Yesterday during Worship Committee, a member reminded us that we should be sure, after Easter, to continue to pay attention to detail, and not “slack off” after the big celebration. It is true that there always is a little slump after Easter. The Sunday after Easter is sometimes called Low Sunday, in contrast to the heights of joy we reach at Easter, and in our own calendar, school vacation is often mixed in as well.
But for me, the excitement is just beginning. I particularly love the story of the new Christians, because I can identify with them more easily. They, like us, do not have Jesus’s personal presence to guide them. They are now left with their human resources only, albeit aided by the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. At first they are a group of Jews who gave up everything to follow Jesus, those who listened to him, saw him make miracles, and believed that they were in the presence of the longed-for Messiah. Gradually the word of his death and resurrection spread, and others came to believe, and asked to be accepted by these established groups. The book of Acts tells the story of how the guardians of the Jesus story and experience reacted to the newcomers. Did they welcome them with open arms? Did they struggle with accepting those who were different, gentiles such as Greeks, Roman, and Galatians? Were they challenged by the decision to share all their wealth and goods with the community? Were they persecuted, even killed? These questions are what make the book of Acts so thrilling.
And for me the best story of all, and the one we will be studying in Firelight class, is the story of a man called Saul, who was not just a newcomer, but a sworn enemy of the Christians. Saul does not see these people as new Jesus-followers, but Jews who have fallen by the wayside. He is determined to root them out and destroy them, so he gets a letter from the High Priest to go to the synagogues in Damascus and find these people. But on the road to Damascus (which, as one of our students pointed out, is a place very much in the news right now) Saul has a moment of blinding clarity. A great light appears, and Jesus speaks to him. “Why are you persecuting me?” He says. And in that moment of personal encounter with Jesus, Saul’s heart is transformed.
When I told his story to a group of children aged four to 13 this Sunday, there were many questions. What was it like, when the light blinded Saul and Jesus spoke to him? Did he see Jesus? Or just know it was Him? How did Ananias feel when Jesus spoke to him, and told him to go and see the very man who had been persecuting and jailing Christians, even women and children? It must have taken great courage to agree to go and knock on that door, and stand before that man. And yet he did it, and Paul was not only healed, but in the next sentence he is baptized. We don’t know if that was Paul’s idea, or Ananias’s, but it seems incredible to me that this persecutor is immediately accepted into the” inner circle” of Christians.
I asked the children what it meant, when Paul was baptized, expecting the answer that he became a member of the church, but one child’s answer gave me the goose bumps. “It means that all his sins were forgiven”, he said. What a profound thing to think about - all his sins forgiven, when his sins were considerable. And so our Christian Church begins with not one but two great leaders – Peter, who, although he had a few sins forgiven himself, had been with Jesus throughout His ministry, and learned all His teachings first hand, and Paul, (the Latin version of his Jewish name Saul) who, in one moment of miraculous encounter, is transformed from hatred to love and acceptance. I wonder what we can learn from this? Maybe that it takes all sorts to make a church? Maybe that no-one is ever turned away when they ask Jesus for forgiveness and a new beginning? Maybe that no one person can ever do the work of God single-handedly? What do you think?