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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
April 24, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Ronald Botts

When Irresistible Force Meets Immovable Object
Acts 7:54 - 8:3; John 14:1-7

There's an old song that Ella Fitzgerald and others made famous that goes like this:

When an irresistible force such as you
Meets an old immovable object like me
You can bet as sure as you live
Something's gotta give, something's gotta give,
Something's gotta give.

The lyrics imply that these two people will inevitably get together, that it can't be stopped from happening, and there will be noticeable results. Certainly some romances seem to work that way: two "forces" that are just bound to run into each other. Then the sparks of love begin to fly. Something's gotta give.

In a somewhat similar way, it's interesting to note that much of modern technology is also built on getting things to collide, whether they be small like ions or something of a much greater scale. There is a long list of inventions that have been developed through applying this scientific principle to solids, gasses, and liquids. When things collide, things happen. When this process is controlled, positive results can be attained.

For instance, the particles that make up a single atom are held together with tremendous force. Years ago scientists began to realize that if an atom could be smashed—the parts in it made to fly apart—a large amount of energy that had been holding them together might be released for a useful purpose. So physicists and engineers began bombarding the atom with neutrons. This resulting collision split the atom, releasing great amounts of energy. The split atoms then collided with more atoms, releasing even more energy in a series of chain reactions.

The promise of harnessing the atom for its potential to generate electricity is reality; but then so is its darker side that is evident when things get out of hand, such as the meltdown of the reactor at Chernobyl. The same theory that created atomic energy also produced the atomic bomb. Power is released when two things forcefully intersect.

Other things collide, too. In the very early 1900's there were only two automobiles in the entire city of St. Louis, only these two in the entire area and neither of them could move very fast. Well, you can guess, they somehow managed to run into each other. It seems axiomatic that the more things move or the faster they travel in a defined area, the more likely that their paths may sometimes cross.

Our scripture from Acts for this morning also introduces a coming collision of sorts. Two people run smack into each other. For the person most directly involved, it was the surprise of a lifetime.

After the death of Jesus his work and message was continued by Peter and the others. While often their words fell on receptive ears and new converts were added, they also stirred up great opposition in some circles. We hear of Stephen, chosen to help with the distribution of food to widows, who almost immediately became embroiled with the members of a particular synagogue.

In their anger they got others to complain that he had been teaching blasphemy and was, therefore, a direct threat to the community. On this charge they brought him before the Council, or Sanhedrin. There, instead of being contrite, he accuses the Council of their role in Jesus' death and failure to keep the Law of Moses. They were not amused and he was dragged out to the edge of the city, there to be stoned to silence him. Among those who witnessed this cruel act was a young man by the name of Saul and, though there is no mention that he took a direct part in the stoning, he is nevertheless said to have approved of it.

Soon thereafter Saul became a man with a mission, and that drive was to persecute Christians and put down such apostasy that he considered was proclaimed. Along with others of like mind, he went around and tried to weed out this growing movement before it could catch hold. The story of Stephen concludes: "Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentations over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison."

Nothing more is said about Saul's actions than this, but we clearly get the idea. He brings all the zeal of impassioned youth to bear on this purge that had been authorized by the priests and other religious leaders. Having successfully identified and imprisoned many locally who followed the Messiah, Saul turns his attention farther afield.

He goes to the high priest and asks for letters to the synagogue at Damascus. These would authorize extradition of any who were found to be followers of Christ that they might be brought to Jerusalem to face trial and sentencing. He apparently receives the documents he asks for, although it is not certain how much legal weight they would have carried. Certainly, though, he feels they give him the moral weight he needs to continue his campaign against the Church. So he sets off to Syria with renewed vigor.

Now here's a man that we can well imagine is full of confidence. He has tasted victory and he's off to win even more encounters. Saul is probably brash and arrogant, filled with self-importance as the young can sometimes be. So there he is, on top of the world at one moment, yet totally unaware of what is about to happen at the next. He is going to collide with something that is literally going to knock him flat to the ground.

Everything internal and external for some time has been taking Saul full speed in one direction; now a force even more powerful than this is about to stop him dead in his tracks, turn him 180 degrees, and then and propel him double speed in the opposite direction. As vigorous as he once was to destroy Jesus' movement, now he will bring all his strength to the task of building it up.

The about-face catches everyone by surprise, but no one more than Saul himself. It's as if Rush Limbaugh would go on the air one day with his usual diatribes against liberals and, before the show is over, recant and pledge himself to work for the presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton. It's that improbable, and even more so.

Saul's sudden vision comes on the road to Damascus and is portrayed as a light from above of divine origin. His eyes can't handle its intensity and he's blinded by its radiance and falls down. Words break the silence, "Saul," they say, "Saul." He knows he is in trouble, but not why. He begins to tremble. Wouldn't you? "Why do you persecute me?" All Saul can mange to get out of his mouth is "Who are you?"

"I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Get up, Saul, and enter the city, and you will be told what to do."

The story moves to Damascus, but no one in his party has an explanation for him about what has just occurred. With his sight later restored through Ananias, Paul is baptized and the inquisitor begins to proclaim Jesus as the Chosen One of God. He adopts the name Paul and then unreservedly spends the rest of his life taking the Good News to Jew and Gentile alike. All because of a collision that released tremendous power.

In his case when hatred collided with love, only one could win. When intolerance ran into acceptance, only one could survive. When persecution came face to face with Gospel, only one would prevail. The collision on the Damascus Road changed one man's life forever.

Now you may call it conscience or whatever, but I believe there are times when we, too, are confronted by Jesus. Perhaps it's not as dramatic as Paul's encounter, but just as surely it is Christ who challenges us as to what we are doing with our lives.

Maybe this kind of encounterbrought you into the church in the first place, or back to it when you've been away. Maybe this confrontation with Jesushas caused you to make a major life-correction of some sort. Maybe this has led you to take your faith more seriously instead of just going through the motions.

Maybe such an encounter has forced you to look at how your business life and your discipleship square up. Maybe it's compelled you to consider your most important relationships in light of Christ's example of caring. Maybe it's caused you to change jobs or where you live. Maybe it's brought you face-to-face with the need to overcome an addiction or some other destructive behavior.

Maybe your encounter hasn't happened yet, but who can tell about tomorrow? In a collision of forces, we may get thrown off balance but in the process gain a new sense of power for moving ahead in the very way we need to go.

When the irresistible force of the Jesus' spirit meets the immovable object of ourselves, something's gotta give. It may stun us for a while, but it gets our attention. When we realize it wasn't a truck we ran into but the risen Christ, then we can't help but notice. When we understand that such an encounter isn't there to destroy us but to build us up, then we are given a new beginning.

Every collision releases tremendous power. In matters of faith, those times and occasions enable us to move ourselves ahead—if we are wise enough to discern them and respond, brave enough to grasp them and change.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church