. Of course, Peter, if you remember, was always thinking he had gotten it, always shooting off his mouth, telling Jesus this and that, and turning out to be mistaken.

He even sassed God, in this vision. God shows Peter an array of foods, both clean and unclean according to Jewish dietary law. And God says, “Eat!” Peter knows what the Bible says. “No, sorry – can’t eat it. It is unclean.” But like a Jewish mother, God says, “Eat! You should eat!” No, seriously, God says, “I will decide what is clean and what is profane.” But wait, God!  You said something else, before. It is right here in the Bible. Didn’t you mean it? And God says, “I decide. Not you.”

And then come the messengers from Cornelius. And so Peter goes to Cornelius. When he arrives he finds a man who is a Gentile, observant, pious, faithful, even though he is not accepted in the synagogue as a Jewish adherent. These people were known as “God-fearers,” believers in the God of Abraham who followed Jewish law but were not converts, not circumcised, not Jewish. But here he is, hearing and believing the good news of the Messiah.

Somehow, Peter overcomes a lifetime of training and teaching, generations of tradition, and what he KNOWS scripture CLEARLY says. And he baptizes Cornelius. Not only  Cornelius, but his entire household. Peter asks, “Who am I, to hinder God?” Who, indeed? And who, indeed, gets converted here? Cornelius, to be sure, but also Peter. Peter comes to understand that his thoughts are not God’s thoughts.

Whose mind is changed? God’s?
Apparently not – the visions are pretty clear, and there is no reason to think that either Peter or Cornelius misinterpreted them. So we seem to be on the horns of a dilemma. Roughly ten or fifteen years after the events of Calvary, Christ’s death, resurrection and ascension, what everybody knew and affirmed turned out to be mistaken. Because God was still revealing God’s will.

This is as much a truth of Christian history as the bodily resurrection: the message of God’s love and grace is for everyone. Christ’s church is for everyone. Everyone. We tend to imagine that God’s revelation in Jesus Christ was it – the totality of God’s work in our world, and that now it is all done and over with, we just need to live as Christian disciples and follow God’s word. But clearly, God’s word continued to unfold, in the word written in the Bible, and in the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The church continued to struggle with understanding:
whether Gentiles could be Christian;
whether meat offered to idols could be eaten;
whether the Holy Spirit was of the same substance, or a different substance, as God the Father and Jesus the Son;
whether Christ was created by God or co-eternal with God;
whether salvation comes by faith alone or more is needed;
whether the Pope is infallible;
whether an intermediary priest is necessary;
whether slavery is permissible;
whether Christians must submit to government rule when it is evil;
whether Christians can believe in evolution;
whether Christians can serve in the military as combatants;
whether divorced people can be leaders in the church;
whether divorced people can be ministers;
whether women can be allowed to lead;
whether women can be ministers;
whether gay and lesbian people can lead and be ministers.

Every single time such disputes arise, faithful people on both sides of the issue turn to scripture, to scholarship, to tradition, and hopefully, to God in prayer. And every single time such disputes arise, one side or the other prevails, and the other side must decide what it will do.

In our own denomination, we have seen congregations split away
and new denominations form,
over slavery,
over evolution,
over the ordination of women,
and most recently,
over the ordination of gay and lesbian Presbyterians.

In our own community, we have seen churches torn apart over that issue. And those who instigated the split have done so with the deep conviction that they are right. They know what scripture teaches, and they understand God’s intention. They know what is clean and what is profane. Just like Peter did.

We are faced every day with the same sort of questions. Who is in, and who is out?
We wonder if we are called to forgive someone who injured us. We lay awake at night trying to decide whether we should or should not. We watch political campaigns and try to determine whom we should vote for. We are unsure about how to understand a certain scripture. We struggle with doubts about matters of life, of faith, of truth.

It is not the job of the pastor in a Presbyterian Church to tell you what to believe, or to decide who may receive the sacraments. It is the job of the pastor in a Presbyterian Church to order the sacraments rightly and proclaim God’s grace. So I’m not here to tell you what each of us should decide about such issues. I’m here to tell you how we are called to decide.

The way we are to decide is to deploy our reason, experience, and intelligence  alongside scripture, tradition and prayer. Just as we take the Bible too seriously to take it literally, we take our faith seriously, seriously enough to believe that Christ is still at work in the world, and that God is still revealing truth to us. We know that we are called to obey Jesus, and his repeated command is
to love God and love neighbor,
to forgive and to show mercy,
to extend grace and peace
to walk the path of righteousness and charity that Jesus followed.

St. Augustine said it so clearly:
If it seems to you that you have understood the divine scriptures,  or any part of them,  in such a way that by this understanding you do not build up this twin love of God and neighbor, then you have not understood them.”

So when what we have learned from Scripture is on a collision course with our lived experience, we don’t simply ignore what the Bible says. But we would do well to pause, as Saint Peter did, and examine our own understanding, asking ourselves whether we’ve correctly understood the Bible’s teaching. Theologian Mark Achtemeier said: “if the Bible’s teaching does not help us make powerful sense of life and experience, if Biblical faithfulness is not life-giving, that is a sure sign we have not understood our Scripture properly.”[1]

So we are led to conclude, as Saint Peter did,
“I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right  is acceptable to him.”

Herein lies our salvation.
Christ continues to be at work in the world, with light and life and love for everyone.
Everyone.
Thanks be to God!
Amen!




[1] http://www.pres-outlook.org/news-and-analysis/1-news-a-analysis/9496-achtemeiers-journey-to-accept-homosexual-marriage-ordination-.html

Love’s Legacy



Love’s Legacy
Acts 9:36-43
April 21, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Acts 9:36-43
Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.

I couldn’t go to my grandmother’s funeral, but I got to listen to the audio tape. It was a wonderful celebration, with my dad and uncles singing together, family sharing stories, worship and thanksgiving for her life. Afterward, family members went to my Aunt Helen’s house, where they distributed the few belongings grandma owned. My brother picked up something for my sister and me. It wasn’t much of anything, not something she made, but I treasure the pendant he chose for me, something that my grandmother had bought in Mexico City for a few pennies. Several of my cousins who were there got one of Grandma’s Bibles, which would have been a treasure, too.

You see, my Grandmother Shultz was a disciple, like Dorcas. When Grandma was 61 years old, after she had raised nine children, she learned to speak Spanish and went to live in Mexico City, where she held Good News clubs for children and taught them Bible stories. She ministered to the poorest of the poor, and gave everything she had in the name of her Lord Jesus. On our birthdays, she would send each of her many grandchildren a card in which she had taped two dimes. We would dutifully write our thank you note: Dear Grandma, thank you for the … money. She didn’t leave us any money, no inheritance at all, except the legacy of her love for God and her love for Jesus and her love for all God’s children. My father described it as a spiritual legacy. My grandmother was a true disciple.

Tabitha, also called Dorcas, was the first woman disciple named in the Bible. We don’t know much about her, but there are some things we can conjecture about her. She was clearly a blessing to the widows of Joppa, a coastal city near where modern Tel Aviv now stands. She had done so much good, and was so beloved, that when she died, it only made sense to summon Peter. It is interesting that when Dorcas fell ill and died, the women who loved her didn’t anoint or wrap her up for burial. They washed her body, and laid her out, and waited for Peter. Maybe they hoped against hope that Peter could raise her, or maybe, like Christians across the centuries, they wanted a pastor there, a leader of the church, to bless them, to pray with them, to grieve with them.

Joppa, the home of Dorcas, was a bit of a detour for Peter. He had been going “here and there among all the believers” and his most recent stop had been in the nearby town of Lydda. While he was there, he had healed a man paralyzed for eight years. When Peter arrived in Joppa, her friends wanted to show him what Dorcas had made; they wanted to share their sweet memories of her. Through their tears, they spoke of how good and kind she was, how compassionate to those in need, how skilled she was at spinning and weaving and sewing.

Here’s the dress she made for my sister. Sister was alone, no son to care for her, and this dress cheered her up so!

Here’s the afghan she crocheted for my father. The warmth of it made his last days better. Now when I see it I remember his smile, and I remember her laugh.

Here’s the quilt she gave me when my baby was born. She came in with this quilt and with a plate filled with cake, and she stayed until the baby went to sleep.

Here’s the coat she sewed for my neighbor. He was shivering in the early mornings until she left this at his door.

They laid out the fabric and with it the memories of their friend.
They smoothed the cloth with their wrinkled hands, remembering.

Maybe she was a poor widow, like they were. Maybe she had been a deacon in their church.
Maybe she was the one who brought flowers and fixed communion, maybe she was the one who took up collections for the poor, or raised a garden for the hungry. She was the first and only woman identified in the Bible as a disciple. And these women, her friends, wanted to be sure that she was remembered. Dorcas was dead, but her works lived after her, and the widows held in their hands a legacy of her love, woven into the weft and warp of the fabric of those garments, stitched into the sleeves and hems of the tunics, spun into the very yarns and threads of her handiwork.

The Bible says Peter shooed them all out of the room, but I’ll bet you that they didn’t leave.
I’ll bet you they stayed there, to watch, to be with her, to pray with Peter.

During Bible study on Tuesday we talked about the works of beloved hands, the hands of mothers and aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, friends. We described the work: the quilts and clothes, towels and tea cozies, afghans and antimacassars. We remembered those whom we had loved, their legacies to us, not merely blankets or garments or flour sack towels, but the care visible in their stitching and the affection that you can almost feel in the fabric. Like our memories, this tale of Dorcas’ handiwork is a lovely story.

But it is not the whole story. Because Peter is not there just to call on the family, to comfort these grieving widows. He is there to demonstrate God’s power. And so, he speaks to her: “Tabitha, get up!” And when she opens her eyes, he takes her by the hand, and the saints and widows see that she is alive! It is a resurrection moment, another story of metanoia, of transformation. The lame walk, the blind see, and the dead live again.

This is the Easter season, from now until Pentecost on May 19. It is the season in which we Christians continue our celebration of the triumph of God’s love over the world’s evil, the defeat of death through the resurrection of our Lord. But this past week has felt like anything but an Easter celebration. In fact, it has felt more like Good Friday, more like funeral than festivity. I have found myself praying odd little prayers off and on since Monday:
God, let there not be any deaths.
Please Lord, let it not be terrorism.
Holy One, please let it not be a Muslim fundamentalist.
Dear Lord, let there not be any deaths.
Oh God, support the people of West, Texas.
Please, dear God, make that Chechen boy turn himself in.

I’ve tried to be sure that my prayers are not selfish prayers or angry prayers, but prayers of humility and service. I’ve tried to pray the way a disciple would, the way a disciple should. My sermon co-authors, the women who come to Bible study on Tuesday, made a list of the traits of a disciple, as we thought about Dorcas. 

Disciples are people of generosity, commitment, and sacrificial love. 
They are charitable, faithful, compassionate people.
They can be anyone, and yet they become teachers, witnesses, community builders.
They are ordinary people who have experienced the presence of Christ.
And because of that, they are followers who have become leaders.

The story of Dorcas, you see, is the story of us. Her life was changed because of her experience with the living Christ. Her life was lived in service to his message, with compassion, care, generosity and faithfulness. Her death was a stunning loss for her community, and it cast a pall of grief over them.

You know what a pall is, right? It’s a piece of fabric that is used to cover up a coffin.
So a pall of grief is a fitting metaphor. Originally, a pall was a black cloth, often of velvet.
Today, palls are more often white. Because our service of witness to the resurrection emphasizes that all who are baptized into Christ have "clothed themselves" with Christ, and that all who are buried with Christ in baptism will be raised with him in newness of life, the pall is, in a way, the last garment worn by a person. 

Since it covers the coffin entirely, the pall democratizes the funeral, just the way that loss and grief level and unite all of us. Neither a fancy expensive coffin nor a low-cost box is visible beneath it. So you can’t tell, looking at the casket, whether the deceased person was well-to-do, or, like Dorcas probably was, quite poor. You can’t look at the pall and guesstimate what the size of the estate will be. Unless you consider the person’s spiritual legacy.

Then that cloth covering the casket will tell you something, something really, really important. A quilt made for you by a grandmother reminds you of her love. A tea towel embroidered for you by a friend is a symbol of her care. The pall will tell you that the person was a disciple. And knowing that, you can trust that they will be raised to new life, like Dorcas was, like each of us will be.

In the warp and weft of the fabric of our lives, we are woven into a tapestry of Christian life.
We are made into disciples. And because we are disciples, we wear the mark of baptism, and we have put on Christ, whose life and death and resurrection make us Easter people.

As Easter people, we stand alongside those who mourn, and we offer up our prayers as disciples, asking for comfort, for peace.

As Easter people, we join together in acts of caring and compassion,
trusting that the one in whose name we give will make our gifts and our works holy.

As children of the heavenly father, we become brothers and sisters in Christ,
and we are joined together in a family with an inheritance that is indescribably valuable,
made especially for us through the work of Jesus Christ.

Like Dorcas, we are disciples, followers who have become leaders.
Like Dorcas, we are Easter people, be raised up to new life by God’s love.
Like her, we wear a cloth not made with human hands,
and our lives are a legacy of the love of God.
Thanks be to God for resurrection!
Alleluia!
Amen!

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Metanoia



Acts 9:1-20
April 14, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."



Saul’s story is so dramatic, and so well-known, even among a lot of non-church going folks,
that it has almost become a cliché. Christians like to use this story as a kind of insider shorthand - - “my Damascus road experience.” They talk about “the scales falling from my eyes” and claim this story from Acts as a metaphor for their own transformation. But modern Christians, most of us, even though we might somehow identify with Saul, rarely lay claim to this kind of dramatic change.

The word for conversion, and the title of this sermon, is the Greek word “metanoia.” Translated literally, it means, “a change of heart” or a “change of mind.” It usually gets translated as “repentance.” But metanoia is something much bigger than that. The word itself doesn’t appear in this story we’ve heard from the 9th chapter of Acts, but what we are observing, in this compelling narrative, is metanoia; a change of heart; a tectonic plate shift.

It was a radical conversion for Saul, and a life-changing moment for Ananias. Saul was the young Pharisee, the zealous, fiery servant of Adonai, who had been persecuting these wayward Jews, the people of the Way, who had embraced Jesus as Messiah. It was the fervent young Saul who held the coats of the men as they stoned Stephen to death, stoned him as he looked up and said “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” stoned him until he died, and in his last breath asked God to forgive his murderers. All this, while Saul stood by, approving.

Now, he was pursuing the Christians, hunting them down to bind them and bring them back to Jerusalem. He was planning more violence, breathing threats and murder. And then, on the road to Damascus, he was struck to the ground, struck blind while a voice challenged him, a voice that could only be that of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was an abrupt and complete stop, resulting in a total change in Saul’s life. For three days he was blind, hungry, thirsty, three days at the house of Judas in Damascus. Three days, waiting for the word of the Lord.

Meanwhile, Ananias heard the Lord calling his name. Unlike Saul, Ananias had heard the message of Jesus and believed. Now, both of them had heard the actual voice of Jesus. Ananias recognized his Lord and Master’s voice. He didn’t have to ask, “Who is that?” He recognized it and responded, as had the prophets before him: “Here I am, Lord.” Undoubtedly, Ananias had known that Saul was on the way to Damascus. Saul’s reputation was such that Christians must have passed the word along – a warning that Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus, ready to lay hands on the saints, ready to drag them out of their homes, ready to bind them in chains and take them prisoner, take them to Jerusalem, take them to torment, deliver them to death and destruction.

And now, even though Saul had been on his way to lay hands on the saints, Ananias is told to go to Saul, and lay hands on him, and restore his sight. Ananias is to go to a man of violence, and offer healing. But Ananias paused. He must have been afraid. Why would anyone in his right mind go, on purpose,  into the presence of this man Saul? Would you present yourself to Torquemada during the inquisition, and identify yourself as an unbeliever in Holy Mother Church? Would you drop by Hitler’s house if you were a Polish Jew? Would you visit Joe McCarthy’s house and show him your membership card for the communist party? Would you seek out one who had planned to kill you, and offer him healing, and call him brother?

Ananias did. He laid his hands on Saul and called him brother.
Saul’s sight was restored, he received the Holy Spirit, and was baptized. Saul, who had taken Christians prisoner, would now call himself a prisoner of the Lord, and would be taken prisoner for Christ’s sake. He would spread the gospel throughout the known world, proclaiming Jesus as the son of God. He would even change his name, from Saul to Paul.

Metanoia: a change of heart, a new way of thinking, a changed consciousness – metamorphosis. In the world of psychotherapy, it is called second-order change, a paradigm shift, a transformation after which everything is different, even though it may look the same. It is not a change in belief, the intellectual assent to a proposition. When Saul became Paul, he surrendered not just his intellect, but his entire self to the son of the living God. It is not a personality transplant – Saul’s harsh, fanatical streak did not go away when he became the Apostle Paul. It is not merely a behavioral change, but a shift in world view, in the rules that govern behavior, in the very core.

Ananias’ heart had to change, to undergo a gospel revolution, in order for him to go to Saul, the murderous persecutor, to lay hands on him and call him “brother.” That sort of change happens more often than we may think. We see it in the almost immediate transformation of lives when someone is knocked to the ground, blinded, by a flash of God’s presence, turned in a new direction at a crossroads. We can observe it when the addict hits bottom, and instead of overdosing, goes to treatment, and begins to help others. Some of us may have come to an abrupt stop in a therapist’s office, or in the middle of a devastating loss, with the recognition that life had changed, deeply and permanently. Some of us may have grudgingly, hesitantly, reached out in reconciliation to a sworn enemy, and found our lives radically altered by their reaching back to us in gratitude and peace.

But even though such experiences are not uncommon, many of us are more like Ananias than Saul. We can’t point to a particular moment in which we were illuminated by the unmistakable presence of God. There was no blinding light, no immediate conversion, not a single noteworthy event – neither sight nor sound,  that marked the onset of a new life of faith. We were born, we were baptized, we learned about God, we came to know about Jesus, we trusted him, we lived as best we could in the light of his teachings. When he called us, maybe not audibly, but clearly, we answered, “Here I am.” And we did what he said. We just did the right thing. We didn’t go lay hands on an enemy and facilitate his conversion from persecutor to passionate promoter. But we opened hands and heart to those whom we might have rejected, and we did it in the name of the one who had called us.

It is Easter, the season of Resurrection, a season that lasts 50 days until the day of Pentecost. We think about resurrection at other times, of course – at funerals, at hospital bedsides, in times of prayer. But especially during this 50 days we are invited to contemplate what it means that Christ is raised and that we also are raised to new life.

Did it happen in a moment, like the flip of a switch from off to on?
Or was it more like the blooming of a flower, so gradual that it can’t be observed except with special cameras? When our eyes are opened to the truth of the living God, it may be both. Metanoia, or second-order change, can happen in an instant, or it can take a lifetime to unfold. But once our eyes are opened, there is no going back. Everything is different from then on.

It was a chance encounter, and for years, neither of the two men spoke of it. It was December, 1943, and Charles Brown, American pilot, was on his first bombing run over Germany. With one engine damaged and another gone, Brown’s plane had fallen back and was vulnerable to enemy fire. In ten minutes of sustained attack, most of the crew was wounded and the tail gunner was killed. Franz Stigler, a veteran Luftwaffe pilot, needed to shoot down only one more enemy aircraft to earn the coveted Knight’s Cross.

Stigler hurried into his plane and took off. As he reached Brown’s plane, Stigler saw the damage. He tried to get Brown to land in Germany, then in Sweden, but to no avail. So he escorted his enemy to the edge of the North Sea, departing with a salute. Neither pilot ever forgot, and years later, after Brown searched for Stigler, they met and became fast friends. They called each other brother, and were in close touch until they died.[1]

Metanoia – a moment in which enemies become brothers.
Second order change – a shift in the light that alters the way we see.

A few months ago, a young woman named Megan Phelps Roper left home in Topeka, Kansas, walking away from family, from everything she had ever known. She also left her church – Westboro Baptist, the home of Fred Phelps, and she left her life of persecuting gay people, of picketing military funerals, and judging practically everyone as being wicked and bound for hell. Megan had participated in many Westboro Baptist demonstrations holding signs that announced who God hates.

Her first doubts began to arise when she was in conversation with a David Abitbol, a Jewish blogger, who quoted Jesus to her. Isn’t God funny?! Megan was asserting the Westboro belief that God hates homosexuals, that they all deserve the death penalty for their sin. David said, ‘But Jesus said ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Megan first thought it was funny, a Jewish guy quoting Jesus. But then she began to realize what Jesus was talking about. “I definitely regret hurting people,” Megan says.  …We thought we were doing good….”

It took months for her transformation to take root, but when she walked away, with her sister, Grace, she knew she could never return. Now Megan and Grace are exploring a life they had never before anticipated, with choices they have never had to make, and possibilities they never imagined. Megan says she and her sister don’t know what will come next for them. “We needed to think about what we believe. We need to figure out what we want to do next.  I never imagined leaving, ever,  so I never thought about doing anything different. I have no idea what kind of work I want to do, or where to live. How do people decide these things?”[2]

Metanoia. Change.

Sure, sometimes the instantaneous conversion doesn’t stick, but turns out to be momentary, confined to the bright flash, fading away without leaving so much as a spark. Most times, though, whether it is a brilliant flash of insight or a small candle flickering in an otherwise dark night, the meaning of the light emerges over time.

So it was with Saul, on that road to Damascus. Who’d have remembered or told this story had Saul not responded and been receptive? We can only imagine what turn the tale might have taken had Ananias refused to obey the word of the Lord. But because Saul was willing to listen, to wait, to persist, because Ananias was willing to risk, willing to reach out to an enemy, the resurrection to new life continued in them. Saul, after he became Paul, carried the gospel across the known world, wrote letters to churches that became part of the canon, taught and preached new life in Christ through his works and words. We learn from Saul that sometimes what we think God wants us to do is actually our own anger and violence speaking, and that when God speaks, it is a message of good news, of love and redemption, not death and destruction. We learn from Ananias that the paradox of reaching out the hand of peace, even to the terrifying face of violence and hatred, can be transforming, for both parties. Ananias faded into the background, and while we don’t know what the rest of his life looked like, we do know what his story teaches us, what resurrection teaches:

Our knowledge is not certainty. God is always ready to surprise us. New life emerges where we have seen only death; transformation happens when love answers violence; redemption works its miracles even when we don’t expect it. Metanoia. That’s the Easter story. Thanks be to God!
Amen.



[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Brown_and_Franz_Stigler_incident
[2] https://medium.com/reporters-notebook/d63ecca43e35