Old Testament Lesson: Psalm 90:1-2
New Testament Lesson: Acts 9:1-20
Gospel Lesson: John 21:1-19
We’ve all seen it on television.
The person –almost always a man – is caught-out in some crime, scheme, affair, or other example of moral turpitude.
Upon being exposed or convicted or imprisoned, he grants an interview wherein he says he has ‘found God’.
How does hearing that affect you?
Well, it affects me like this:
The two boys were in 3rd grade. They were friends and frequently in trouble – or close to it. After frequent trips to the principal’s office for misbehavior, both the principal and the teacher were just over it. Yet again were these boys acting out in class. The teacher send them – yet again – to the principal’s office.
Well, the principal was exasperated.
He decided to take a different tact with the boys. Instead of lecturing them together, he decided to split them up. So, he called one of the boys into his office, making the other boy sit in the waiting room to ‘stew’.
He launched into his oft-repeated lecture, but realized the futility of his effort.
He had his back to the boy, but wheeled around, pointed his finger at the boy and abruptly said,
“I’ve just got one question for you, little mister. Where is God?”
There was a palpable silence for a prolonged moment.
“I just want you to think about that. Now get out of here and go back to class and behave yourself.”
Upon exiting the principal’s office, the second boy asked wide-eyed:
“What happened in there?”
“Well, it’s bad. It seems God has gone missing and the principal thinks we had something to do with it!”
When someone says they ‘found God’, I cannot help but think of this little story.
It always bothers me a bit because saying ‘I found God’ implies He is or has been lost or misplaced or is missing – when a more accurate statement would be that – for that person – God had been ignored.
Surely we all know God is omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent.
Theologically as well as practically, it is not possible for God to be ‘lost’; thus – in reality – He cannot be ‘found’.
He is the Alpha and the Omega; the beginning and the end. He is from everlasting to everlasting.
His name is I AM;
Not I was or I will be…always I AM.
Always present in the moment of every life, of every age.
So, when I hear someone caught in extremis saying ‘I found God’, I just have this visceral reaction…and I must admit…I am usually skeptical of the veracity of the pronouncement. It often seems just a bit too coincidental that getting caught conjures up God, and this ‘finding’ is stated such that it implies:
“I am not really a bad guy….see…I have found God…thus should I be afforded the opportunity skate on punishment.”
Let me say here…I am so thankful judging any confession of faith is a God-job. It is not my job, or your job. We can be confident of the Holy Spirit’s ability to separate the wheat from the chaff; that God is not mocked; that the great I AM sees each heart and knows without variance those confessions which are genuine and which are not.
That is not our job, but allowing that to be God’s job is a hard discipline for believers to inculcate.
But, God is never lost.
Today’s Gospel lesson is instructional in that – after the Resurrection, after having seen Jesus in their midst, these disciples returned to the work they had left 3 years before.
They went fishing.
Now, it is a sermon for another day about how Jesus asked them to abandon their learned methodology about fishing and cast on ‘the other side’.
This is a great lesson in discipleship but deserves its own treatment…so we’ll save it for another day.
Suffice it to say of this encounter, Jesus found the disciples, not the other way around.
And, he found them in the mundane and ordinary pursuit of life. Not on a spiritual retreat; not during a time when they were diligently ‘searching’ for spiritual enlightenment – not even in church.
Just in ordinary life.
He found them.
For Grace is always at God’s initiative and at His invitation.
We have all heard of ‘A Damascus Road Experience’.
This phrasing connotes a sudden and radical change of heart, of context, of opinion, and of motivation – all triggered by a dramatic encounter with God, and always at God’s initiative.
Fact is however, many Christians never experience anything so dramatic; so obvious.
Many of us grow up in Christian homes; are ‘church-folk’ all our lives, and never know a time when we did not know and believe that Jesus loves us, forgives us, and saves us for His work (but not for God’s job…)
I am such a Christian, and when younger it bothered me on occasion that I could not speak to a dramatic conversion.
I remember in certain instances feeling ‘pressure’ to gin-up such an encounter, if only to feel my bonafides were as good as the other people’s in the group.
Bill Shea put this anxiety and shallowness about Grace to naught when he asked me if I remembered being born.
No one does.
The ‘proof’ of our birth is not that we can recall the event; rather is it that we are alive.
So it is with faith.
The ‘proof’ is not recalling (or confabulating) a Damascus Road Experience such that we can keep pace with campfire stories of such epiphanies.
Rather the ‘proof’ of our faith is in our confession and then in how this confession plays out in our lives.
So, no Damascus Road Experience for me.
Maybe not for you either.
But for Paul, it was essential to his appropriate surrender to Jesus.
I was talking with Bob Shetler about this Acts passage.
We discussed just how can we position Paul’s conversion to Christianity such that it convey the astounding shock and totally unexpected happening it was to the people of the Middle East of that day.
Bob said it might be like us hearing that Billy Graham announced his rejection of the Christian Faith and offered apology for all the lives he ruined in 60 years of crusades.
A really good analogy.
Surely no one would be unfazed by such an announcement. Shocked. Saddened. Blindsided. Befuddled. Heartsickend.
But not unfazed; not unmoved.
Such was likely the impact of Paul’s conversion.
Paul was the absolute heart-and-soul of the anti-Jesus movement in Israel at the nascence of the Church.
Educated throughout his formative years ‘at the feet of Gamaliel’ – the preeminent Hebrew scholar in the world at that time.
Princeton, Harvard, and Yale combined into one theocratic genius who knew the myriad intricacies of the Law, including the twin expositions upon the Law; the Mischa and the Talmud.
Paul was a favored pupil because he combined extraordinary intellect with fervent identification with arcane nuances of Hebrew Law and its concomitant theologies.
Listen to Paul’s elaboration upon his pedigree in Acts 22:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up and educated here in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs. I became very zealous to honor God in everything I did.”
Later in this same discourse (Chapter 23) we learn Paul was a Roman citizen by birth – not by purchase or rank or political favor.
He was indeed the Billy Graham of the zealously righteous and religiously rigid phalanx within the Hebrew faith.
He was politically connected to the Office of the High Priest and was a Pharisee.
It would be difficult to overstate Paul’s Orthodox Hebrew pedigree – but what made him so very effective was his guttural zeal in persecuting Christians and trying to obliterate the emerging Church, which zeal he ascribed to God’s influence.
If you read the New Testament you will be amazed at Paul’s intellectual prowess as – subsequent to his conversion – he interacted with Greek philosophers at Mars Hill, sparred with Hebrew intelligentsia, and wrote much of what became the New Testament as he established churches literally all over the Middle East, Asia Minor, and even into Europe.
Billy Graham indeed.
But first was the Damascus Road.
Paul’s literal, spiritual, physical, emotional, and mental encounter with the Risen Christ.
En route to yet another church-destroying and believer-killing episode, he was ‘stricken with Grace’…and his life was never the same.
In a recent radio message, Christian Apologist Ravi Zacharias spoke about the dilemma of Cultural Christians; Christians who allow culture to inform their faith instead of allowing their faith to inform their understanding of culture.
Of these, Ravi said:
“How hard it is to break ranks. The pressure to conform; to go along with current consensus is enormous. If these (cultural Christians) are casualties of success -being so mightily blessed – what on earth will failure look like?”
Hard for us to break ranks; not to conform.
Harder for Paul.
He had to come to that rare and elusive place of total surrender of ego, but of retention of a touched-by-Grace intellect.
The Christian faith requires the surrender of ego, not of intellect. Indeed Paul’s mighty intellect went far in establishing credibility and of lending credence to the early Church.
Imagine for a moment having your entire world-view completely eclipsed and altered in a single short encounter.
Imagine the days of introspection, self-doubt, re-thinking of events, and of the utter frustration of realizing ‘I was the smartest in the class, yet I never got the message…until that day on the Road’.
The early days of Paul’s Christian experience were often unpleasant.
Believers distrusted his ‘conversion’.
His past haunted him and eroded his credibility in advance of his appearance at almost every venue.
He tried to preach…intellect and knowledge notwithstanding…fell flat.
He sought exile and solace in the Arabian desert where over the period of some years Jesus Himself revealed the Gospel to Paul, and instructed him in how all the Old Covenant – all the Scripture – was in preparation for the Messiah.
Yet, Paul was among the great throng who missed Grace and Truth even as it lived among them.
Like the Easter narrative, we know how it all turned out, and this knowledge can tempt us to read Scripture with an “I know this all turns out good” approach.
Same with Paul’s life.
We can miss ‘living in the moment’ by being cavalier about our knowledge of how it turns out.
But at the time…in the moment…it was simultaneously shattering and renewing; dismantling and joyously constructive.
Paul’s experience is instructive for us in many ways.
Primarily it shows us how God’s love takes everything prior to our trusting of Grace and ‘works it together for good’ for the Kingdom of God.
It also shows us what appropriate surrender to Jesus looks like.
It is a person who shelves ego and at the same time puts his or her intellect at the disposal of the Holy Spirit – to do those good works God has prepared for us.
And, Paul’s experience is the perfect definition of discipleship: ‘A willingness to learn yet more new things about God’.
Paul had to re-learn almost everything he thought he knew. And anyone would assume – given his ‘Hebrew-ness’, God would have sent Paul to witness to the Jews.
Nope. Paul was sent to the Gentiles, while Peter – the rough-hewn fisherman – was sent to the Jews.
How is it with you today?
In your civil moments do you realize you are perhaps a too-rigid Christian; one prone to use the Bible more as a weapon than as a welcome; one who is quick to say what you are against but maybe a bit slower to say what you believe?
Are you a little like Paul the day before the Damascus Road?
I was like that in my early adulthood and I would have likely hurt people had I tried to become a pastor then.
Or are you more like the cultural Christian whose faith is informed by culture rather than the other way around?
Have you found it too hard to break ranks?
Have you felt too keenly the pressure to conform to society’s and culture’s definitions and determinations, and have you found that (to be) a dry landscape amidst a life of verdant blessings?
If you are at either juncture in your life, perhaps today can be your Damascus Road…right here in beautiful downtown McIntosh.
God is not lost or missing.
He is still I AM from everlasting to everlasting.
It is still Jesus’ work to seek, save, forgive and love sinners.
Paul was liberated by his appropriate surrender to the Savior.
You can be also.
From the Damascus Road on throughout his life, Paul experienced a willingness to learn new things about God.
So can you.
I hope you meet Him today and appropriately surrender your life to the Risen Christ Who loves you more than you can ever imagine.
And then to embark upon a life of willingness to learn yet new things about your faith, about Grace, about Jesus.
Let’s do that together.
Thanks be to God.