There are over 179,000 words in the New Testament. And approximately twenty-five percent of those words or about 45,000, are attributed to one man, the Apostle Paul. It’s hard to overstate the impact of this one faithful individual. His ministry spanned nearly three decades. He established churches in many of the major metropolitan centers of the ancient world. He wrote letters that have been read by billions of Christians for almost 2,000 years. He has been the subject of scholarly debate and study at the highest academic level. He was a leader. He was teacher. He was pastor. He was a follower of Jesus. This is the life and legacy of Paul the Apostle.
But, of course, before he became the transformational leader known as Paul the Apostle, he was known to everyone as Saul of Tarsus, the great persecutor of the church. And that’s where our story this morning begins, with Saul of Tarsus, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Still bound and determined to stop this Jesus movement no matter the cost. As the story goes, Saul has requested to be sent to the city of Damascus where he plans to expand his rampage against the followers of Jesus. And it is somewhere on that road to Damascus, that Saul has his conversion experience. He sees a bright light shining from heaven. He is knocked down flat on his back. He hears the voice of Jesus, the One whom he has been fighting against. This is a moment full of drama and suspense and emotion. By all accounts, this is the moment that defined the rest of Saul’s life.
But notice that after this transformational encounter with the presence of Jesus, Saul doesn’t ride off into the sunset and instantly become a great apostolic leader. He doesn’t immediately jump to his feet and declare that he is a changed man ready to conquer the world. To the contrary, after his conversion experience, Saul is left blind and weak, confused and vulnerable. He needs assistance to finish the rest of the journey to the city of Damascus. For the next three days he doesn’t eat or drink anything. Now we don’t know what Saul did for those three days. But I have to imagine that it was a time of spiritual darkness and confusion. A time of spiritual wrestling. A time of coming to terms with his own past.
And who knows how long Saul would have been stuck in that spiritual darkness? Who knows how long Saul would have lingered in that wilderness place? Who knows if Saul of Tarsus ever would have become Paul the Apostle had it not been for the faithfulness of a disciple named Ananias.
You see, at the same time that God was at work in the life Saul of Tarsus, God was also at work in the life of Ananias of Damascus. God calls him by name and says, “Ananias!” And he says, “Here I am, Lord.” God says, “I am sending you to a man named Saul, who is from the city of Tarsus, and you, Ananias, are going to pray for him and he will regain his sight and he will fulfill God’s purpose for his life. At first, Ananias is fearful and hesitant. Ananias says, “Whoa! I’ve heard about this guy! He is bad news! He has done a lot of damage in the city of Jerusalem. And he has come here with the authority to arrest anyone who calls on your name.” But God says to Ananias, “Go! This man has a purpose. He is my chosen instrument.” So, Ananias goes. And when he first encounters Saul, who is blind and weak and confused, Ananias says, “Brother Saul, Jesus has sent me to you to pray for you that you might receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Ananias calls him brother. Despite Saul’s reputation. Despite his past. Despite all that he has done. Ananias calls him brother. There is no condemnation. No shame. No judgment. Only an expression of God’s grace and mercy and love.
Saul of Tarsus had a conversion experience. He had an encounter with the Risen Christ. But in the aftermath of that experience, he was blind, weak, confused, and vulnerable. And it was Ananias who came along side Saul and spoke words of grace and healing. Words of unconditional love. Words of truth. It was through Ananias that God brought healing and restoration to Saul. The fullness of this conversion experience was only possible because of Ananias. God could have acted alone. This could have all happened at the private, individual level as it did for Moses and Abraham and Jeremiah and Isaiah. But in the story of Saul, God chooses to act through the touch and voice, the flesh and blood of another person. Ananias overcomes his own fears and apprehensions and becomes a vessel of God’s healing power and transforming love.
And so, I wonder this morning, who has been Ananias for you? Who are those people who have come along side of you? Who are those people whose touch and voice, and flesh and blood, have been the means by which God has moved in your life? When you have been blind and weak, confused and vulnerable, who has been a vessel of God’s healing power and love in your life? I call tell you that some of the people who have been Ananias to me are sitting in this room right now. Who has been Ananias for you?
And moreover, to whom are you being called to be Ananias right now? Who in your life needs you to be a vessel of God’s love and power? Who needs your touch, your voice, your presence? Who does God want to speak to through you? You might have apprehension and fear, just like Ananias. But God is calling you to believe in the power of God’s presence with you. To speak the truth in love and to allow God’s grace to flow through you. To whom are you being called to be Ananias right now?
You see, not many of us will be called to be like the Apostle Paul. Probably none of us in this room will be remembered 2,000 years from now. None of us are likely to write letters that will be read by billions of people. None of us will have the historical impact the likes of Paul the Apostle. But all of us have the potential to be Ananias! All of us are called to be the presence and voice of God to one another. All of us are called to bring light where there is darkness, to be responsive to the leading of God’s Spirit, to come alongside those who need support, encouragement, and hope. We are all called to be Ananias. So, may we be set free from our own fears and apprehensions and may we be empowered to be vessels of God’s grace, to speak the truth in love, and to be partners with God in the work of transforming lives and ultimately transforming the world.
Early on a Sunday morning, just as the sun is about to rise, a group of women go to the tomb of their friend to anoint his body. They go to pay homage to the one they call Teacher. They go to grieve and to begin the process of healing their souls. But, of course, they arrive on that first Easter morning to find an empty tomb. The stone rolled away. The body of their friend gone. They stand there a moment frozen with fear, when suddenly two angelic figures appear and announce that Jesus is risen from the dead just as he said he would. The women rush back into the city of Jerusalem, they find the other disciples and the women declare everything that they have seen and heard.
Now I want you to notice what does not happen next. The disciples do not say, “Wow, this is amazing news! This is the beginning of movement that will change the course of human history?” They do not say, “Let’s get ourselves organized and make sure we have a plan for how we are going to share this good news with the world.” They do not say, “Let’s form a committee, start a capital campaign, and build the first church right here in Jerusalem.” They do not say or do any of those things, because they do not believe. They think the testimony of the women is simply an idle tale!
My friends, on that first Easter morning, the first proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus Christ was met with skepticism, disbelief, and confusion.
And guess what? Not much has changed in 2,000 years. For many people in our world today, any talk about God or the church or religiosity in any form is often met with skepticism, disbelief, and confusion. It’s not that people don’t want to believe or that they don’t believe anything. It’s that they have hard time reconciling the truth of the resurrection with the reality of their lives and the reality of the world in which we live. Because, let’s face it, when we look at world around us, we see war and violence. We see division and animosity even within families. We see sickness, disease, and death. And so, it’s hard for a lot of people to believe the Easter proclamation that the powers of darkness have been dispelled and the power of death has been defeated. It’s hard to believe in the promise of resurrection, when so much of what is happening around us seems to be pointing in exactly the opposite direction. Just as with the disciples 2,000 years ago, there is more than enough skepticism, disbelief, and confusion to go around.
So, if we go back to the story of that first Easter day what was it that brought those first disciples from a place of skepticism and disbelief to a place of acceptance and belief? What happened for them? What made the difference? Well, to put it simply, they had to go and see for themselves. Peter is the first one to go and run to the tomb to see for himself with his own eyes that all of this was true.
Now you might be thinking this is just about men being men. They’re not going to believe the testimony of these emotional women. The men need to go and check things out for themselves. They need proof. They need to remain in the control of the situation. And, sadly, I think there very well may be some of that going on in this story. But I think there is something much deeper going on as well. You see, the women had an experience. And it was their experience that gave birth to belief. It was their experience that allowed them to embrace this new reality. It was their experience that began to change them from the inside out.
And so, no matter how powerful and compelling the testimony of the women must have been, for the other disciples, the story was not enough. They needed an experience. For Peter, when he ran and saw for himself that tomb was empty, all of sudden, the news of the resurrection was no longer just information, it was now revelation. This news of the resurrection was no longer just an event, it was now an encounter. The news of the resurrection was no longer just a doctrine, it was now an experience. And it changed his life.
In the church today, I think we are often heavy on information, events, and doctrine and light on revelation, encounter, and experience. And yet those are very things that people are searching for. Programs and events, information and teaching are all important, but people are longing for an experience. They are longing for an encounter with something real and true, something that has the capacity and the power to change their lives.
Many of you know that I grew up in the church. In fact, I was probably the churchiest kid you’ve ever met. I sang in the youth choir. I volunteered at church dinners. I was a trainer of master acolytes. And I had portions of the Book of Common Prayer memorized at the age of nine. (Which is probably why I didn’t have many friends.)
But the fact that I was immersed in the life of the church, did not mean that I was immune to skepticism, disbelief, and confusion. Because it doesn’t matter who you are, we all struggle and wrestle from time to time when it comes to walking the walk of faith. When I was a freshman in college, I made an appointment with a priest to talk about my struggle. We went for a walk, and I shared about my doubts, my fears, and my confusion. I remember sharing my desire that God would become real in my life. The priest offered some very wise advice and prayed with me, but I didn’t really feel like anything had changed. Until later that day. I was helping to lead a youth retreat, and we were singing some songs. Now there was nothing particularly special about that day. The music was not particularly moving. There was no high-powered preacher. Nothing out of the ordinary whatsoever. But when I closed my eyes, I saw Jesus. The resurrected Jesus, full of life and power, full of unconditional love, full of grace and truth. And the presence and power of the Risen Christ washed over me and filled me in such a way that it is still with me even now as I stand before you. I can’t explain to you what happened in that moment, but it was as real as each of you sitting here in front of me today.
Now I share all of that with you, because that was the time in my life when the news of the resurrection was no longer just information, it became revelation. It was no longer just an event, it became an encounter. It was no longer just a doctrine, it became an experience. Now were skepticism, disbelief, and confusion dispelled for good? Of course, not. There are always new struggles and new challenges. But there are also new encounters and new experiences of God’s grace and power and love.
And so, this morning, my prayer for you this Easter is that you will have an experience of the power of the resurrection in your life. In the midst of all the struggles that we face. The challenges of financial uncertainty and broken relationships. The burdens of depression, disappointment, and disillusionment. The hurdles of anger, anxiety, and addiction. In the midst of all of that is going on in our world today. May you have an experience of God’s promise to make all things new. May you have an encounter with God’s love. that by the power of the resurrection, God will become real in your life. And when God becomes real in your life, nothing is ever the same again. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!
Almost 243 years ago, in the year 1779, one of the most beloved hymns of all time was written by a converted slave trader named John Newton. This particular hymn has been translated into at least fifty languages, making it one of the most translated songs in history and it’s estimated that this famous hymn is performed and recorded more than 10 million times every year. This beloved hymn is, of course, Amazing Grace. Yet despite the incredibly immense influence of this hymn over the course of nearly two and half centuries, I’m convinced that most of us don’t really get what grace is all about. Even if we have learned the official Prayer Book Catechism definition of grace. Even if we understand at a basic level that we are ultimately saved by grace. Even if we have memorized all thirteen original stanzas (yes, thirteen stanzas) of John Newton’s famous hymn. At the end of the day, despite this theological and liturgical knowledge, I’m convinced most of us still struggle to grasp the grandeur and gravity of grace!
This struggle, I believe, is rooted in the fact that we have turned grace into a concept to be comprehended rather than an experience to be entered into. In other words, we can read about grace, we can talk about grace, we can think about grace, but the real question is, “Do we experience grace?” The 20th century theologian Karl Barth once said, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” And I think part of what he means is that to understand laughter, you can’t just read about, or talk about it, or think about it. You have to experience it! And it’s the same with grace. So, it should be no surprise that when Jesus teaches about grace, he doesn’t give us a Prayer Book Catechism definition of grace. He doesn’t give us a theological explanation of grace. He describes the experience of grace. And the image that Jesus uses over and over again to describe the experience of grace is the image of a party. And not just any party, but one of the most lavish, extravagant, over-the-top parties you can imagine! According to Jesus, the experience of grace is above all an experience of celebration!
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells one of the most famous and beloved parables of all time. Many of know this parable simply as the “The Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Sometimes it is called the Parable of the Lost Sons or the Parable of the Compassionate Father, but the central image of this parable the image of grace as a celebration! The parable begins with a father who has two sons. The younger son comes to his father and asks for his inheritance. Once he receives his inheritance, the younger son travels to a distant land, he gets as far away from home as possible and squanders all his money. And to make matters worse, a severe famine has decimated the land. The son finds himself broke and broken, the only job he can find is a job feeding pigs, which is not only demeaning, but it seriously violates his Jewish identity.
But when he comes to himself, he develops a plan to go back home and beg his father for job. And when young man makes his way back to his father’s house, while he was still a long way off, the father sees him, is filled with compassion, and runs to meet his son. The father throws his arms around his son and kisses him. The son says, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, I am not worthy to be called your son.” What happens next is remarkable! The father doesn’t reprimand his son. He doesn’t lecture his son. In fact, in the parable, the father never actually speaks to his younger son. Instead, he calls his servants and tells everyone around him to get ready for a party! And not just any party, but one of the most lavish, extravagant, over-the-top parties you can imagine!
Bring the best robe you can find! Bring a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet! Kill the fatted calf! Let us eat and celebrate and dance and rejoice! For this son of mine was dead and is now alive; he was lost, but now is found! Grace in this parable is not a concept to the comprehended, it is an experience to be entered into; it is an experience of celebration!
But in our gospel reading this morning, there is one person who is angry and resentful, and who refuses to join in the celebration, and this person is, of course, the older son. The one who has always played by the rules. The one who has done everything right. The one who deserves to be honored and recognized for his loyalty and devotion. Unfortunately, in his anger and resentment, the older son is unable to enter into the experience of grace. When the parable ends, we don’t know if he has ultimately joined the party or not.
But aren’t their times when we behave like this older son? Aren’t there times when rather than extend grace, we hold onto anger and resentment? Rather than offer mercy, we convey condemnation. Aren’t there times when rather than entering into the celebration, we stand at a distance with our arms crossed and hearts hardened, because we think that it’s not fair? But, you see, that’s the whole point.
GRACE is not fair.
GRACE is not about what we have earned or deserve.
GRACE is not determined by the quality of our spiritual report card.
GRACE is extravagant.
GRACE is scandalous.
GRACE is outrageous.
Unfortunately, when we look at the world around us, we see a culture, in many ways, dominated by the mindset of the older brother. A culture that is dominated by the mindset of competition, in which, by necessity, there winners and there are losers. And far too much of the rhetoric of our present age is fueled by anger and resentment and condemnation. But you and I, as children of God and followers of Jesus, have been summoned to be the honored guests at God’s celebration of grace. We don’t have to fully comprehend grace. We simply have to enter into it. We simply have to show up at the party. We have to recognize that our whole life is a visible icon of God’s grace.
Spiritual writer, Frederick Beuchner, put it this way. He said, “The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are, you exist, because the party would not have been complete without you.” My friends, the experience of grace is an experience of celebration. And when you and I enter into that experience, when we show up at God’s party, that’s when we discover precisely why we call grace…AMAZING!
Just give me one more chance! This, of course, is the desperate plea that a mother or father hears when one of their children is trying to maneuver their way out of a particular consequence or punishment. And every parent knows the litany of excuses. I didn’t really mean to hit my brother. It’s not my fault the ball bounced and hit the lamp off the table. I promise, I was going to clean up that mess eventually. Just give me one more chance!
But, you know, I think throughout our lives, we frequently find ourselves making the same desperate plea. In those moments when we know an opportunity has passed us by and it will likely not return again. When we know we have broken a promise or left commitments unfulfilled. When we know we have hurt someone we love. Those are the moments when that desperate plea rises up inside of each one of us and we cry out, “just give me one more chance!”
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells his disciples what is traditionally called “The Parable of the Unproductive Fig Tree.” But I think we could just as easily call this “The Parable of Just One More Chance.” According to the parable, there is a landowner, a fig tree, and a gardener. The landowner has planted a fig tree in his vineyard. For three years the landowner has come looking for fruit but found none. Now the reality is that this fig tree is probably even older than three years because according to Old Testament law, the first three years of a tree’s growth were allowed to elapse before the fruit was even considered clean. So, the landowner would not have been looking for fruit during those first three years. Now the landowner has been looking for fruit for an additional three years, which means that this tree is likely at least six years old – three years to mature and develop and then three additional years to bear fruit. From an agricultural perspective, this tree has had ample time to grow and develop and bear fruit and yet there is still no fruit. So, we can understand why the landowner has grown angry and impatient and simply wants to chop the tree down and get rid of it. When it comes to his vast vineyard, this one tree is just wasting the soil.
But here is when the gardener enters the scene. The gardener listens to the landowner’s complaint and remarkably he defends the tree and pleads for “just one more chance.” Even though the tree hasn’t done anything in six years, the gardener says leave it alone for one more year. And that’s not all, the gardener wants to dig around the tree and fertilize the tree in order to promote growth and fruitfulness. Now you have to understand that fig trees were known to be aggressive plants that actually deprived surrounding plants of nutrients. Nobody fertilized a fig tree. That would have been considered excessive and perhaps even unnecessary. And so, what the gardener is suggesting is that this unproductive tree should not only be given another chance, but that special care and special attention should be provided beyond what would normally be given.
So, what do we make of this parable? A landowner, a fig tree, and a gardener. Some people have looked at this parable and assumed that we are the fig tree and that God is the landowner who has come searching for fruitfulness in our lives. And when he finds no fruit, significant consequences will ensue. The problem with this interpretation is that God is seemingly depicted as the one who angry and impatient, the one comes to judge and condemn and ultimately has to be convinced to show mercy and be persuaded to give us another chance. This doesn’t jive with the picture of God that we see throughout Luke’s gospel account. Luke tells us that God is like a Father who runs out to meet his prodigal son while he still a long way from home. God is like a woman who throws an extravagant party when she finds her one lost coin. God is depicted as the One who rejoices in showing mercy, not as One who has to be convinced or persuaded to give just one more chance.
So, perhaps what we need to do is to turn this parable around, so we can see it from a slightly different angle. Perhapswhen we turn this parable around what we find is that the landowner is us. Perhaps we are the ones who have grown angry and impatient with the fruitlessness in our lives and in the lives of others. Perhaps we are the ones who are swift to judge and condemn and quick to enact punishment. Perhaps we are the ones who are frequently unwilling to offer another chance. Think about it. When it comes to our relationships, or our jobs, or our ministry, or even our own sense of value and purpose in life – how often have we been like the landowner? How often have we been angry, frustrated, resentful, ready to cut things off and move on, unwilling to offer another chance? Or perhaps we have been the one denied another chance by someone else. In either case, the angry, frustrated landowner seems to represent our typical human response when things are not working in our lives.
But the gardener offers a different perspective. Despite the fact that this tree is barren and has consistently failed to bear fruit, the gardener is the One who says let’s not cut it down, but let’s take extraordinary measures to ensure that it has everything it needs to bear fruit. The gardener is the One who has mercy and who offers the tree another chance. Now that sounds a lot like God, doesn’t it? God enters into the barren places of our lives, not to cut down and destroy, not to judge and condemn, but to offer the gift of new life, to ensure that we have everything we need to be fruitful and whole and fully alive.
We, like the landowner are often angry and impatient, quick to judge and enact punishment. But God, like the gardener, enters into the barren, unfruitful, desperate places of our lives in order to offer another chance.
Now within the context of Luke’s gospel, this parable serves as an illustration of the nature of repentance. Some have read this parable and come to the conclusion that what Jesus is saying is “don’t be like the unproductive fig tree” – repent and bear fruit or else. But perhaps what Jesus is saying is don’t be like the landowner. Perhaps the message of repentance that is found in this parable is that we are called to be less like the landowner and more like the gardener. If repentance literally means to turn around, then this parable challenges us to turn away from anger and impatience, to turn away from judgment and condemnation, and instead turn to look at the face of the gardener.
The One who doesn’t give up on us.
The One who provides what we need to live abundant life.
The One who declares the year of the Lord’s favor.
The One who offers another chance.