Desired and Disrupted

Sermon on Acts 9:1-6

Psalm 30:2-4 My God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. You brought me up, God, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave. Sing to God, you beloved of God; give thanks for the remembrance of God’s holiness.

Introduction

Encounters change us. They can be big or small, prolonged or brief. Sometimes the change is little, sometimes it’s big. Sometimes the encounter is good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes we’re left with warm fuzzies; other times we’re left with the cool pricklies. The encounters can be with other humans, an animal, out in nature, up in the mountains, and down on the beach. Everything and everyone we encounter changes us in some degree. We’re all material girls in this material world; we’re bound to be changed by other materials floating and flitting about.

And then there are the encounters that not only change us, they overhaul us. These are encounters that blend the material and the spiritual, physical and metaphysical. They reduce us to the marrow of existence, hand us over to death, and then beckon us into resurrected new life. We’re new creations facing new directions, walking new paths with new eyes to see and ears to hear; suddenly, everything looks and feels and sounds and tastes and smells different.

These encounters are with God in the event of faith. They can happen anywhere, at any time, and they are completely out of our control. We cannot fabricate them, plan them, cause them, manipulate them, or repeat them. There’s no doctrine to be determined from them, there’s no dogma to be latched on to. They happen, and they change us forever and make us new, wrapped up in this encounter with God. They can be with another living being or not at all; they can be in the four walls of the church or completely outside of them. God decides when God encounters us, and they can happen even in the least likely of places, when we are the furthest from the goal, completely dead set on our way or the high way, headstrong and determined about our own doing and goings on. And they will always be personal and they will always incorporate our entire selves.[1]

Acts 9:1-6

Now, Saul, still breathing with threats and murder towards the disciples of the Lord…Now while journeying it happened to him nearing Damascus, suddenly a light flashed around him like lightening from heaven and after falling up on the earth he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And [Saul] said, “Who are you Lord” And [Jesus] said “ I, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…” [2]

(Acts 9: 1a, 2-5)

Saul’s story—told by Luke here in Acts—is a story about God encountering Saul. This story tells us something of God and of Saul. Saul was, by no stretch of the imagination, a killer, a man bent in on himself and his own human logic of things divine. And, he was travelling to Damascus with authority to imprison and if necessary execute those who will not obey his exhortation to return from following (and worshipping!) this dead man, Jesus.[3] And here we see privilege drunk on its own power: those whom Saul hunts—the followers of the way—have no recourse, no chance, no ability to fight against Saul and resist him.[4] He is like a mountain that is about to fall on them and they have only meager stones to fight back. Saul will seek, and they will be found; they will lose, and Saul will win.

But not even Saul, with all his earned power and privilege and authority to pursue,[5] will be able to outrun the One who pursues him. As God meets up with Saul, Saul is forever changed. Saul is knocked off of his donkey on to his “donkey,” and when he gets up he is a brand-new person. Saul is 100% disrupted on his way to Damascus; his old ways disturbed and brought to death as he is consumed and enveloped in bright divine light. In this light, even before Jesus speaks to Saul, Saul experiences the love of this desiring God in his own person—his entire being[6] is about to be caught up in God.[7]

Even if this was enough, something more happens to Saul: Jesus speaks and asks Saul a profound question. Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me? Saul, why are you doing this to me? Saul knows this the Lord—Who are you Lord?—and would never persecute the Lord. Yet, he is persecuting those who are following this (same!) Jesus of Nazareth. And herein Luke tells us a fabulous story of the intimate bond between this Lord and the people of this Lord.[8] In this moment, the solidarity of God with the disenfranchised and oppressed, the hunted and hungry, the threatened and thirsty, is made known to Saul in dramatic and sudden fashion.[9] In other words, mess with the beloved, mess with God.

And as Saul encounters God in this moment in Christ’s self-revelation, Jesus the Christ and God become one. And, Jesus’s presence and God’s people become one. Saul moves from abstract to concrete, from theory to praxis, from ritualistic and traditionalist obedience to law to disruptive and redirecting activity of divine love.[10] Saul will have no choice but to set out on a new path in this new life found in the incarnate, crucified, raised, and ascended Christ. Saul will not be able to justify continuing on with his previous desires to imprison and execute the Followers of the Way;[11] in his entire being and presence, mind and heart, in his actions from here on out, all is changed, all is different, all is disrupted, all is new.

Conclusion

While every encounter changes us, when God encounters us God disrupts us. God does not affirm our former paths, the ones we were dead-set on, the ones we were determined to cling to certain we are right. When we are encountered by God, we’re rendered unto death and are resurrected into new life…not a nicer version of our old life, but a completely, new life. When we’re encountered by God, we’re made more ourselves being wrapped up in divine love and desire for us. And then we’re unleashed back into the world to love others as we’ve been loved, participating in Christ’s mission in the world by the power of the Holy Spirit, spreading divine love in passive and active ways, in expected and radical ways, in peaceful and revolutionary ways. We get to participate in another’s encounter with God in the event of faith; we get to be those who bring light into the dark, liberation where there is captivity, release where there is oppression, community where there is isolation, life where there is only death.

In a text by Dorothee Sölle, she refers to (at length) Helmut Gollwitzer’s personal confession of encounter with God in the event of faith, I will close by quoting a portion of it:

The most important thing, from which all the rest follows is that through hearing what can be heard of him I have never been alone. Certainly, like anyone else, I have often enough felt alone, abandoned, helpless, but he has spoken to this solitude with his ‘I am here.’ ‘I spoke to him, asked him, heard very clear words which be said to me, had to take account of them—and the spell of solitude was broken.

He gave me – still gives me – things to do. He is involved in a great work, the greatest here on earth: the revolution of the human race, the individual and all people, for a new life, for real, fulfilled humanity. That is what he is involved in, that is what he is winning for his disciples. To become involved in that is already to participate in the new life oneself. …The connection with Jesus’ great work given an eternal significance even to the most unlikely things: nothing will be lost. A joyful meaning enters into all action.

He makes people dear to me. Some of them are dear anyway, and many others are not. He tells me that he loves those who are alien, indifferent or even unattractive to me. In so doing he helps me to behave in a different way, to be capable of talking, listening to others as openly and seriously as I would like them to listen to me and take me seriously, never writing anyone off, never pronouncing a final judgment on anyone, always attempting new things with them in hope… They all become my neighbours.

In this way he disturbs to me. Because of his intervention I cannot behave as I wanted to at first. Of course, unfortunately I often do just that. But be does not leave me to my inclinations and moods. He struggles with me, there are arguments, and sometimes he prevails. To be disturbed in this way is the healthiest thing that can happen to us. … He does not restrict my freedom; he is not I despotic superego against which I have to fight to come to myself; on the contrary, the more I allow myself to be governed by his intervention, the forces, the more open, the more friendly and the more joyful I become.[12]

Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle

As of Easter, in light of Christ’s resurrection from the dead, in tune with Saul’s encounter with God, you are the wonderfully disrupted, disturbed, and desired beloved of God. Go forth, and disturb, disrupt and desire by the power of the love of God and Christ and the Holy Spirit.


[1] Willie James Jennings Acts Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible Eds Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher. Louisville, KY: WJK, 2017. 93. “The revealing God yet remains hidden in revelation. This hiddenness is not because God hides, but because, as Karl Barth says God controls God’s own self-revealing, we do not. God comes to us one at a time, specifically, uniquely in the singularity that is our life. God comes to you and to me, as only God can come to you and me, as God, our God. The coming is a calling. A drawing, an awakening of our life to its giver and lover.”

[2] Translation mine unless otherwise noted.

[3] Jennings Acts 90. “Saul is a killer. We must never forget this fact he kills in the name of righteousness, and now he wants legal permission to do so. This is the person who travels the road to Damascus, one who has the authority to take life either through imprisonment or execution. No one is more dangerous than one with the power to take life and who already has mind and sight set on those who are a threat to a safe future. Such a person is a closed circle relying on the inner coherence of their logic.”

[4] Jennings Acts 91. “The disciples of the Lord, the women and men of the Way, have no chance against Saul. They have no argument and certainly no authority to thwart his zeal They are diaspora betrayers of the faith who are a dear and present danger to Israel. This is how Saul sees them. His rationality demands his vision of justice. But what Saul does not yet know is that the road to Damascus has changed. It is space now inhabited by the wayfaring Spirit of the Lord. Saul pursues, but he is being pursued.”

[5] Richard J. Cassidy Society and Politics in the Acts of the Apostles Eugen, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1987. 80. “Within Luke’s portrait of his activities, the fact that Paul received approval for this initiative implies that he had emerged as a dedicated and trusted ally of the chief priests and was no longer to regarded merely as the young custodian of their cloaks.”

[6] Jennings Acts 92. “’The Lord and Jesus have been connected in Saul’s body, and they can never be separated again.”

[7] Jennings Acts 90. “God disrupts the old order by interrupting lives. Luke has removed every temporal wall that might separate in our thinking the God who moved in ancient Israel from the God present in the world in Jesus from this God of untamable love. This is the same Holy One, and Saul too will fall into the hands of this desiring God.”

[8] Jennings Acts 92-93. “Jesus is one with the bodies of those who have called on his name and followed in his way by the Spirit Their pain and suffering is his very own. This too is scandal, this too is a crossed line. The mystery of God is found in human flesh, moving in and with the disciples who are a communion of suffering and a witness to life. Saul is meeting a God in Jesus who is no alien to time, but one who lives the everyday with us. The shared life of Jesus continues with his disciples as he takes hold of their horrors and they participate in his hopes. Yet just as he confronted Saul, this God is no passive participant in the suffering of the faithful, but one who has reconciled the world and will bring all of us to the day of Jesus Christ Saul has entered that new day.”

[9] Jennings Acts 91. “The power of this event almost overwhelms its textual witness. Luke is handling holy fire now. The question comes directly to Saul. This is a question too massive for him to handle because it is an intimate one. ‘Why are you hurting me?’…In our world, this genre of question flows most often out of the mouths of the poor and women and children. The question casts light on the currencies of death that we incessantly traffic in, and it has no good answer. The only good answer is to stop. But now this is God’s question. It belongs to God. It belongs with God. Hurt and pain and suffering have reached their final destination, the body of Jesus.”

[10] Jennings Acts 92. “This is the bridge that has been crossed in Israel. The Lord and Jesus are one. This is the revelation that now penetrates Saul’s being and will transform his identity. He turns from the abstract Lord to the concrete Jesus. …Saul moves from an abstract obedience to a concrete one, from the Lord he aims to please to the One who will direct him according to divine pleasure. Discipleship is principled direction taken flight by the Holy Spirit It is the “you have heard it said, but I say to you—the continued speaking of God bound up in disruption and redirection.”

[11] Jennings Acts 90. “There is no rationale for killing that remains intact in the presence of God.”

[12] Helmut Gollwitzer qtd in Dorothee Sölle Thinking About God: An Introduction to Theology Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1990. Gollwitzer’s statement is from H. Spaemann (ed.), Wer ist Jesus von Nazareth—für mich? 100 eitgenössische Zeugnisse (Munich: 1972) 21ff.

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