Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
April 14, 2013
Year C: The Third Sunday of Easter
Conversion and Full Nets
One time during the year when Sue and I were living in Gainesville, Florida, I heard a series of talks given by Bart Ehrman, a professor of Religious Studies at Chapel Hill, who’s also a best-selling author. Maybe you’ve read some of his books or seen him on TV.
His field is early Christian literature – both what’s in the Bible and other writings that were not included in what’s called the canon.
Ehrman’s talk was sponsored by the big Episcopal church in downtown Gainesville – so the audience was made up of mostly faithful churchgoers, along with some people from the outside community and the University of Florida.
Anyway, his talk was interesting, though there wasn’t much news for anyone who had read his books.
At one point, during the Q and A, someone asked him if he believed in God and in Jesus.
He was clearly uncomfortable with the question and seemed almost sad as he gave his answer. Essentially, he said no – that while he was open to the possibility that there might be some creative force behind the universe he could not believe that this was the God of Israel and the God of Jesus. It was a very poignant moment when Ehrman, a scholar who has devoted his professional life to studying early Christian literature, admitted that he is no longer a Christian.
Fast-forward to last year when Ehrman published his most recent book. When I saw the title, I thought, oh boy, here we go.
It’s called Did Jesus Exist?
On the back cover it says, “The truth behind the Jesus Myth.”
My assumption was that this scholar who had lost his faith had now written a book to suggest that Jesus of Nazareth never even existed.
But, I’m happy to report that’s not what Ehrman is up to in his book. The subtitle is “The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.” In his book, Ehrman systematically takes on and rebuts the various writers and thinkers who have claimed that there was no historical Jesus. It’s worth reading.
In one key section of his book, Ehrman takes on and demolishes the idea that some Jewish people back in the First Century just made up Jesus. He does this by summarizing the First Century Jewish expectations of what the Messiah would be like. He writes they expected, “…the messiah would be a future ruler of the people of Israel, leading a real kingdom on earth. He would be visibly and openly known to be God’s special emissary, the anointed one. And he would be high and mighty, a figure of grandeur and power.”
Ehrman argues that no First Century Jew could have possibly made up the story of a messiah who was a nobody from Nazareth who was rejected and executed in the most shameful way – as a common criminal.
It was more than ridiculous and outlandish – these claims made about Jesus as messiah would have been seen as an insult to God – as blasphemy.
Which helps to explain why the author of Acts tells us that Saul the Pharisee breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.
Saul had already been introduced earlier in Acts at the martyrdom of a follower of Jesus named Stephen. We’re told that as the angry crowd stoned Stephen to death, Saul held their coats and “approved of their killing them.”
Now in today’s lesson Saul is back, still angry, and on his way to Damascus to arrest Christians, followers of “the Way,” and bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.
But, it’s on the road to Damascus that Saul had one of the most dramatic conversion experiences of all time – and began his journey to become St. Paul, the apostle to the gentiles, the non-Jews.
Saul, who had never met Jesus during his earthly lifetime, endured his own kind of death and resurrection. We’re told that after seeing the intense light and hearing the voice of Jesus, he was blind for three days and ate and drank nothing.
But then, after Ananias laid hands on him, his sight was restored. He was baptized and reborn. His life took off in a radically different direction.
Saul who had breathed threats and murder against the Christians now boldly proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
We know from his own letters and from the Acts of the Apostles that Paul gave away the rest of his life spreading the Good News of Christ – the Good News of this most unexpected, humble, nobody messiah. Along the way, Paul faced many challenges and disappointments – the dangers of travel around the Mediterranean, rejection, ridicule, disputes with other disciples, arrests, beatings and, finally, according to early Christian tradition, martyrdom with Peter at Rome in the early 60s.
I’ve met a few people – and read many stories about others – who have had powerful conversion experiences – sudden moments when God seemed to intervene in history, dramatically changing the course of their lives.
Maybe some of you have had experiences like that.
Not me. Oh, there have been milestones and forks in the road – in fact, one of them is coming up in just a few weeks – but no flash of light, no voice from heaven, no dramatic change.
We might think that it’s a lot easier to have faith when we’ve been blessed with a powerful conversion experience.
I’m not so sure.
A conversion experience can become an idol – a story, an experience, that’s so important and so meaningful that we get stuck, telling it over and over, polishing it like some sacred and valuable object.
Another danger of a conversion experience is that later we can start to question, to doubt, our own memories. Did that really happen? Did I really hear the voice of Jesus or was it just a hallucination or a seizure or a dream? It was so long ago, it doesn’t seem real to me anymore…
No, it wasn’t the flash of light and the voice of Christ that sustained Paul during those years of proclaiming the Good News to the gentiles. Despite all the challenges and disappointments, Paul was sustained by God’s overflowing abundance. Paul was sustained when he saw, over and over, the power of Christ transforming lives in places like Corinth and Philippi and Galatia.
Paul was a tent-maker, not a fisherman, but his spiritual nets were nearly bursting at the seams, giving him the confidence and courage to move forward into the unknown, risking it all, giving away his life for Christ, the unlikely and unexpected messiah.
And the same is true for us.
Whether or not we’ve had some powerful conversion experience, we all face many challenges and disappointments in our lives: regret, fear, rejection and heartbreaking loss.
We’re not here because of a supernatural experience or because of some book we’ve read about Jesus. No. We’re here – we’re Christians - because somehow even in the midst of challenges and disappointments – even in the midst of our own sin – somehow, together, our spiritual nets are also nearly bursting at the seams.
Just look around – look at the power of Christ transforming lives right here at Grace Church – inspiring people to care for one another during those challenging and disappointing times of regret, fear, rejection and heartbreaking loss – the power of Christ inspiring us to pick up the phone, to send an email, to drop off a meal, to offer a hug or a shoulder to cry on.
Just look around – look at the girls and the moms who’ve put on Doll four years running. Look at the children and the adults who give up so much valuable time to make beautiful music here week after week.
Just look around – look at Kit and his small band of volunteers doing well by doing good, delivering household items that transform the lives of so many people.
Just look around – look at the people visiting shut-ins, people in the hospital and in nursing homes.
Just look around – look around and imagine all of the other generous acts that go on around here that most people – even Lauren and I – never know about or only find out about long after the fact.
Just look around – look and see the power of Christ filling our spiritual nets until they’re nearly bursting at the seams.
On the road to Damascus, Saul had a dramatic conversion experience – transforming him from the Pharisee who breathed threats and murder against the disciples into an apostle boldly proclaiming Jesus, the unlikely and unexpected messiah, as the Son of God.
But what sustained and inspired Paul – and can sustain and inspire us -whether we’ve had a conversion experience or not – is the encounter with the Risen Christ in and through one another – the realization that together our spiritual nets are nearly bursting at the seams.
If we only just look.