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Sunday, August 26, 2018 | 8:00 a.m.

Paul’s Signature

“A Spirit Revolution”: A Sermon Series on the Acts of the Apostles

Lucy Forster-Smith
Senior Associate Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 84
Acts 22:1–21

Open our eyes and our hearts so that we may be able to discern your work in the universe. And be able to see your features in every one of your children. . . . Help us to know that you have created us for family, for togetherness, for peace, for gentleness, for compassion, for caring, for sharing.

Desmond Tutu

Our reading today from Acts may sound quite familiar to us as we have journeyed through the book of the Acts of the Apostles this summer. Indeed it is a familiar rendering of the account of Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus. But what is very different here from the story of Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 is the context in which this recitation is occurring. Paul is standing in Jerusalem in the holy temple of the Jewish people. Paul has just been pulled from the snares of a mob who were about to do him in. He was rescued, by the Romans of all people, when a riot broke out. The scene Luke paints is one of “confusion and violence with everyone shouting, pushing one another, and beating Paul.” The scene functions to elevate the message Paul is preaching, which is taken to be teachings against the people, the law, and the temple. It also opens the way for Paul to deliver a message to his own people, the Jewish people, in front of the Roman authorities. Paul is clearly giving his speech in chains where he is on trial. This also launches a series of trial scenes that culminate in Acts 26. The story of his conversion is a testimony of a person (Paul) who is on trial.

In many ways, the entire sweep of the biblical narrative is a testimony to the way God has acted in history and the way Jesus’ life on earth points to the work of God. God is, in some ways, on trial. There are questions about God’s existence and engagement in the world—especially with the Jewish people under the thumb of the Roman government. There are also questions about whether God is doing the same thing that has always been done or whether this is the new day of a resurrected messiah, this Jesus whose followers are turning the world upside down. The witnesses on the stand are the believers, giving our testimony to what we’ve experienced, what we know beyond a shadow of doubt, what we live our lives by.

I don’t think many of us think of the stories in the Bible as people on trial for their faith giving testimony. But the power of the gospel narrative and particularly the way that the story of faith comes to us arises from a convincing argument.

In her book Preaching as Testimony, Anna Carter Florence talks about the dynamics of testimony. She says, “Testimony is the act of testifying to an event and reporting on what was seen or understood. . . . A faithful witness is not simply an accurate report of the event but someone who ‘seals her bond’ to the cause that she defends by a public profession. . . . Such a personal devotion can extend even to the sacrifice of his/her life” (Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, p. 62). Testimony can be a life-and-death thing. It is risky business. It is no coincidence that the Greek word for witness is martyr.

Paul was not only standing before his own people telling the story of his call by God. He was also testifying to the light of Jesus that shone on him on the road and speaking the truth to the powers that were in that culture. His message was that God’s work at that time was extending beyond the expected norms of Paul’s own heritage and people. God’s light was shining through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus on the Gentiles as well as the Jews. This message enraged the listeners.

Do we believe that the story of our faith, the way that God lives through our lives, is something so important that we would be diminished if we stayed silent? Jesus said to those who wanted to silence those who were shouting when he entered Jerusalem, “If they were silent the very stones would cry out!” Like Paul, our call is to testify to the work of Jesus in our lives.

The word testimony has a worrisome ring for some of us. As a cradle Baptist I can recall the moment in worship services, particularly Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services, when the time came for testimonials. People would step to the pulpit and speak with conviction about the ways God had touched their lives: ways that they were down and out, full of alcohol, down on their luck, or in a very tough family situation and Jesus had come to them with the power of the gospel, meeting them in their brokenness and lifted them up. Often the ring of their sharing had a “holier than thou” subtext: If you do what I did, you too can be brought to the throne of glory. And if your life is still challenging, your faith is simply not strong enough. This form of testimony left me frightened and quite upset. I worried that if my life had not experienced the real issues that these people spoke about then I was not enough of a wretch to be saved, truly saved.

Though a spiritual one-upping is not something I would advocate for, the part of these people’s testimonies that is quite compelling is that they were willing to be vulnerable about their lives. Often such testimony arises from individuals and communities that, like the folks in my Baptist church, are at the margin or actually in exile from the familiar and comfortable. True speech, the kind of speech that comes when someone is making a case for their very life, their very existence, comes most often when they are displaced from what is known. The people of Israel, while in exile, wondered how they might sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. To their surprise they learned a new song. They discovered that there is freedom in being as low as you can go. “When we stand in exile, we are not godless or void of grace. Rather when we are in exile we claim the right to imagine liberation and homecoming.” Paul’s exile made him blind to the way he was abusing the followers of Jesus. When he was confronted on the road to Damascus by Jesus himself, his blindness gave way to new sight, new birth, a new calling. At that temple on that day he spoke a new truth about his life, from exile to homecoming.

There are many places in our culture where truth is spoken, places of exile or places where those who know the power of the margins dwell. One such place is Alcoholics Anonymous, or AA, a place where radical and true speech happens. I am sure most of us are familiar with AA as a group of men and women who acknowledge that addiction to alcohol is ruining their lives. Their purpose in coming together is to give up alcohol and help others do the same. They realize they can’t pull this off by themselves. They believe they need each other, and they believe they need God.

When the meeting starts they simply introduce themselves by saying, “I am John. I am an alcoholic,” “I am Mary. I am an alcoholic,” to which the rest of the group answers each time in unison, “Hi, John,” “Hi, Mary.” Apart from this introduction they have no ritual. They have no hierarchy. They have no dues or budget. Nobody lectures them, and they do not lecture each other. They simply tell their own stories with the candor that anonymity makes possible. They tell where they went wrong and how day by day they are trying to go right. They tell where they find the strength and understanding and hope to keep trying. Sometimes one of them will take special responsibility for another—to be available at any hour of day or night if the need arises. There’s not much more to it than that, and it seems to be enough. Healing happens. Miracles are made.

Someone has reflected on this, “You can’t help thinking that something like this is what the church is meant to be and maybe once was before it got to be big business. Sinners Anonymous. ‘I can will what is right, but I cannot do it,’ is the way Saint Paul put it, speaking for all of us. ‘For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’ (Romans 7:19)” (adapted from Frederick Buechner’s Whistling in the Dark).

The testimony is: “I am me . . .” “I have not been true to my life’s calling.” “I have lived a broken, scary, out-of-bounds life.” But then the miracle happens, whether in a stark room with others listening, nodding, knowing, or on the steps of a temple in Jerusalem, thousands of years ago. The truth breaks the silence. “I was hunting down the people of the Way. . . . I tied up them up, men and women, and threw them in jail. I was summoned to Damascus where many were bound. I was a torturous SOB, yes, I was. But out on that road in the light of day I heard a voice, a questioning voice: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And then there was the darkness and the stumbling and the guidance.” Like AA there is a brother, Ananias, who meets Saul. He names Saul’s vocation: “Brother Saul, you’ve been selected to know the very will of Jesus. Get up, without delay. Get baptized and call on his name.” Paul gets a new name, a new job, and, most importantly, meets the One whose very life is the life of the world. The miracle is the meeting and stepping out as one who is accompanied by God.

Paul’s testimony before the tribunal allowed him to speak this kind of truth and, even more, to point the way to the power of God, who swept him off his path and took him on a pilgrimage that has shaped the very course of history. We come to learn that there are assumptions underneath the testimony of Paul and the testimony of so many that have come after him. One of the key assumptions is that God will, in fact, encounter us. Like Paul on the road, God breaks into human life. Another assumption is that once we start talking about God’s inbreaking reality, we will be vulnerable, exposed. There is always the possibility of being rejected by those who hear us. Paul was. It is terribly risky and puts us at the mercy of the community. And it is worth our very life, because it is anchored in truth and way and life itself. This is a holy vocation, a calling that insists on depth of life and also a calling that awakens in each step we take.

In his book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer says, “Vocation does not mean a goal that I pursue. It means a calling that I hear. Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I must listen to my life telling me who I am. I must listen for the truths and values at the heart of my identity, not the standard by which I must live—but the standards by which I cannot help but live if I am living my own life” (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak, p. 5). The key question here is “What must you do?” And that is tied to who you must be. The real task is learning to love—others to be sure, but also the harder task at times is learning to love ourselves. We are a “peculiar treasure”! And for the love of God, we are loved beyond knowing.

I remember a scene from the sitcom All in the Family that moved me deeply. The TV series centered around the curmudgeon Archie Bunker and other family members, such as Archie’s daughter, Gloria, and her husband, Meathead. There was a scene in which Meathead and Gloria are moving from the East Coast to the West Coast. Archie and Meathead have been tangling for years and years, insult to injury in the relationship. Archie the bigoted, sexist racist and Meathead the progressive, virulent liberal. But as Meathead and Gloria stand ready to depart, Meathead throws his arms around Archie Bunker and says, “You thought I hated you, but all the time I loved you.” And Archie Bunker simply stands there with no words to say, but the look on his face spoke a thousand words: “You thought I hated you, I would have preferred you didn’t exist; you considered it a done deal, but all the time I loved you.” This is the love that met Saul on the road: no romantic love but a love that would not let him go and a love that won’t let us go either.

As we meet Christ on the road of our lives, in the faces of the brokenhearted or the broken bodied, we realize we are not alone. We carry our vulnerability as we come to the table of the Lord. We stand in the midst of our faith community, gazing into the faces of those who accompany us through the course of our lives; here may we also experience the miracle of Christ, breaking in.

May you, this day, hear Christ’s voice, as Paul did all those years ago on this journey: not a voice of condemnation but a voice of invitation, a voice of deep courage, bravery, to speak true speech, as if our very lives depended on it. May our very lives be a testimony to Christ’s amazing grace, and may all we do be done with love and gratitude for this day of all the days of your life. Amen.