Fingerprints & Snowflakes – We Travel Different Paths
Acts 9:10-19
God IS Near! Growing A Relationship with Our Creator
First Baptist Church Laurens
October 21, 2018

It was a real joy for me to have the chance last Sunday to preach at one of the two congregations I served while in seminary as I participated with Lindley Park Baptist in Greensboro in their 70th Anniversary service. In many ways, these are challenging days there. This congregation which was fairly sizable back in 1970s and 80s struggles now to have 40 or 50 folks in worship on a Sunday morning. Yet, for a day, it was good to step back and celebrate special ways that this church has ministered over the years.

One of those special ministries is one that they continue until today. It is called That Friday Night Thing. That Friday Night Thing is a community theater opportunity that happens one Friday night every other month. It is housed in the church basement which has been transformed over the years from a Fellowship Hall to a small theater. Every gathering features decorations, refreshments and a show with some performances having a spiritual theme and others just being more for fun. That Friday Night Thing has a dedicated group of Greensboro locals and church members who come each time with the cost of admission always benefiting a different local ministry or charity. Their next show, which will take place later this month, will be their 75th performance making this ministry an amazingly creative way that Lindley Park continues to invite the community into their church.

It is also a ministry that makes them unique. No other church I have served does anything quite like That Friday Night Thing. And, this is something I thought a lot about while I was there. It also made me appreciate the fact that every church I have been blessed to serve has had one or two unique ministries that are all their own. These are the ingredients that make each congregation different, special and able to make a difference in the Kingdom of God in their own way.

Part of the title of my sermon this morning, fingerprints and snowflakes, gets at this idea of uniqueness. We have learned all of our lives that no set of fingerprints and no single snowflake is exactly like another. Each is unique, special and all its own. Sure, there are similar characteristics and overarching aspects that allow one to say this is a snowflake or that this is a fingerprint but the differences simply cannot be overlooked.

This morning, I want us to recognize that this is true not only of snowflakes, fingerprints and churches but this is also true of each of us. Unfortunately, one of the things in life that we often fail to recognize are the unique ways that we all come into and continue a relationship with God. Yes, there are often strong similarities in our individual experiences with God but there are also striking differences. And, these differences are both good and important. In fact, this morning, what I want to suggest to us is that it is when we are aware of and honoring of these differences that we at the same time often preparing the ground for the most satisfying personal relationship with God. In other words, trying to all be the same when it comes to how we grow in God can be more detrimental than helpful. It can truly stunt our growth in Christ rather than helping it to blossom and mature.

As we think about this, I want to lift up the life of the Apostle Paul as our example. This may seem to some like an odd example of our uniquenesses so let me briefly explain what I mean here. My point is that Paul’s experience with God was different. Paul, a devoted defender of the Jewish ways was, in the very earliest days of the Christian Church, one of its biggest critics and adversaries. In Acts, we learn that Paul was present at the death of Stephen who was the first Christian martyr. Later, as Acts continues, we find Paul on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus with the hopes of hauling off early believers to jail.

It is while Paul is on this journey, traveling along what was called the Damascus Road that he is stopped in his tracks by a blinding light. Overwhelmed and left unable to continue his journey, Paul hears the voice of Jesus himself saying to him “why are you persecuting me?” This blinding light, this question, becomes Paul’s epiphany. Paul is blinded by the light, overwhelmed by the moment and forever changed by that singular event. In our passage for today, which follows on the very heals of that Damascus Road experience, Paul has found his way to the home of Ananias, an early believer. At Ananias’ home, Paul begins to completely reorient his life by giving himself to the faith. In almost an instant, he goes from being one of the early church’s biggest critics and opponents to being a critical part.

Without question, Paul’s conversion is one of the most profound and most dramatic in all of the New Testament. But, in many ways it is not like our own nor was it like that of most of the other early believers who were his contemporaries. In fact, it is also not exactly like the conversion stories of Acts that come immediately before it or after it.

If you read Acts, you find that one chapter earlier, in chapter 8, Philip leads the Ethiopian Eunich to Christ. Like Paul’s experience this story is equally dramatic but it is also different. There is no blinding light, no voice from heaven but rather Philip’s voice, helping the Eunich to understand a section of Isaiah that he was reading and sharing with him about Jesus as the fulfillment of that Isaiah text. Again, it is a conversion like Paul’s but also different from Paul’s.

Likewise, if we go forward in Acts to Chapter 10, we find the story of the conversion of Cornelius, a Roman Officer and Gentile. Again, the story is dramatic and miraculous. Again, the story of Jesus is shared and received. But it too has its own characteristics. This story happens in Cornelius’ home not out somewhere on the road such as in the previous stories. It also takes place through the help of Peter who not only invites Cornelius to faith but who also does not require conversion to Judaism. It thus serves a turning point as the Gospel extends to the greater Gentile world.

Three stories of a relationship found with Christ in three successive chapters – they are all similar but they are all unique. In each, different personalities, different experiences and different perspectives shine through yet all are seen as authentic.

There are two quick points here to make I think. They may seem somewhat simplistic but I find both to be very important for all of us. First, we must allow our own faith and relationship with Christ to be authentic to our own life. Yes, our faith life should look a lot like the faith lives of others but it should also have some uniqueness to it. Yes, all of us will develop in Christ in similar ways. All of us begin by inviting Christ into our lives, with baptism and inclusion into the church. But, again, our conversions are also our own because our lives are different.

Likewise, we all should embrace the disciplines of involvement in the church, the study of God’s word, prayer and other elements of the life of faith but my way of doing this and yours must be free to have their own characteristics. I may pray in a quite place while kneeling and you may pray by writing your prayers out with plenty of time for silence and listening. I may read scripture for thirty minutes early in the morning and you may listen to a devotional on your iPhone while driving to work – similar but different yet both authentic ways of growing in and being with Christ.

The classic example here that we can all relate to is travel to virtually any destination. In 2018, if I say “lets make a trip to Los Angeles”, we could come up with twenty different routes for getting there. Further, we could travel by car, bus, plane or train. Yet any of the different routes and any of the different modes have the capability of getting us to LA. The question is what is best for us and what meets our own needs, interests and personalities.

We must allow ourselves to be unique, but at the same time, the second point is that we must allow others to be unique too. Quite honestly this has the potential to be much harder. Many of us live with the notion that our way is also the right way. We live with this idea as it relates to life in general and we sometimes live with this perspective as it relates to the spiritual life even when we are not totally aware that this is the perspective we are suggesting. In fact, this may be why I like so much the character of Ananias. Ananias, again, is the figure in our passage who accepts Paul into his home and helps him in the days after the Damascus Road experience. Ananias accepts Paul as he is and he accepts Paul’s story at face value as authentic. There had to have been a lot to be skeptical about in terms of what Paul was saying and in light of what Paul had claimed to have experienced. There had to have been doubts about all of it in Ananias’ mind and in the minds of others. It was all so sudden, so different from what they had experienced personally and it came couched in Paul’s previous life as a persecutor not supporter of followers of Jesus. In spite of all of this, Ananias resisted the doubts and by the end of the story if you will notice he calls Paul “brother”.

We must develop this way of appreciating others both as we make space for one another in the church and as we interact with one another in general. Our desire to be true to how we best relate to and develop in relation with Christ must be extended to others with the same courtesy and respect. One of my greatest disappointments with the church today is our tendency to want to criticize the way others live out their relationship with God and their way of worshipping God mainly on the grounds that it is not exactly like we do it. We must mature beyond this way of treating one another.

I want to end this morning with a picture. This picture is from an art show at a rural elementary school in the Adirondack Mountain area of Northeast New York. What I love is how this picture perfectly captures what we have focused on this morning. It is plain to see that these are all flowers. But, each flower has been created in the eye, imagination and spirit of each child that made it. This wall of flowers is far more beautiful in light of the uniqueness not uniformity found in each image on display. And so it is with us and with God’s church as we live into being in relationship a with God that is true and authentic to each of us and as we allow the same courtesy to others. Amen.