Year C Easter 3: Paying attention

God would like our attention, please. It seems to me that the very different stories in today’s lectionary selections have the common theme of God getting someone’s, or some-two’s, or everyone under heaven and earth’s attention.

Hey! Listen up! Pay attention! This is your God speaking! What does God have to do to get our attention?

Revelation: Around the throne thousands upon thousands are drawing our attention with loud voices to Lamb who was slain, who is worthy of power and wealth and wisdom and glory and blessing, who is exalted to the right hand of God, worthy of everyone’s attention from heaven to Hades, from the earth to the oceans, from the beginning to the end.

The Gospel according to John: a gentler image. Jesus appears on the shore, arranges for a miraculous catch of fish, and cooks a barbecue breakfast on the beach for his disciples. Now that’s a way to get my attention!

In the book of Acts, Ananias has a vision, and Saul – Saul on the road to Damascus. How does God get Saul’s attention?

What does God have to do to get our attention?

I met a man in the hospital. He had prayed to God to change his life. He knew that the way he was leading it, he was leading it right into disaster, but he didn’t seem to be able to change direction. Like St Paul, who used to be Saul, the good that he would do he could not, and the evil he wished he would not do lay just too easily to hand. So he prayed that God, that Jesus, would change his life for him.

I met him in the hospital. I thought that this was a sorry turn of events, but he was laughing. “Be careful what you pray for,” he told me. He said, “I told God, I know I asked for a change, but did you have to be quite so direct about it?” Then he said, “But yeah, he kind of did. Otherwise I wouldn’t have paid any attention.”

I struggled to hear that. I still do. I’m still not as sure as he was that God wanted to put him in the hospital, but he was convinced that this was the answer to his prayer, that this was what God had to do in order to change his life. I remembered him, reading about Saul on the road to Damascus. Be careful, he said. What does God have to do to get your attention?

I still don’t know quite what to make of Saul’s story. Is this what they call tough love?

But let’s not forget about the other actor in this story, the man named Ananias. He is visited in a dream, or a vision. He was ready and eager to hear his Lord’s voice, “Here I am, Lord,” he responded right away when God called him by name. But he did not like the message that he received, he did not like the sound of the errand he was sent on, to lay hands upon his enemy in order to pray for him and heal him. And yet when he went, he became an instrument of amazing power in the Holy Spirit, causing something like scales to fall from Saul’s eyes, causing something like a sclerosis of the soul to be removed from Saul’s heart and mind, as he finally saw Jesus and his disciples clearly.

An encounter with the living God can be disturbing. It may well be frightening; we should, in meeting God, expect to be changed, to be converted, to be transformed, and that is rarely easy.

The good news is that God loves us and is always working in, with and through us for what is good. As God spoke through the prophet Jeremiah,

“I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfard and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” (Jeremiah 29:11)

Ananias fought against the idea of seeking out and healing his enemy, the enemy of the church, but when he did, he essentially launched the missions of St Paul that changed the course of the church for good.

The really extraordinary thing about Saul’s story is less his dramatic blindness on the road to Damascus: that sort of thing happens with almost alarming regularity in the Bible; think of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer struck speechless by the angel who foresaw his baby’s birth, who lost the power of speech for months; no, the really extraordinary thing about Saul’s story is that in three short days he went from killing Christians to living in their homes and learning from them, from beating on them to sharing in their baptism and their bread, from imprisoning them to preaching their own gospel. Come to that, in three short days the Christians went from fearing Saul to healing him, from hiding from him to teaching him, from hating him to feeding him with solid food and with the Word of God.

And all of this happened, you might say, not so much because Saul was struck blind, but because he was healed, by one who overcame his own fear and trembling to pay attention to the vision that God sent him, to seek out and pray for his enemy. That’s transformation.

In the stories of Saul and Ananias, it was only by paying attention to God that they were able to find any good in one another.

The good news is that God is still speaking to us, speaking through us, staging encounters with us in unexpected places, setting up meetings with unexpected people. It doesn’t have to be on the road to Damascus, and it doesn’t have to involve a traumatic trip to the hospital. A woman told me recently of how the birth of her first child transformed her view of everything, that she was now able to forgive hurts she had never forgotten, able to hope for a future that she had never foreseen, because of the love that enveloped her in that moment. That was her moment of vision. That’s transformation, too. That’s an encounter with God.

We need to pay attention to the places and the spaces in our lives where God is reaching out to us, and we should be prepared to be altered by the encounter. Listen like Ananias to your dreams. Love your neighbours as ones who bear the transforming presence of a child of God into your own life. Pay attention to the image of God within them. Take note of words that leap out at you as though the book were written only for you to read. Prepare to be changed, to be challenged, to be converted. Part of a poem by Mary Oliver reads this way:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.[1]

On the beach, Jesus had a fire going, and he cooked the fish. Then with it he took bread, and he broke it, and gave it to his disciples. When the story is done, the evangelist finishes his book this way,

“This is the disciple who is bearing witness to these things, and who has written these things; and we know his testimony to be true. But there are also many other things which Jesus did; were every one of them to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” (John 21:24-25)

The disciples paid attention to Jesus on the shore; they were astonished by him; they told about it. More encounters with the living Christ than could be contained in the libraries of the world have yet to be told. We know about Saul’s. We know about Ananias’. We know about some of our own. Will we tell about them?

Here is one everyday encounter that, when I pay attention, regularly astonishes me. Every Sunday, at the altar, Jesus offers his body in the form of bread, his blood in the form of wine. He offers it to each of us; to all of us. Just as he returned and told Thomas, “Here I am. Touch me. Place your hands on my hands,” so he returns time and again, and time and again he invites us, “Here I am, hold me; receive me.” Even today, after a week that has left many of us reeling for many reasons, Jesus returns in all gentleness and invites us to receive the bread of life, broken for us; to receive Jesus himself, Risen and with us always.

For what greater sign of God’s tender attention to us could we ask?

[1] From ‘Sometimes’, by Mary Oliver, in Red Bird, Poems by Mary Oliver (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 37

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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