April 10, 2016
Dropping the Ball, Pastor Fred
Fred Snodgrass played center field for the New York Giants. And in the 1912 World Series against the Red Sox, he made one mistake that the world would never let him forget. The teams were tied in the tenth inning, when a fly ball fell into Snodgrass’s mitt—and he dropped it! The Red Sox won the series, and the error stuck with Snodgrass the rest of his life. Even sixty-two years later, the New York Times headline for his obituary, read: “Fred Snodgrass, 86, Dead; Ball Player Muffed 1912 Fly.”
It was as if nothing else had ever happened in his life. Tried and convicted in the press and popular opinion, he never got a second chance. Snodgrass’s story also reveals how our culture is addicted to the success and failure of its stars. What happens when a hero fails? Does Tiger Woods have a future? or Mitt Romney? What if our memory of Michael Jordan ended with his failure to make it, in Major League Baseball, before he returned to win 3 more NBA Championships? Or, what would have happened to Al Gore’s faux failure in Florida as Presidential candidate, if we didn’t give him any credit for barn-storming the country with his “Inconvenient Truth,” movie, that transformed the Climate Change movement? How does anyone deal with their past failures?
Of course, Paul did more than just drop a fly ball in the World Series. Saul was a known leader for persecuting Christians, followers of The Way. Saul was there when Stephen was stoned to death, just a few chapters earlier in Acts, eliminated, for his preaching Christ crucified and risen, the Messiah and Savior – and Saul approved! Saul went on to organize a deputized gang to arrest followers of the Way, and here in our First Reading, we find him, breathing threats and murder against the disciples! Once again, he applies for the permits that were legal under this rigged system, to round up followers of the Way, believers in the Lord. This time Saul was on the road to Damascus, a hot-bed of Jesus followers, at the time. So, Paul didn’t ‘drop the ball’ when it came to terrorizing disciples of the Lord! Paul had a reputation that preceded him!
What would have happened if Paul were remembered only for that part of his life? The story of the Mission to the Gentiles would be missing a huge chunk, that’s for sure!
And, what would have happened to Simon Peter, for that matter, if Jesus had not appeared, post-resurrection, and cooked breakfast for Peter, giving him the chance to recant his denial of Jesus, the night his Lord was on trial, with a three-fold confession of love?
Paul will be transformed – turned around 180’ – on ‘the way’ to Damascus, as he is struck down by the voice of, ‘the Way.’ “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he tells Saul. And, with a thunderclap and sudden flash of light from heaven, he is struck to the ground, and blinded! But the resurrected Jesus has mercy on this known criminal, and instructs him to go and wait in Damascus. Saul’s companions have to lead him there by the hand, all of them trembling in fear. And for three days Saul was without sight, and neither ate nor drank, anything.
What can possibly lift Saul out of his three day grave? Who or what can rescue him from his depressive spiral to the bottom? How can he possibly see his way forward again?
We all know people who are tempted to believe that God has given up on them. They are convinced that their failures, or the failures of our country and world, are so great that there is no way that God can use us to bring hope or healing to others, much less restoration for our climate, or our violence, or our income disparity. How many are there who feel that the memory of a past failure, may be determinative for how others view them, now, and forever? Where does our rescue come from?
Saul cannot rescue himself, however powerfully we think of him now, as Paul the missionary. It is the Spirit of Jesus, who ignites a leader of the Way to intervene, whose name is Ananias. Ananias is well aware of Saul, and would rather keep his distance from him, for fear of being bound over for arrest and trial in Jerusalem. But the Lord assures Ananias that he is calling Saul, to be an instrument for the Lord to bring Christ’s name to the Gentiles, and to kings. And so as a representative of the whole communion of saints, Ananias goes as instructed to the street called Straight and enters the house of Judas. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” “And immediately, …his sight was restored. And after being baptized and taking some food, …immediately he began to proclaim that Jesus was …the ‘Son of God.’”
And, in a real way, Ananias himself had to be converted, and transformed to a new way of thinking, to make the desire of Christ, for Saul, come alive. Ananias did not want to believe such a person could be changed. He feared for his own welfare, from this man who had done so much evil to God’s saints in Jerusalem. But trusting in the Lord, Ananias was able to walk confidently into the house where Saul was, and he laid hands on him to invoke the Holy Spirit, calling him now, Brother Saul!
It takes the community of Christ to transform Saul the persecutor, into Paul the greatest known missionary of New Testament times. When Saul persecutes Christians, he is persecuting Christ’s body. And when Saul is healed from his illness of persecution, he is healed by Christ, and a flesh and blood leader, resurrecting Paul, to a whole new life. Now Paul will proclaim the greatness of the Lord, instead of actively doing it violence. Nothing is impossible with the power and movement of the whole Body, the believing members of the Way of Christ. This is Saul’s insight, on the way to Damascus.
Just like Peter and Cornelius, two enemies, in the very next chapter of Acts, who will have simultaneous visions that put them on a path toward reconciliation – so here, Ananias and Saul experience visions from the Lord at the same time, and find reconciliation as brothers of Christ.
Paul’s call is first of all, to the Gentiles, and he will meet, and claim equality with, the Apostles in Jerusalem, before departing from there 3 separate times, to traverse the northern Mediterranean countries of the Empire, founding churches along the way, to which he would write letters, encouraging and admonishing, congratulating and challenging, them.
But Paul’s call was also “to bring Christ’s name before kings.” This was to be a public ministry to manifest Christ’s good news to the kingdom’s on earth, as it is in heaven. And the trajectory of Paul’s travels finally did bring him to the capital of Rome itself, where his wisdom and message, could leave its most important and enduring legacy. If Jesus was the Son of God come down to dwell among us, if he was our Lord and king, reigning in our hearts, as well as Lord of our institutions and kingdoms on earth, he should also reign from the seat of the Roman Empire, not theocratically, but morally and joyfully, that justice and peace would triumph, over Rome’s tyrannical ethic of ‘lording it over’ others.
Paul made it to Rome, after writing them the longest and finest Letter of all in the New Testament, only to suffer death, on his own cross, most likely. A sacrifice for his Lord, and the whole body of Christ, left to us, the church, to complete.
Can we be resurrected and live again? Or are we mired in the past of our overwhelming mistakes, both personally and communally?
Will we have the courage to go on, after dropping the ball? Are we united with all the people of God, excited for the transformation, that the Holy Spirit is calling us to? Are we ready to raise Saul’s, into Paul’s?
Together, we are the body of Christ, the baptized people of God, called to the table, to take some food and regain our strength, for the mission ahead. With Christ, we are on the Way!
Alleluia, Christ is risen!
Christ is risen, indeed. Alleluia!