A Sprig Held High

Ezekiel 17:22-24 (NRSV)

Thus says the Lord God:

I myself will take a sprig
   from the lofty top of a cedar;
   I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
   from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
   on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
   I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
   and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
   in the shade of its branches will nest
   winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
   that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
   I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
   and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
   I will accomplish it.

As you may have noticed reading the Bible, prophets can be strange folk. Ezekiel is one of the strangest, but he also reveals to us some of the most beautiful truths about God.

Born a little over six centuries before the birth of Christ, Ezekiel spent much of his time helping the people of Israel understand why their world had fallen apart. In short, they had turned on God, falling into idolatry, and God had given them up to their enemies. Ezekiel eventually was dragged off to captivity in Babylon, along with most of the brightest of God’s people.

Here are some of the odder things Ezekiel did to communicate God’s wrath to a very stubborn people:

  • He lay on his left side for 390 days, one day for each year God said the kingdom of Israel had existed in sin. He then lay on his right side for 40 days, one day for each year the kingdom of Judah had sinned.
  • During this time on one side or the other, he ate bread cooked over cow dung, to show how the people of Israel would be forced to eat in an unclean way as captives. He also ate very sparingly, to show how the people of Jerusalem would suffer from famine during the occupation.
  • Later, whenever he ate he had to tremble and shake with fear to show the people what they would feel when their towns were attacked and stripped of possessions.
  • He was not allowed by God to publicly mourn the death of his wife, as a sign of how the people would lose all they treasured with no recourse or way to complain.

It’s depressing stuff. But again, there is this powerful message of hope in the midst of so much suffering. We see that hope in the prophecy we have read as our Scripture today, the prophecy of the sprig.

For the people of Israel, the prophecy is about the restoration of the line of David, the great king of their history. A cedar tree was the sign of royalty.

Clearly, the tree had become twisted and corrupt, having moved its roots away from God as the source of life, but God was promising the people through Ezekiel that he still planned to fulfill the great promises he had made. God was in control; God is in control.

We have this image of a tiny sprig at the top of the tree, new life being plucked from the old and being moved to a high and lofty place. A new king would come, one who would fulfill the promise from God that all the world would be blessed by the people of Israel, the line descended from Abraham.

This fulfillment has already happened. As Christians, we come here each Sunday to celebrate the great event. Jesus is the sprig broken off Israel, establishing a new kingdom as he was held high on the cross.

In his resurrection we see new life shared with the world. We see escape from our captivity to what is unholy.

And as we understand the story, we see the powerful change God offers each of us. Sadly, we are part of this broken world, but if God is transforming the world through Christ—if he is making all things new, as we know he is—then we can be plucked off and transplanted, too.

Perhaps our habits are not what God would have them be; like the ancient Israelites, we can find ourselves living in defiance of God.

Perhaps our families are corrupted in some way, suffering under the influence of the world rather than seeking God’s will, and we find ourselves pulled down.

Perhaps our relationships are not what they should be, and our ability to thrive is hampered by them.

Know this: Through belief in Jesus as Lord and Savior, we allow God to pluck off what is fresh and good in us and replant us in fertile soil. I’m talking about a life rooted in God’s holy word and refreshed daily by God’s Holy Spirit.

The first step is to offer ourselves, branches held high.

Take me, Lord, take what still has life and holiness in it, and grow me into what you would have me be.


And So We Begin

Romans 1:1-7 (NLT)

This letter is from Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, chosen by God to be an apostle and sent out to preach his Good News. God promised this Good News long ago through his prophets in the holy Scriptures. The Good News is about his Son. In his earthly life he was born into King David’s family line, and he was shown to be the Son of God when he was raised from the dead by the power of the Holy Spirit. He is Jesus Christ our Lord. Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority as apostles to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him, bringing glory to his name.

And you are included among those Gentiles who have been called to belong to Jesus Christ. I am writing to all of you in Rome who are loved by God and are called to be his own holy people.

May God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ give you grace and peace.

Today we begin what will be a relatively long sermonic journey through Romans, but I’m praying it also will be a joyous, productive trip. By the time we finish in November, God willing, I hope we know our redeemer and ourselves a little better, thanks to Paul’s insights during the early life of the church.

Our verses today are an introduction, and we should begin this journey by being sure we fully understand the man, the place, and the plan. By the man, I mean the Apostle Paul, the author. By the place, I mean Rome, home of his Christian audience. The plan is a reference to God’s work through Jesus Christ, a theme that will be at the heart of everything we hear from the Book of Romans these next nine months or so.

Paul was in his day and is unto today a controversial figure. People uncomfortable with Paul’s assertions about specific Christian behaviors sometimes go so far as to separate the faith into what could be called “Jesus Christianity” and “Pauline Christianity.” It is a false separation, and a dangerous one. Instead, it is correct to see Paul and his ministry as flowing directly from Jesus Christ, an extension of the work Christ did among us.

I can make such an assertion because Paul’s conversion to Christ, recorded in Acts in both third person and first person and alluded to in other parts of the New Testament, was a direct experience of the risen Savior. It was a 180-degree turn for Paul, who was a respected, scholarly Jew, a man who had studied under one of the finest Jewish rabbis to ever live. Paul, whose Jewish name was Saul, was actually in the process of pursuing and persecuting Christians when the risen Jesus confronted him in a blinding flash and a voice from heaven.

The link between Jesus Christ and Paul is undeniable for anyone who takes the Holy Bible seriously. We therefore have to take the Apostle Paul seriously, even if he is a teacher who often challenges us through his writings in ways that make us uncomfortable. If you don’t know what I mean when I say he can make us uncomfortable, just keep showing up for these sermons.

In addition to his role as apostle—the title for a person called to preach salvation through Jesus Christ and establish new churches—Paul in many ways functioned as Christianity’s first organized theologian. That is, he began the process of systematically describing what it means to follow Jesus Christ.

As I mentioned earlier, Paul was an educated Jew, having trained under a great rabbi named Gamaliel. Paul’s conversion did not cause him to surrender his education; instead, he began to apply his understanding of Judaism to his newfound faith in Jesus Christ.

You can see evidence of this in his introductory statements we’ve read today. For example, when Paul referred to the Christians in Rome as “loved by God” and “called to be his own holy people,” he was evoking Old Testament language previously applied to the Israelites. Paul was leading the Roman Christians to see themselves as the new beneficiaries of a very ancient promise.

Because Paul flew higher intellectually than most other early Christians, he can be a bit harder to study. That’s one of the reasons we will be using the New Living Translation throughout the year. We may lose some of the subtle nuances of his wording, but we will gain much in readability.

If it makes you feel any better, Peter, a man who walked with Jesus and served in the Messiah’s inner circle, even commented in one of his letters that “some of [Paul’s] comments are hard to understand, and those who are ignorant and unstable have twisted his letters to mean something quite different, just as they do with other parts of Scripture.”  (2 Peter 3:15-16.)

Note, however, that Peter’s words indicate he already considered Paul’s writings to have the same force as holy Scripture, which was just beginning to take shape. Other apostles also seem to have held Paul in high regard, once they overcame their initial fear of him as their former persecutor.

So, we’ve talked about the man. Let’s discuss the place a little. Paul was deeply interested in the church in Rome for a unique reason. Christians were already there; no church planting by this particular apostle was needed. But it is clear Paul saw this particular set of Christians as very important, and he wanted to be sure they had a proper understanding of Christianity.

Rome was, after all, at the heart of the known world. All roads ultimately led to Rome, and more importantly to an evangelism-minded apostle, all the roads in Rome led to the far reaches. If Christ’s mandate that the story of salvation be told everywhere were to be fulfilled, then the church in Rome had to be strong and sound.

If you’re a student of history at all, I don’t have to tell you what an incredible insight that was. We will talk more about Paul’s longing for Rome next week.

Paul also took God’s plan of salvation and rooted it in a couple of critically important words, “grace” and “peace.” As we begin this journey, we need to embed those words in our minds and hearts.

Grace, of course, is a particular word we use to describe unmerited love. God sent his Son to die on the cross not because of some sort of rule established for the functioning of the universe, but because God is, more than anything else, love. We will hear of the cross and its effects repeatedly as we explore Romans.

Let us never forget that God’s work through Jesus Christ is a tremendous expression of love. Knowing we are so loved should give us tremendous peace, regardless of what circumstances we may face. If we find ourselves troubled, it is only because we have forgotten the great truth of the cross—we are loved, despite our sins.

As we go through Romans, we will need to return to the words “grace” and “peace” on a regular basis. Understand what I am saying: Paul’s letter to the Romans is going to challenge us. This journey through Romans will at times be hard. Later in this first chapter, Paul makes some assertions about sin that go to the heart of major disputes in churches all over the globe today.

Studying Romans should cause us all to grow in our understanding of salvation, in our faith, and yes, even in old-fashioned concepts like holiness and radical forgiveness.

I, for one, am quite excited.


Bad People

1 Timothy 1:12-17
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost. But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen.

Sunday marked the 15th anniversary of one of the most terrible days in our national history, what we simply have come to call 9/11. All of us who were old enough to know what was going on have powerful memories of that Tuesday.

I also have memories of that following Sunday in 2001. I was not yet a member of the clergy, but I was a certified lay speaker in Georgia, and I was scheduled to fill the pulpit for a preacher at a small church. Needless to say, getting into the pulpit that Sunday was a daunting task for any preacher, and particularly for me, being very inexperienced and not knowing the congregation.

In my sermon, I chose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Fifteen years later, I still choose to focus on God’s plan for bad people. Bad people don’t seem to be going away; in fact, in the case of Islamic terrorists, we now experience their impact in ways we could not fully imagine in 2001. Who would have thought the particular form of terrorism that brought down those planes would evolve into an organization capable of streaming its horrors via professionally produced video?

Of course, terrorists are not the only bad people among us. “Bad” simply represents a state of being out-of-sync with God’s will. We all find ourselves being bad from time to time, in need of forgiveness and God’s grace. I’m focusing on the people who are “bad to the bone,” the people who commit the kinds of atrocities the vast majority of us could never think of doing—the murderers, the child molesters, anyone who does deliberate, significant damage to another’s life.

These people are not a new problem, of course. Violence has been among us since prehistoric times. Archaeologists have found plenty of skeletal evidence. As readers of the Bible, we also have Cain’s murder of Abel to give us what is, at a minimum, a powerful allegory of the origins of emotionally driven, quick and senseless killing.

The Old Testament has some straightforward punishments for the very bad. There is the famous “eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” repeated in various contexts with “limb for limb,” “fracture for fracture,” “hand for hand” and “foot for foot” added.

And of course, death sentences were common. In Leviticus 24, shortly after these laws of equitable response are stated, the Israelites take a man out and stone him to death for blaspheming God.

It’s not unusual to hear people go all “Old Testament” when discussing how justice should be doled out today. This is particularly true when the topic of the death penalty is being discussed, or any time people do something so horrifying they trigger in the rest of us a very visceral reaction.

We as Christians have to be careful in such conversations, however. Why? Well, the coming of the Christ seems to have modified the approach God wants us to take.

In our 1 Timothy text today, Paul describes himself as having been among the bad to the bone, calling himself a “blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence.” As a good Jew trained in the Law of Moses, he is citing aspects of his former life that made him deserving of death in God’s eyes.

As he dictated these words, he most certainly was remembering how he stood by and encouraged the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He had to have been thinking of all those religious warrants he executed, harassing and capturing early Christians until the fledgling community lived in terror of him.

He is grateful, he writes, because through Christ he has experienced mercy, not getting the punishment he deserves for his evil acts, and salvation, receiving the gift of eternal life he does not deserve.

And here we find our Christian conundrum. If a very bad person like Paul can be saved through a relationship with Christ, should we not treat very bad people first of all as potential Christians, as people who could receive mercy and salvation?

We do need to take precautions against evil. Christians serve as police officers and soldiers with good reason, to stand between the rest of us and the particularly violent forms of evil in the world. We need to be smart enough to take precautions in our homes, places of work, and churches, too, remembering the Cains of the world can strike hard and fast.

But at the same time, we have to maintain the attitude there is hope for even those we consider the worst kind of people. There is a story going around on Christian websites and cable channels about how serial killer (and pedophile and cannibal) Jeffrey Dahmer had what seemed to be a genuine conversion to Christ before he was murdered in prison in 1994. If it’s true, then our Christian understanding of the power of grace tells us Dahmer is in the eternal presence of God—Christians will share the afterlife with him.

Of course, there’s no way for us to know for sure what went on in Dahmer’s heart, just as there is no way for any human to know with certainty what is happening spiritually in another person. But the very possibility of such remarkable turnarounds lets us imagine all sorts of possibilities.

Consider this: What if God raises up dynamic followers of Christ among the Muslims, sending them evangelists who are able to speak to their own people in their own Muslim context? What if Christian martyrs in that culture accomplish what martyrs have historically tended to do, leaving a positive impression on the witnesses? What if more and more of the Muslim world were to begin to see the truth of Jesus Christ as peacemaker and reconciler in this world?

It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Our faith has repeatedly managed to penetrate what looked like impenetrable cultures, bringing millions to Christ at a time. Roman, Celtic, Germanic and African polytheists have all found the message of Christ attractive at some point in history.

In a more modern context, scholars familiar with China estimate there are between 70 million and 100 million Christians in that very closed Communist nation. Because of the risks they are taking, we would have to classify them as very serious Christians. For comparison, the United States has about 223 million people calling themselves Christian.

We spend a lot of time talking about how it is going to take bombs and bullets to end the threat posed by the particular set of bad people we have faced the last 15 years. Perhaps God will provide another way, though, one we should be seeking through prayer. Here’s mine: Lord, open our enemies’ eyes. Let them hear your voice; let them experience your light. And in turning to you, may they astonish us as Paul astonished the early Christians.

The featured image is “Orfeus or Paradise Lost,” inspired by the events of Sept. 11, 2001. By MarikeStokker, 2013. Used under Wikimedia Commons’ Creative Commons License.

Conquering the World

1 John 5:1-6

This sermon may sound a little old-fashioned.

Talking about the basics of Christianity will do that to a preacher. Lately, a lot of us are more prone to talk about new ideas—clever ways to connect with the lost, or new trends in communication, which is all good stuff, of course. We have to remember, however, that the core truth about Jesus Christ doesn’t change. The author of 1 John brings us back to that core.

First, there is belief, specifically believing that Jesus is the Christ, God’s chosen redeemer for the world. In particular, we are to believe Christ’s death on the cross defeated sin, and that the resurrection is both proof of that fact and a promise regarding what is to come.

People come to believe in various ways. It is important the converted remember the unconverted may come to Christ in ways we don’t expect. I’m reminded of the story of the man who went to a hotel room to commit suicide, but instead opened a Gideon Bible and met Jesus in its pages.

Another favorite conversion story is of a man sitting in a Chicago church as a worship service opened with a full processional down the center aisle. As the crucifer—for those of you unfamiliar with more formal worship, that’s the person carrying the cross at the top of a long pole—went by, the man looked up, saw the cross and believed. No sermon, no prayer, he said later. He just knew when he saw that cross. Sounds strange to me, but it worked for him.

What is important, of course, is that we come to believe, period.

Belief allows us to be incorporated into a new family, 1 John also tells us. Again, it’s a little old-fashioned sounding, but we are “brothers and sisters.” The family metaphor doesn’t work for everyone; if momma ran off when you were a baby and daddy was a drunk, the word “family” probably sounds terrible. We’re supposed to think of the ideal version of family, however.

Look at it this way. If you had a bad family experience growing up, you can always learn about God from the negative example. How would you have liked your family to behave? Through belief, God is offering you such a family, in this life through a spiritually healthy church and in the next life in God’s full presence.

The author of 1 John goes on. In a healthy family, we abide by certain standards; for Christians, it is the commandments, the Ten Commandments and the other guidance God gives us in Scripture regarding right and wrong. In summing up the law, Jesus kept matters simple. Love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbors as yourselves. Right is still right, and wrong is still wrong, but love controls how we deal with sin when it is before us.

I thought about how love fits into the conversion equation when I drove by some placard-waving Christians in downtown Kingston, Tenn., last week. The signs covered a range of issues. One asked God to bless Israel; another said homosexuality is still a sin, while a third noted, “Drunkards shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Sitting at a red light watching the scene, I was struck by an odd dichotomy. Scripturally they were correct, but from a kingdom-building perspective, being right doesn’t always mean you are helping. They mostly appeared to be an example of like attracting like and repelling those who needed a deeper relationship with Christ. Right (or perhaps simple self-righteousness) was present, but I did not see love offered.

I do like the way we as Methodists handle some of the more difficult issues requiring a careful balance of law and grace. Human sexuality, for example—in our Discipline, we call sin a sin, and we recognize unrepentant sinners shouldn’t be leaders. At the same time, however, we acknowledge that in God’s eyes, all people are worthy of grace and need access to that grace through Christian community and worship. It’s a more complicated position than many Christians try to live out, but it’s easy enough to understand, if we try.

Abortion is another example. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas and a few other writers have helped me understand how we should stop thinking we’ve dealt with the contentious issue just because we’ve entered a voting booth or courtroom. A mother responding to her pregnancy by considering abortion is a mother experiencing deep fear—fear of family, fear for her future, fear about something.

Here’s a basic question for any church: If abortion is such a serious matter in God’s eyes, what are you doing to eliminate that fear so the mother will drop abortion as an option? Have you told her she has people around her who will help? Are you willing to put the time and money in place to help her rear the child? Can you make her part of the family of Christ, too?

Once we get all these core concepts right, there is much to celebrate. As 1 John tells us, there is victory; we win! We join with God in conquering the world, ripping it from the grasp of evil and restoring it to its original, holy state. That opportunity in itself should be enough to draw people to Christ.

Yes, these ideas are old-fashioned, but in them there is good news, the kind of news that can transform anyone forever.

Mercifully Knocked in the Noggin

Sometimes we can think we’re so right and be so wrong.

The classic example would be the man now remembered as the Apostle Paul, called Saul when among his fellow Jews. Paul always believed himself to be a zealous champion of God, but early in his life that meant persecuting a new sect that had popped up. Its members were followers of a man who had claimed to be the messiah before finally being crucified.

Trained by the finest Jewish teachers, Paul traveled in his work, carrying with him what amounted to arrest warrants. But everything changed on his way to Damascus to nab some Christians.

If you don’t remember the story, you need to take time to read it in Acts 9:1-20. Paul was literally blinded by the light. More importantly, he encountered this resurrected messiah directly, hearing him say, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

It was a terrifying experience, not one most of us would choose to undergo. But I will say this: After his “road to Damascus” moment, Paul had no questions about who Jesus is. And Paul certainly understood what he was to do with this newfound understanding.

What exactly was in this “light from heaven” that shattered and then quickly reformed Paul’s worldview? I would call it pure holiness. In a flash, a wrongheaded man was made rightheaded, filled with an instant understanding of God’s will for the world.

It was a very special, very powerful kind of grace, the mercy of God poured out on a sinner who until that moment was sure he knew what he was doing. Paul seems the kind of sinner least likely to reflect and repent, but Jesus Christ made Paul his own, anyway. In fact, that’s how Paul described his conversion experience years later in a letter to a young pastor named Timothy.

“I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence,” Paul writes in 1 Timothy 1:13-14. “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

Few of us have converted to Christianity after actively persecuting Christians, but most of us are at least familiar with how our faith can deepen and shift over time. After all, until we reach the point when our will is aligned with God’s will every second of every day, it’s quite possible that we can think we’re doing God’s work when we’re not.

Like Paul, our antidote to poor thinking is understanding and remembering the power of God’s grace. Until Paul’s conversion experience, he best understood God through the Jewish law and a strict adherence to that law.

We do need rules; in particular, we need the guidelines for living offered to us through Scripture. God’s law continues to have tremendous value. But God’s grace, made evident in Jesus Christ and poured into us via the Holy Spirit, is the path to eternal life.

Here’s a question to keep before us: Without affirming ongoing sin, how do I inject grace into a situation? In particular, how do I offer God’s grace to others, especially those I might like to convict under some unbending rule I carry in my head?

Better to seek and offer grace on our own than to have God knock us into an understanding of its value.

Sounds Crazy

Mark 3:20-35

You may be a Christian, but are you willing to be crazy for Christ?

In the Gospel of Mark, there’s no real information about Jesus’ birth or early life. Instead, we begin with a prophet’s declarations about who Jesus is. Jesus then is baptized, the Spirit falls upon him, and “immediately”—a word used regularly in Mark—we enter a cycle of preaching and healing that rapidly creates a following among astonished Jews. They press in, wanting their share of this powerful, loving grace handed out so freely.

Jesus seems completely immersed in his ministry. There’s no evidence of detailed planning, a formal schedule, or even time for regular meals. Everything is just happening; energy and excitement rule the day, and Jesus, the Son of God, follows the Father’s will perfectly.

He is, of course, the perfect model for how to respond to the Father, showing us how to love God and our neighbors with passionate energy. Those of you who are Christians likely remember being filled with a similar excitement when you first understood Jesus to be your Lord and Savior.

Do you remember? Did anything else seem to matter? Did anything else take precedence, even food, family, or work? If you really experienced conversion, I suspect you’re remembering an all-consuming experience, the fire of Christianity burning bright in you.

It’s hard to sustain, I know. Life starts to get in the way. In fact, life can pound away at you like a relentless surf, and over time, the flame can seem to cool. Satan could not overcome Jesus, but Satan still wants to overcome us, if only to slow us down, to delay his inevitable destruction.

To do that, he works through people to use some of the same techniques we see at work in today’s text. The first is to make the Christian message seem out-of-step with whatever “normal” is supposed to be. Essentially, he wants observers of a passionate Christian to say what the observers of Christ said: “He is out of his mind.”

You can hear Satan whisper: “Yes, great things are happening. Yes, there’s excitement in the air. Yes, lives are being changed. But careful—the whole thing sounds crazy. Better stay away from crazy.”

But here’s the problem when we as Christians succumb, when we fade back into the background out of fear of being called crazy. We fail to be the followers Christ sought.

Christianity is not supposed to look normal. It is countercultural. We declare the world is capable of being something it currently is not.

We declare that a man died on a cross nearly 2,000 years ago and then walked out of his tomb, remade and eternally alive, so that what the world considers normal—suffering, sickness, cruelty, violence, death—could be turned upside down.

I’m sorry, but if you think being Christian somehow means you’re normal, then you’ve never understood Christ’s work. When you accepted your baptism, you did a very odd thing in the eyes of the world, so odd that people might consider you dangerous if you really begin to live your faith.

And if you really try to live it, Satan may even go so far as to twist what is evil and what is good, in the hope that people may reject your Christian behavior as evil. It’s happening all over the world right now. People in the Middle East, in huge portions of Asia, in Africa, in Europe and in many other places are labeled a threat to “normal” society for preaching the crazy idea that Christ is remaking this world and will remake it in full one day.

Often, they lose their jobs or their status in society. Sometimes they lose their lives, joining the ranks of the martyrs, the people who die rather than allow their beliefs to be co-opted.

It’s going to happen here, if the divide between secular values and Christian values continues to grow. (I’m careful to say “if.” This nation has experienced Great Awakenings before, and can do so again.) Already, when Christians say the Bible clearly defines what is and is not sin, and try to live accordingly, we are called “intolerant,” code language designed to set us apart from “normal” society.

I am concerned for those who attack Christianity as evil. Christians have debated for years precisely what it means to commit the unforgivable sin, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit. But certainly, it has something to do with describing the presence of God as evil, and also certainly, the presence of God is found in the church, among Christ’s followers today.

Mostly, though, I look to this elaborate text for inspiration. Oh, to feel such excitement in every moment of ministry—to see people so stirred up for healing and words of grace that meals must be foregone and schedules tossed out as the crowds press in.

Remember, it is in such raucous, upside-down moments that Jesus finds the people he calls his brothers and sisters.

Interrupted by Jesus

Acts 9:1-9

Paul experienced a blinding, thumped-in-the-noggin’ conversion, but it was the kind of conversion that gives us hope for people hard-headed about accepting God’s grace.

Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus was quick and violent, but no more quick or violent than his persecution of Christians. An up-and-coming Jewish Pharisee, Paul was on his way to Damascus with letters allowing him to bind and arrest the Christians he expected to find there. Instead, he ran into the resurrected Jesus.

As a Pharisee, Paul lived by a basic tenet, that we must follow God’s law to the letter to be right with God. But the startling intensity of the encounter gave Paul immediate insight into an important truth. Because of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, it’s possible for God to call undeserving sinners “righteous” despite their sins. We only need to accept the free gift.

The rest of Paul’s story involves a 180-degree turn in beliefs and a straight march into fervent grace-centered Christian preaching, church planting and eventual martyrdom. Paul became the apostle most responsible for spreading to the Gentiles word of Christ’s offer of salvation.

Sudden turnaround conversions like Paul’s have happened throughout the history of the church, and they still happen on a regular basis today.

Historically, several people who became great church leaders have had such experiences. In 386, the man we now call Augustine of Hippo abandoned the life of a 4th century party boy and began to pray to what he assumed was a very angry God. While praying and weeping in a garden, he heard the voice of an unseen child singing an odd phrase: “Pick up and read, pick up and read.”

He picked up a copy of the book of Romans he had been carrying with him and opened it at random, his eyes falling on what we now number as Romans 13:13-14: “Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

After this moment, Augustine devoted himself fully to the Lord and helped turn the early church toward a deeper understanding of the importance of God’s grace.

Martin Luther, the trigger of the 16th-century Protestant movement, credited his willingness to take a stand for the authority of Scripture to the strength he received from a powerful eureka moment he had experienced earlier in life, one in which he finally understood the power of God’s grace.

And most of us in the Methodist church have at least heard references to founder John Wesley’s sudden “Aldersgate experience,” where he realized that salvation is a gift from God, something that can only be accepted, not earned.

While in seminary, I was blessed to see a room full of people have one of those aha moments where a deeper understanding of grace is revealed—where people who are striving for righteousness learn instead to accept what God is doing in the world through Jesus Christ.

Helen Musick was an experienced youth ministry instructor who terrorized the Asbury Theological Seminary campus each semester with her midterm exam.

Youth ministry. Sounds easy, right? Make the kids some popcorn, light a candle, sit around and sing “Kumbaya.”

Nope. Not in Helen’s class. Oh, we learned that youth like the popcorn-candle-Kumbaya thing now and then. But we also had to learn in great detail the biblical, theological, psychological and sociological reasons underpinning their likes and dislikes.

And every last bit of that background was on the midterm. One of her victims from an earlier semester told me, “Dude, be happy if you get a C.”

The day of the exam, I did not feel ready. Neither did most of my classmates. Helen handed out the thick exam packets face down. She then uttered the dreaded words: “You may begin.”

When I turned mine over, I was immediately perplexed. The first few pages were Bible verses, all having something to say about God’s grace. My first clear thought: “I don’t remember her saying anything about Bible verses on this test.”

As I flipped further into the packet, I received my second shock: I was certain I had been handed the “key,” the copy she would use for grading purposes. The answers were all there, in her handwriting.

I looked up to tell her of the mistake, and noticed for the first time that all of my classmates looked as confused as me. Helen had big tears in her eyes.

“For half a semester, I’ve been trying to get you all to understand God’s grace,” she said. “And it’s clear after half a semester that many of you still don’t understand.”

She went on to explain that she had set up the midterm exam as an example of how God’s grace works. It was a real test—the grades would go into her grade book. But everyone would get a score of 100.

We did have to do one thing. We had to put our names on our tests. We had to claim the perfect score as our own, even though we had not earned it.

Interestingly, a couple of students got angry. They had studied hard enough to win an A, they believed, and they thought it unfair that everyone was getting an A. We spent some time gently discussing the older brother in Luke 15:11-32.

Most of us were relieved. As best as I could tell, I might have scored a C on my own—maybe as low as a D.

That’s grace: getting an A from God even when we deserve to fail. I hope all of you learn the lesson gently, incorporating it into your life with ease.

But if not, may the resurrected Jesus whack you really hard, even blinding you until you understand the truth. Accepting grace is that important.