The challenges of change (May 28, 2023)

A lesson for May 28, 2023, about Acts 9, boundaries, and belonging.

Outlook Standard Lesson for May 28, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Acts 9:1-31

The Damascus Road experience

Most people become Christians gradually, usually through training as they grow up in church. Even those who convert to Christianity as adults typically make that change over a period of time, rather than in an instant.

Saul’s experience of being struck down on his way to Damascus, and the immediate change in his life’s direction, is such an extraordinary event that it spawned the oft-used term “Damascus Road experience.” It is an exceptional rather than normative way of conversion to faith in Jesus.

Few of us can identify with Saul’s dramatic experience in this text, but most of us can readily identify with the Christian community in Damascus as it struggles over what to do with him after his conversion. Rather than having a “Damascus Road experience,” we find ourselves faced with a “Damascus church experience.”

The Damascus church problem

What do we do with strangers who come to our doorstep in need? Often, we try to buy them off by giving them something to make them go away. We may feel genuine concern for them, but we are wary of inviting them inside the door, perhaps for good reason.

The church in Damascus had a very good reason for keeping Saul on the outside. He was a known menace to Christians everywhere, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” according to Acts 9:1. Who can blame them for wanting to keep themselves and their children safe?

We are unlikely to encounter someone seeking entry to the church that has threatened violence against its members. But we almost certainly will find ourselves facing situations where people who make us ill at ease seek entrance to our community. Perhaps they are from another ethnic or social group with which we are uncomfortable. Perhaps they are an ex-addict or ex-convict.

Most congregations take pride in being places of welcome to visitors. It’s easy to be friendly with people we know, or with those who look like us or think like us.

Every church wants to grow, but we need to search our souls whether we are willing to welcome people who make us feel uncomfortable. If not, our chances of growing are slim.

The spirit of Ananias and Barnabas

Would that every congregation had an Ananias and Barnabas! Without them, Saul may never have found a place of welcome in the Christian community.

Extending Saul the right hand of fellowship is anything but easy for Ananias. He initially pushes back against the voice of the Spirit, citing Paul’s history of violence. He struggles against his own misgivings, just like everyone else in the church.

But Ananias stays open enough to hear the Spirit of the Lord pushing him to look beyond what’s right in front of him. God can change Saul into something entirely different than what he has been. Ananias welcomes Saul not out of confidence in Saul, but out of confidence in the God who makes us a “new creation” in Christ.

Ananias soon finds an ally in Barnabas, who like Ananias is willing to give Saul a chance despite his track record. Together they face down the rest of the church that wants to reject Saul. The power of one or two who believe over many who don’t is truly amazing.

Commenting on the Lord’s Prayer, John Calvin asks who is the “we” when we pray “Our” Father. Who are we praying with? All who are “the elect” is the right answer. But who all does that include? Only God knows. He concludes that we ought to consider and treat everyone as though they are among the elect, no matter how much they look otherwise at the present. Who knows what God might have in store for them in the future (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.38)?

This was exactly what Ananias and Barnabas did. They embraced Saul as a brother even though all evidence to date suggested otherwise. They trusted Saul’s profession of faith as being sufficient to welcome him into the community.

In the PC(USA), the only standard for membership is a profession of faith in the Lord Jesus. That means we must be ready to embrace people regardless of how they look or think, or of their track record. Is their profession of faith genuine? Only the Lord knows. Ours is not to judge, but to show the generosity of Ananias and Barnabas.

Questions for discussion

  1. Tell about someone you know whose life changed dramatically when they professed faith in Jesus. How did it go for them when they sought to become members of the church?
  2. How do we balance our concern for the church’s safety with the generosity of Ananias and Barnabas when someone with a history of violence seeks to join our faith community?

Want to receive worship-related content in your inbox on Mondays? Sign up here.