April 24, 2016

Fire in the Belly

Any time I hear scripture about dancing, I start thinking about my abdomen and how many figures of speech there are about that portion of the anatomy.  Middle age spread, battle of the bulge come to mind for me easily enough, but there’s even more:

I had a good belly laugh about that; no guts no glory; that was stomach-churning; let’s belly up to the bar; and that was gut-wrenching.

The most important phrase I was taught as a teen was “the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” which is dreadful advice for surgeons.  I heard that comment so often, I actually wondered if it was in the Bible.  It’s not.  My grandmother had me convinced that men could be manipulated into anything from a new fridge to a marriage proposal with some careful application of a roast beef dinner followed by a generous slab of pie.  Food was a way to get power through manipulation for her.

And if you look at the oldest known works of Christian art, you might wonder if that’s the same religion as we practise today.  There were plenty of pictures of fish, grapes, wine, bread and suppers but no crosses.  Abundance is mentioned or hinted at throughout the gospels, water into wine, the feeding of the five thousand, the parable of the banquet to which everyone is invited.  And several times, Jesus, a carpenter, has the audacity to teach fishermen how to fish.  When they follow his instructions, as usual there is tremendous abundance.  Enough Food for all, freely shared, no strings attached.

One of Saul’s first indications that the Christian community was radically different than anything he had ever known before is that they fed him.  He was a dangerous man; he had a fire in his belly to persecute these blasphemous people, and he breathed out murderous thoughts against them.  He was happy to be famous for hunting them down, and was so notorious that the good folks of Damascus could not believe he meant what he said.  How could someone go from one extreme to another so fast?

It would be like some local businessman who makes his or her reputation on being anti gay, anti muslim, racist and calling organizations like Good Samaritan or the Youth Emergency shelter a bunch of bleeding heart Communist propaganda showing up here and wanting to get baptised.  My jaw would certainly drop and I certainly wouldn’t be the only one to have my stomach in a knot if that happened.

Surprisingly, that flip flop is exactly what happened.  Both Peter and Saul struggled with pride; they thought they knew what was best for the people of God.  They arrogantly assumed they could do anything they liked.  But like a punch to the gut, they came face to face with their vulnerabilities.  Peter betrayed Jesus in the temple while warming himself by a charcoal fire and Saul became blind and completely dependant upon others for his survival where before he had been a healthy and energetic youth.

Life is like that; we get the horrible diagnosis or our life takes an unexpected turn or something happens that we just don’t know how to cope with and suddenly we find ourselves crying tears of gut-wrenching sadness as the very future we dreamed of unravels completely.

Peter was ashamed, Saul was helpless and confused.  Both took risks and opened themselves to a different way of seeing the world.  Peter found not just forgiveness at the charcoal fire on the beach, but a commission to step into the desperately needed role of leadership.  Saul changed his name to Paul and found a community so loving, forgiving, generous and healing that he did his best to set up other communities of generous abundance from Greece to Turkey and back, pouring his restored energy into loving people instead of executing them.

We still have people who would rather live in fear of their neighbor than live with hopeful love.  We still have people here in Canada who think it’s okay to discriminate against people of color because they can get away with it.  There are still people who encourage each other to live lives of suspicion, anger and even hate because of the remote possibility that they will lose all they have to ‘those people’ who are different than them.

But we are also in this story.  We are the Ananias folks who say, ‘really, God? You want me to have a conversation with that person? That angry neighbor, that teenager who spray-painted my garage, that fellow who yells at everyone in the grocery store or on Facebook?’  We are the ones who might just one day be called out of our safe community to feed someone who is hurt and lost and sick.  Someone different than ourselves who is hungry and empty inside and reaches out, as unbelievable as it may seem, to someone like us for help.

Ultimately everyone needs to eat, everyone is hungry.  But everyone, even the stubbornly fearful and angry racists, can find new life in the story of abundant blessing through Jesus who feeds us and shapes us into a radical thing.  A community that believes in the transformative power of love.  May that love that rescued Peter and Paul from lives of fear continue to transform us into friends of Ananias, brave followers of Christ!  May we be gifted with a bellyful of bravery that inspires us to dance that love to all who meet us.  Amen, halleluiah!

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