Expect the Unexpected
May 1, 2022 – Rev. Drew Stockstill
What’s the meaning of all this? All this that we are doing here, this church? What’s the meaning of it? These prayers, some new, some very old; these songs some new, some very old; these words all very, very old; this building, this bread, this wine, these people in these strange seats? Where else do people sit in pews? What is the meaning of Church, and what is the meaning of this church? We aren’t a civic club, but happy to partner with civic organizations and share our space. We aren’t a non-profit (though happy to have that 501c3 status) and collaborate. We are not a Federally Qualified Health Center, like Hamilton Health, but we do provide 22,000 free health appointments every year. We aren’t a music production, nor a service agency, and no one is confusing Christ Lutheran for a country club. So, what in the world are we doing here and what is the meaning of this?
Does anyone remember the old saying:
“This is the church, here is the steeple,
open it up and see all the people?”
Or the song that says,
I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together! All who follow Jesus, all around the world! Yes, we're the church together!
That is the meaning of all this. That is what we are doing here, being the church, the people who follow Jesus all around the world. The church is a people. And that is what church means, what the literal word church means. The word church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia. Ekklesia is a gathering of people, but the word literally means “a calling out,” so, not only is the church a people who are called together, but called together to go out – out into our communities, out into the world. We are a people called out into creation for God’s mission. We are a people called into community to take a journey together for a purpose, that is what the meaning of this is, and that is what we are going to be exploring together the next several weeks in our new sermon series called, “The Expeditionary Church.”
An expedition is a journey for a purpose and we are a people called out to take a journey for a purpose. That is how the first church was known, they were called people of “The Way” because we were known to be on a road, on a journey, for a purpose, following Jesus. Christ Church, we are people of The Way, the expeditionary church.
This week we begin with a guy named Saul who was a Pharisee in Israel, a religious leader. He was on his own expedition of sorts. From Acts 9, listen again for the word of the Lord for us today.
Acts 9: 1-20
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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.”
Conversion of St Paul by Peter Koenig, 1965
The name Saul is Hebrew for, “asked of God.” Saul was fairly confident he was asked of God to round up any who belonged to, “The Way” – Jesus’ followers. And he was good at his job, a zealot even. We first meet him in the Bible when he was a young man holding peoples’ coats as they stoned a man named Stephen to death for being a Christian. “Saul approved of his execution,” says the Bible, and “there abounded on that day a great persecution against the church,” that sent Christians scattering. The Bible says, Saul was “ravaging the church, entering house after house, he dragged off men and women.” Later he says, “I would often torture them. My rage bordered on the hysterical.” Have you ever seen people who just lose it, lose themselves in some obsession or some hatred? We just heard how he breathed threats and murder against the followers of The Way. He breathed threats and murder. This is his life force, his joie de vivre, hunting Christians wherever they fled, rooting them out; this was his reason for being. He breathed violence and hatred the way we breathe air. He lived for this, for putting an end to, well, this, to what we are doing here today. Until one day on the road to Damascus.
Jesus was once asked by a crowd, “Who then can be saved?” He replied, “What is impossible for humans is possible for God.” Nobody could save Saul from his hatred…except God. Who could have imagined that Saul could be saved? Not even Saul, reflecting back on his life, believed such a thing was possible, and for someone whose greatest purpose was the persecution of the church to one day simply change and become a believer and a follower, well, on his own such a thing would be impossible. Just think of how hard it is to convince someone on Facebook they are wrong, such a thing is impossible. Not only would no one be able to talk Saul into believing Jesus is the Son of God, he’d lock them up for even trying. For humans it is unlikely we will be able to change a heart or change a mind all by ourselves. But we don’t have to be miracle workers, for it is Jesus himself who calls to Saul and changes his heart and his life. We, church, are called out to
the unexcepted places where Jesus is on ahead of us and we are to do the work of his disciples, following him, receiving those who he is healing, and forgiving, and calling, and to help them find their place along The Way and in the church. We are not called to sit idly by and work on our own issues, nor are we called out to convert the world, but we are called to receive the people whom God is saving, to help them learn about the one who can change their lives, to help them find their way, by building true relationships, kinship with them.
Does anyone here worry about someone whose lost their way? Well Jesus promises to seek them out and carry them home. If he could do it for Saul he can do it for all.
Does anyone here worry that maybe you aren’t good enough to be on the way? Well, let me assure you, if he can do it for Saul he can do it for all.
Does anyone here think maybe somebody like, you know who, really isn’t fooling anybody and should just move on. Well, if he could do it for Saul he can do it for all.
Jesus said, “Get ready to receive my Kingdom it is at hand,” and then what happens? Get ready to receive my kin-dom, my family because I’m sending you out to them.
But this is no easy mission to which we are called, the mission of grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation, the mission of making room and space not only in our church but in our hearts, for those whom God is calling. Just look at what Jesus asked of Ananias. How is Ananias, a Christian to truly to know that Saul, a hunter of Christians, has been changed by God? That’s like God calling Chicken Little to go to the Foxes house and warn him the sky is falling. And Aninias isn’t looking to be another Chicken Little. To go and speak the name of Jesus as he does, is to be willing to hand himself over to the chief persecutor of his own people. Ananias would have known people hurt by Saul, maybe he would have helped people escape in the dead of night - escape Saul. And all he has to go on the voice of the Lord in a vision. That and his faith and trust in God.
So, Ananias trusted God and followed God, and goes out, goes on the mission Jesus called him to, to receive a new disciple. He enters the house and places his hands on the blind man and takes a deep breath. “Brother Saul,” he says, “It was the Lord Jesus…”
See, this is the way, this is the way of the church, to expect the unexpected of God, to trust that God can and does help people change, and then call them into places, to people, like us. And we receive them, not as visitors, but as family. Ananias doesn’t call him, Mister Saul, or maybe some of the other names he muttered under his breath on the way to meet Saul. What does he call him? He calls him brother. Brothers and sisters, even before he can be sure his life isn’t about to end, Ananias calls Saul family. That is The Way.
This is a mark of the church, that it is a people who do not only wait to see who’s going to show up on Sunday, but who are called out of our pews, out of our comfort zones, out of our individual spiritual practices and into a community of friends and family. It is for this reason we have been given faith in Jesus at all, to follow him where he leads us and he is leading us out into relationships that start right here, with the people who are called out of their own lives and situations to gather here and pray for you and ask for your prayers. These are not strangers, these are siblings and the miracle is that God has chosen this, what we are doing here, as his tool for saving the world, if you can believe it. And I can, because I’ve seen it happen. I’ve seen belonging here and being acknowledge by just a couple people heal people and change their lives. I’ve seen a person stick around long enough to talk to someone they don’t know well be a light bright enough to help shine a path to another day. I’ve seen scales fall from eyes here when someone realizes they are in the body of Christ. And I’ve seen a man named Saul, who is blinded by the light, and touched by a simple brother on the way, have his whole live changed that he even had to change his name, from Saul to Paul and he went on to become the most powerful evangelist in all Christianity.
Paul himself said, reflecting on his miraculous story: I locked up many of God’s holy people, I voted for their executions, Until the moment he learned from God that it was God himself he was torturing, because not only are we a people, but as believers we become the body of Christ himself. To be called out, is to be called to be the very presence of none other than Jesus. That is the meaning of this, that is what we are doing here, the expeditionary church.