"The Church You've Always Longed For - Anticipates a Great Future"
June 26, 2011 Acts 9:1-19
(adapted from material by Rev. Robert Moss, First Church of God, St. Joseph, Michigan)
A CHANGE FOR THE BETTER
Last week we were blessed to hear some testimonies of how Jesus has been at work in the lives of those who were baptized. Here's another testimony, this week from a man in Brazil. Would he be welcome in our church?
"My name is Florisvaldo de Oliveira, though I am better known in Brazil as the assassin Corporal Bruno. But thanks to God's mercy, my old identity is dead and buried. I am now confined to a prison near Sao Paulo, Brazil, where I came to know Jesus Christ. Since then, my life has been completely transformed, and I felt God's calling to share the gospel with fellow prisoners. Today I am blessed with the fruits of serving God. Some time ago I received three issues of The Upper Room as a gift. I read them faithfully, reflecting on the daily message, and receiving spiritual nourishment. I discovered how The Upper Room serves as an instrument of spiritual growth for those who wish to share their experiences of God's love and grace in their lives. Our prayer group here in prison now uses The Upper Room to help guide us in daily devotion and Bible study. Through God's help, I am amazed at the change in my life. Once I was a powerful instrument capable of destroying lives. But today I serve as an instrument in the hands of God, spreading the Good News of Christ. How wonderful it is to serve our Saviour!" (The Upper Room, Nov.-Dec. 1995, p.52.)
How do you react to a former convict claiming a miraculous conversion? We desire transformed lives, but we are often so surprised and suspicious when it really happens. Today's text, Acts 9:1-19, reminds us of the authenticity of conversion experiences - and points to the possibility of a great future when we let our lives be impacted by Christ's wonderful grace. When we read about the experiences of the early church, it reminds us of an important truth: God's church will always face difficulty of one kind or another, but we should not despair, because God intervenes in unusual ways, he chooses unusual people to help the church, and he gives unusual power.
GOD INTERVENES IN UNUSUAL WAYS
One of the things that guarantees we in the church can anticipate a great future is the fact that the Lord chooses to intervene in our lives in unusual ways. It keeps us on our toes, eagerly waiting to see what surprising move God's going to take next. Acts 9(1,3f) tells us, "Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples...As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.He fell to the ground and heard a voice..." One can never anticipate a Damascus Road encounter. Every person at one time or another needs an encounter with God. The future of the church depends upon those who are willing to submit to God's voice when he calls. Thankfully, men and women all around the world are saying "Yes" to God when His grace erupts into their lives in dramatic ways.
When God intervenes, he expects a response of faith: 9:6, Jesus directed Saul - "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do." In Guinea, family members kidnapped the wife of a tribal man because he left Islam to become a Christian. The man pleaded unsuccessfully for her release, then returned home to pray. It's not uncommon for tribal people to kidnap a man's wife to pressure him to return to Islam. But days later, the kidnappers returned the man's wife and said they too wanted to become Christians! (National & International Religion Report, July 10, 1995, p.5). When God moves hearts, it is important that we are ready to lead people into his kingdom. The future of the church depends on it.
Nor did Saul expect the words that came out of the Lord's mouth in verses 4&5: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" and "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting..." The last place Saul would have expected to find God was in the midst of these heretical followers of The Way. But here, clearly, in a couple of different phrases, Jesus underlines the reality that He identifies with His church: "you persecute ME" and "I'm Jesus whom you are persecuting." Yes, He promised where 2 or 3 gathered in His name, there He'd be in their midst (Mt 18:20); but this goes even further - Jesus implies He practically IS the church, He's the One Saul has been dragging off to prison; when the authorities persecute Christians, they're directly persecuting Christ. So we can be encouraged by this! He feels your pain; your struggle is His struggle. We can anticipate a great future because God works in unusual ways, including Jesus being present with and in the church, sharing our blows and joys.
GOD CHOOSES UNUSUAL PEOPLE TO PUBLISH HIS NAME
Saul was definitely not the person the early church expected God to choose to lead them! It's only human nature to wonder about the future in the hands of unlikely people; in vv13-14, Ananias objected, "Lord...I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." Surely you can't mean THAT Saul, Lord! Are you sure you're not confused on this one? Like our Brazilian assassin "Corporal Bruno" - not the sort of fellow you expect to be leading a Bible study!
It doesn't stretch our imaginations too far to think of how skeptical the early Christians must have been of Saul's conversion report. Could it be that the same man who once persecuted the Christians was now desiring to be one of them? Surely fear and apprehension gripped their hearts.
Many people had feelings of uncertainty when they heard about the conversion of Charles Colson in the mid '70s. Many Christians kept their emotional distance and took a "wait-and-see" attitude toward Colson's new-found faith. Happily, we have seen Mr.Colson rise to international prominence as a genuine spokesperson for the gospel of Jesus Christ.
We can have hope for the future because God delights in tapping on the shoulder of the most unlikely people! God's Kingdom will never lack for raw material, because the message is not restricted to righteous types and the ultra-religious, but open to those who are broken and have made big mistakes. The Lord himself assures us of his plan for people: v15, "But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel." God was choosing to use this unique individual to connect with a wide audience. Ananias accepted this, startling as it sounded, and went to be Jesus' hands and voice to his new brother Saul. The future of the church was dramatically impacted because of Ananias' obedience to the Spirit's voice.
This brings us hope for today's church. If we will listen to the gentle voice of God, His sometimes discomforting nudges, he will show us the persons upon whom his hands rest. These are the ones who will chauffeur the church ahead into a bright future under the Spirit's direction.
Another reason the church has a bright future is that people are geared to search for spiritual meaning. God has 'set eternity in' the hearts of men and women (Eccles 3:11). Often life's happenings leave people searching for answers. V9, after Saul had fallen to the ground and had the vision, "For 3 days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything." He was seeking answers, striving to probe what this was all about. In v11 the Lord tells Ananias Saul "is praying". Often people have a side that's involved in a spiritual quest, though we might not at first expect it.
On the flight back from Colorado Springs, I was sitting beside a woman who turned out a police dispatcher from a larger city in Tennessee. That must be one of life's most stressful jobs! When I asked what were the most difficult types of calls, she said it was the suicide ones. Understandably. But as we talked further, she acknowledged she often prayed silently in connection with the more difficult calls - either for the individuals, or the officers who would have to be sent to deal with the situation. Humans are wired to look for spiritual answers; life presents us with occasions that woo us into that search. So believers who are sensitive and not afraid to wrestle with big issues and empathize with people who are struggling will never lack opportunities to tactfully and respectfully share relevant spiritual truth.
Social problems heighten people's awareness of our need for spiritual solutions. Billy Graham has observed: "One of the healthiest and most promising signs on the national horizon is the realization of spiritual and moral need that is sweeping this nation.Many of our most cynical leaders are now admitting that America needs a religious and moral bath that will cleanse it from deception, immorality and lethargy." Now, does that sound like an opportunity?
GOD GIVES UNUSUAL POWER
Another reason the church can anticipate a great future is that God works with unusual power, deputized through us. By faith, Ananias called on God's power: v17, "Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord-- Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here-- has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit."" Ananias didn't stop with just inner spiritual healing: he asked boldly for physical healing of Paul's sight. He knew that the Lord wanted to use him as an instrument of grace and commissioning. We can admire Ananias' straightforward courage: he knew that the future of the church would be affected by his faithful actions.
The unusual power that came over Paul is the same power that raised Jesus from the grave! God is still at work doing amazing miracles in people's lives. Some of you have witnessed this personally, as in dramatic physical restoration; I know one woman was sharing recently how her shorter leg was miraculously lengthened. God's power is amazing.
The story is told of a Welsh woman who lived in a remote valley in Wales. She went to a great deal of trouble to have electricity installed in her home. But, as the months went by, it was noticed that she didn't use very much electricity at all. In fact, her usage was minuscule. A meter-reader went to check on the matter. He asked her, "We've looked at your meter and can't figure it out. Don't you use your electricity?"
"Oh yes," she said. "We turn it on every night so we can see to light our lamps, and then we turn it off again." (!)
That's the way too many Christians live: getting by on our own steam, and only looking to the Lord for His strength when absolutely necessary. But the power of the Resurrection is available to us so that we can carry on the ministry of Jesus in victorious lives! It's sad to see that because of our doubts and fears, many believers fail to experience the power of God in their everyday lives.
On the other hand - what about those situations when we seem knocked down by circumstances beyond us, or a chronic disease isn't healed? Here too the unusual nature of the Lord's power gives the church reason to expect a great future. What is the curious expression Jesus uses in v16? "I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." What's that supposed to mean? One might have expected the honouring words in v15, "This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel", to be followed by words such as "I'll show him how famous he'll be" or "how great his renown will be, and his writings endure through the ages." But - "How much he must SUFFER for My Name"?
In today's society, our comfort-driven consumer culture, where we are spoiled and groomed by addressing every challenge by pressing a button or taking a pill, suffering is viewed as a bad thing. But the wonderful thing about Christianity is can redeem even the most painful parts of life. Our suffering can become a means of knowing Christ better, bonding with the Crucified One. And because the world in its brokenness and corruption will always be tinged with pain, death, decay, and loss, the church will always have a role in helping people deal with their pain and grief - finding Christ's power to walk on in the midst of it.
Fast forward about 20 years to when Paul's writing 2Corinthians near the end of his life. In chapter 11 he looks back and catalogues a long litany of hardships he's experienced in the course of his ministry, ranging from shipwrecks and beatings to hunger and exposure, to sleeplessness and psychological stresses of being responsible for church leadership. But he says "I will BOAST of the things that show my weakness." Eh? Then in chapter 12 he mentions his painful 'thorn in the flesh' that just won't go away; and how Jesus told him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness." So a direct connection is made between Christ's power and our suffering, our hardship, whatever's weakening us. Paul 'gets it' - this surprising dynamic - for he goes on to say, "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties.For when I am weak, then I am strong." (2Cor 12:9f) The suffering becomes our opportunity to tap into Christ's helping power. 13:4, "For to be sure, he was crucified in weakness, yet he lives by God's power. Likewise, we are weak in him, yet by God's power we will live with him to serve you." Paul could even say "the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives" and, "I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (2Cor 1:5; Col 1:24). So suffering becomes something we share with Christ (Rom 8:17) - that can draw us closer to Him if we take it to Him, rather than getting all bitter and pouty. His power is there to help us cope!
Each of us has the opportunity to tap into the resurrection power that God makes available to us through Christ. It begins with the prayer of faith. You can pray something like this: "Lord, as Your transforming power changed Paul's life, and consequently the future of the Christian church, give me the faith to believe Your power is still available to change my own life...and the future of my own church. I leave my concerns, my hope, and my future in Your hands.Amen."
When we believe that Jesus' resurrection power is alive and available for us, that ensures in our own hearts the bright future that lies ahead both for our individual lives and for the church. It reminds us, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him!" (1 Cor. 2:9) Or, as Eugenia Price has noted, "I have come upon the happy discovery that this life hid with Christ in God is a continuous unfolding."
HE TOOK THE STING
The real wonder is that Jesus has entered into our experience in a way that can make it altogether different.
These lush warm days of summer, the flowers are very beautiful, but before you sniff, you'd always better double-check a bee doesn't happen to be busy in the blossom! A boy and his father were driving down a country road on a beautiful spring afternoon, when a bumblebee flew in the car window. The little boy, who was allergic to bee stings, was petrified. The father quickly reached out, grabbed the bee, squeezed it in his hand, and then released it.
The boy grew frantic as it buzzed by him. Once again the father reached out his hand, but this time he pointed to his palm. There stuck in his skin was the stinger of the bee. "Do you see this?" he asked. "You don't need to be afraid anymore. I've taken the sting for you."
Just so, in whatever hardships life may present to us, Jesus has been there before us and neutralized any 'sting': His power leads us through weakness to overcoming! Let's pray.