A Changed Heart (Acts 9:1-20)

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Do you believe that people can change?

When I posed this question to our congregation on Sunday I got a range of interesting answers. Some people said that we are always changing, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. No matter what is going on in our lives, our circumstances are continually shaping us. Another perspective put forward was that in some ways we are who we are and that doesn’t change. I have known some people who were preparing to be married that expected their partners to change. The changes they were hoping for never happened and it placed a lot of pressure on their marriage.

So what do you think – can people really change?

The story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20 gives me hope that God can change us for the better. At the start of the story Saul was an enemy of Jesus. Earlier in Acts we read the story of the death of Steven, a disciple of Jesus who was the first of his followers who was killed for his faith. Acts 8:1 tells us that Saul was there, approving of Steven’s murder. In Acts 9, Saul was intensifying his persecution of Jesus’ followers by going to Damascus to arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.

Something miraculous happens along the way. The risen Jesus appears to Saul and it completely changes his life. Instead of being an enemy of Jesus, his encounter with the risen Christ changes Saul into a follower of Jesus. This change is so dramatic, by the end of the story Saul is going to the Jewish synagogues, not to arrest Jesus’ followers, but to tell other Jewish people that Jesus is in fact the Messiah! Saul, whom we also know as Paul, then spent the rest of his life traveling the known world, telling people about the death and resurrection of Jesus and the way it could change their lives, too. Most of our New Testament was written by Saul to these communities of Jesus’ followers, encouraging them in their faith and helping them to live the new life he had found in Jesus.

As we read Saul/Paul’s writings, we get a picture of the change Jesus worked in him, as well as the kind of changes Jesus wants to be working in us. For example, 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 talks about the way Jesus wants to make us more loving people. In Galatians 5:22,23 Paul writes about the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in people who reach maturity of faith. Paul talks about the difference it can make to our lives when we are clothed in Christ in Colossians 3:12-15. Here, as well as in other passages of the Bible, Jesus shows us the kind of people he wants to shape us into as we encounter his grace and grow in his love.

I have recently been coming across the phrase that the Bible is more about transformation than information. While the Scriptures give us information about Jesus and the way God has worked in people’s lives in the past, I agree that sometimes we forget that God wants to transform us into new people who are living the life of the risen Christ. For example, in Romans 12:2 Paul writes, ‘Don’t copy the behaviour and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think’ (NLT). Paul, who knew himself the life-changing power of the gospel of Jesus, is encouraging all of us to be transformed into new people through our encounters with Jesus so we can live the new life he gives us through his Spirit.

Saul had a dramatic encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. I’ve never had an encounter with Jesus like that, but we can still learn from Saul’s story about how Jesus meets us to change us into the people he is calling us to be.

Firstly, we meet Jesus when we spend time in his Word. This brings us back to the theme we’ve been running with a lot this year – the importance of listening to Jesus in the words of the Bible. The Apostle John identifies Jesus as the eternal Word of God in the opening verses of his gospel. When we read the Bible and listen to what Jesus is saying to us, our encounters with him are just as real as Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus Road.

The second thing we can learn is the importance of prayer. When Jesus sent Ananias to Saul in Damascus, Saul was praying (v11). I’m curious to know the content of Saul’s prayer, but just that he was praying shows prayer is a vital part of the way God wants to change us. When we are talking with God about what’s happening in our lives, wrestling with how Jesus’ words connect with our lived experiences, and bringing everything that’s happening in our lives to God through prayer, then God will use that to shape us into more faith-filled, loving people.

The third thing we can learn from Saul’s’ story is the significance of Christian community. Jesus didn’t leave Saul to try to work out the changes he was making in his life on his own. Jesus was reaching out to Saul through Ananias, connecting with him and embracing him in a community of faith. We read in verse 19 that ‘Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus’ (NLT) which shows us that right from the start he knew the importance of being connected to a community of believers. Many of Paul’s letters were written to communities of Jesus’ followers to help them live the life of Christ in their relationships with each other and in the context of the surrounding non-believing culture.

One of the problems we can face as followers of Jesus today is the belief that we can change on our own. When we look at Saul’s conversion story, he was shaped into the person Jesus was calling him to be through an encounter with Jesus, prayer and being part of a community of faith. This story tells me that Jesus wants to work in our lives in a similar way. Jesus wants to meet us in his Word, talk with us in prayer, and shape us through contact with his flesh-and-blood body, a community of believers. By exercising these basic spiritual disciplines, Jesus will be at work in our lives through his Holy Spirit, shaping us into the people he is calling us to be, changing us into people who trust him, love others, and are producing the fruit of his Spirit in our lives.

Jesus changed Saul. He can change us, too.

More to think about:

  • Do you think people can change? Maybe share some stories where you or someone else you know has changed, or stories where you haven’t seen a change you were hoping for.
  • What is your reaction to the story of Saul’s conversion in Acts 9:1-20? What do you like about the story? What do you not like about it? What questions do you have?
  • When you read Bible passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:4-7, Galatians 5:22,23 or Colossians 3:12-15, do they sound like the life you’re living now? Do they sound like a life you’d like to live? Explain why…
  • Do you tend to read the Bible more as information or for transformation? How might the way you read your Bible change if Jesus wanted to change you by speaking to you through it?
  • Do you make time for talking with God in prayer? How might your approach to prayer be different if you saw prayer as your chance to talk with Jesus about what’s happening in your life?
  • Do you connect regularly with other Christians in some way? Would you be more willing to connect regularly with other Christians if that was a key way that God was going to shape you into a more faith-filled, grace-giving, loving person?
  • Are there things in your life that you would like to be different?
  • Do you believe that Jesus can change you like he changed Saul? Explain why…
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A Different Way (Luke 5:1-11)

 

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I wonder how Peter replied to Jesus when he told the fisherman to go out into deeper waters and let his nets down to catch some fish (Luke 5:1-11). Thanks to Luke we have what Peter said, but I wonder about the way in which Peter said them.

Was he full of confidence, sure that if Jesus told him that he would catch some fish, then he would be successful?

Was Peter tired but still hopeful that following Jesus’ instructions would bring a positive result, even though his own efforts had resulted in empty nets?

Was Peter being sceptical and maybe even sarcastic? After all, Peter was an experienced fisherman but Jesus was a carpenter’s son – what would he know about catching fish?

I wonder about this because Peter had been fishing his whole life. In his mind he was probably sure that he knew what he was doing. Then along comes Jesus who, as far as we know, didn’t have any fishing experience. Then he starts to give Peter advice about how to do his job. If you were Peter, what would you do? Would you be open to some new ideas and willing to try something different? Or would you smile politely, thank Jesus for his advice, but keep doing things the way you’ve always done them?

These are important questions for me because I’ve been where Peter was. At times during my years of fulltime ministry in the church I’ve felt tired, discouraged and even a little cynical because what I’ve been doing hasn’t seemed to be producing the results I’d hoped for. I believe strongly in the mission of the church and the difference God can make in people’s lives through the good news of Jesus, but sometimes it has seemed like the nets have been empty and all my work has been for nothing.

So I understand when people are reluctant to try something new in the church. After decades of struggling with mission and ministry, we can all feel like Peter after a night of hard work to some degree. Our church has tried a lot of programs, events, campaigns and other ministry resources to try to be effective in our work for God’s kingdom. However, we are still an aging, declining church. We can easily begin to wonder if the time, effort and money has been worth it when they haven’t seemed to bring about the results we’ve hoped for, and our nets are empty.

There are two reasons why, like Peter, I keep heading out into deeper waters and letting down the nets in ministry. The first is because Jesus calls us to. If we are going to take Jesus’ message seriously, as one of the core commitments from Growing Young encourages us to, then we need to be listening to Jesus’ call to head out into deeper waters and let down our nets. If Jesus is calling us to go fishing for him, then he has what we need to do it effectively and he will provide the catch. All he asks of us is to listen to him and to trust him enough to follow his call.

The second reason I continue to head out into deeper water and let down my nets is that I believe God is giving us a new set of nets to use. In my past experience in the church, we have relied on programs, events and other organizational activities to do the mission and ministry of the church. These worked well for a particular generation and I thank God for the lives he has touched and the people who have found grace through them. However, in recent decades we have found that they are not as effective any more. Instead, what connects people to Jesus is honest, Christ-centred relationships and a community of faith where they can experience the life-changing reality of grace. This is why another of the Growing Young core commitments is to fuel a warm community. We head out into deeper water and let our nets down when we connect with people relationally and embrace them in Christ-centred community. That is where people can encounter the grace of God and the kind of love which Jesus embodies and Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13.

On the one hand, this doesn’t sound very complicated. However, moving from an organisationally driven, program based culture to one where relationships are central requires a significantly different way of thinking about mission and ministry. Thankfully there are resources available to help us put our nets down into these waters. I have found Growing Young from the Fuller Youth Institute to be an invaluable resource in helping us think through how to do mission and ministry in a relational way, especially with young people. Next weekend, we will be very blessed to have Jake Mulder from the Fuller Youth Institute and a co-author of Growing Young with us to help us in learning to fish in a new way. If you are part of our congregation at St John’s, please make yourself available this weekend to learn from him with us.

Last Sunday I distributed a document which outlines Ten Ways to Connect with Children and Teens in your Church. Its advice is relatively simple, but again a significant shift in thinking about how we can be involved in a more relational mission and ministry. What it says is helpful in our relationships with people of all ages, not just children and teens. I encourage everyone in our congregation to identify one person you know, of any age, gender or background, and start putting them into practice. Can you imagine what our congregation could be like if we were all involved in fishing with Jesus like this?

I can understand how Peter felt as he washed his nets at the start of the story because I’ve been there. But I also hear Jesus’ call to head out into deeper water and let our nets down one more time. Just as Peter shouted to the other fishermen for help to bring in the catch, I’m asking the people of our congregation for help in this work for God’s kingdom as well. It can’t be up to one or two people alone. Instead, when we’re all listening to Jesus and following him faithfully, he will teach us how to fish for people.

Are you ready to go fishing?