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A Provocative Church: Embracing In Spirit

Acts 9:10-22

(Oxford University Professor Graham Tomlin has a new book out entitled, The Provocative Church. The book is built around this intriguing line: “Churches need to become provocative, arresting places which make the searcher, the casual visitor, want to come back for more.” That’s the kind of church I want us to be. Therefore, over these next months, I will be highlighting some of the Biblical characteristics, which if we were to adopt them as our own, would make this “a provocative church.” One such characteristic I choose to call “Embracing in Spirit.”)

I apologize in advance for the graphic nature of the story I am about to relate. If I could think of a better way to begin what I have to say, I would use it.

A satanic coven near San Francisco was about to conduct a service of initiation for newly-recruited witches. The leaders of that coven decided that something dramatic and spectacular needed to be part of the ceremony (and, by the way, let this disabuse you of the notion that all religions are basically the same. Not true.) So the coven leaders drove to a nearby college campus and abducted a young woman, took her to the place of initiation, stripped her, beat her, cut her, placed her upon their so-called altar and raped her. When they had finished, they clubbed her into unconsciousness and left her in a ditch by the side of the road. Somehow she managed to survive. Months later, after a painful, difficult recovery, she was walking across her campus and she saw a man she recognized as one of the satanic leaders who had so brutalized her. She walked up to him and said: “I know you.” With rising panic, he quickly turned and walked away. She followed him. He stopped, turned, and with his face fiery with anger, he snapped: “What do you want?” She replied: “I want you to know that I have committed my life to Jesus Christ and because of that I love you and I forgive you.”

That story is absolutely true. It is documented in every detail. Frankly, I find it amazing that anyone could have in them such forgiving love. It makes me think about a follower of Jesus in Damascus whose name was Ananias. His story is found in Acts 9. There we are told that a man named Saul of Tarsus was on a murderous rampage directed against the followers of Jesus. He had succeeded in driving many of them out of Jerusalem, and then he learned that many of those Christian refugees were holed up in Damascus, so he charged off toward the Syrian capital determined to finish the job he had begun. He justified his bloody campaign by calling it an act of religious devotion. He was what we would call “a religious terrorist.” There is nothing more vicious or more frightening than a religious terrorist because what they do they justify in the name of their religion.

However, on the way to Damascus, Saul was ambushed by Jesus Christ. He was confronted with Jesus Christ so spectacularly that he was literally blinded by the sight of Him. He had left Jerusalem proud, arrogant, ruthless and unbending. Now He entered Damascus stumbling, blind, helpless and broken. At that point the Lord commanded this disciple named Ananias to go and reach out and lay hands of blessing upon the man named Saul. Ananias was shocked, and his response was swift. He said: “Lord, do you know who this fellow is? Do you know what he’s been doing to your people? This man’s a killer. He may be tricking us, luring us into a trap. But even if not, don’t you think we ought to make him prove himself? Shouldn’t there be some requirements to be met first to show us that he is sincere? I mean, Lord, you can’t just go around embracing everybody. That’s a good way to get hurt.”

I understand Ananias when he talks like that. And I would have understood if that young California co-ed, having encountered that satanic witch on her campus, had begun screaming for the police. You just can’t go through life reaching out to everybody, now can you? But Ananias did not settle for that. It is very likely that Ananias himself was from Jerusalem and that he was one of those Christians driven out by Saul of Tarsus. It is likely also that Ananias, having lived in Jerusalem, would have had opportunity to see and hear Jesus. And I think that as he considered this rather shocking assignment which the Lord was giving him, he began to reflect on some of the things he had heard Jesus say and seen Jesus do.

Yes, I think Ananias would have remembered Jesus’ capacity for forgiveness.

I believe that Ananias remembered the day when they brought the adulterous woman to Jesus. Jesus said to the men who brought her: “Let him who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” With that they turned away and Jesus then said to the woman: “Where are your accusers?” She looked around and said: “Lord, I have none,” Jesus then said: “Nor do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Now as Ananias thought about that incident he would have remembered that Jesus required no promises from that woman. No probation period was ordered. No list of requirements was set forth. There is no mention of even a tear of repentance. No conditions whatever. Jesus granted her complete, immediate forgiveness—and then charged her to change her ways. I think Ananias thought long and hard about Jesus’ capacity for forgiveness, and then he went to find Saul to offer this same forgiveness.

Now please don’t miss the significance of this for us. Some people consider forgiveness morally unfair. Some suggest that it goes against human nature and only moral wimps do it. Some suggest that forgiveness is foolishness. But from God’s perspective, it is anything but foolish. I came across a wonderful little five-point piece that puts forgiveness in a healthy perspective. It’s by Christian psychologists, Kathleen Jackson and William Miller. Listen:

  1. Forgiveness is not the same as amnesia. It is not forgetting and does not require it. Rather, forgiveness is given in the face of remembering, and then forgiveness enables us to go on to forget. Forgetting is no prerequisite, and to forgive does not require that we forget, a very difficult thing to do.
  2. Forgiveness is not acquittal, finding the offender blameless and without responsibility. Rather, forgiveness is only required when the responsibility of the offender is recognized.
  3. Forgiveness is not an award, something earned or given to the most deserving. Forgiveness must be given freely, without regard to merit.
  4. Forgiveness is not approval of an action or agreement with it. It does not mean that the forgiving person is admitting that the offense was okay. In fact, forgiveness is needed only when the offended does not approve; it is given in the face of disapproval of the behavior.
  5. Forgiveness is not acquiescence. This is no license for the forgiven to go and do as he pleases in the future. There is no moratorium here on values or a suspension of rules. This is not a permit to repeat the offense. Rather, in a mysterious way forgiveness inspires and empowers change. It is given in the face of the knowledge that the future may or may not be any different, but it is also given with the hope that it will.

That’s forgiveness from the Lord’s perspective—an affirming, embracing acceptance of the person as distinguished from that person’s actions. Jesus said to the woman: “I forgive you. Go and sin no more.” Embracing the person, but not the sin.

And then I think Ananias would have remembered Jesus’ conveyance of grace.

Ananias would have remembered Jesus’ story about a shepherd who had lost a sheep and the shepherd went out to find him. Jesus noted that the shepherd kept looking for that sheep—and kept looking for that sheep until he found it. He did not stop short of his goal. Now that was not good business practice to leave 99 sheep unattended while he went searching desperately for the one that was lost. But Jesus is saying that that’s the way God loves. He cares so much for the one who is lost that He will risk anything and everything in an effort to find that one, and he will keep at it until the one who is lost is found. God never gives up on anyone. I think Ananias thought long and hard about Jesus’ conveyance of grace, and then he went to find Saul to convey to him that same message of grace.

Don’t miss the significance of that, please. I surely don’t. You see, I stand before you today assured of my salvation. I know that Jesus Christ is my Savior, that I am forgiven of my sins, that I am bound for the glory of heaven. I know that. It is not because I am Presbyterian- Presbyterianism is worth only as much as it shows of Christ. I am not assured of my salvation because of good deeds—if I have to earn my way to God, I’ll never make it. I am not saved because of my ministry—God forbid that my eternal destiny should hang on something like that. I’m not even saved because of my faith in Jesus Christ—for my faith often becomes weak just when I need it to be strong. Yet still I know that I am saved. Why? Because the Christ who saved me lays down no conditions. If He did, there would be no hope for me. I am saved by His grace—His grace alone. He embraces me even though I do not deserve it. I quit on Him all the time, but He never ever quits on me. That’s grace. That’s what has saved me and that same grace can save you as well.

So…

Ananias got up and went to find Saul. He embraced Saul as a brother, put his hands upon him, and the scales of blindness fell from Saul’s eyes. You know there are a lot of people who never really begin to see until some Christian loves them and forgives them the way Christ loves and forgives. Like that coven leader in San Francisco. When he heard that young woman say: “I love you and I forgive you because of Jesus Christ,” he himself was won to Jesus Christ. The reason we know every detail of that story is because he now tells that story himself as part of his Christian testimony.

My beloved people, you and I are called to reach out and embrace other people in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, no matter who they are, no matter what they may have been or done or thought or said in their lives- we are called to reach out to them and say: “Sister, Brother, let me tell you about the one who saved me- and if He could save the likes of me, then he can surely save you.”

That’s the Gospel which I am called to preach and that’s the Gospel which you and I in this church are called to live…

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