Here I Am God – May 1

A sermon based on Acts 9:1-20

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on May 1, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

The lectionary text that Ann just read so well is pretty famous. It’s one of the sections of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles that discusses what most of us probably know as “Paul’s Conversion Story.”  That name for the story is inaccurate, because Paul doesn’t actually convert from one religion to another.  In fact, throughout his letters in the New Testament Paul unflinchingly claims to be a Jewish. This is true before and after his experience on the road to Damascus. He didn’t convert from Judaism when he saw the light of Christ and heard Jesus’ voice. Paul was Jewish until the day he died. At the time, the Jesus Following was a sect of Judaism, it was not until decades later that the Jesus Following split away from Judaism to become a separate faith and religion. So, it’s as anachronistic to claim that Paul converted to Christianity, as it is to claim Jesus, a Jewish rabbi was a Christian. That’s not historically accurate, or literally true.

What appears to have happened on the road to Damascus is that Paul had a very spiritual experience which began his transformation from a religious persecutor of other Jews who were promoting Jesus’ radically inclusive Way to God,  to himself becoming a chief promoter of Jesus’ radically inclusive Way to God.  To put it in other words,  Paul went from being among a small group of Jews who despised those advocating Gentiles being let into the Jewish Jesus Following, to being the primary advocate for letting Gentiles in and a leader of that Jewish  sect which he previously opposed.

How did this transformation come about? Well, we know it began by Paul literally seeing the light within and listening to the voice of Jesus during a deeply spiritual experience. The experience profoundly affected Paul. So much so he basically went from being a zealot for exclusivity to being a radical for inclusivity. In my mind it’d be like a televangelist famous for zealously excluding LGBTQ+ from church, transforming into a Christian who is radical for including LGBTQ+ in church. The televangelist would still be Christian, but would include all their neighbors in their love, instead of excluding some. That’s akin to what Paul did in the Jewish faith of his time.

If God asked me to go visit such a televangelist and invite him to join our Progressive church,  I’d have a conversation with God very similar to the one Ananias had in our reading. At the time the story in our lesson unfolded Paul was a known danger to the inclusivity of Jesus’ Way. Just as today some famous televangelists are known dangers to the inclusivity of Jesus’ Way. So, I’d be asking God are you sure about this? That televangelist has done much evil to your saints.

Sadly, God has yet to send me to such a televangelist or ask me to talk to them or assure me they’d be an instrument of good for the faith and safe to have around. But thankfully God did send Ananias to Paul and also gave Paul a vision of Ananias so they’d talk as a result.

It’s fascinating and telling that in his vision Paul did not see the pre-Easter Jesus in human form, blinded he saw the post-Easter Christ as a light within. But if we think about it, he did see the post-Easter form of Christ. Paul saw Christ in the human form of Ananias,  a loving, caring Jesus Follower who was brave enough to do as God instructed and tended to the well-being of even a mortal enemy like Paul had been. It’s Ananias who already found the Light of Christ within that, as a disciple of Jesus, provides the inclusive love of God for a mortal enemy.

We can hear the stark difference between Paul and Ananias (at the time) in how they respond to the still speaking God in the story.  When Paul heard the Lord’s voice he asked “Who are you?”  When Ananias heard the Lord’s voice he unquestioningly responded “Here I am God.” That’s a Biblical prophet and disciple of Christ’s,  response to God if ever there was one.

In the Book of the Acts of the Apostles Ananias is not the only prophet and disciple doing loving work. Just before our lesson Chapter 8 ends with the story of another rejected person being cared for, the Ethiopian Eunuch — who was scripturally forbidden as a Gentile and a eunuch to be a part of the community. You may recall in that story Phillip was sent by God to lovingly welcome with unconditional love that rejected person. That’s the end of Acts Chapter 8. Then as we heard,  in Chapter 9 Paul, a mortal enemy, is welcomed with unconditional love. If those two examples of loving the outcast and loving the enemy didn’t make it clear how wide God’s net of love is, in Chapter 10 God makes it abundantly clear with the commandment to Peter to call no one profane or unclean.

Acts made sure to record that the early church (through Phillip, Ananias and Peter) acted as Christ’s hands and feet and voice casting the net of God’s love as wide as Jesus meant it to be and wants it to be– and how God’s love actually is ALL INCLUSIVE.  The net of God’s love is cast so wide the outcast Ethiopian Eunuch is loved and the enemy persecutor Paul is loved. To drive the point home, we learn God commands that no one is profane and no one is unclean. God destroys any and all narrowing of the net of God’s love that religious people may think exists:  Scripture’s ideas of a narrow net of love, Paul’s ideas of a narrow net of love, a televangelist’s idea of a narrow net of love,  were all cut up by Jesus long ago. Because the honest to God truth is that God long ago fashioned a net of Love so “Holy” all manner of human beings are simultaneously let in and caught up in it. Jesus taught and practiced that. Acts records that the early church taught and practice that.

In our lesson today Paul’s transformation is dramatic and profound. It’s a great and wonderful event. But it unfortunately drowns out the real living hero of the story, Ananias.  Paul’s not a hero yet, he’s new to the following.  He only becomes a hero when he starts acting with love like Ananias does. And Ananias is not alone, Phillip acted with love in Chapter 8. Peter acts with love in Chapter 9. Of course, the acts of love by these men and other men and women in the Jesus Following were a part of their following the Way Jesus first walked and taught, the Way of radical inclusivity and love.

Paul’s dramatic story not only overshadows Ananias story, but can make us think our stories of becoming followers of Jesus are inferior,  and our transformation to embracing Jesus’ radical inclusivity might be less profound.  But they’re not. And finding the Way is, at any rate, not a completion with Paul or anyone else.  It’s about filling the world with so much love for so many people that every day we get closer and closer to peace on earth good will to all. It’s about being love in the world now so that heaven breaks in on earth for the living! In our story Paul’s not being love like that and would not have ended up being love like that later were it not for Ananias and his type of Jesus Followers who hear God and say “Here I am God” and follow where God calls, which is always, always toward love.

“Here I am God” and following God toward love is the response of Biblical heroes and known and unknown heroes of the Church and of Jesus throughout history. May it be our response too.    AMEN.

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