Greetings to you all! It has been some time since I’ve added a blog post. I’ve been away for a few weeks and need to get back in my Monday morning routine. This sermon is focused on two of the readings from yesterday, Acts and John. Let me know in the comments: where have you seen God lately?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Behind every great superhero is a great origin story. An explanation of how they got their special powers and came to this calling of fighting crime and evil. Maybe it was just a freak accident, like Spiderman getting bit by a radioactive spider. Maybe, like Superman, the origin of their powers is explained by the fact that they’re just not from here in the first place—he’s from a different planet and comes with special powers. Or maybe, like Batman, there’s a defining moment, in his case losing both of his parents, that changes the trajectory of their life.
Whatever the story, every great origin story explains just how our hero became so extraordinary. And in our first reading today from Acts, the Bible shows that it has some pretty good origin stories of its own. We read the origin story of Paul, who, when we begin seems anything but a hero. In fact, you could say he’s been the villain of the book of Acts thus far.
You see, Paul was a devout man. A Pharisee, he later says about himself. He was a religious leader. And he tried, with all his might, to protect his religion from people he saw to be dangerous heretics. As the early church was spreading in Jerusalem, as the apostles were telling others about Jesus and baptizing and teaching in his name, their biggest opponent was Paul of Tarsus.
He was there when the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen, was killed. He has been rooting out Christians ever since. And now, it seems that the church is spreading even outside of Jerusalem. Christians are beginning to appear in the north, past Samaria, in Damascus. And so that is where Paul heads.
And that is when we see the origin of the Apostle Paul. The road to Damascus is where Paul becomes who he will be: the apostle to the gentiles, a man after whom we name churches and universities, cities and hospitals. A great light from heaven flashes around him on the road. As he cowers in fear, he hears the voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” he asks. “Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Go enter the city, and you will be told what to do.” And he is left blind.
This story is usually called the Conversion of Paul, but as we read on, we see that there are actually two conversions happening here. For the Lord also appears to Ananias, a disciple living in Damascus. Ananias is told to go to Paul, to lay hands on him to heal his blindness. His first response? That is not something I think I will be doing. Don’t you know who Paul is, Lord? Because he’s a persecutor of the church. But God says that Paul is the one chosen to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. It’s not up to Ananias to decide who God is going to use. And so, Ananias too is converted. Converted from fear to trust. From hatred to reconciliation.
Ananias goes to Paul, and Paul is restored to sight. And he is baptized and becomes one of the greatest apostles of the Church. Because two people were willing to let their hearts be changed. Scales fall from both of their eyes. Sometimes I think that great, miraculous call stories like these can be hard for us to read. Not because they aren’t awe-inspiring, faith inspiring. But precisely because they are those things.
After all, how many of us have had such an other-worldly experience? Perhaps you have, and I by no means want to diminish that. It’s just that most of us don’t get to have such incredible origin stories. And it can be easy to begin to think that it’s because we don’t have enough faith, or because God doesn’t have an important job for us.
Perhaps God hasn’t appeared to you in lightning-flashed visions. But that doesn’t for a second mean that God doesn’t show up in your life. After all, how did God appear to the disciples in the gospel reading? Not in majesty and awe, not in fearful voices from clouds, but as an unfamiliar man on the beach, sharing a meal.
God shows up in unexpected ways in our lives, sometimes so unexpected that we don’t even recognize it. We need to pay attention, like the Beloved Disciple, to how Jesus is showing up. He is the first one to realize that this is God standing on the beach, and he announces to the others, “It is the Lord!”
Sometimes, we’ll need someone else in our lives to point out to us: It is the Lord! When we don’t see God at work in our lives, we’ll need someone else to tell us: look, I see God here. And the scales will fall from our eyes as we see what they see. And other times, we will get to be that sight and that voice for others. We will get to announce joyfully that we see God—in that place, in that situation, in that other person. But we have to pay attention, because where we wind up seeing God might not be where we expect.
In a meal shared amongst friends on the beach. In small moments of ordinary life. Today is first communion: we celebrate with four of our young people, Annabelle, Lily, Adam, and Grady, as they receive the bread and wine of communion for the first time. We come to a simple meal of the basic, everyday foods of life, and we encounter in the bread and wine the Risen Lord Jesus, just as the disciples encountered him on the beach.
The book we use for First Communion, called A Place for You, shares the ways that we are invited to take God’s presence into us, and to share God with others. Forgive others. Share our things with others. Share food and clothes and money with those who need them. Be kind to people who are different. Bring joy to people who are sad or lonely. These all come with the important caveat that Jesus and your church family will forgive you when you fail.
The Christian writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans died tragically yesterday at age thirty-seven. She struggled in her life to make sense of her faith and her doubts. She wrote of experiences traveling and speaking to many different faith communities: They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.
These things aren’t flashy. They won’t make the front page or become super hero stories. But even as we read the stories of the heroes of our faith, we remember that our faith is found in simple things. Bread and wine shared together. A meal amongst friends. Sharing God’s love in the ordinary stuff of life. Let’s all of us practice looking for God in surprising and ordinary places. Because if we pay attention, we just might get to have breakfast with Jesus. Amen.