Monday, April 11, 2016

Transforming Belief Systems into The Way

Acts 9: 1-20
April 10, 2016
Chatfield UMC
Rev. Debra Jene Collum

Many people equate the idea of Christianity with a set of beliefs. In order to be a Christian you must believe this, that and the other thing. And along with this idea that Christianity is about a set of beliefs is the idea that once you have established those beliefs you mustn’t change your mind.

I am always amazed when people accuse politicians of being wishy-washy because over the course of a career they have changed their position on issues. Do we really want to put our trust in a person who has not confronted life, learned from it and found a new and better way of being or living or making decisions? Particularly about issues that will affect millions of people? I am more worried about people, whether in politics, the church or in everyday life who, over the course of a lifetime, stand firm on positions that no longer serve the common good.

Many people approach the bible and Christianity in this way. Suspicious of those who have grown in the faith and changed their minds about how to be Christian in the world.
Fortunately, we have the book of Acts to teach us that the early Christians were willing to be changed. To be transformed, even.
Today we will hear about two stories of Transformation. The first story is about Saul.
The first time we hear about Saul is in chapter 7 of Acts. Saul, as he was known before his transformation, was standing guard over the coats of those who would execute Stephen in brutal fashion. Stephen was an early follower of Jesus. Like Peter and John, Stephen refused to stop teaching and preaching about Jesus. He was brought up on trial and was sentenced to death by stoning. This is where we first meet Saul. But Saul is not just passively guarding the coats of the executioners. He stood there approving the stoning. And not only that, according to the account in Acts, Saul ravaged the church, dragging off both men and women, shutting them behind bars. Saul’s actions, sanctioned by the Jewish religious authorities, caused no end of grief to the followers of Jesus.
While they continued to preach and teach, they had to scatter and find ways to stay out of the way of Saul.

That is how we get to the first verse of the passage for today. While the followers of Jesus were trying to stay out of Saul’s notice, Saul is working even more diligently to find them, going to synagogues outside Jerusalem, seeking them out in the nooks and crannies of Israel. Saul is spewing murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.

Here is the thing about the phrase: “The Way”
This was not a Christian thing, not originally.
It was the term used to describe Jews who followed the Torah.
So it was particularly difficult for observant Jews like Saul to hear that followers of Jesus were people of the WAY.
Luke, the writer of Acts, really wants us to see how this u-turn in the story of Saul is so amazing and not just for the followers of Jesus, but for anyone whom God gets hold of.

Just like the disciples of Jesus who betrayed, abandoned and doubted Jesus, and yet became the very people who would change the world, Saul was the murderous hater of those who followed the WAY.
And he was doing this as a pious Jew. Believing that he was doing the will of God.
Do you see how radical Saul’s transformation was?
It would be like a woman who was so sure that the bible taught that women couldn’t be a pastor, accept a call to ministry.
It would be like a man who was so sure that the bible taught that women couldn’t be a pastor, accept the ministry of a female clergy.
It would be like a mom who believed that her daughter was a terrible sinner because she was a lesbian, come out as a vocal advocate for other sons and daughters who are gay.
I would be like a Christian who was sure God hated Muslims, finding out that Muslims love and serve God in the same way they do.

Radical transformation. 

But is wasn’t enough for our story that only Saul was transformed. In order for the gospel of Jesus Christ to have full impact in this new WAY of being, Saul needed to become Paul, a person who is included in the WAY.

And this will happen through an amazing act of trust and relationship.

Knowing that he could be putting his life and the life of his family at risk; and even putting a large segment of the WAY at risk. Ananias dares to reach out his hands, his heart and his courage to embrace Saul.
To embrace Saul. Do you see how these early stories of the followers of Jesus show how we are to live like Jesus in the world? Isn’t this the WAY Jesus taught us to live? To open our hearts, our hands, our minds, our doors to those who could even seem against us? To embrace those who could threaten our comfort, our safety, our space?

Saul is not the only one who exhibits radical transformation. Ananias leads the community of Jesus followers into radical transformation of hospitality and inclusion. Which will echo throughout the generations. Because of this radical transformation, Saul, as Paul will become one of the greatest teachers and writers of the WAY. He will challenge the status quo on more than one occasion. He will push the early followers of Jesus into places and ways of being that they could never of imagined. Paul will carry the name of Jesus before Gentiles, Kings and Israelites. And he will suffer greatly. He will redefine what it means to be of the WAY.

“The Way” is a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. I sometimes think that we have lost that metaphor.
Do we identify people as Christians by what they believe or whom they associate with? If a person goes to the right church, attends the right events, says the right words we will label them a proper Christian.
What if our faith community was known, not for the words we say we believe, but the actions we do that characterize what we believe? What is for us, Christianity was a WAY of living. A WAY that compels us to leave the safe confines of what we know, and who we know. A Way that leads us to walk on a road that God sets out for us that isn’t familiar. A WAY that shows to others that faith is a living, active way of life.

The story of the call of Saul/Paul is a stirring and famous story. Luke will repeat this story three times in the book of Acts. It is like the early followers of Jesus needed to be reminded, just as we do, that it isn’t about right words or believing the right things, it is about The WAY. It is about opening our hearts, our hands, our minds, our doors so that transformation can enter our lives. So that we can be transformed over and over and over again into the person God created us to be. Challenged in our ways of believing, our ways of relating to others, our ways of welcoming the stranger, our ways of giving cups of cold water to whoever comes into our lives thirsty for an act of kindness and love.
Being so transformed that you can hardly believe that you believe what you believe today.

And trust me, this may sound like a scary thing to do, but it is so liberating, so joyfilled and so well, transformative, that you will never be able to imagine why you didn’t follow the WAY of Jesus sooner.

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