The Acts of the Apostles
THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Forbearance” Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
This fall we are making our way through the Acts of the Apostles, and it is really a remarkable story. It begins with Pentecost, the sending of the Spirit upon the followers of Jesus, and by the end of the story long standing religious traditions have been left behind, and age old divisions between people have been overcome. By the end Stephen has been martyred, Peter has had his vision, and the Jerusalem Council has taken place. Jews and Samaritans are sitting at table together, Gentiles are streaming into the church, and women are in positions of leadership. And right at the center of it all is the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.
Someone once told me that this was the second greatest miracle in the scriptures after Jesus’ resurrection, and that may well be true. It was certainly one of the most unexpected occurrences in the scriptures. Luke sets it up by telling us a few things about Paul beforehand. Immediately after telling us about the stoning of Stephen, Luke writes, “And Saul approved of their killing of Stephen.” Then Luke goes on to say that this was followed by a persecution of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, and chief among the persecutors was Paul.
So it is this Paul, an enemy of the followers of Jesus, who is making his way to Damascus when he has an experience that will change not only the course of his own life but the course of the church as well.
There are some things worth noting about the actual encounter that Paul has with the Risen Christ. Jesus does not say to him, “Saul, why do you persecute my followers?” He says, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus identifies himself with those who are being persecuted by Paul. In the same way that he does in the last judgment scene in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, where Jesus identifies himself with the least among us, Jesus says to Paul, “As you do to my followers, you do to me.”
Few things would change our world more than our taking Jesus at his word here, our seeing in the faces of the most neglected, the most vulnerable, the most destitute, the face of Jesus, and our treating them as we would want to treat Jesus. Someone once said, “We love only as well as the people we love least.” And Jesus intends for this to serve as a measure for us, and with this as the measure most of the world falls far short. If we love only as well as the people we love least, then a lot of us hardly love at all./
It was a dramatic encounter as well, a blinding light, a convicting word from Jesus, a transformed life Along with Moses and the burning bush, it is the most celebrated encounter story in all of scripture. But unfortunately it has cast a long shadow over the church’s understanding of the faith. Often Paul’s conversion story has been held up as normative, as the way we should all come to the faith, and anything less than such a dramatic conversion is somehow less than authentic.
In talking about their own faith journey many people have told me apologetically, “Well, I have never had any kind of a Damascus Road experience.” But neither did Peter, or James, or Jeremiah, or anyone else for that matter. That was Paul’s experience, and it was unique, as are all of our faith journeys, but not normative. There is no need to compare ourselves to Paul. One could even make the case that Paul’s conversion should not be held up as the pattern for all of us. I mean the only reason he needed such a dramatic turnaround in his life was because he had strayed so far from the way in the first place.
And Paul’s conversion has helped to fuel a long debate in the church about the merits of sudden or gradual conversion, and here again the gradualists among us have often been made to feel like second-class disciples. But this matter of sudden or gradual conversion is not a matter of more or less authentic faith. I know it is hard sometimes, but we should never be made to feel inadequate about our own faith journey because all of our journeys are unique. All this diversity of faith experience among us is a testament to the creativity of the grace of God. God has all sorts of ways of getting our attention in life, so why should Paul be held up above everyone else for being so resistant that the only way Jesus could get his attention was for him to hit him upside the head, so to speak. What matters most is that we are all here, which is testament enough to the fact that the grace of God has been at work in each one of our lives.
Besides, Paul’s conversion was not as sudden as it seems. Even before his encounter, Paul was a man of deep religious conviction. He says of himself in one of his letters that “he was zealous for the faith of his ancestors.” That is why many see Paul’s encounter not as a conversion but as a call. Before and after, he remained a faithful Jew. In his encounter with Jesus he was not given a new faith but a new task, the task of taking the gospel to the gentiles.
And, as is always the case, Paul’s new found call did not come to fruition in an instant. It unfolded as he grew into it under the mentorship of Barnabas and others. And, as is also the case, there were some growing pains associated with Paul’s new call, growing pains within both Paul and the early church. It would be an understatement to say that it took some time for the early church to warm to Paul’s presence among them. Paul’s call would have a ripple effect through the entire early church movement, beginning with poor Ananias.
He strikes me as one of those quiet saints who, without any fanfare, just goes about being as faithful as he can be. And in this story he too receives a call from the Lord as Philip did in our story last week. “Go and tend to a man named Saul,” the Lord tells him. But Paul is no stranger to Ananias. He comes with a reputation. “I have heard about this man,” Ananias says, “how much evil he has done to the saints in Jerusalem.”
But Ananias obeys, beginning what will be another experiment for the early church, an experiment in forbearance. Given Paul’s reputation, it would have been understandable if Ananias and those first followers had refused to have anything to do with him. He was the enemy after all, and we could imagine any number of analogous situations. The closest I could imagine was an African American church being asked to welcome into their fellowship a former leader of the KKK. And again it would be understandable if they were unwilling to do that.
That is asking a lot, and forbearance is one of those virtues that we are called to practice when a lot is being asked of us. Now this situation with Paul was an extreme situation, but forbearance can be required of us in a lot of situations in life, when we are trying to mend a relationship, or hold a family together, or navigate a divisive issue within the church.
There is some risk involved in the practice of forbearance, and I do want to say that there are times when that risk is too much to ask of us, in situations of abuse for instance when we should not be expected to put ourselves back into that situation. And some situations are borderline, and our choice could go either way, and I would put this situation with Paul in that category, which is why it would have been understandable at least if Ananias had refused to go to Paul.
So when it comes to the practice of forbearance, we have to practice discernment as well, asking ourselves, “Is it worth the risk?” And we have to be so careful in what we counsel others to do, if we are not the one putting ourselves at risk.
But having said all this, forbearance is about giving one another space enough to become something different. From a theological perspective forbearance is grounded in our belief in the possibility of redemption, in our trust that it is a least possible by the grace of God for us to change.
Without that belief, it would have been foolish for Ananias to go to Paul, and for the early church to even begin to open its fellowship to him. If their belief were, once a persecutor of us always a persecutor, then it would have been best for them to have left well enough alone. And there are times in life when we may have to make that choice, in the belief that there is little hope of change, and that that little hope is just not worth the risk.
But that is usually not the case for much of our life. In most friendships we have to take that risk at times to keep the friendship, and this is even more the case in our marriages and in our family lives. Since we are all far from perfect, no friendship, no marriage, no family can survive without the practice of forbearance. The same is true in the church, where I hardly need to remind us that we are all far from perfect in what we say, and how we act, and how we treat one another. Pastor and writer Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote, “What frustrates me the most about the church is that it is full of people.”
So this is sort of a long way of getting around to commending Ananias for his practice of forbearance towards Paul, and for the practice of all those first followers who were willing to make room for Paul in their midst. It was not easy for them. Granted they did so slowly an grudgingly at times. They were only human. But they did do it.
And Paul too is to be commended in that all this was not lost on him either. He recognized what this new call from the Lord was asking from all the other followers, and I believe that this recognition inspired what are Paul’s most celebrated words. In the 13th chapter of his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul writes about love, but primarily about love as forbearance.
You see, even though we usually hear these words at weddings, Paul was not writing to a young couple in love. He was writing to a congregation that was not getting along with each other very well, and that is when our love for someone is tested most. It is easy to love someone when things are going well. But when there is disagreement, misunderstanding, anger, conflict, hurt, are we able to love then? And if so, it needs to take the form of forbearance. Such love is not arrogant or rude, Paul writes. It is patient and kind, even when we do not feel like being that way. It does not insist upon its own way to the bitter end. It shows restraint. It rejoices not in victories that come at the expense of the relationship. It rejoices instead in the truth, in the truth wielded in ways that heal and restore instead of wound and destroy.
And the reason I find Paul’s words about love to be so compelling is not only because they are so beautifully written, but because they are coming from deep within his own heart, and out of his own personal experience. The reason that Paul could so strongly advocate for the practice of forbearance among the faithful in Corinth was because he had experienced such forbearance in his own life, beginning with the person of Ananias, and Paul knew how gracious a gift that forbearance can be. It can make new life possible, which it did for him.
In his letters Paul often wrote about how he had died and been raised to new life in Christ, but at the same time there were a lot of faithful people, doing the hard work of forbearance, who gave Paul enough space and grace to work out this new and unexpected call that he had received in his life. And now after having given it some more thought, and having written this sermon, I am inclined to agree that this experience of Paul’s ranks right up there as one of the great miracles in the scriptures.