Crossing the street ourselves – Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 122

Three months ago, we explored together some of our distinctive Baptist values; discipleship (the call of God to each one of us to be part of God’s work), community, mission and freedom, and this month we begin another time-honoured Baptist practice of focusing for one month specifically on mission – May Mission Month!

And this year Baptist Mission Australia (which used to be Global Interaction and before that the Australian Baptist Missionary Society and before that the Australian Baptist Foreign Mission) has taken as its theme ‘crossing the street’.

Which prompted me in Sunday to Sunday this week to refer to what is, apparently, a 125 year old joke, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” “To get to the other side!”

And for many people at many times this is purely what mission has been about. “Why do Christians cross the road?” “To get people to the other side! To stop them going to hell and get them to go to heaven.” But this is a woefully reduced definition of the mission of God. “Why do Christians cross the street?” “Because God loves us and calls us to love. Because God cares for us and calls us to care. Because God shares God’s life with us and calls us to share our lives with others – listening as well as speaking, learning as well as ‘being experts’.” Mission for us is not getting people to the ‘other side’ but crossing the street to meet them and love them and care for them – and journey with them – as we journey with God.

I am reminded of a conversation I had many many many years ago, before I married Aron, with a young man from Christchurch, who was bemoaning how hard it was to pick up women in Sydney. “In Christchurch,” he said, “if you see someone you like, you don’t have to use all your lines at once. You’ll see them again – it’s a small place – and you can get to know them, and they can get to know you. You’ll work out in time if you really like each other. In Sydney, however, you have to go up them, talk to them, impress them, get their number, assess if it’s going somewhere – all in the one night!”

Thinking about it now, it might have been an elaborate pick-up line, but what I took away is that, as Christ’s church, we are called to do mission like we live in Christchurch, to journey with others – to share their lives and let them share ours – not to ‘demand a decision’ (to use the evangelical language) like a Sydneysider!

Our Acts reading this morning about Saul (later known as Paul) is the classic conversion story – the Damascus Road story – of someone whose life is changed in a moment, and yet the text also emphasises that Saul/Paul was on a journey, on the Way. Ironically, he then spends his life on the Way of Jesus as the great missionary of the early church. And those who he initially persecutes, who he then joins, are also referred to as those “belonging to the Way”. New Testament Professor Eric Barreto writes, “’The Way’ is a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. Instead of being identified by a set of beliefs, these faithful communities were known by their character in the world. Christian faith was a way of life and one that impelled individuals and communities to leave the safe confines of home and church to walk on the road God had set out.” Christian faith and therefore Christian mission are both about finding and following God on the Way.

And this is what Saul does. He finds God on the way to Damascus. And it is a dramatic encounter. Light flashes around him and he hears a voice, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord,” he asks. He clearly knows in part, but God makes it clearer – for Saul and for us. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This, too, is a feature of life on the Way. When we experience hardship and suffering because we have crossed the street for Jesus, Jesus is with us. Finally, Saul is commissioned by Jesus. He is told to go into the city and wait till he is told what to do.

But this Acts reading contains a second conversion story, one we might miss, and that is the story of Ananias’ invitation to cross the street to follow Jesus.

Ananias, we’re told, is already a disciple of Jesus, but he encounters God anew here. He sees a vision (less dramatic than Saul’s encounter) but he is called and responds, “Here I am, Lord.” He is then commissioned, in similar language to Saul, “Get up. Go to the street named Straight and find a man of Tarsus named Saul.”

But he objects, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” But God repeats the commission and gives Ananias the message that Saul is waiting to hear, “Go, for he is an instrument I have chosen…. He too will suffer for the sake of my name.”

And Ananias goes. He goes to Saul because he – Ananias – is willing to cross the street, to follow Jesus on the Way and discovering that Saul is now on the Way, he calls him, this man who was his enemy, ‘Brother’. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

Crossing the street, following Jesus on the Way means conversion and reconversion to where God is calling us, what God is calling us to do and who God is calling us to go to. The invitation to join God on the road will challenge us to love those we may not naturally love, to care for those we may not naturally care for, to share our lives with new company.

A while ago I had a whole afternoon of mini conversion experiences! In some ways it felt dramatic, but in other ways, very ordinary. The first was a difficult meeting I was attending. There were no visions or flashing lights, but as I turned into the street where it was – my Straight Street – the radio suddenly said, “Are there people you find difficult?” and offered advice that totally changed my perspective. “OK, God, I get it,” I said. My version of “Here I am, Lord.” Next, I visited a friend in hospital. When the nurse came in, she said, “This is Belinda. She’s a minister. I do some volunteering at church, but I’m not a person of faith.” “Isn’t that what faith is?” the nurse said, “Doing, not just believing. Aren’t you on the Way?” And we proceeded to have a long conversation about faith. Again, I thought, “OK, God, I get it.” Finally, I arrived back at the church to find a very elderly woman in the courtyard who didn’t know how she’d got here or where her house was. She came to the manse for a cup of tea while we waited for the police and she said to Zach and Grace, “Are you Baptist children? I don’t know what I am.” I didn’t need the radio announcer or the nurse this time. “I think I’ve got it, God,” I said. And I said to her. “This is a Baptist church, but that’s not what’s important. The important thing is God loves and calls all of us.” The whole afternoon was a both dramatic and very ordinary exercise of learning to cross the street, of learning to call all sorts of people ‘Brother’ and ‘Sister’.

I am going to close by showing you the short film prepared by Baptist Mission Australia…

We are called to cross the street as the film said, called to follow Jesus on the way as our Acts reading tells us, called to pray for peace for our neighbourhoods and our city and for all who live here in our psalm. As was said in the film, “Jesus’ life asks something of us. It calls us to follow him. It is a gracious invitation, but one that is confronting at the same time.”

Let us consider this invitation as we sing together, Jesus Christ is waiting, waiting in the streets.