Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
“But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” ~ Acts 9:15-16
The saying goes “Good fences make good neighbours.” But do they?
From the earliest pre-historic hunters who built walls around their hunt camps with mammoth bones to the walls of Athens that differentiated them from the nation-state of Sparta to the defensive ramparts and battlements of Medieval Europe and finally the white picket fences of post-war North America – we have been obsessed with building fences for most of human history.
Fences certainly serve their purpose – they either keep people or things out or in, they protect valuables and they can be a statement to the world about the importance or standing of the person, organization or building they protect. While there are certainly positive social impacts of fences, the flipside is also true – exclusivity, inhospitality, aggression and isolation are only a few of the negative impacts and connotations that walls and fences have.
Not only do we build physical fences, but we also build metaphorical or spiritual fences as well. High standards for entry, purity laws, racial restrictions, you name it humans are excellent at building these fences too, a fact which is abundantly clear in our reading from Acts this morning.
Both Saul and Ananias completely epitomize this kind of spiritual and religious fence-building. Throughout the early chapters of Acts Saul, a staunch Israelite who was devoted to the purity of his religious community had been terrorizing the infant church, he had looked on approvingly as the authorities stoned Stephen and now in chapter 9 was on his way to Damascus, with letters from the synagogue, to root out Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.
In Saul’s mind, he was merely protecting the Jewish faith, after all the people of Israel were oppressed, any wrong step or hint of rebellion could result in the full force of the Roman Empire being levied against them. And not only that, but to many Jewish believers, Jesus was a failed Messiah, a blasphemer who had got exactly what he deserved – and so his followers were most definitely a problem.
While it might be easy for us to see the way that Saul was building spiritual fences, Ananias was guilty of doing the same even if we sympathize with him a little more. When the Lord came in a vision to Ananias, he initially refused, citing the evil that he had done to Jesus’ faithful and the threat he posed to the believers. Ananias could not see through the justifiable spiritual fences he had built, fences that were there to protect him and his fellow Christians. Ananias could not comprehend what God was asking of him, he could not understand the vulnerability and risk that God was asking Ananias to take.
And the truth is we too build these fences all the time. Sometimes we do so unconsciously, but more often than not that is only an excuse for the conscious choices we make to separate ourselves, our churches, our faith from those who are different from, those who threaten the status quo, those who offend our sensibilities, those who make us feel uncomfortable, those who threaten change.
It happens with the way we build our churches: entrances on the side, fences around the perimeter, and a lack of communication with the community around us.
It happens with the way we treat outsiders: furtive looks, snide comments about people or kids making noise or people dressed inappropriately, a lack of true welcome offered to newcomers (not just showy welcomes during the announcements), comments such as ‘those people.
It happens with the way we organize our liturgy, our events, and communal life – that can sometimes make it inaccessible, an obstacle to coming into our fellowship and an obstacle to people coming to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour.
But no matter how many fences we build, no matter our defences God tears them down, and God breaks through them so that his grace can abound.
On the road to Damascus Saul was struck by a blinding light and a vision of the Lord. Jesus broke through the fences that he had built and blinded him temporarily so that he could truly see. And as a result, Saul became Paul, the great apostle to the Gentiles who would champion the very same Jesus who he had moments before been persecuting relentlessly.
And Ananias was the same, God broke through the fences he had built, broke through the justifiable defences he had put up and revealed a better way, the way of life, the Kingdom way.
As God tore down the fences around both men, the Gospel abounded, the Good news of Jesus spread first from Paul’s newly christened lips, through the whole of Judea, and from there to the rest of the Roman world and then from there to the ends of the earth.
Paul’s first words after Jesus tore down those fences were “He is the Son of God” – he is God’s very life, he has won a victory over death, he has brought salvation to all. These words are not exclusive, they are not meant for special insiders or the faithful, they are words that are true for everyone, that is meant for everyone to hear. Jesus tore down the fences around Paul and Ananias so that the whole world could hear the good news.
Whenever we try to build fences, spiritual, metaphorical and even physical ones, Jesus tears them down. In God’s eyes, nothing can stand in the way of the Gospel, nothing can stand in the way of the community around us hearing the Good News of Easter, that life has overcome death, grace has overcome sin. Not us, not our pride, not our fear, not our discomfort. Nothing can stand in the way of the Gospel.
As we exit the pandemic, it would be easy for us to be defensive, to think only about ourselves, to build fences around the life and church that we love and which we have missed for so long – but that is not the way of Jesus, Jesus calls us to tear them down, to make his Good News available to all, to remove all obstacles which impede people from experiencing his grace and mercy.
While it would be easy to go back to everything which makes us comfortable – our old social events, our old patterns of life – our vision needs to go beyond ourselves, it needs to stretch to the ends of our community, it needs to be global in its reach. The more we try to protect what we have lost over these past two years, the more we will lose touch with our Lord and Saviour, who bursts every barrier, and tears down every fence we try to build.
Like Paul we can be blind to the grace of God, we can try with every fibre of our being to keep it all to ourselves, like Ananias build fences to protect ourselves – but God’s grace will always shine through, it will burst into our midst, in the most unexpected places, and when it does, if we dare to accept it then scales may fall from our eyes.
Jesus doesn’t build fences; he tears them down. And that is Good News. Good news for us, good news for our community, good news for the world. May we embrace this Jesus, may we know his resurrected life that is for us and the whole world!
Let us pray.