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“Who was I that I could hinder God?”

May 12th, 2010 No comments

“Who was I that I could hinder God?”1 (Acts 11:1-18)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 9, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Three Strangers at the Gate

Luke isn’t known for being terribly generous with words in his Gospel or in his book called Acts, but he has allotted 66 verses to this story of the conversion of Cornelius – the longest story in the book, and we heard the ending of it.

Last week, you’ll remember, we met faithful Ananias warily making his way down the street called Straight to pray for a certain blind man from Tarsus named Saul – because God had interrupted the ordinary. God had entered reality of human life – the broken and the beautiful – with blinding lights and simple prayers, and called these two men to something new and important.

It seems God must have a habit for doing that sort of thing, because here we are, one week later, and this time, it’s a bewildered Peter meeting three strangers at the gate and trying to find his way from Joppa to Caesarea, to the house of the Centurion named Cornelius. He wasn’t sure why or what it all meant or even what he was really supposed to do, but he was going.

Jesus once said to Nicodemus, “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear the sound of if, but you can’t tell where it comes from or where it’s going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” Well, you didn’t have to stay up late to catch this midnight conversation to know it was true – not if you’d ever met Jesus. More than once, Jesus would say or do something, and the people would look around amazed, asking one another, “Who is this man?!”

That’s the kind of thing Peter asked himself everyday as he saw Jesus going around healing the sick, casting out demons, preaching strange things like love of enemies, and sticking to it while confronting temple and empire alike with his radical message of God’s Kingdom, even predicting his own death and resurrection, and then following through with it all. Some folks hated this Jesus for what he said and did; others loved him. Just about everybody was puzzled by him at one point or another.

And there was Peter through it all, just as bewildered as the lot of them. Now by this time in the story, I imagine Peter was still puzzled at what God was doing, but my guess is he was at least used to being puzzled at God’s actions. Strangers showing up at the gate with odd requests aren’t so strange after all when you’ve met the risen Lord. You know a thing or two about how the wind blows.

From Joppa to Caesarea

It was quite something, that windy journey from Joppa to Caesarea. There were at least ten of them in all along the road that day – Peter, the three men from the gate who were sent by Cornelius, and Peter’s six friends who got caught up in the whirlwind and were along for moral support. They all noticed Peter was still just as distracted as he was when they had found him at the gate. No doubt, he was still musing over the vision he’d had the previous day, just before the three strangers arrived with their odd story about the centurion Cornelius.

It’s a scary thing, after all, to be asked to give up a part of who you are. Peter was a good Jew and knew that all those creatures on the mysterious sheet weren’t permitted to be eaten. That was how you knew who was a Jew. Give that up, and little by little, they would blend in with everybody else in the empire, and before long, the little minority people of God would be casually forgotten. The details are important when you’re the minority.

But slowly he allowed himself to make the obvious connection – the one he’d been trying to work his way out of the entire journey. As he stepped into Cornelius’s home, I think he was starting to realize in his heart what the vision was about.

Preaching Peace to the Powerful

Of course, he certainly didn’t expect to find a centurion – one of those Romans who were part of the foreign military occupation of the Jewish homeland – wrapped around his feet. But so it was, a centurion bowing in worship before a puzzled and somewhat reluctant leader of the apostolic church.

Now “whatever Peter [had] to offer to this man, it [was] something more than the power of his own personality.”2 After correcting the centurion’s misguided devotion, the questions began to come. Peter wanted to hear it from Cornelius why he was there.

And Peter began to preach to this centurion about the gospel of peace, Luke says. If you read through the book of Acts, you’ll realize it was pretty much the stock sermon Peter had been using all along the preaching circuit.

He was getting close to the end, when he discovered what he knew in his heart, what the spirit had been teaching him, was true. The Holy Spirit had interrupted his sermon to fall upon all who were gathered. Outsiders were becoming insiders; enemies were becoming partners in the Gospel. And in his heart, Peter knew it, and was amazed. It turned out God had a different sort of identity and security in mind.

On the Road from Caesarea to Jerusalem

But his Jewish friends back in Jerusalem were skeptical at best. Funny how we’re often skeptical when God chooses someone unexpected. Philip Gulley tells it perfectly in his fictional novel, Just Shy of Harmony, about a pastor of a small-town Quaker congregation. One of the people on the fringes of the congregation was diagnosed with terminal leukemia. The pastor and the congregation prayed earnestly for healing, but healing didn’t come.

Well, some of the members were avid disciples of a greasy televangelist named Johnny LaCosta – the kind of guy who would claim to heal someone for you if you donated enough money to his organization. They were all to happy to recommend ways the pastor could be more like their dear televangelist. So they sent off a donation with their request for the woman to be healed.

A few days later, in a big production, Johnny LaCosta declared that the woman had been healed. When the pastor heard about it, he wouldn’t believe it, but sure enough, the leukemia was gone. Flustered, all the pastor could say was, “God didn’t use Johnny LaCost to heal Sally. God doesn’t use people like that.”

I don’t know about you, but I can sure identify with the Quaker pastor on this one. Even with all the hype and the commercialization of the Gospel, and the scamming of the folks who didn’t know any better, it looked like God had gone and chosen a fraud instead of the earnest people who’d been praying for weeks.

But as Peter knew so well, justice isn’t so much a question of people getting what’s coming to them, as it is God’s awesome power to redeem. God used bewildered Peter, who didn’t completely understand why he was there with Cornelius, reciting his usual sermon, but God redeemed Peter’s faithful response, interrupting it as the Spirit blew into the lives of those Gentiles who had gathered. The Gospel made the surprising leap from the Jewish people of God to the Gentiles. Where would it go next?

I recall one evening at the homeless shelter in Newton. A woman who was trying to break her drug addiction was struggling with the temptation to leave and get another fix. She was weeping as she was telling her story, and just then, another resident walked in and immediately knew what was going on because he’d already been through it. I watched as he comforted her and sat with her in a way that no one else could, and I was amazed. Here were all these cradle Christian volunteers, ready to step in to the rescue, but God chose to redeem this man’s broken past for something beautiful.

Now I don’t believe that God desired this man’s past self-destructive choices any more than I believe God desired Rome’s brutal occupation of Caesarea or the rest of the Holy Land. But God took this man, all that he was, poor choices, good choices in all, and used him to minister to someone in need, and I can assure you, what I saw was a witness to the risen Lord’s presence with us.

Graduating seniors, today we congratulate you and send you along your journey with our blessing and prayerful support. Like everyone else here, you’ll likely get it wrong a frustrating part of the time, or you won’t even get it at all, but God will still redeem you, God will still use you in amazing ways, just as God already is.

Who was I that I could hinder God?”

Peter didn’t really understand what was going on with his vision and the strangers at the gate, but he went, and God used his faithful response. Cornelius wouldn’t have bowed down to worship Peter if he would have really understood about God, but God met him where he was and sent the gift of the Holy Spirit to nurture and redeem the spark of faith in his heart.

So here we’ve met Paul and Ananias, Cornelius and Peter – four people, one hostile to the faith, one steadfast, another seeking but needing a lot of direction, and one perpetually puzzled – all being continually converted and called into God’s purposes. And all they could do was get out of God’s way – “Who was I that I could hinder God?” Peter wondered aloud.

That’s the puzzling picture of conversion in Acts. People encounter the gospel and experience the Holy Spirit at work in their lives, and they respond. Ananias didn’t win Paul over because his apologetic was bulletproof; God did as Paul encountered the risen Lord. Peter didn’t convert Cornelius with his preaching prowess; God did as Cornelius encountered the risen Lord. In fact God interrupted Peter’s speech to send the Holy Spirit.

Now of course as God’s people, we have a purpose and a calling. After all, God worked through Peter’s and Ananias’s faithful responses, but they could only respond faithfully because they had seen where God was already at work.

I know a lot of us have been thinking about things like evangelism, outreach, and witness here of late, about how to do it best, what will be most effective, who to reach out to and when. And these are all great questions that we need to continue asking. But what if we ask a slightly different question first? What if we ask, where is God already at work, and where is God calling us to join in? The challenge to Peter wasn’t to find Cornelius, but to hear the strangers already knocking at the gate.

And I imagine that as we respond in faithful witness to what the risen Lord is doing, God will continue to convert us as well, to redeem our faithful attempts, and to give even to us “the repentance that leads to life.”

[Improvised conclusion I can’t remember – Sorry!]

Notes:

1Acts 11:17.

2William Willimon, Acts in WJK’s Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching/Preaching series, 97.



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It happened somewhere in Damascus

May 5th, 2010 No comments

It happened somewhere in Damascus” (Acts 9:1-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
May 2, 2010, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

Somewhere in Damascus. . .

Saul’s conversion (we all know him better as Paul, but his friends still know him as Saul) is one of those stories that always pops to the top of Biblical favorites, what with the blinding lights, heavenly voices, fantastic visions, and eerie scales falling away from clouded eyes. Well, it’s one of my favorites too, especially because it’s about someone who’s the kind of guy I fancy I’d hope to become like one day.

You see, deep down, at the very heartbeat of his soul, he was a man who loved the Lord. Whatever else you might say about him, he was a man who loved the Lord. Whatever else you might say about him, he was one who kept the commandments – “lived according to the law,” the Jewish folk at the market would say to one another, nodding approvingly as they picked through the familiar aisles of produce.

If there were two things you could count on in the world, he would never lack in devotion, and the olives were on aisle one. That was the arrangement of things, and people liked it that way.

Yes, this Ananias we meet somewhere in Damascus, he’s my kind of Guy. There wasn’t anything too flashy about him. Down at the synagogue, they didn’t know him for his charismatic preaching. His fellow followers of the Way didn’t care that he never got an article published in Christianity Today, or that he wasn’t ever picked first for Bible Bowl.

Old Ananias, he was what I think of as the sturdy backbone of the church – the people who simply love the Lord, show compassion for others, and do what’s right. I imagine Ananias was the kind of guy everyone called “uncle,” who would sit in his cozy old rocking chair and smile warmly as he said simple things in wise ways. A solid, dependable guy. And I figure, that’s the kind of guy I’d like to be someday.

Interrupting the Usual

Well, solid, dependable old Ananias was a little shaky as he navigated the unfamiliar twists and turns of the street with the unusual name, Straight, each step taking him further and further away from what he knew, what was dependable, the way things were supposed to be.

The day started out in the regular way, with the usual breakfast and the traditional prayer, the regular chores, the same old conversations about weather and who’s sick with which ailment and who’s taking the meal down to the Gentile family who just lost their land.

And then, at about noon, it happened.1 His day was interrupted, and there was a new voice rustling into this cozy home somewhere in Damascus. “Ananias,” he heard in his inner ear. Ananias, he may have been a little surprised, but he was wise enough to know what was going on. “Here I am, Lord,” he repeated, following the usual arrangement people had been using ever since Samuel heard his name late one night.

Of course, it doesn’t matter if it happens at noon or at night; when the Lord calls, new things happen, and old things get re-arranged, and so Ananias didn’t find himself about his usual duties passing out alms and praying with the distraught in his neighborhood somewhere in Damascus, but on this street called Straight, making his way, sure and steady, to his this house of the one called Judas, looking for that man from Tarsus.2

That Man from Tarsus

That young man from Tarsus had made quite a name for himself, indeed. His pedigree was as fine as any son of Israel – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the stock of Israel. . . a Hebrew among Hebrews,”3 a Pharisee of the Pharisees, student of the great Gamaliel, outdistancing his peers in zeal for the traditions of his people, blameless under the law. He was the great defender of righteousness, the crusading warrior urging his mighty steed into the ranks of blasphemy to protect the faith. And the people cheered that man who came from Tarsus.

But not Ananias. His palms got sweaty, and his shoulders tightened, his heart raced, and his stomach turned every time he thought about that man, the one from Tarsus.

It doesn’t take cell phones or news feeds for word to spread quickly. Good old Ananias knew everything about that man from Tarsus, the one still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, the one who looked on and nodded his approval as Stephen succumbed to the stones that broke his body, the one who sneered as devout men buried him, the one, that violent man from Tarsus, who ravaged the church, entering house after house, scoffing at those who called on Jesus’ name and bringing the followers of his Way bound in chains back to the deathly dungeons of Jerusalem.

Ananias had reminded the Lord about this man from Tarsus (v. 13) and his many atrocities, just as most of us from time to time remind the Lord in the unspoken prayers of the subconscious about those folks who aren’t headed down the path we deem right.

But that’s another thing I like about good ol’ reliable Ananias. Nothing hidden from God, nothing packed down in his subconscious prayers, not even the questions, the doubt, the fear and the pain. It’s all there, fully alive before God. No synthetic ivory tower sterility for Ananias, he offered it all to God, the broken and the beautiful.

Brother Saul

And then, it happened. You see, Jesus has never been afraid to be born into our broken lives or our beautiful lives, to walk with us, transform us, and redeem us for God’s purposes. So the Lord once again entered Ananias’s fear and pain and simply said to him, “Get up and go, for I have chosen him.”

Now I don’t know how it happened or even when it happened. Maybe it was immediate. Maybe it was as Ananias stepped carefully through the street called Straight. Maybe it was when he entered the house of the man named Judas and say that man from Tarsus face to face for the first time, but it happened.

Somehow, sometime, somewhere, fear changed into hope, anger changed into compassion and calling, brokenness into beauty. “That man from Tarsus” became “Brother Saul.” Of course, Ananias knew Brother Saul’s past hadn’t changed. He had nodded in approval as Stephen died. He had been breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He had been on his way to Damascus with violence in his heart.

And, it had happened. There was the blinding light and the voice from heaven that had told Brother Saul also to “get up and go” back along the same road to Damascus, but with a new direction in his heart. And for three days, his eyes and his stomach had been sealed shut.

It Happened on the Street Called Straight

So there they were, these two men, face to face – these two men, who, at the heartbeat of their souls, were men who loved the Lord, these two men, admired by their peers, but called and sent in a new direction, one graced with charisma, the other with steady discipleship. These two men, so different yet so alike, were face to face in Judas’s house on that street called Straight because it had happened to them.

As Ananias stared at Brother Saul, and Saul stared back through unseeing eyes, they knew there was more yet. They knew at the heartbeat of faith that God had been revealed in spelndor before them, that they had been called to something new and important that was taking place, and that their journey was not yet complete.

You see, it happened, one more time, because with God, nothing that’s sealed (i.e. Saul’s eyes) is sealed forever. And this time, there weren’t any visions or voices or blinding flashes of light. There was just one man placing his hands on the other and offering the simplest prayer of blessing, and I’ll bet you Brother Saul heard an echo of that same voice from the road three days before, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit,” and his eyes were opened.

And it continued to happen as the waters – simple waters – of baptism washed over Brother Saul’s dusty head and shoulders. And it continued to happen as a simple meal warmed his body to new life, new identity in Christ. Faith didn’t need the valiant protector it lost that day that crooked paths of fear and violence came to be called straight streets of hope and peace, but Faith had gained a witness, all because it happened.

Somewhere in our Lives. . .

You see, it turns out the story isn’t really about my man Ananias, not even abou the man from Tarsus who became Brother Saul. Conversion, calling, it all happens because of God who interrupts our ordinary lives where the olives are always on aisle one, who enters our beautiful, yet broken lives, and something new happens. Sometimes it’s a flash or a vision; sometimes it’s a stranger’s voice or a hand on the shoulder; sometimes it’s a simple meal.

But how or when it happens is less important than that it happens, and that it is God who has become present again among us, to make something new, to spark something, to transform fear into hope, brokenness into beauty and darkness into bright light, to call to life that great joy and struggle and mystery we call faith.

When has it happened to you? And when it happens, God also offers us a choice, an invitation, really. Which road to Damascus will we take – the familiar, well-worn old road of violence and fear, or the new Way of peace, of witness, of faith, and of hope? May it happen somewhere in our lives. Amen.

1The particular construction found in Acts 9:3 (egeneto auton + infinitive) is awkward grammatically, and egeneto is often dropped in translation. Literally, here it is “it happened” or “it came to pass.” It is a sort of transitional word, but in Luke-Acts it often signals God’s intrusion of some sort (e.g. Luke 2:1, 24:4).

2Ananias at first simply refers to Saul as “this/that man” (9:13).

3Php. 3:5-6.

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