At first glance or first listen, our reading from Acts today doesn’t seem like a very profound one, it doesn’t grab your attention for really any other reason than its many terribly difficult words to say. But after you read this passage about Paul and some of the other disciples a couple of times you begin to see the motion of it, you might catch where it begins and where it ends, how Paul picks up his belongings and his friends and goes out to a specific place, to find some specific people and to tell them something really important.
Paul has a dream about a Macedonian, a Greek man from the place of Mount Olympus, a Gentile from the center of pagan religious and political power, who comes to Paul and asks him for help, who recognizes that what the world of Zeus and the world of politics have to offer is not enough. Paul wakes up, asks no questions, and heads out on his way to spread the Gospel.
But when they get to Macedonia they don’t head to the closest Gentile hang out and start up their conversion routine, they begin by preaching in the synagogues. The only problem was that Macedonians didn’t have enough Jewish people to have a synagogue, so they went outside the gate down by the river where they expected to find some folks gathered to pray, and what they found was a group of women.
Now, a good Pharisee like Paul would have instantly seen this as a problem, because in the Jewish world of the times a man couldn’t be around and speak to another man’s wife without their husband being present. So a good Pharisee like Paul would have said, “sorry ladies, go get your husbands, bring them back, and then we can talk.” But remember Paul had just been knocked off his high horse by the Holy Spirit just a few chapters ago in the book of Acts, and he now realized that everything he used to think about God was wrong. That the rules that limited God’s power and God’s grace and who could hear and learn about them were wrong.
Paul realized that everything he thought about the way God works and who we are was wrong, so he sat down and spoke to the women, because everyone is worthy of hearing the Gospel. And this is what I want to talk about today after this long Bible study of an introduction; everyone is worthy of hearing the Gospel. There is no doubt that Paul was being progressive and inclusive in a radical, new, 21st century feminist sort of way, and we need to take note of that. Everyone is worthy of hearing the Gospel, but more importantly, everyone needs to hear the Gospel.
This passage today isn’t primarily about radical inclusivity, it’s about radical mercy and grace. It’s not primarily about who Paul is speaking to, but what he’s actually saying. It’s about every single one of us, male female, black white, rich poor. It’s about all of us needing and wanting redemption, wanting mercy and release and freedom from fear and anxiety. God knows us all really well, and he knows that you could use a little mercy, and through His blood, that gift is all yours.
We’re in the tail end of college graduation season, which often makes for really good sermon material, and this year’s no different. But the graduation moment that’s caught folks’ attention this year is a bit different because I think that it’s a real-life parable, and it took place at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In case you missed it, CNN summed it up like this:
Morehouse College seniors got a surprise Sunday when billionaire investor Robert F. Smith announced during his commencement speech that he would pay off the student loan debt for the historically black college’s 2019 graduating class. By aiding nearly 400 young men at an estimated value of $40 million, his donation is the biggest single gift in the school’s 152-year history. President David Thomas called Smith’s gesture “a liberation gift.”
An incredible gesture, an incredible gift of freedom from the burden and anxiety of carrying all of those student loans, given freely, without question or condition. A gift of pure grace. But I think what truly makes this a biblical story is the way we react to it, that less than two seconds after I heard this I couldn’t help but think that this didn’t seem fair. Can you imagine being a 2018 graduate of Morehouse College? or if you were there a week ago to see your twin brother graduate, but you just graduated from UVA with a heap of debt you had to drag down to Atlanta. I wasn’t the only one who saw this story and couldn’t help but think that this doesn’t seem fair. The internet is full of people expressing resentment about this; What about the people who saved? What lesson is this teaching? This scandalous story is like the prodigal son’s older brother or the early vineyard workers in the biblical parables, and they all show us how people react to others receiving grace. Everybody has a problem with other people receiving grace. We get upset, we say that’s not fair, it’s not right, that’s not the way things work, that this is irresponsible. We accuse the grace and gift of freedom to be a problem, but the truth is that this primarily reveals something really important about ourselves, what this reveals about us is that we all want and need crazy, scandalous grace like this ourselves.
We call out grace as dangerous and say that’s not the way things should work. We say it’s irresponsible, but we only do so to make ourselves feel better for not having received it ourselves. When we cry out “this isn’t fair”, what we’re really shouting is, “I need some help!”, I need some relief, I too need redemption, my life needs some grace. We aren’t satisfied, we’re lost or alone, we’ve made mistakes and things aren’t right, we need some release, we need someone to pay our debts. Whether we’re literally or metaphorically cast out to the fringes of society, down by the river with the women of Macedonia, feeling alone, abandoned or unworthy, we all have our moments of crisis, catastrophe or heartache, when we’ve lost something or someone, or perhaps when we’ve felt lost ourselves—we’ve all experienced this, or I promise you soon will, and when those days fall upon us, we don’t hesitate to fall on our knees and beg and pray for a little bit of that irresponsible grace and redemption to fall on us. Despite all of the negative chatter, I have a feeling that Robert F. Smith is going to have a lot of requests to speak at graduations around the country next year.
On Christmas Eve of 2013, The Guardian ran a piece by photographer Chris Arnade entitled, “The People Who Challenged My Atheism Most Were Drug Addicts and Prostitutes.” Arnade recounted how his unbelief was challenged after quitting his Wall Street job to photograph addicts in the South Bronx, and just over a week from today Arnade’s photos will finally be published in book form. What he captures in the book is not only a slice of Americana that’s tragically overlooked or at least looked down upon, but he also articulates how those of us in high places are good at fooling ourselves that we aren’t in need of help or redemption or grace, while those whose outward circumstances have painfully revealed a need for mercy, are living a little closer to the truth. And that place is, perhaps ironically for an atheist like Arnade, often the church, not because it’s a school of righteousness, but because it’s a home for sinners. Arnade says this:
“In [the minds of many back row Americans] the only places on the streets that regularly treat them like humans, that offer them a seat to sit in, an ear to listen, and really understand their past are churches. They don’t require having your paperwork in order, having proper ID. They don’t require getting grilled about this and that. They say, ‘Enter as you are,’ letting forgiveness wash away a past that many want gone... The churches understand the streets, understand everyone is a sinner and everyone fails.
Like most in the front row, I am used to thinking we have all the answers. On Wall Street, there were few problems we couldn’t solve with enough smarts, energy, audacity, or money. We even managed to push death into the distance; with enough research and enough resources—eating right, doing the right things, going to the correct medical specialist—the inevitable could be delayed, and mortality could feel distant.
With a great job and a great apartment in a great neighborhood, it is easy to feel we have nothing for which we need to be absolved [or redeemed from]. The fundamental fallibility of humans seems outdated, distant, and confined to a few distant others. It’s not hard to imagine that you have everything under control.
The tragedy of the streets means few can delude themselves into thinking they have it under control. You cannot ignore death there, and you cannot ignore human fallibility. It is easier to see that everyone is a sinner, everyone is fallible, and everyone is mortal. It is easier to see that there are things just too deep, too important, or too great for us to know. It is far easier to recognize that one must come to peace with the idea that ‘we don’t and never will have this under control.’ It is far easier to see religion not just as useful, but as true.”
The Gospel is true, it’s for you, and that’s really good news because just like me, you need it. Through Christ’s blood you have been redeemed. Through Christ’s blood your debts have been paid.
As I said in a dear friend’s wedding yesterday; God is love and God did not count our pride, revenge or ambition against us. Instead He sent His Son to be with us, to die on a cross for us, to say to us, “You are mine, to have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish.” You are God’s, you are forgiven, you are free.