We’ve been on a journey through these weeks in this time of Easter. I have been talking about a journey that we are all on, where we’re seeking to better understand God, understand who God is, and how God is shaping us to be the people who God has called us to be. That (journey) requires us to have open hearts, and ears, and eyes to what God is revealing to us; but last week, we were reminded by the stoning of Stephen that it is not always sunshine and roses to do what we have been called to do. We have that same notion of vocation and calling in our Acts text today.
Last week, I talked about that we all (as baptized Christians) have a call that we get in our baptisms. It is a call to proclaim the Word (proclaim who God is), to seek justice, to act with mercy and compassion, to love, and to serve. Stephen, as a deacon, was called into proclaiming the Word and serving the people.
I want to talk a little bit today about the vocation that Paul had and how this text (in particular) speaks to me about how I continue on that vocation. As a pastor, I have a vocation to ordained ministry, proclaiming the Word and administrating the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, which I referred to last week.
There are many other tasks that I do as pastor, including providing guidance and counseling, being a listening ear, sometimes updating bulletin boards or vacuuming, and tasks you may not associate with ministry. Seminary prepared me for some of these, my life (in general) prepared me for others, and some I have had to accept with a leap of faith going forward.
But, one thing that is not included in my Letter of Call or job description I have at Gloria Dei is to “save” people, it is also not to “convert” people. This may sound odd because I am a pastor of a congregation, but I want to show how Paul speaks to that. Paul in this text of Acts actually speaks to two sides of who I am, two sides of the same coin you could say.
The first is as a called pastor. It wasn’t that long ago that I had a woman, who I am convinced was trying to manipulate me and when it wasn’t working, literally was in my face saying:
“well, I use to believe in God. You know, the Bible says ask and you shall receive and I have not received 90 percent of what I have asked for”.
I looked at her and said “well, I have come to understand that God and Christ are not my cabana boys and my job is not to make you believe.”
She took a step back. It surprised her that I said that wasn’t my job. Ultimately, we were all saved two thousand years ago when Christ was hung on a cross on a hill in a far away land. It is His work and not my own.
I will get back to how Paul addresses this in a second.
On the other side of the coin, it is no secret that I am a religion and religious studies nerd. It is no secret that I love engaging conversation and dialogue with other Christians and non-Christians about my faith and their own faith. On question I often get from people who are interested in such conversations but not sure how to go forward with it is “do you have any advice on how I can do this?”. My first piece of advice is always that “conversion, the effort to get them to become your own tradition, should not be on the table, instead seek to find common ground and go from there”.
So, how does Paul address these in this text today?
Let us go back to our Acts text of last week with the stoning of Stephen. Remember those watching and participating in the stoning took their cloaks off and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul. We don’t know if he actively participated in the stoning of Stephen, but we do know he becomes the primary persecutor of those following The Way (Christianity) until he has a miraculous, grand conversion experience that causes him to change his name to Paul. He becomes known as the apostle to the Gentiles. We have talked about this before, the Gentiles are the uncircumcised, pork eating Pagans that Peter and the other disciples were not sure what to do with.
Paul faced a lot of persecution of his own in this new role as a missionary. In fact, in our text today he was fleeing one Gentile community and spending time in another. That community intrigued by his ‘record’ of words and deeds (1 Peter), the way he conducted himself, and the way that he proclaimed the Word (which we all are called to do) made these Gentile want to learn more about it. They bring Paul to this area, this public meeting space. The first thing that he did was find common ground.
‘I see you have altars to a ‘unknown God’, one you didn’t know before because of your human ignorance and that God forgave that; but I am here to tell you that that God has become known in a man named Christ, Jesus the Nazarene.’
Paul begins with common ground and then shares his own faith. Some of the community was baptized, but not all. How does Paul respond to this? Does he get upset? No. He simply moves on to another town and another community.
My job and our callings as Christians, followers of Christ, is summed up in our baptismal promises: to proclaim the Word, to seek justice, to act with compassion and mercy, to love, and to serve. No where in there does it say to “save” or to “covert”.
That might seem odd but the truth is: Paul got “It”.
You might be wondering what that “It” is, well I want to use more of a “quote” from Martin Luther because he got “It” as well. When asked about the Protestant Reformation and all the things that had happened, Luther responded that all he did was sit around in a tavern drinking beer with his friends (the Wittenberg Theologians) talking about theology and life and how they interact with one another. The Holy Spirit did everything.
In our Gospel text, (Jesus the) Christ talks about sending us an Advocate, a Spirit of truth, or the Holy Spirit. It is this Spirit who uses our words of proclaiming God as well as our public record of deeds to work on the hearts of other, to soften the hard of heart, and to help us repent/return to a God that was previously ‘unknown’. That is the work of the Holy Spirit, who works in us, through us, among us, and even despite us. And I take great comfort in that.
My prayer is that we, as individuals and as a community, recognize that baptismal call we have and trust in the Holy Spirit to lead us on the journey of getting to know God better, of being shaped, and that our words and our acts inspire others to learn more about this previously ‘unknown’ God. Amen.
Scriptures are Acts 17: 22-31, 1 Peter 3: 13-22, and John 14: 15-21.
Sermon was originally preached on May 21, 2017 at Gloria Dei (Kelso, WA).