There are people who make interesting first impressions. Some live up to those first impressions, others surprise you.
I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you are paired up to work with someone and you can’t help but think, “No God, please not them.”
After a while you get to know one another, and in the end you can’t think of anyone else you would want to be around. I can name a couple of people from by days at AST who fit that description. Had it not been for them, I may not have made it through my masters degree with any sanity remaining at the end of it.
They become the people who help us when we are down. They help pick us up. They help us deal with whatever emotion we might be dealing with. They are our true friends. The ones you can count on in all times. Good or bad.
There’s also the people who come into your life for brief moments. They are the ones who came to you at just the right time and changed you, or said something to you you’ll never forget. They could be a teacher you once had, or a co-worker, a neighbour, anyone. Whoever they were, they just came to you at a point in your life and changed you in a way you never expected. In fact, you may not have even realized this for years to come.
When I started grade 12 I went to school and realized my schedule was messed up. I didn’t have a required English class. So I had to do some reorganizing. To stay in the math class I wanted to take, I had to convince an English teacher to let me into his full class. So I took the form to him and asked if he would let me in.
He took the form, looked at me and said, “I’ll sign it, only because I want you here.”
His words resonated with me. High school was a rough time for me. I felt a bit lost and unsure of where I fit in. His words told me that someone cared about me. It told me that no matter what happened in my final year, I had somewhere to go and now I was wanted.
His words have never left me. In a simple statement he touched me and gave me hope. I was so pleased to have an opportunity to thank him just a couple years ago when I ran into him at an event.
Sometimes, a simple statement can have a profound influence on our lives in a time when we really need it.
There are many people in the world who impact our lives in some way. Hopefully most are positive, but not all of them are. Some have negative effects on who we are. Some one who may have hurt us, whether intentionally or not.
It’s no different in the church. In the church there are people who help build our relationship with God, and there are others who seem to push us away from God.
This is not new, this is the way it has been for a long time.
Look at Saul from our reading in Acts this morning.
Our reading begins with Saul going to the priests asking for a list of names that he can look out for when he’s in Damascus. He’s looking for people he can bring back as prisoners to Jerusalem. But not just anyone. He’s looking only for what the book of Acts calls, “followers of the way.” Christians.
The reading tells us he’s breathing threats and murder. This guy hates Christians. He wants them gone. So off he heads to Damascus to pick up a few more to punish.
On the way, his plans got derailed. A beam of light, a spotlight from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground. And Jesus spoke to him.
We should know that Saul was a Jew. He was a devoted Jew who had no interest in the Christians other than to wipe them out. To wipe out the threat against his long tradition. To erase the memories of Jesus.
And here, Jesus speaks to him on the road to Damascus. “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Then sends him into Damascus to wait for further instruction. Saul has been blinded by this encounter. So those travelling with him are helping him into the city.
A couple days later, a disciple named Ananias is in the same city, and God speaks to him. “Go to Saul.”
Ananias has to be thinking something is seriously wrong here. He knows who Saul is. He knows what Saul has done to many other disciples of Jesus. He has hauled them away to prison and death. And now God wants him to go and talk to Saul face-to-face? Ummm… thanks but no thanks God!
But he goes. Ananias trusts God and heads to the home where Saul is staying. He walked up to the blind man who has not eaten in three days, puts his hands on him and says, “Brother, Jesus sent me to help you.”
Saul regains his sight, and Ananias takes him to the rest of the disciples who are in Damascus. Here they work with Saul and teach him about Jesus. Saul then becomes the greatest hero the church has ever seen, the Apostle Paul. A leader of the early church who reached many non-believers and expanded the church exponentially.
Think for a moment how precarious this situation was. Saul encountered Jesus on the road. His life has changed. But it’s not over. It’s not complete.
So God calls on Ananias to help. To be the one who welcomes Saul into the community of believers. To help him learn about Jesus and what he has done.
But what if Ananias said ‘no’? What if the community of disciples said, “You want us to take in him?” What if Saul had been rejected by the Christians who had the opportunity to bring him in.
How would Saul have reacted? Here’s a guy who already has a hate on for the Christians, imagine the hatred of being rejected by them after encountering Jesus on the road!
But Ananias took a chance. I bet he was thinking he was risking his life. I bet he never imagined, in his wildest dreams, that Saul would become the greatest evangelist ever in the church. He probably figured, at best, there would be one less person in the world trying to kill them. So it’s probably worth the risk.
Jesus changes lives. I know it can happen. I’ve seen the results of people who have encountered the living Christ on the roads of life. But it’s just the beginning. These people need a safe, loving community to grow and learn about the love of God being offered to us. And to learn about Jesus, and how he taught us to live.
I’m going to share two stories. The first is part my own story about coming to explore ministry.
My own life can be divided into before the year 2000, and after the year 2000.
Before the year 2000 I had extremely little church experience. I had a couple years of Sunday school sometime in the mid-80’s, but that was it. I was a good guy. Didn’t cause any trouble. Just living life, wondering what I was going to do.
I moved into the field of computer science because I was good at it, and didn’t know what else to do. Really, I was along for the ride. I didn’t work very hard at it, in fact I had to retake a number of courses in my under-grad because my marks weren’t good enough. But I finally did enough to make it out of the school and start working in Ottawa.
It was a real struggle at the start. I was in a department in Nortel that did not help me develop at the start of my career. Again, since I was just along for the ride, I figured it was fine. No big deal, I’m still getting paid, I’m still working.
Then the year 2000 quickly approached. And thankfully, I was moved to a new department. In this new department I learned what it meant to be a leader and how to work within a productive environment. I moved into a team leader position and those above me in the organization had me pegged to move up there with them.
Bev had also returned to church about this time, and I would occasionally join her on a Sunday morning here and there. You know, if I felt like it.
This is also about the time the bubble burst in the technology sector. Lay-offs began. The managers who had helped me develop into a leader were laid off. The departments I was leading was quickly merged into other departments and my seniority was lost as well as my move towards management as we entered a time of attempting survival in the company.
All this time though, I was getting more involved in the church. I began to go on a weekly basis. I started helping out with things like their website and sound booth. I started to work with the youth group and join a couple committees. Somehow through it all, I found Jesus as well.
And it was fun! Yes, even the committees!
I can tell also you the first time I thought about ministry.
It would have been this very weekend back in 2002. I was helping the youth group as part of their 30-hour famine. I was asked to work in the sound for a morning worship service where there was a guest band playing. A band made mostly up of teenagers.
And boy did they sing their hearts out for Jesus.
That’s the first time I thought that ministry could be in my future.
It really was by chance I was there. The guy who normally does the sound for things like that in the church couldn’t be there, so I went instead. A chance encounter that really began to change my life.
I have never seen these kids again. They were a group from another church. Yet they touched my life in a way they will never know.
It was one of those moments, I define as being sacred moments in my life. The moments when it feels like God is right here with me. It’s hard to describe what it felt like. Except maybe think about your first love. How you felt when you saw someone and said, “I am going to spend my life with him or her.” Remember it? Now multiply that feeling by about 100 billion. It’s a feeling you never want to let go off, and it’s one you will never, ever forget. I’m sure some of you know what I am talking about.
The other story I want to share is another of those sacred moments. Our new friends here were part of this experience, and again it involves youth.
Four years ago was my first experience of Youth Forum. It’s part of the annual meeting of Maritime Conference. A time when a hundred or so teens from across the Maritimes and Bermuda come together to explore faith through worship and discussions.
I went as a facilitator. A leader of one of the small groups of these teens.
It was a special weekend. A weekend where I got to spend time with teens and talk about what was important in faith to them. To share with them about my own journey, and to encourage them on their own.
It was a weekend that touched my very soul. A weekend where the energy of the youth really reached out to God, and it felt like God reached back into every one of us.
We sang, we talked, we laughed, we cried, we danced, we did it all that weekend. We lived in the moment with God. I kind of felt sorry for the rest of the conference because God clearly forgot about them and gave us some extra Spirit.
Which is not uncommon for Youth Forum. A time when teens can be themselves and see how God might connect with them. To learn about their own faith and how God can speak in many different ways. It’s also a time when many will take the sacred moment and listen to discover they themselves have gifts to offer the church. Whether in formal ministry or in other ways.
It’s a chance encounter, when someone stops to care about them and show them God’s abundant love being offered freely. An encounter that may take a teen from a troubled background, where they feel useless and unloved, and let them know they are loved, and they have far more to offer than they could ever believe.
A sacred moment like in the life of Saul. A time where God’s light shines on them, on each and every one of us, letting us know we have much to offer, and we are deeply loved by a God who changes lives.
These chance encounters we have with people are powerful. People God uses to grow our faith. People just like us who can have the same encounters with others.