“People like that shouldn’t even be called Christian.”
Ever thought these words to yourself? Ever said them out loud? I won’t ask you to raise your hand, nor will I ask you to say out loud WHO it is that you said it about. But if you have had that thought or uttered that thought, I want you to put a picture of that person in your mind. Someone who called themselves Christian, but you weren’t sold.
What do they look like? What did they say to make you think that about them? Were they too progressive? Too conservative? Too bold and brash? Too reserved and wishy washy? Were they fundamentally different than you: a member of a different race or sexual orientation? Did they take the Bible too literally? Not literally enough? Did they say something or do something that felt disrespectful of the way that you practice your faith? What did it take for them to cross that line, so that you were convinced…
“People like that shouldn’t even be called Christian.”
If you have had that thought, you are not alone. Not only do many of us, in this time and place, put limits on who can be called Christian, but the Bible is actually filled with examples of those that have done the same thing. Who have lived by the mentality: “People like that shouldn’t even be called Christian.”
In fact, we see it in today’s passage. More than once. First, we see it in Saul. Last week, we read about the light that blinded Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul took this message to heart—not about Christianity per se, but about the faith, about the orthodoxy. He had his list of folks who didn’t belong. In fact, he was on his way to round some of them up in order to be killed, and a light knocked him down and blinded him. A voice spoke to him…turns out the voice of Jesus himself! And Jesus told him that he had been persecuting not only Christians, but Jesus himself. Jesus told Saul to get up and go on into Damascus, and he would be given instructions. Last we saw Saul, the man who arrogantly demanded that others follow his version of the faith was totally dependent on others to even lead him into town.
But we don’t just see this mentality in Saul. While Saul is being led into town, on the other side of Damascus, there was a faithful Damascus Christian by the name of Ananias. He was likely a leader in the Christian church there in town, and he probably would have been on Saul’s list to be rounded up and killed. He was a member of this group called The Way, which is what we eventually called the Early Church. At some point, Ananias had heard the story of Jesus and had come to believe that he was the Lord, and followed him and his teachings. Of course, this put him in the cross-hairs of people like Saul, who wanted the faith to be more pure and orthodox.
But Saul was not the only one pointing fingers. In fact, that doesn’t seem to be the point of the passage. Saul doesn’t say a word this whole section. But look who else was pointing fingers: Ananias! Look at his fear and vitriol against Saul. He believed that Saul was the real enemy of the faith. He is a disease on the life of the Church, and there is nothing that he could and would do to help this man. Not heal him from his blindness. Not visit him. Not even pray for him at a distance. Ananias was clear about Saul: “People like that shouldn’t even be called Christian.”
He is even willing to argue with Jesus about how right he is on this one: “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.”
There is no ambiguity here: “People like that shouldn’t even be called Christian.”
I told you last week that this whole section of Acts is about transformation. The transformation of the Ethiopian. The transformation of Tabitha. The transformation of Peter, and the vision that he had with Cornelius. Author and pastor Will Willimon agrees that this section of Acts is about change and transformation. He uses the word “conversion,” but he wants to define the word before he applies it. He says there are five or six things that define conversion in Acts, but I am going to focus on three.
- Conversion a process, not an event. For most of the history of the Church, Christians have believed that. The Early Church did. Those who argued for the Protestant Reformation did. They all suggested that conversion was never a one-time event. We happen to be living in a time where that has been a little confused, in the wake of revivalism in our country which suggested that conversion was a one-time thing that happened as the result of good music and good preaching and it forever changed one’s life. But Willimon asks about Peter. When was he converted, if we define it as an event? When he followed Jesus and left his nets? When he proclaimed that he was the Messiah? When Jesus renewed his love for him after he denied him? When he had his heart turned toward the Gentiles here in Acts? Or all of the above? In the New Testament, conversion is a process, not an event.
- Conversion is about beginnings. Willimon points out that when conversion happens in Acts, it is a new beginning of a new life, for both the individual AND the community. Did anyone notice a similarity with today’s passage and last week’s? That little word right there in the middle: “go.” For Saul, Jesus told him to get up off the ground and go to Damascus to receive a word. For Ananias, he has to repeat the word twice because he was unsure the first time. Jesus convinced him that he had a new way of life for the Church and for Saul: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” A new beginning for Saul and for the Church.
- Conversion is about the gifts of God. Willimon reminds us that all of this happens because of God’s gifts. All of the Acts of the Apostles—as the book is named—are intertwined and empowered by the Acts of God. Everything is dependent not on our work, but on our responses to God’s work. The Pentecost is not just the intro to the book—it is the symbol for how God’s Spirit works throughout the Church. And when God tells Ananias to go lay hands on Saul, there is no question in whose power this healing happens.
So, here is this model for conversion, what I have called transformation. And more often than not, when we read this passage, we call it what? “The Conversion of Saul.” Some of you might have that section heading in your Bible before the ninth chapter. But as I read today’s passage, I would suggest that something different is happening. This passage is about the conversion of Ananias. The transformation of Ananias:
- From a man who wants nothing to do with Saul to a man risking his life to come be by his side.
- From “I know this man…” to “I have been sent to heal you.”
- From “People like that shouldn’t even be called Christian” to “Brother Saul”
That is the miracle of this story! That Ananias’ heart is changed! He had his mind made up about Saul, but Jesus had a new mind—the mind of Christ—to give him. The story says that scales fell from Saul’s eyes, but I believe that scales fell from Ananias’ eyes. From Ananias’ heart. He had a vision of Jesus telling him “let me decide who should be called Christian.” And because he did, the Church of Christ was forever changed!
So, today I want to know how might your heart be changed? How is God transforming you, Willimon would say “converting” you, not just once but over and over again? How is God showing you new beginnings? How is God gifting you for this leg of your journey? Of our journey?
At the beginning of the sermon, I used the words “conservative” and “progressive.” I do it hesitatingly, because I think that labels like that are a little simplistic. I think that the world love to use those words to divide us, but my guess is that most of us are never completely in one camp or the other. I think that most of us want to conserve some things, and want to progress from others. And to say that one person can be summed up on all issues at all times with one word seems to be a little simplistic. I think that most of us are somewhere in the middle: there are values and traditions and institutions that we want to conserve, and there are broken systems and hurtful customs that we want to progress from. Of course, we don’t always agree on what those are. And yet, I feel like our church is one where folks who tend to lean toward “conserving” and folks who tend to lean toward “progressing” can talk to each other, and trust each other, and steer clear of the ever dangerous “People like that shouldn’t even be called Christian.”
But we can do better. We can always do better. That is the lesson of Ananias and Saul. One man thought that the other was absolutely nuts—even worth working to end his life. Then the other man thought that the other was absolutely nuts—not even worth showing up to help in his time of greatest need. But these two men found a place of common ground. Found a way to learn from each other and grow from that learning. And it was on that common ground that the Church was built.
And it is on that common ground that the Church continues to be built. Trinity Episcopal Church in Excelsior, Minnesota, is a church like ours. Some folks lean toward conserving values and traditions and identity; other folks lean toward progressing toward new and hopefully better ways. In fact, they call themselves a “purple parish.” Red conservatives and Blue progressives blend together for a Purple congregation.
And Trinity has begun hosting these conversations in the community, a healthy and hopeful dialogue where people from differing perspectives can come together and listen and learn from each other. They call themselves an “incubator” for compassionate dialogue. And the experiment has been a huge success! They have filled the fellowship hall with coffee and donuts and conversation about how they can be church together. A purple church.
Monica Wiant is a church member, and was amazed at the experience: “It was just terrific, because not everybody agreed, but there was a lot of mutual support and listening.” She said “The church needs to be a place where we can bring those emotions and work through it; I think spiritually we have a lot of common ground, regardless of how we vote.”
That is the common ground upon which the Church continues to be built. The common ground that led Ananias to the house where Saul stayed. That led Saul’s heart to be changed toward people like Ananias. And that led the Church to be a place of love and grace for all. And as Saul came up out of the waters of baptism, he was a new creation, a new transformation, and the Church would never be the same for it.