Sermon from May 29, 2011

Amazing Transformations: Paul

Acts 17:22-31  (Paul and The Double-Faceted Blessing of the Gospel)

Are you here today feeling somewhat frazzled, stressed by life and you just need a place to feel settled and ok and accepted and safe and at peace?  You are in exactly the right place today.  There is radical acceptance here.

Are you here today feeling somewhat bored, bored almost to tears, like you’re in this endless rat race and you just need to get fired up and make some changes and get unstuck?  You are in exactly the right place today.  There is radical transformation here.

We’ve been looking over the past few weeks at some amazing transformations that happen in people’s lives in the book of Acts because of the resurrection of Jesus.  The risen Jesus moves Peter from being an abject failure to a decisive leader.  The risen Jesus moves a whole community from timidity to an explosive, irresistible love.  The risen Jesus moves an ordinary guy like Stephen to incredible, unforgettable courage.  And today we’re looking at this guy Paul whom the risen Jesus knocks to the ground and makes a child, servant and friend of God.  What I want to explain to you and ask you to take with you today is this aspect of the gospel, it is a two edged sword, a two sided coin, a two-faceted blessing the risen Christ brings.  Remember these words: Radical acceptance.  Radical transformation.

Radical acceptance; Radical transformation – in that order.  We see it in Paul’s life.  He was there when Stephen got mercilessly killed, he watched the coats of the stone throwers, he persecuted believers, he approved of the carnage.  Yet what happens between then and this passage today?  The risen Jesus literally knocks Paul down and says (in so many words) Dude, what are you doing!?!.  I love you, I forgive you.  That is radical acceptance.  Then he also said, by the way, I have a job for you to do.  You are to take this gospel to the world.  That’s radical transformation.  Paul’s preaching would later be crystallized in the book of Ephesians chapter 2:8-9 For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, it is the gift of God not as a result of works that no one should boast – that’s radical acceptance.  But then he goes on to say, for you were created in Christ Jesus for Good works that you should live in them whatever you’ve done and wherever you’ve been in the past – that’s radical transformation.

So Paul was preaching that message.  Some accepted it, some got really upset about it.  His new Christian friends sent him away temporarily to Athens for his own safety till they figured out what to do next but you just couldn’t shut this guy up.  Athens of course is this wordly, cosmopolitan place where secular philosophies and polytheistic religion all gets mixed up and interacted with and discussed and Paul wanders over to this place the Areopogus and chats the philosophical and religious elite, the intelligentsia.  And he starts quoting their own philosophers, we are the offspring of God, in him we live and move and have our being, and he says you have a point there and he creates this common ground.  He didn’t say, you people are a bunch of intellectual depraved jerks and that’s all you will ever be.  That’s radical acceptance.  But then he goes on to say in vss. 30-31: God is declaring to all everywhere to repent (that is be changed, transformed) because God has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom he has appointed, having furnished proof to all by raising him from the dead.  That is radical transformation.

Hugh Halter, in his book The Tangible Kingdom [“Making the Kingdom Tangible,” Shapevine.com Newsletter (1-12-10)], talks about an experience he had that drove this two faceted blessing of the gospel home into his heart and his thinking.  It was just after 9/11 he was in Queens NY for several weeks, part of a group who were training church planters to be effective in their work.  Every night he would walk down to an Irish pub to eat dinner with friends.  A waitress named Fiona not only served them well, but she seemed curious about their faith and what they were teaching pastors.  At one point she inserted herself in the conversation and asked, so why would you help pastors lead their churches if churches really don’t help people?  Now Hugh was aware that statistics say that around a third of this young woman’s friends were abused in the parochial school system, and he also knew that two of Fiona’s friends had been killed in protestant/catholic fights so he resisted judging her criticism of organized religion.  Instead he just started talking about the kingdom of God Jesus preached about and demonstrated, how in this Kingdom all kind of people are radically accepted and then everybody gets radically transformed by this loving God.  And she said I’ve never heard that before.  Tell me more.  Well later, the night before he left town to fly back to his home in Oregon, he’s sitting at dinner, all of a sudden he hears Fiona’s voice over the crowded room.  Hey everybody, there’s they guy I was talking about, you got to hear him talk about God.  Then he watched as the bar room split and she called her friends over.  She looked at him and said tell them what you told me—you know that stuff about the Kingdom.  He said, that night everything changed for me – this professional Christian trainer.  He went from a jaded, consumeristic, do-whatever-it-takes-to-get-people-to-come mentality to ‘Let’s just talk about the radical acceptance and radical transformation in the risen Jesus and see what happens.’  Church started breaking out, not where it was ‘supposed to’ but rather right in a bar room on a corner in Queens, NY.  Friends, if we get this radical acceptance and radical transformation the risen Jesus constantly conveys into the deepest part of our beings, if we ‘get that’ we can’t help but turn this community and this world upside down just like the people in Acts.

Back in the early 1990s gang violence erupted in Boyle Heights, a section of East LA.  Eight gangs were in conflict in the community around the Dolores Mission Catholic Church.  Killings and injuries of bystanders and gang participants happened pretty much daily.  A group of women who met regularly for prayer at the church read about how Jesus walked on water and changed people’s lives.  One of the moms there became electrified by the text and began to see parallels between Jesus story and her own.  That night several of the women began a procession from one barrio to another.  They brought food, guitars, and love.  As they ate chips and salsa and drank cokes with gang members the gangs were disoriented, baffled; the war zones were silent.  It was radical acceptance.  Each night the mothers bravely walked.  As relationships between the moms and gang members grew and developed, the kids told their stories.  Anguish over lack of jobs; anger at police brutality; rage over the hopelessness of poverty.  Together over time they developed a tortilla factory, a bakery, a child-care center, a job-training program, a class on conflict-resolution techniques and more [James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful Life ( InterVarsity Press, 2010), pp. 131-132].  Didn’t happen over night, but it started when one woman was so over come by, so GOT the radical acceptance and radical transformation of the risen Jesus that she and others got out of the boat.  I have a question for you.

The radical acceptance and radical transformation of the risen Jesus lead the apostle Paul onto a platform of the Areopogus of Athens.  The radical acceptance and radial transformation of the risen Jesus lead a professional Christian named Hugh to find CHURCH at a bar on a corner in Queens NY.  The radical acceptance and radical transformation of the risen Jesus lead some ordinary moms out onto the streets of East LA.  CT Stud once said,

Some want (prefer) to live (stay) within the sound of church or chapel bell;

I (’d rather) want to run a rescue shop within a yard of hell.

I have a question for you.  Where is the radical acceptance and radical transformation of the risen Jesus next leading you and me?

Rev. David B. Humphrey

Asbury United Methodist Church, Smyrna, Delaware

May 29, 2011

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