Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Text: Acts 9:3
 As Saul was coming near the city of Damascus, suddenly a light from the sky flashed around him.

Christ without hands in Soweto, South Africa

Called, changed & challenged

In the movie Groundhog Day Bill Murray plays the most superficial person engaged in the most boring job. One drab morning he wakes up to the radio blaring Sonny and Cherís "Iíve got you babe". He plods through the day, encountering a group of wearisome people along the way.

The next morning the radio wakes him again with the same song Ė Sonny and Cher all over again - and then he comes across the same boring people and the same boring events that he had the day before. After reliving the same day for about 3 weeks he realises he is in hell and tries to stop it all by taking his own life only to wake up the next morning to the same song and the same day.

He tries to find some kind of meaning amid the boring repetition of each day. First he turns to a life of crime and then realising that this isnít working he launches into a routine of self-improvement. Through music, poetry and love he transforms himself into a likeable person and in the process, he comes to see the people around him in a different way. He turns his life around; he takes charge of his life and changes himself into someone worth loving and uses his time to make life worth living. Only then is freed from the cycle of the eternal rerun. The movieís message is simple Ė if you want to change your life to one that is meaningful and full of purpose then itís all up to you. I would say thatís pretty much the thinking of most people in the world.

The Groundhog Day experience is nothing like the changes in peopleís lives we find in the Bible.

Saul was a powerful, self-confident, influential person. He considered that he was in control of his life. He had a clear purpose. He firmly believed Christians were delusional, misled, and deserved the worst he could give for their betrayal of their heritage.

Then, at a most unexpected place and time, while on the road to Damascus, the living Jesus appeared and spoke to Saul. The powerful, self-confident, in control Saul fell to the ground!
A bright light flashed around him, a voice from heaven spoke to him and told him to go to the city and there he would receive instructions what he was to do. The powerful and self-confident Saul is no longer in charge; he is a servant doing what he is told.
He was blinded and was led by the hand, like a little child, back to Damascus. For three days he wasnít able to see, and he ate and drank nothing. His life had been radically disturbed and interrupted by the risen Christ. He is enlisted as the great missionary to the gentiles.

In just a few verses, this persecutor becomes the preacher, the one who testifies to Jesus before kings and hostile mobs and brings the Christian faith into the Roman Empire. Quite a change. Where did that change come from? Certainly nothing that Saul was looking for. No self improvement program like the guy in Groundhog Day.

C.S. Lewis wasnít really searching for anything in his life at the time when, in Lewisí words, "God closed in on me". Lewis didnít find a new life; a new life found him. God met him and he wasnít the same C.S. Lewis afterwards.

However when you read Lewisí biography you donít find a conversion experience like that of St Paul. Lewisí change from someone who had no belief, then a vague belief that there is a god to a strong Christian whose writings touched the world is quite undramatic and yet just as life changing.

Lewis grew up in Ireland and the whole catholic/protestant conflict left him with a negative view of the Christian faith. As a scholar he believed the gospels were historical nonsense, no great pieces of literature, and so appallingly unimaginative and simplistic. Then, as if out of nowhere, he wrote to a friend, "ÖI have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ" and received communion for the first time since he was a child.

Where did this come from? Lewis tells what happened like this.

"Picture me alone in my room at Oxford, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.

That which I greatly feared came upon me Ö I gave in, and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed; perhaps, that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England Ö a prodigal who is brought back kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in Ö plumb the depth of divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and his compulsion is our liberation".

Where did this new C.S. Lewis come from? Lewis makes it clear it wasn't his intellectual achievement, or an act of self-will or somehow choosing to live a more meaningful life like the guy in Groundhog Day. It was pure gift, grace, something unexpected, a complete surprise, something he resisted. It came from outside himself, reforming, changing him in ways he had never intended.

In the end Lewis said this God about what had happened, "So, it was you all along".

Doesnít that sound a bit like Saul on the road to Damascus? Sure he had a much more dramatic experience with bright lights and voices and blindness but in the end like C.S. Lewis there was no looking for a saviour, no history of unhappiness and depression about the way life was going, no searching and analysis of what faith is and what it does to people. Nothing like this at all; God shows up and in showing up changes a life into something that it would never have been otherwise.

Many of us canít point to a precise moment when there was a dramatic conversion to faith. Maybe your faith journey has been a gradual awareness that God loves you and has plans for your life. Maybe your faith has grown through parents, teachers, friends and pastors who have slowly and steadily enabled your faith in Jesus to become stronger. But whatever we are now is the way God has meant us to be.

There are three points that come from these stories of God breaking into peopleís lives.

(1) They clearly tells us about Godís grace. Jesus said, "You didnít choose me, I chose you" (John 15:16). You are here today, as his disciples, because, for some strange, surprising wonderful reason, he wants you to be a member of his kingdom, to enjoy knowing about Godís undeserved love and forgiveness. We are influenced by too many who want to take the credit away from God for their sudden conversion or their gradual journey to faith by putting far too much stress on what I have done, on what I think and believe. Itís interesting how the contemporary song writer Geoff Bullock changed one of his songs from "Just let me say how much I love you" to "Just let me say how you love me".

Paul and C.S. Lewis didnít make a decision for Jesus; they hadnít decided that it was time they changed their lives. On the Damascus Road Jesus decided for Paul. In his room at Oxford, Jesus decided for Lewis. In whatever way you have come into Godís kingdom, maybe at the baptismal font, maybe a gradual coming to faith, or maybe a dramatic conversion, it was Godís idea long before it was yours. My relationship to God does not depend on what I do, it is something that God has done and is doing for me. And thank God for that! I donít always think, act and speak like a Christian. If it werenít for the grace of God neither he nor us would have any chance.

(2) The story of Paulís conversion is about new beginnings. Paul was a ruthless, persecutor of Christianity; Lewis treated Jesus with indifference. Jesus sought them out and they were changed.

It is true that God takes me "just as I am without plea". But he doesnít leave us just as we are. He changes us and keeps on changing us. Itís a continual process as long as we live on this earth. Just as Paul was now caught up in a lifelong process of change, we too are continually being changed
from lovelessness to love,
from pride to humility,
from impatience to patience,
from harshness to gentleness,
from apathy to commitment,
from stinginess to generosity
from a lukewarm faith to devotion.

Someone once wrote, "In our lives, in the movements, shifts, tugs and pulls of God upon our souls, people are still being raised from the dead. The church is the community of those being converted, being born again, and again, and again" (Source unknown).

(3) These stories about God coming into the lives of people with clearly tells us that God did this for a purpose. Neither Paul nor C.S. Lewis were converted to Christ to sit and do nothing. They were called, converted and commissioned to be proclaimers of Godís Good News. God has graciously called us into his kingdom and changed us for a purpose. As Paul puts it, "God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus he has created us for a life of good deeds, which he has already prepared for us to do" (Ephesians 2:10).

When God surprises us and calls and claims us, like Lewis, we too are inclined to do so kicking, struggling, resentful, looking for an escape, because this change that God brings into our lives is disrupting, uncomfortable, challenging, and involves us in a new way of thinking about people and the direction our lives are heading. The purposes that God has called us to fulfil might take us right out of our comfort zone and challenge us to the limits.
Even though Saul would have never thought of himself as a promoter of the Christian faith - that was God's purpose for him.
Even though Lewis never imagined that he would become one of Christianityís great writers and defenders Ė that was God's purpose for him.
Even though we canít imagine why God would be challenging us and we proclaim adamantly that we are the most unsuitable person for the job but that is God's purpose for us.

There is statue of Jesus without hands in a church in Soweto, South Africa. When public meetings were banned during apartheid, people gathered in the church. During a police raid the statue of Christ fell and the hands were broken off. The statue was restored to its place but now without hands.

Why wasnít it fixed? Because the statue without hands presents a compelling message Ė Jesus calls us, changes us and commissions us to be his hands in this world. And not only our hands, but also our feet, our lips, our eyes, our ears, our intellect, our abilities, our money Ė God has given all of these to us to carry out his work.

Jesus chooses to do his work through human hands. Sometimes they seem to be the frailest of hands, the least potentially successful hands, or the least qualified hands ó but those are the hands he uses. If he can use Saul who seemed to be the least qualified to be an apostle; if he can use Lewis a disbelieving Oxford academic, he can also use you.

Have you encountered the surprising, disrupting, transforming Christ? Hereís the Easter promise: You will.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
18th April 2010

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