240414 – Renewed Passion

Yr C ~ Easter 2 ~ Acts 9:1-20

If you feel far from God, or if you’ve turned your back on blessings, or if you’re an atheist, or a radical agnostic, or just plain don’t really know what to make of this whole renewed life thing, then the Pharisee named Saul who “breathed threats and murder for those who belonged to the Way” might be your model for resurrection – for a renewed life.

But that’s not most of us. Most of us here are people of faith. We’re already followers of the Way of Jesus – like the ones Saul was after. We’re the insiders. For people like us the compelling character in this story is the virtually unknown disciple called Ananias.

Let’s look at Ananias’ story. It says the Lord spoke to him in a vision and called his name (which happens to mean “favoured of the Lord”). Ananias answers instantly, “Here I am Lord!”
Would you? Would you answer like that? Have you heard your name called in a vision?

In Ananias’ vision the Lord tells him to get up and go down to Straight St. (I know, their city planning department had no imagination whatsoever) and there you’ll find a guy named…Adolph Hitler! Well, it may as well have been! That Saul guy had orders to round up all the disciples of the Way and toss them in jail, and eventually they’d likely be killed.

So, the Lord is saying to Ananias, “Hey, nice little disciple, go and be all spiritual with the most horrible guy there is. Go and be loving to one who hates you, because Adolph (I mean Saul) has had a dream that you’re coming to him to pray with him!”

Ok, be honest. What would your reaction have been? “Say what?! Are you serious?! Everybody knows that dude is crazy and evil and only wants to kill us all!” Hey, that’s what I’d probably say; only I likely wouldn’t have been so polite about it! But Ananias did protest.
And what does the Lord reply to him?
“Don’t argue! Go! He’s the one I’m tapping to take this thing global! And now I’m about to show him how hard this Way is.”
To which Ananias probably said, “Man, I shouldn’t have had that double pepperoni pizza last night. Clearly I’ve got wicked indigestion!”

But he goes! He finds Saul who “For three days was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” – Hmm, three days, dark, no eating or drinking – it’s like he was dead and then on the 3rd day had new life. Where have I heard that story before?

How does Ananias resurrect Saul? He prays with him and lays hands on him – a practice that we maintain to this day. You saw it in our baptism a couple of weeks ago, and we used do it in our healing services, and we do it when ministers are ordained or commissioned too. It’s a physical connection that augments and amplifies a spiritual connection. Laying on hands is very spiritually powerful – indeed it says Saul was filled with the Spirit through this prayerful action.

And then the story goes that Saul’s eyes are opened, and he gets baptized, and then he stays a while with the very same disciples he was coming to arrest, and with their help he tries to make sense of his experience and gear up for his renewed life.

Both Saul and Ananias had what we would call today a mystical experience. Mystical experiences don’t have to include visions and voices, but in this case they did. The key to having a mystical experience is openness. Radical openness.

The text doesn’t say much about Ananias and his prayer life; it simply says that he was a disciple from Damascus. There weren’t a lot of casual or cultural Christians in their day, so the named disciples were likely pretty serious about it. Unlike Saul though, Ananias doesn’t appear to be all that shocked by this vision. Sure, he’s a little iffy about following through with it, but there’s no shock or terror in his story. From that I get the sense that Ananias was a person of deep prayer, and that visions, or messages, or nudges from the Holy Spirit were expected, and desired, and welcomed. That’s far different than Saul’s experience.

Saul had the more dramatic mystical experience but he was not expecting it, desiring it, or welcoming it. He was pretty closed to Spirit. So, how did it happen if you have to be open to experience it? Well, he got knocked on his keester to open him up – that’s how! It’s the classic lightning-bolt-wakeup-call-conversion to faith. I just want to make sure that we can see that Saul’s dramatic story isn’t the only way Spirit moves. Ananias’ story is just as powerful in its own way, and I hope you can see that both of these are Easter stories – renewal stories.

In the Easter season we focus in on the empty tomb and the word resurrection. Without Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we would not be in this place doing this stuff. And yet, this isn’t a history class, or a theology lecture – it’s a greenhouse for spiritual growth, it’s a fitness centre for spiritual exercises, it’s a music room where we join our instruments with others to participate in holy music-making. Yes, we start with Jesus’ story, and draw in stories like Saul’s and Ananias’, but we live and breathe our own stories, and our collective story as Faith United.

Your life is an ongoing series of little (and big) death and resurrection episodes. You die to certain things and are reborn or renewed into others all the time. You don’t become a brand new person with a new identity when you experience renewal; you become a transformed version of your former way. You bring your gifts and skills and knowledge, and passions with you but they are retuned, redirected, reoriented in a fashion that opens you more to God’s presence, and through that fills you with spiritual energy to move in the world sharing that presence in everything you do.

Saul didn’t change from being a scholar, a religious leader, and a tireless, fiery champion of what he thought was right. After his transformation he was still all those things, just in a new direction. He took on the new name Paul to show that he had changed, but he didn’t take on the name Wilbur or Barney. He was still the same guy, only reborn. His passion was renewed.

Faith United is going through a kind of death and resurrection this season too. We are coming to the end of my tenure here, and then there will be a time of transition, and then a new beginning. But Faith won’t stop being Faith just because I exit stage left. Like Saul, and Ananias, Faith will bring all of what you are, your gifts, and skills, and knowledge, and passions with you as you go forward, but they will be retuned, restated, refocused in a fashion that opens you to God’s future.

Our churches have tended to hold permanence and comfort as our higher values – which is really odd because every time you open your bible and read a page or two you are bombarded with stories of people who experienced tremendous change, and were nudged significantly out of their comfort zones. If permanence and comfort are your goals then church is probably not for you, because they are absolutely incompatible with the Way that Jesus lived and taught. If you’re a comfortable Christian you’re doing it wrong!

Ananias was zapped and went into the presence of the enemy and prayed with him. That must’ve been pretty uncomfortable! And imagine Saul, walking into the same synagogues that he was going to for the purpose of arresting the followers of the Way and instead standing up and saying that he was now one of them, which meant he was risking arrest by the guy who took his old job over! How’s that for being outside your comfort zone?

Are you ready to be outside of your comfort zone? At Faith United we’ve been pretty comfortable together for a long while – but you’re about to be moved out of your comfort zone when change comes – like it or not. What ministries might God be nudging you to innovate with, or embrace, or get behind that give you butterflies in your stomach and makes you say “Are you serious?” Oh, God’s serious. Just ask Saul and Ananias. How will you answer God’s call in this season of renewal?

It’s important to note that Saul’s conversion is not solely or primarily for his own self. He is called for a purpose – that purpose is to share the gospel with the Gentiles. He is called for ministry.

Often when we talk of mystical experiences or about spirituality we get the sense that it’s a very private and almost selfish or at least self-indulgent thing – that a mystic is someone who’s so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good. That is simply not true! Like Saul we are called for a purpose. Like Ananias we are nudged into action. Yes, it’s rooted in prayer, but it doesn’t stay there. Spirit doesn’t sit – Spirit moves! Spirituality begins by looking inward for the purpose of moving outward in love! 

This is my hope for the church – this church, and all churches. I hope that we can read stories like today’s and see past the glitz and glamour of the superstar conversion of Saul, and be inspired by the real hero of the story – Ananias. Listen carefully: Saul could not have become Paul if Ananias had not been a man of deep prayer!

My prayer is that we can all become like him, Ananaias – people of deep prayer who are not surprised when Spirit nudges us, and who after our initial response of “are you serious?!” we allow that Spirit to fill us, and propel us out of our comfortable pews, and into action. Remember, without that mystical prayer experience Saul couldn’t hear his true calling, and Ananias would never have wandered into Saul’s room on his own.

A small group has started meeting on Friday afternoons here to pray for this season of transition at Faith. I hope you’ll either join them, or support them in prayer. It’s how Ananias felt God’s nudge. How will Faith feel God’s nudge in this time of visioning and searching? Prayer is a great foundation.
Spirit renews our passions and blows us into motion, but the scriptures seem pretty consistent that the Spirit needs our attention and permission to do its thing.

What would it be like if we all gave it?

What would it be like if every single person affiliated in any way with Faith United turned their attention to deep prayer and intentional opening of themselves to God’s omni-presence?

What would it be like if every member, adherent, and visitor of this church became a prayer-focused disciple like Ananias, and created the optimal conditions for mystical awakenings within themselves?

What might be dreamt, or discerned, or dared if people allowed themselves to sense that spiritual nudge and let it fuel them up and launch them?

What if every church did this?!

I think we’d see an unbelievable transformation – a resurrection of the church – an awesome army of people with renewed passion for life, renewed passion for ministry, renewed passion for loving God, loving people, and loving one another – love, love, love. People out there might wonder what was going on because they’d look in the tombs that are too many churches and find that what was dead has been reborn. They’d see a real story of Easter resurrection and renewal!

So, whether you are a Saul who needs a massive wakeup call, or an Ananias who needs to keep on praying in hope, or a Faith United person that is prayerfully pondering a transition – I pray you will leave this place thinking about how you might create that precious, spacious openness within yourself so that the Spirit might stir and move in you, and through you, and renew your passion.