Sermon Archive

You might recognize the name Elizabeth Gilbert as the author of the bestselling novel Eat, Pray, Love.  Along with her fiction writing, Gilbert also writes and speaks about creativity – how it works and how it sometimes doesn’t work.  She tells stories about her own experiences with writer’s block and the fear of failure that can stop creativity dead in its tracks.

Fearing the Convert

Fearing the Convert 
Acts 9:1-19
William Chu

Christopher Cornell is 20 year old young man who was arrested last January on charges of plotting to bomb the U.S. Capitol.  He was radicalized by his deep dive into the internets pool of pro-jihadi videos and propaganda. 

The far reach of the Internet gives jihadis an opportunity to connect to a global audience of lost, disaffected young people who, experts say, are particularly susceptible to their message. By some estimates, foreign recruits from Western nations now account for more than 5 percent of those fighting for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the radical group known as ISIS, or ISIL.

Its easy to fear the zealotry of a convert, and this may be even more so now that this conversion can happen in our living rooms.  

David Kilcullen is a former officer in the Australian Army, a strategist, scholar and expert on counterinsurgency.  In his book, The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One, Kilcullen argues that terrorist groups depend and pray on converts who are zealously moved to violence for reasons that are not at all theological.  Kilcullen submits, that These “accidental guerrillas” are the kind of individuals who join in the violence simply for the joy of fighting.

“When the battle was right there in front of them, how could they not join in?” Kilcullen writes reflecting on his interviews with Afghani Youth who joined in the fighting against American Troops. “This was the most exciting thing that had happened in their valley in years. It would have shamed them to stand by and wait it out, they said.”
The Accidental Guerrilla -2009. 

When I was a kid I remember hearing in a sermon that no one more fired with zealotry than a convert. And that Paul of Tarsus was the perfect example of the truth behind that statement.  

With this in mind I invite you to consider the conversion of Saul.  Typically we think of the road to Damascus as the beginning of this conversion but this conversion probably begins in Acts chapter 7 during the stoning of Stephen. 

Acts 7:54   When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.  55 But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  56 “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”  57 But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.  58 Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.  59 While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  60 Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. 

Acts 8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.

Perhaps Saul was a disaffected youth, like Christopher Cornell.  Its likely that,  Saul approved of the stoning of Stephen because it was more interesting that the lukewarm congregation he had witnessed until that point.  Saul was likely disaffected because leaders in his community had failed to live up to the God’s requirements to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with God. 

In young Saul’s world the hungry were given no food, the thirsty were given no drink, strangers were not welcomed, the naked were given no clothing, and the sick and imprisoned were abandoned.  And no one seemed to care, no one was moved to do anything about it and the ambivalence to injustice was depressing.  

Finally Saul’s congregation shows some passion, unfortunately its in a murderous focus on Stephen the disaffected.  Saul was a quick convert to this mis-inspired faith and took on scorched earth approach to counter this insurgency of Christ. 

Act 9: 1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,

This stirring was the beginning of Saul’s conversion. Saul was angry and he wasn’t going to take it any more!  Unfortunately, Saul takes it out on the followers of the way of Christ.  His plan was to root out the threat by destroying it.  Saul intends to prosecute a shock and awe approach that will frighten any other potential converts to christianity.  

This is the kind of destructive counterinsurgency that David Kilcullen argues against. If Saul had access to drone warfare, its not hard to imagine him asking Jerusalem for permission to strike Christians in Damascus.  

Kilcullen argues that targeted killings with drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a mistake. "These strikes are totally counter-productive. It is a strategic error to personalize the conflict in this way, it’ll strengthen the enemy and weaken our friends. How can one expect the civilian population to support us if we kill their families and destroy their homes."

Instead of drones, Saul mounts his strike on Damascus with with letters of persecution in hand. 

In the flash of light and disembodied voice, Jesus degrades the zealous mission of Saul by helping him to see how his destructive plan persecutes the God that he seeks to love. 

4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 

You may have found it difficult to pray this morning’s opening prayer.  Particularly the line about forgive us for persecuting Christ.  I don’t blame you.  You are the good people of God, and its hard to imagine that you would intentionally persecute Jesus.   And the truth is even the best of us need to have regularly realign our mission to serve Christ.  If we are not intentional about how we serve Christ we might find ourselves persecuting Christ.  Jesus said...

Mt 25: 31-46
40 Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me. 

This is one of the reasons that we do persistent and never ending visioning.  Vital Church Initiative pushes us to ask how are we meeting our mission to make disciples and transform the world?  Have we missed the “least of these” in our current practice? 

The new convert Saul is then blinded literally in that he can no longer see, and figuratively because his missional plan to destroy Christians to glorify God is placed under serious suspicion.  Saul conversion is only partial.  Saul is still disaffected by the injustice of his society and is converted and compelled to seek the love of God and neighbor yet his destructive mission is too shallow.  

David Kilcullen argues that, 
“People don’t get pushed into rebellion by their ideology. They get pulled in by their social networks.” He noted that all fifteen Saudi hijackers in the September 11th plot had trouble with their fathers. Although radical ideas prepare the way for disaffected young men to become violent jihadists, the reasons they convert, Kilcullen said, are more mundane and familiar: family, friends, associates. The Accidental Guerrilla -2009. 

Jesus continues to degrade the destructive mission of Saul and pull him along in his conversion with the Christian Community.  Jesus instructs Saul to continue to Damascus.  There Saul was received into the community that he originally meant to destroy.  

In a house church on Straight street, a follower of Christ called Judas (a name that the reader would typically associate as a betrayer of Christ) demonstrates compelling hospitality that degrades the destructive mission of Saul.  Its this kind of welcome that pulls Saul deeper into his conversion.  Saul is encouraged to pray, in that prayer God gives Saul a vision of Ananias who will help to restore his sight.  

Meanwhile the Jesus comes to the disciple Ananias in a vision.  And tells him about a new convert called Saul.  Ironically, this faithful disciple responds with fear of a new convert.  

13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;  14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” Jesus has to push Ananias to set aside this fear and offer Saul the laying on of hands, healing and baptism that would pull Saul into his conversion. 

I wonder, do we provide compelling hospitality to the disaffected whom we have heard much evil about, when they seek safe haven in our sanctuary.  Would first resist like Ananias? Would we readily and faithful help them to feel secure like Judas? 
David Kilcullen argues for a counterinsurgency that seeks to degrade insecurity of the disaffected rather than destroy the enemy. “Effective counterinsurgency, provides human security to the population, where they live, 24 hours a day. This, not destroying the enemy, is the central task.” 

Adopting, Kilcullen’s counterinsurgency requires a realignment of military assets in a way that no longer fears the convert or potentially radicalized, but challenges us to shift our resources to degrade the forces that disaffect our world. 

I imagine that Jesus took this same strategy on when it came to the conversion  of  Saul. When Saul was disaffected by the apathy to injustice in the world, God sent him Stephen.  When Saul was caught up in the violence that wouldn’t bring security, Jesus gave him a message.  When Saul needed sanctuary and healing Jesus gathered a community of hospitality for this convert.  

I wonder how can we be the body of Christ for a new convert?