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Sermon - Easter III - 20190505

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday of Easter, Year C
May 5, 2019
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

Ananias was really nervous about approaching Saul, knowing who and what he was, and what his mission in Damascus was.  Everyone knew.  No one trusted Saul, and they all would much rather have nothing to do with him, to not be caught or caught out by him.

But the Lord wasn’t having it.

Luke tells us a light flashed around Saul and heard a voice, but the men with Saul heard the voice and saw no one. 

And later, Ananias hears the Lord also; in fact he has a vision: Go to Saul and heal him.  He is “an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles; and before kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.

Now there’s an incentive….  Tell people about me and suffer for it.

Last week, we heard that the apostles teaching at the Temple in Jerusalem rejoiced that they were able to suffer for Christ.

And in the passage from the Gospel of John, Jesus tells Peter that one day, others will tie a belt around him and take him where he does not wish to go.  Yet all the time, the instructions remain unchanged:  “Feed my lambs, feed my sheep.”

It’s the suffering that we rarely hear about these days.  Being followers of Christ, at least in our experience, is not generally a source of suffering.  Christianity was adopted by the Roman Empire, and became the upholder of empire, of kings and nations, of powerful men.  Christianity became an organ of the state, became a state, interfered in the state, and set forth the moral laws for countless people – not just Europeans, but the peoples that Europeans conquered.

The church took on the task of spreading the gospel to all the world, but it was not an unmixed blessing for all on the receiving end.  It went far beyond feeding the lambs, to include enslaving many and even killing them if they did not profess the faith the Church professed to hold dear. 

The suffering that Peter and Paul knew, was, over time, as frequently visited upon people of other faiths and traditions as on even some Christians – and in later years, the Christians who suffered were generally those who did not fall into line with the traditional church.

But let us not forget – rather than accept the tempter’s offer and the disciples’ appeal to become ruler of the world, Jesus declined.  And Jesus died.

And his early followers were definitely persecuted from time to time, to one extent or another – thought the weight of persecutions fell differently at different times and places in the empire. 

But for us – it’s a completely different story. The church doesn’t run our lives in the same way as it did for centuries.  I can’t tell you what to do.  Not that there aren’t Christians who don’t try to tell others how to live – that seems to be inevitable, if unfortunate.  And they can certainly cause harm and even be abusive.

But what I’d like to explore is the early church’s experience of suffering.  Our contemporary experience can’t simply be picked up and moved back a couple millennia to shed light on this question.  There may or may not be parallels, but each situation exists in its own context, contexts that are not shared.

So we have to enter the realm of imagination, a bit, to try and discern what it was like then, from the clues that we find in scripture and other texts from around that time. 

“I will show him how he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

“When you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”

Last week we heard that Peter and the other apostles were flogged for teaching about Jesus:  “And as they left the council, they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”

The deacon, Stephen, was stoned to death – and Saul stood by, approving.

The simple fact is, that the followers of Jesus ran into trouble over and over again.  The Judean leaders didn’t trust them, the Romans didn’t trust them, the Greeks thought they were mad, and mobs often appeared whenever Paul preached.

The Christians in Damascus had reason to distrust and fear Saul, but they took him in, and when the synagogue leaders plotted to kill him, the disciples had to lower him over the city wall in a basket to escape.

In other words, Saul had to leave Damascus in a hurry and disappear for a while – in his own letter to the Galatians, he said he left Damascus after a few days and went to Arabia for three years before returning and then going up to Jerusalem to meet with Peter and the others, although Luke says he was sent with Barnabas to Jerusalem directly.  Either way, the Christians in Jerusalem still did not trust him.

Luke blames the need for Paul’s escape on the Jews who would not accept Jesus as Messiah.  In one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth, he blames the “governor under King Aretus” for the plot against him in Damascus; in that same letter, Paul writes about those who are teaching in ways he himself did not, those who are leading the Corinthians astray saying:

“Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.”

So now I guess we know what Paul had to suffer for the sake of the name of Christ Jesus.  And we know that later, he was arrested and jailed for years by Herod and the Roman governor Felix, and was sent to Rome to appeal to the emperor, and was executed.

You and I are lucky to escape such things.

But Paul took it as a point of, well, not pride, exactly, but as evidence that the Gospel he was conveying threatened the whole “natural order of things” in his time. 

That’s something it’s really easy for us to overlook – how radical and scandalous the Christian message was.  How difficult it was to accept, how tough it was to live out.  The whole world seemed arrayed against them, just as their gospel seemed arrayed against the whole world.

Why, though?  What was so upsetting? 

Dare I say it was the idea that God actually loves the poor, the neglected, the cast-off, the sick, the unpopular, the aliens and misfits?  Dare I say it was the idea that what we have, what we own, what we value, what we aspire to, the very idea of taking and using and not sharing, is the opposite of what God intends?  Dare I say that it was the idea that there is nothing to fear in death, nothing to fear in life, nothing to fear in any circumstance, because God has our back?

Dare I say that God wants us to FEED HIS LAMBS and FEED HIS SHEEP, no matter what?  To put others before ourselves, and when we take care of ourselves, it is not for our own good, but for the good the other?  Dare I say that we are privileged to suffer in that endeavor, if that’s what comes?  And to be grateful for the grace and mercy of God that gives us the strength to persevere despite all hardship?

It may not be the message that we want to hear – and there are churches and pastors that will tell you that getting and having, if you are able to do so, is a sign of blessing.  But not this church, and not me. 

Yes, blessings are given to us, blessings in abundance, and without number, and endlessly, but they are not just for you or for me or for us.  They are for the world.  Even if we think the world doesn’t deserve them.

One day someone will bind you and take you where you do not wish to go.  I will show you what you must suffer for my sake.  Feed my sheep.  Follow me.

And you will rejoice.  Because joy is the gift beyond all desires.