A sermon preached by the Rev Linda Harrison
Easter 6; May 26, 2019
Acts 16:9-15; Psalm 67; Revelation 21:10, 22-22:5; John 5:1-9
There are conversions that seem to happen in the blink of an eye – like Lydia whose heart was opened by Christ to receive the gospel from Paul. There are conversions that take years to live into. Peter’s was an overnight conversion; although already proclaiming Christ and the gospel message, he still maintained the separation of Gentiles and Jews, following the purity laws of Judaism. After his vision of the blanket being lowered with ‘unclean’ animals and told by God that nothing created by the Almighty is profane, his understanding of the gospel message was turned on its head. His understanding changed; his behavior changed. So much so, that Peter even ate at the same table with Gentile converts.
Paul’s was an overnight conversion. The one breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Christ experienced a theophany that affected his eyesight. Then Ananias, following the direction of Christ that came to him in prayer, prayed over Paul that Paul regain his eyesight. As soon as ‘something like scales’ fell from his eyes, Paul was baptized and immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues.
Today, in this text from Acts, we find Paul … sitting with women. Paul, a Pharisee – a sect known for strict adherence to Jewish law, insisting that everyone else do so as well. Paul, teaching women. Receiving hospitality from a woman. Accepting women as equals and worthy of theological discussion. Supporting women as heads of house churches. Pharisees obeyed Jewish law and Jewish law forbade the mixing of genders, let alone allowing women to learn. Paul’s understanding changed; his behavior changed.
The gospel message changes everything – most notably people.
That change might not be immediate or as profound as Peter’s and Paul’s were. Outside the pages of the Bible, most often the gospel message works slowly, gently persuading over the years, inviting a person ever deeper into faith and relationship with God through Christ.
Take John Newton and Dorothy Day. Two ordinary human beings in history.
Despite the apocryphal story, John Newton was not an instant convert. The Anglican priest, and author of the beloved hymn Amazing Grace, prayed to God to be safely delivered from a storm that threatened to sink the ship he was on – Newton even attributed the outcome to God’s intervention. Yet, Newton continued his debauched seafaring lifestyle. He was known throughout the seafaring community for his obstinate insubordination, debauchery, and unmitigated obscenities and profanities. He also perpetrated heinous cruelties against Africans kidnapped and forced into slavery who were aboard his ships.
It wasn’t until years later that Newton was ordained an Anglican priest; decades after ordination before he repented of his part in the slave trade and spoke out in favor of abolition. Only then did he write the famous hymn.
Dorothy Day – a recently canonized saint in the Roman Church, but just as human as you or I. Although baptized as a teen in the Episcopal Church, hers was a fraught, on again/off again relationship with Christianity. It wasn’t until after she had her infant daughter Tamar baptized in the Roman Catholic Church that Day herself was received into the Roman Church and began to combine social activism and the gospel message. Day began to see Christ in the people living in poverty and who were unemployed and homeless. Day’s nonviolent direct action was directly linked to her belief in Jesus, the inherent dignity of all people bestowed by God, and the gospel message of love and justice for all humanity.
Two human beings – nothing extraordinary about either, nothing superhuman, both very real and very flawed like all of us. Yet, they were open to the changes the gospel message brought – even if it took decades to percolate and come to fruition. The gospel changed everything for each of them.
Peter was changed and led to sit at table with Gentiles despite Jewish purity laws, accepting ‘the other’ in the love of Christ.
Paul was changed and led to sit with and teach women despite pharisaic laws, crossing gender norms and purity laws in the love of Christ.
Newton was changed and late in life led to speak out against slavery, writing both the hymn Amazing Grace and Thoughts upon the African Slave Trade, a tract against the very trade he so cruelly participated in for decades.
Dorothy Day was changed and led to begin the Catholic Worker Movement and opening her home to those in need, despite the gender and social conventions of the time and being a single parent. She saw Christ in the eyes of ‘the other.’
Each was changed by Christ and the gospel message. Each was led to changed behavior that touched the lives of others with the love of God.
Instantaneous or gradual, the gospel has changed everything, and still changes everything.
I wonder aloud, How much are we willing to let Christ and the gospel change us and lead us to where God is calling us to change some small part of our own world?
My prayer is that we are open to Love – Incarnate Love – that changes everything.
Blessed be God forever.