Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19
My husband chairs the board of a small, local nonprofit working in the area of affordable housing. They have a warehouse of items that have been donated to help with maintaining homes – everything from sod to kitchen sinks. The space to keep all these things has been blessedly donated, but recently the owner finally found a paying client and rented out the space. A new free location was found, but there was the need to move everything: shelving, appliances, bags of grass seed, Christmas decorations and much more. The time frame was tight and the available volunteers few. Calls were made and somehow it came to pass that some inmates from the county prison were enlisted into service.
The morning of the move, one of the volunteers brought doughnuts and coffee; later in the day she made a hot dog lunch for everyone. Prisoners, guards and volunteers worked side by side and got the job done in short order. The atmosphere was joyous, the help deeply appreciated, the gratitude for doughnuts and hot dogs huge. My husband said of the inmates, “They were really nice guys. We couldn’t have done it without them.”
I have no idea why these men were incarcerated. They were all in the last months of their sentences, eager to move forward, glad for a day outside of the prison gates and thankful for non-institutional food. They had reason to be in good spirits. I am sure their crimes were costly not just to themselves but to others. But even so, what I know is true of them and is true of all of us is this: We are more than the worst thing we have ever done. We are greater than the sum of our mistakes and misdeeds. Forgiveness is real. Reconciliation is possible. Transformation happens.
That’s the God-given word of these texts from both Acts and John. Through the grace of God, we are more than the worst thing we have ever done. We are greater than the sum of our mistakes. Forgiveness is real. Reconciliation is possible. Transformation happens.
Saul becomes Paul. Peter reverses course from three-time denier of Jesus to three-time affirmer of Christ. Who among us could have imagined either of those scenarios? Ananias had a tough time thinking Saul’s turnaround possible even after God told him it had already happened. I don’t imagine when the cock crowed that third time that Peter ever thought he’d have a chance to be redeemed. Saul, breathing threats and murder and following through on those threats, is an instrument whom God has chosen to bring God’s name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. What?! Jesus names Peter the rock and the one upon whom Christ’s church will be built. Peter, the one who denied and fled and appeared to lack all courage, will be the foundation upon which Christendom will stand. What?!
These are the tales that sound idle to us. These kinds of radical transformations feel utterly impossible to us. We are so polarized, so certain of our own rightness and therefore our own righteousness, so quick to assume the worst in whoever we deem “other,” that it is the stories of Saul and Peter, and so many other biblical extreme makeovers, that we think idle, foolish tales.
But to believe in the power of the resurrection is to also believe that through the grace of God Saul can become Paul and Simon turned into Peter. That’s a radical notion in our current climate and subsequently one that needs to be lifted up often.
Let’s be clear: Such radical transformation is God’s doing, not ours. However, it is our role to concede that God has that power and the will to make of us more than the worst thing we’ve ever done, greater than the sum of our mistakes; we are forgiven, loved and freed. It is our role, when God calls us to do so, to be Ananias, that person who bridges the gap between past lives and current character and behavior. It is our role to trust that God can remove the scales not only from others’ eyes but from ours, too. It is our role to share boldly how our vision is different and how others are changed people as well.
We have biblical documentation that folks were leery of the genuineness of Saul/Paul’s conversion. Such skepticism was warranted. Can you imagine being called upon to be his character witness early after that road to Damascus incident? How could Ananias be sure Saul/Paul wouldn’t go back to his murderous ways? He had to trust God’s word and step out in faith. So it is with us.
We have to be willing to take risks on people deemed less than a good risk. We have to pray that others will do so for us. We have to believe what many people of sound judgment might think idle tales because we know, through the victory won through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are more than the worst thing we have ever done and greater than the sum of our biggest mistakes. We are, in fact, forgiven, loved and freed. We are forgiven, loved and freed for a purpose, God’s purpose – maybe to be the rock upon which the next phase of the church is built, maybe to be the instrument through whom someone hears the gospel for the first time, maybe to be the one who bridges the gap between someone’s troubled past and a bright future.
“They were really nice guys.” Those inmates are not only nice guys, they are beloved children of God for whom Christ died and through whom the Triune God surely has the power to work for good. They may be the next Saul or a modern day Simon. So could that person with whom you vehemently disagree. So could you. Or do you think such resurrection power an idle tale?
- Can you think of examples of a contemporary Saul-turned-Paul? I read about a guy named Red and I think he qualifies. You can read about him here.
- In John 21:15-17, Jesus asks Peter three times: “Do you love me?” Jesus uses “agape” the first two times and “philia” the third time. Peter always answers with the word “philia.” What do you make of this? Is it significant?
- Put yourself in the place of Ananias. What questions would you have wanted to ask God before you went to Saul? Have you ever been in a role where you had to be a bridge person? Can you think of people and issues that you might be called to be a bridge person for in your community?
- The risen Christ tells the disciples to cast their net on the other side. For some reason they just kept doing what they’d been doing and therefore got the same results they’d been getting. How might we “cast our net to the other side” in our ministry and churches?
- The verses appointed from John’s Gospel offer an interesting contrast between the extraordinary of the appearance of the resurrected Jesus and the ordinary of daily work and eating breakfast. How and when do you see the risen Christ in the ordinary of daily living?
- Have you ever had a “road to Damascus” experience on any issue or person or idea? How did that change come about? Was it instantaneous or did it occur over time? Was it a pivotal point on your faith journey?
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