The Acts of the Apostles
THE EXPERIMENTAL CHURCH: Powered by the Spirit
“An Experiment in Vocation” Click here for audio
Pastor Donna Buell
I have a vivid memory of sitting in my 4th grade Sunday school class. We must have been learning about the Acts of the Apostles. But what I remember is not the book itself or its contents. What I remember is a map that traced the missionary journeys of the Apostle Paul. A map very much like this. I suspect that maps like this were created by people like me who were having a difficult time keeping track of all the stories about Paul that are contained in the last half of the book of Acts. Paul covers a lot of ground in those stories, traveling from one community to another. Sometimes he is well received. Other times he is rejected. He spends time in prison. He spends time back in Jerusalem consulting with the church leaders there. He even gets shipwrecked. There are a lot of interesting things that happen to Paul, but when I try to read those stories, one after another, they tend to get all jumbled up in my mind. So like I said, I suspect people like me, who were also trying to make some sense of the book of Acts, got out maps of the region and plotted out all of the stops Paul made along the way, so that they could physically trace Paul’s movements. And what you get when you do that is this. But even this doesn’t feel very orderly, does it? It reminds me of those Family Circus cartoons that traced the meandering paths of little Billy, who was not exactly what you would call a focused child. Clearly, he was easily distracted and never went directly from one place to another. Now, Paul’s journeys were not as aimless as Billy’s wanderings, but you have to admit that there is a bit of a resemblance.
Last week we heard the story of Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. And we heard about Ananias who was called by the Lord to go to Paul and heal him. When Ananias resisted, the Lord told him that Paul was an instrument that he had chosen to bring his name before the Gentiles. In a sense the Lord was telling Ananias, “I’ve got a plan for Paul,” just as he had a plan for the Apostles, which we can read about in the first chapter of Acts where Jesus tells the Apostles, right before his ascension, “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” And the whole book of Acts is the story of how the Spirit worked through those Apostles, and later through Paul, to carry out this plan.
There are a lot of people who talk that way about God. They’ll say, “God has a plan for your life” or “for my life.” I tend to be somewhat cautious in using that kind of language, because in my experience people tend to think of a plan as something that is all worked out ahead of time. And yet is that what most of us experience in our lives and in our faith? I find that this kind of language can leave people feeling puzzled and discouraged. They’ll ask themselves, and sometimes they’ll ask me: “What is this plan and when is God going to clue me in on it?” They may agonize about it, saying, “What am I doing wrong? Why isn’t it clearer to me?” Or they might look at their life and ask, “Is this really what God planned for me?” They may even be tempted to wonder if God is punishing them or has given up on them altogether. So I’m cautious about using that language because sometimes I’ve seen it cause people unnecessary pain. And I am also cautious because sometimes I’ve seen people use that language in order to justify their own plans, plans they have for themselves or perhaps for someone else.
Now don’t get me wrong. My problem isn’t with the idea of God having a plan. My problem is with what we tend to think of when we hear the word plan. Many of us think of a logical, linear, step-by-step process or progression that leads us from here to there in a fairly straightforward manner. But how many of your lives have actually progressed that way? Paul’s certainly didn’t. I know mine hasn’t. I still sometimes find myself asking what God is really calling me to do and be in this world, as if my call or vocation is this destination I need to reach. And this isn’t just true for individual followers of Christ. I think it is true for church communities as well. We often ask ourselves, sometimes at the urging of the conference, “What is God calling us to do and to be as a congregation?”
Given the rather convoluted path that his life took, I wonder if Paul ever had questions about God’s plan for his life.
This morning we’ve read about what happened to Paul shortly after his Damascus road experience. We chose this story to represent all the many stories about Paul’s ministry that are contained in Acts. In this passage Paul was a brand new follower of Christ, and despite being a novice in this way of faith, it seems that Paul jumped right in and started preaching about Jesus. Perhaps you have known other recent converts who have done the same. Paul was just as vocal in his support of the way of Christ as he had been in his opposition to it. And, as Marty reminded us last week, his sudden enthusiasm was not well received by those around him. The followers of Christ weren’t sure they could trust him. And who could blame them. And those who were not followers of Christ felt confused and even betrayed by what appeared to be Paul’s 180 degree reversal. And they weren’t particularly convinced by what Paul considered to be proof that Jesus was the Messiah for whom they had long waited. In fact, he was so disliked by some of the Jews in Damascus that they plotted to kill him. They posted guards at all the city gates and watched for him, and when Paul’s supporters learned of this, they lowered him down through an opening in the city wall so that he could escape. So then Paul made his way to Jerusalem and he attempted to join with the disciples there. But they were understandably wary of him.
Paul was like a man without a country. At that point he didn’t really belong in his old life or in this new life to which God was calling him. So we are told that “Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and vouched for him and for the genuine nature of Paul’s newfound faith in Christ. And because of that, Paul was allowed to come and go among the disciples of Jesus. But Paul was not the most diplomatic person, and as he tended to do, he got into it with some of the factions, and some of them plotted to kill him. So the believers had to figure out what to do with Paul. It reminds me of that scene in the Sound of Music when the nuns are asking each other “how do you solve a problem like Maria?” What are we going to do with this guy, Paul? So they decided to send him away. They sent him to his hometown of Tarsus, thinking that there, where people knew him, he would find a better reception.
After this the book of Acts leaves Paul and begins following Peter again. And that’s when the Apostles in Jerusalem begin to consider the possibility of taking the gospel message to the Gentiles. Initially that wasn’t Paul’s idea. We’ll hear more about that next Sunday.
Several chapters later, we learn that Barnabas had been sent to work with the believers in Antioch and after he’d been there a while, he left and went to Tarsus to find Paul and brought him back. And together the two of them spent an entire year in Antioch, meeting with the believers there, teaching and guiding them in the way of Christ. It was there, in Antioch, that the disciples of Jesus first began to be called by the name “Christian.” And after all of this Paul began his travels throughout the region, and his call or vocation of taking the name of Jesus to the Gentiles finally began to gain some traction. Yet even then it wasn’t a straightforward process. Paul ended up all over the map, so to speak. I think that probably had to do in part with Paul’s particular gifts. His enthusiasm, his solid grounding in scripture, and his keen theological mind were all valuable qualities that served him well. And yet, his style was maybe not well suited for we would now call a long-term pastorate. He was more of a hit and run kind of guy. Come in, shake things up a bit and then move on, and leave to others the task of doing the ongoing work of ministry. To his credit, he did stay in touch with those communities. When he learned about their struggles or conflicts or questions, he would write them letters to encourage them in the faith, and offer them his advice and counsel, sometimes a bit of chastisement. We still have some of those letters, which continue to be a source of encouragement to the church to this day. And the best of those writings are when Paul’s deep love and passion shine through. His love for God and for God’s love revealed in Christ, and his love for the faith communities he had helped to establish.
Now I want to circle back again to this phrase “God has a plan for your life,” because I don’t want you to get the impression that I don’t think God has purpose or intention for our lives. On the contrary, I think God does. But I think it isn’t so much a plan that is laid out in detail like a road that takes us from here to there. I don’t think it is about a particular destination. I think it is more of a way of life that we are called to embrace and to live all along the way, whatever circumstances we may face. And in that sense we all share a common call and vocation. Jesus calls all of us with the words “Follow me.” He calls all of us to turn toward God; to love the Lord our God with all our heart, and with all our soul, and with all our mind, and with all our strength. He calls all of us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He calls all of us to see his face in the faces of those in need, and to respond to the needs of others as if they were Christ himself. And if we keep these things in mind and try to do these things, then we are being faithful to the call of Christ in our lives wherever we are right now, even if where we are right now is just one part of a complicated lifelong journey.
This was the invitation that Paul gave wherever he went. He called people to become followers of Christ, and helped communities of followers so that they could support one another and encourage one another as they journeyed together in faith and shared the good news with others. And he became quite eloquent in articulating the idea that, although we all share a common call or vocation as followers of Christ, we each live out that call in unique ways that have to do with our particular gifts, interests, passions, abilities. And we offer those gifts to serve our common call as the community of believers.
Paul also discovered that each of those different communities of faith that he helped to nurture were also unique in their gifts and interests, their concerns and challenges. That’s why all the letters are different, for they are addressing different communities who are facing different issues. Marty and I have certainly experienced that through more than 30 years of serving different congregations. Abigail will experience that as she serves three different congregations. Yes, there are many things that all churches have had in common, and yet each congregation has its own particular location and context for ministry. Each has its own particular history, its own traditions. Each is made up of its own unique mix of individuals, its own strengths, its own challenges. Each congregation seeks to be the church in its own way. Doing what they can with what they have where they are. (a quote often attributed to Teddy Roosevelt.)
That’s part of what Marty and I are exploring in this series on the Acts of the Apostles which we are calling the Experimental Church. For then, as now, each person and each community is a unique experiment in vocation; in what means to hear and follow the call of Christ, and in what it means to be the church.
God did have a plan, a purpose or an intention for those first followers of Christ, for the Apostles, for Paul, and for what we can now start to call the Christians of the early church. And God has intention for us, as well. And though it may not be a detailed point by point plan that leads us directly from point a. to point b., it does have direction. Yes, we are called to follow Christ in every circumstance in which we find ourselves, wherever we are on our journey of life. But there is also trajectory to God’s intention. And that’s something I’d like to explore next week, when we turn our attention to a particular event in Peter’s life and ministry. In the meantime, let us be in prayer that God’s Holy Spirit might help to guide us all along our journey.
Our prayer this morning comes from Kathy Galloway of the Iona Community in Scotland. Let us pray:
Our brother Christ, you set our feet upon the way
and sometimes where you lead we do not like or understand.
By the power of your Holy Spirit:
Bless us with courage where the way is fraught with dread or danger;
Bless us with graceful meetings where the way is lonely;
Bless us with good companions where the way demands a common cause;
Bless us with night vision where we travel in the dark,
keen hearing, where we have not sight,
to hear the reassuring sounds of fellow travelers;
Bless us with humor – we cannot travel lightly weighed down with gravity;
Bless us with humility to learn from those around us;
Bless us with decisiveness where we must move with speed;
Bless us with lazy moments, to stretch and rest and savor;
Bless us with love, given and received;
and bless us with your presence, even when we know it in your absence.
Lead us into exile
until we find that on the road
is where you are
and where you are is going home.
Bless us, lead us, love us, bring us home
bearing the gospel of love.
Kathy Galloway (Iona Community)