Sunday’s Sermon: The Next Sentence

Our English teachers spent a lot of time with us in school teaching us the value of a good sentence. They would spend day after day, year after year, instructing us on subject-verb agreement, the importance of choosing our words, and how to properly punctuate. Once we have mastered these lessons, we are able to produce some wonderfully written sentences.

It is only through living out our lives, however, that we begin to understand the power of those sentences, and especially just one sentence. A single sentence can say so much. One sentence can summarize how we feel about someone. One sentence can promote hope. One sentence can inspire creativity. One sentence can call the world to a new way of living.

This is especially true when we think about ourselves. Sometimes we focus on just one sentence. A sentence of which perhaps we are the author, a sentence we rewrite day after day. It is a sentence that says we are not good enough. A sentence that says that we are not of any value. A sentence that says we have done too much wrong in our lives to deserve God’s love.

We can be our own worst critic. We’ll take everything that we know about ourselves, all the things that we have done wrong, and say, “There is no way a good and loving God could ever rescue me from my sin. My sin is too much. I’ve done too much wrong.” The sentence we write about ourselves sometimes defines us in ways that make us out to be the worst possible offender. We write our words in ways that place everything on this definition and never consider writing another sentence to describe ourselves.

What about God? How does our Lord describe us? Does God describe us with the same words, the same sentence structure, that we do in ways that define us in the worst possible ways? Is God simply the God of just one sentence?

All throughout Scripture we see a common theme. God is never the God of just one sentence. Whenever God encounters someone going through difficult times, whether sin or other issue, there is typically a second sentence that follows the initial encounter. That next sentence, if you will, is the one that often opens us up to the depths of God’s love for each of us. No place is this more apparent in Scripture than our passage this morning from Acts 9:1-6.

This section of Scripture is one of the more recognizable scenes in Acts. It tells the story of the conversion of Saul, who would later be known as the Apostle Paul. Prior to this passage, our only previous encounter with Saul was at the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7. There he is seen as one who is in agreement with Stephen’s persecution and execution.

Saul was a persecutor of followers of Christ. He was a Pharisee and perhaps a member of the Sanhedrin. Saul believed that getting rid of people who followed Christ was in accordance with God’s will. He was fervent in the way he went about this task, so much so that we get the idea through Paul’s later writing that he was the early church’s biggest enemy.

As our passage begins, Saul makes no indication that he wants to stop persecuting Christians. In fact, Luke reports Saul approached the high priest seeking permission to get rid of followers of Christ who lived in Damascus. No longer would Saul’s terror reign just in Jerusalem. Because the witness of the Good News of Jesus Christ went with the disciples wherever they went, Saul felt he had to go to where the church was spreading.

Saul is on this mission to Damascus when he is surrounded by a bright light from heaven. We read later in chapter 9 that this light was so bright that it blinded Saul. When we see a reference to a “light from heaven” in Scripture, it signifies the divine presence of Christ. John focuses a lot on Christ being the light that has come into the world. Here, Luke tells that Christ’s presence met Saul on his mission. Jesus has come to encounter the one who was persecuting the disciples.

He starts with a simple and direct question. Jesus says, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?” The question brings to mind Old Testament encounters when God engages someone, then calls them to something. This will be important as we move forward in this passage. Jesus calls Saul to account for his actions. He doesn’t say that Saul is honored for his action, but instead Jesus tells him that he has acted with hatred towards the people of God. Saul isn’t quite sure what to make of Jesus’ statement and responds with a question that shows he isn’t sure who he is speaking with. Jesus responds to Paul saying, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting!”

In that one sentence, Jesus gives Saul the first sentence. It is a sentence that pronounces that Jesus is alive and the Son of God. Jesus tells Saul that it is truly Jesus that he is persecuting, because Christ identifies with the oppress and the maligned. As well, when the church is persecuted for proclaiming the Good News of Christ, so too is the Lord. In this sentence, though, Jesus tells Saul how he has allowed a false identity to be his defining mark. Saul has allowed sin, a desire to hurt and harm others, to be who he is. Saul, this man who believed he was following God’s will, learns in this first sentence that he has wronged the Lord.

Just like the sentence spoken to Saul, God speaks a sentence to us. The sentence has two parts. In the first section, we are told who God is. God is the true and holy God who is full of power, love, and grace. Our Lord calls us to a life of holiness, which means that we strive to reflect God’s essence and character in our own lives. Yet, in the second half of the sentence, we are given a reminder spoken to the depths of our soul. It’s a word spoken to us that shines light on how we haven fallen short of God’s glory. Like Saul, God speaks to us in the depths of our conscious and shows us where our life may not be aligned with God’s desires.

Sometimes that is the only sentence we hear. As I said, we can be our own worst critic. This means that this may be the only sentence we hear, or want to hear, from God. We think we’re not good enough. That we’ve done too much wrong. That there is no way God could ever love a sinner like me.

As we see in Acts 9:6, God doesn’t stop with just that first sentence. The next sentence spoken to Saul, and to us, is extremely important. In that sentence, Jesus extends the hand of grace to the enemy of the church. The next sentence spoken to Saul invites him to experience the benefits of the cross and resurrection by receiving a new life and a new call in the Kingdom of God. Jesus never gave up on Saul, even though he made it his life’s mission to end the witness of the church.

In this next sentence spoken to Saul, Jesus expresses his hope in who Saul was made to be and could be once again through the transformative grace of Jesus Christ. From the beginning of creation, Saul, and all of humanity, was created to do immense good and to reflect the goodness and grace of the Lord. By telling Saul to continue on the journey and that he would be told what to do next, Jesus is reconstituting Saul’s mission to one that reflects his original purpose. Jesus reminds Saul of who he was from the beginning and who he can be once again. The rest of Acts 9 tells how Saul’s soul is opened to the grace of the Lord and how he is transformed from a persecutor to an apostle.

Just like Jesus never gave up on Saul, he never gives up on each of us. That next sentence is spoken to each of us. Jesus continually speaks to us words that remind us who we were created to be and who we can be today through the grace of God. Each of us were created to reflect God’s love through our words, actions, and deeds. We were made to be in deep relationship with the Lord. Our Lord never gives up on us, even though we do things that break God’s own heart. Jesus speaks to us words that remind us of our internal goodness and how we can embrace that, once again, through the presence of Christ working in us and through us.

But, will we hear that next sentence spoken to us? God reaches out to us through the darkness of our existence and shines a light forward to grace. That’s the sentence God desires for us to hear and to focus on. That is the sentence that expresses the hope of the resurrection that and the good news that Christ is alive and grace is available to all, regardless of the wrong, regardless of the sin, regardless of who we are. To hear that word, we must be willing to not focus on our ideas of self, but God’s idea of who we were made to be and who we can be.

The next sentence of grace is available to all of us. Jesus is speaking it to each of us. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter who we are. Jesus has opened his arms to us and speaks love and forgiveness to us. That is the gift of God’s love given freely to each of us.

Life should never be defined by the first sentence of our failings and wrongs. Life in Christ is defined by the next sentence of grace that invites us into a journey of spiritual transformation that changes us from who we are and into the person God desires us to be.

Jesus is speaking this sentence to us today. Can you hear it?

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