Acts 13: Wrestling, Re-seeing, Resurrection

Introduction: Jujitsu and Jacob

This semester, at the University gym, I’ve gone to classes in Brazilian jujitsu
Martial arts are totally new for me, so it’s been interesting.
It’s mostly wrestling on the ground.
A key feature of jujitsu, is that a small and weak person can overcome a stronger heavier opponent.
supposedly, with a lot of training
Personally, I haven’t found this, when you only weigh 55 kg and a heavy bloke lies on top of you
 sometimes I simply can’t move!
But it’s not just brute force, there’s a lot of tactics and technique,
a bit like chess: trying to manoeuvre your opponent into checkmate:
a position where he is forced to submit – or you choke him or break his arm or something nice like that
I’m neither strong nor skilful.
But one plus – I’m flexible – it’s harder to force my arm
and I’m skinny – the jujitsu triangle hardly works on me!
 
so, this has made me think about a wrestling story in the Bible.                            
In Genesis chapter 32, Jacob has a mysterious midnight wrestling match.
It’s a strange and ambiguous story.
Left alone by the river, Jacob wrestled with the stranger until daybreak.
it seems Jacob was winning.
In our jujitsu classes, if your opponent has you in checkmate, to indicate a submission, we give him a tap.
So, playfully interpreting this, did Jacob think he’d won?
the stranger taps him in submission, but suddenly Jacob is the one crippled, his hip thrown out?
 
Was this the moment, when Jacob realised the stranger was divine?
as the new day dawned and revealed his face?
 
In the bible, to know someone’s name, is to know their essence or true nature, have power over them.
– far more so, if you give someone a new name.
the physical contest now turns spiritual – wrestling, struggling to know and name each other.
 
The stranger gives Jacob, a new name, Israel.
It means “the one who struggles, or strives, with God.”
Jacob cannot grasp the stranger’s name, he loses this round, but wrestles a blessing out of him.
 
both victory and defeat: 
He struggled with the angel and overcame him;
    he wept and begged for his favor. Hosea 12:4
 
The funny thing about wrestling, it is sort of simultaneously a fight and an embrace,
sometimes a clinging onto and sometimes a struggle to break free.
perhaps this expresses Jacob’s ambivalent relationship with God – defiance and dependence
And perhaps this sums up Israel’s relationship to God down the centuries,
and our life-struggles with God.
 
Sometimes I’m not sure how much I really want to meet God.
in the wrestling match of faith, am I trying to embrace God? or hold him away?
or pin him down, so he can’t do anything unpleasantly unexpected?!
 
The encounter leaves Jacob physically crippled, but spiritually transformed
 
a new name, a new character.
Yet humbled, he now limps into life,
broken, re-named & blessed.
 
This story brings up the threefold theme of tonight’s sermon.
Resisting, Wrestling with God.
re-seeing the stranger as God, Re-seeing his own self-identity.
a sort of death, that brought rebirth and resurrection
 
wrestling, re-seeing, resurrection
the whole a kind of conversion experience, paradigm shift, or spiritual revolution
Tonight we’ll see several examples of this re-seeing process.
 

Stephen and Saul

Jacob’s mysterious encounter occurred around 2000 years before Christ, give or take a century or so.
Let’s fast forward to AD 35, Jerusalem.
Our story comes from the book of Acts, the sequel to Luke’s gospel, written by the same author Luke.
 
5 years earlier, the son of Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth, the charlatan pseudo Messiah, the false prophet Jesus,
had been eliminated.
 
But now, his followers claim Jesus is alive.
And people are believing them, for Pete’s sake!
One of their top orators, Stephen, was a real pain.
 
Now, the Jewish universe orbited the law of Moses and the temple.
The religious leaders had trumped up charges against Jesus.
They said he abused the Law and temple.
 
They now accuse Stephen of the same thing. 
His defence drives them wild.
 
They gnash their teeth.
They drag him out of the city, and stone him
Stephen is the first Christian killed for his faith.
But “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church”
 
It’s hot work, so they leave their coats with a young pharisee named Saul.
Saul was exceedingly zealous for their traditions, laws of Moses.
So he approved of Stephen’s death.
He started arresting Christians, throwing them into prison
trying to destroy this heretical new sect.
The persecution scattered Christians from Jerusalem to neighbouring towns.
Saul planned to follow them, to hunt them down.
He headed for Damascus to seize believers hiding there
Acts 9
 
Maybe deep down inside, Saul was haunted by Stephen’s death.
He remembered how his face looked like an angel
how he claimed to see Jesus in heaven.
how he prayed for his killers.
How he died.
The martyr’s seed had been planted.
 
like Jacob, Saul was resisting, wrestling mightily, against Christians, maybe against himself, as it turned out, against God.
Like Jacob, he thought he was in control
but on that road to Damascus, like Jacob, he met an unknown stranger
and was suddenly, without warning, thrown to the ground.
This time, the divine Victor did reveal his name: Jesus.
 
Saul had planned to lead Christians bound to Jerusalem
now he himself was led by the hand, weak and blind, into Damascus.
 
Three days with no sight, no food, no drink
we might almost say, three days of death
 
Then God had mercy on Saul,
18: the scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.
He saw again, and was born again.
He reinterpreted, the meaning of Stephen and Jesus.
Re-seeing God, re-seeing Christ, re-seeing himself,
he began to preach that Jesus was the son of God, the Messiah (20)
 
Transformed from persecutor to persecuted – a paradigm shift, a spiritual revolution:
wrestling, re-seeing, and a sort of resurrection
 
——————–
Questions:
How do you relate to these stories of Jacob and Saul?
When have you most wrestled with life, with God?
What significant spiritual revolutions have you experienced?
What re-seeing of life, God or yourself?
 

Paul’s Sermon: Israel and Resurrection

For the next few chapters, and the next few years, Paul lies low, reflecting on this new world view
he’s had great revelations, but
Like Jacob with his limp, he carries a secret “thorn in his flesh”, which keeps him humble (2 Corinthians 12).
 
we rejoin Saul and the book of Acts in chapter 13, about AD 46
Christianity is starting to spread
Jewish Saul is now called by his Roman name Paul.
 
 
From Antioch, Paul had set off with his friend Barnabas, first to the island of Cyprus.
Acts 13:13-16
 
Then back to the mainland, up over a dangerous mountain range to another city also called Antioch. 
A key crossroads, a Roman colony with a big Jewish population. 
Both Antiochs were built and named by Alexander the Great’s successor Antiochus. 
 
Although now Christian, Paul is still a Jewish Rabbi.
So in a new city, he goes first to preach in the synagogue.
Many non-Jews were attracted to Judaism by its monotheism and high moral code, as opposed to morally lax pagan society. 
So in the synagogue at Antioch, were both Jews by birth, and godly Gentiles, or God fearers.
 
This is the first, and most complete, sermon that we have from Paul.
His approach is similar to Stephen’s sermon at his death, that rang in his mind.
He surveys the history of Israel in the Hebrew scriptures, in a way that points to and is fulfilled in Jesus.
There’s a lot of detail we don’t have time for, so I’ll just touch on key points.
 
God takes the initiative.  
Israel did not choose God, but God chose them. (17)[1]
 
God promised Abraham a great people, with their own land.
But first the Israelites moved to Egypt, where their numbers grew, but they became slaves.
Through Moses, God lead the people out from Egypt –the famous 10 plagues, parting the red sea.
At Mt Sinai, God gave them the stone tablets, 10 commandments, the law of Moses.
 
and for about 40 years, God put up with them in the wilderness. (18)
“put up with” is in some texts, “cared for.”
– only one letter difference.
“In the wilderness, the Lord your God carried you, just as one carries a child” Deuteronomy 1:31.
parents may appreciate the textual ambiguity – is not bringing up a child both a “looking after” and a “putting up with”?
carrying a child, sometimes a loving embrace, at others dragging a screaming, kicking brat?
– mixed wrestling and embracing again!
 
Israel did indeed struggle and kick against God – it was a turbulent relationship.
They rejected Moses. 
They built idols.
They were “stiff-necked”.
They refused to trust or obey God.
But eventually, God got them into the Promised Land.
 
After a period of great chaos, the people asked for a king (21)
 
King David brought in the golden age of Israel.
Military dominance, economic prosperity. 
Great building projects – the Royal Palace, the holy temple.
Rich creativity – David wrote Psalms – poetic hymns. 
Although he disobeyed God, he repented and returned.
He honestly wrestled with God.
God called him a man after his own heart,
and promised him a descendent who would rule on the throne forever.
(2 Samuel 7:12-16; Psalm 89)
 
 
Jews lived for this hope of the Messiah, the coming Davidic King, and his eternal righteous reign.
 
The people, the land of Israel, Moses’ law, the Davidic king, the holy temple
these things were central to Jewish self-identity, the centre of their universe.
 
By the first century AD, most seemed to have failed
 
there was no real king.
Especially for these Jews in Antioch,
land and temple were very distant, and ruled by pagan Romans, who cared little for the law.
Where were God’s promises?
Many Jews likely saw only disappointing failure.
False messiahs, wannabe pretenders to the throne, only made things worse
I guess Paul understood them very well
 
 
What changed his mind?
the sudden discovery on the road to Damascus, that Jesus was alive.
So the resurrection was the core of Paul’s faith.
He later wrote:
“if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith…” 1 Corinthians 15:14-17
 
Paul remembered some funny verses:
“you will not abandon my soul to death or let your holy one experience corruption” (Psalm 16:10, Acts 13:35)
– the messianic King would not die.
David died, and was buried right here in Jerusalem – his body decayed – so the promise was not fulfilled in him.
 
But God raised Jesus from the dead, never to decay – Jesus is the promised King who reigns forever.
You might say, his resurrection was his coronation.
 
For Paul, this meant a paradigm shift, a major re-seeing.
Paul insisted he was saying only what the Jewish scriptures predicted.
their true interpretation shows God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus.
 
This meant re-seeing the meaning of Jewish essentials like the people of God, the temple, the king, Moses’ law,
in a very different way.
 
The people of God are a different sort of people: no longer Jews by birth, but believers in Christ by faith.
This includes non-Jews, or Gentiles.
Even the apostle Peter struggled with this. 
It took long hard wrestling for him to realise that God accepts gentiles.  A sort of post-Christian conversion.
 
The true temple is a different sort of temple: now the body of Christ, the church.
 
Jesus is indeed the king of Israel, but a very different sort of king.
 
And Moses’ law, moral or religious rules, can’t free us from sin or make us right with God.
By his death on the cross, for those who believe,
Jesus does what the Law cannot – he brings forgiveness and freedom.
 

Paradigm Shifts and Conversion

In this sermon in Antioch, Paul wanted the synagogue congregation
to undergo the same paradigm shift that he did on that road to Damascus.
To reinterpret, refigure, reshape, re-see their own history and faith and lives.
To re-see their God.
To see a different meaning, a new pattern in the light of Jesus Christ and his resurrection.
 
 
The term paradigm shift comes from this book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn
I’m currently writing a theology essay, using his ideas.[2]
 
For Kuhn, paradigm shifts are huge historical changes in scientific worldview,
Like the Copernican revolution: from the earth being the centre of the solar system to the Sun.
When this occurs, scientists from both the old and the new paradigm look at the same evidence,
but they see it in different ways.
“When paradigms are changed, the world itself changes with them”       – re-seeing
 
To illustrate this, he uses optical illusions like these.
Who sees the duck?  Who sees the rabbit?
“the duck-rabbit shows that two people with the same retinal impressions can see different things.”[3] 
 
Let’s update Kuhn from the 1960s to the 1990s
who has seen these “magic eye” pictures?
 
the surface is a 2D pattern sometimes random sometimes quite pretty.
But if you diverge your eyes and look through the page, a 3D picture appears.
we can all see the same surface pattern, but some people find the deeper dimension very hard to see.
 
—————
Look at “magic eye” pictures on your table.
Try to help someone see who can’t yet.
 
 
Did anyone see for the 1st time?
 
It took me several minutes to see 3D in my first magic eye picture.
We can try to help someone who cannot see the rabbit- here is the ear, here is the nose etc
We can try to teach magic-eye viewing techniques,
but in the end, they have to see it for themselves
 
You can’t just make it happen – it needs a certain letting go and relaxing of our normal automatic eye focusing.
It needs patient waiting – until it gradually or suddenly comes.
If you try to hard to force or grab it, you may lose it. [4]
a bit like God’s grace.
 
Kuhn wrote:
“The transfer of allegiance from paradigm to paradigm is a conversion experience that cannot be forced.” [5]  (151)
He of course meant public scientific revolutions, but this also applies to personal spiritual revolutions.
 
I would never have seen magic eye 3D,
if others hadn’t told me there was something there, and I believed them – enough to try anyway.
So we can tell others about God,
but in the end, we all have to wrestle with life and see him ourselves.
 
As the poets say,
“All of earth is crammed with heaven,
and every bush aflame with God,
but only those who see take off their shoes.”
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
 
We all see the material world, but only some of us see
“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins[6]
 
 
People are given different spiritual sight.
Some experience a dramatic re-seeing at conversion and intensely feel God’s presence.
– they seem to always see that 3D image.
 
Other people, whose lives appear to be just as godly devout etc, only catch a faint glimpse.
 
in church, we often hear more from those in the former category.
 
In many ways I am more in the second category myself.
Recently our pastor Marjory said she’d read about some godly, intellectual Christian men.
who did not deeply see Jesus until late in life.
 
So I like some of Paul’s last words, awaiting his own execution,[7]
I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.
I have wrestled well.
Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness,
which the Lord will award to me on that day – and also
to all who have longed for his appearing.       2 Timothy 4:7-8
 
or as one version puts it:
“to all those who have loved what they have seen of him” – however much or little we may have seen!
– JB Phillips.[8]
 
At present, even those who see most clearly, see only “through a glass darkly”.
But we await a future great re-seeing.
 
On that day, we will see God face to face.
It’s an old image of heaven, called the beatific or blessed vision.
Some think this is static and unchanging.
But I suspect it may be more like a magic eye picture with infinite layers or dimensions,
each more real, more beautiful, than the last, and beyond that another and another and another
Always “higher up and further in”,
Always re-seeing God, each time with deeper longing and love and awe and worship.
 
And also re-seeing ourselves:
Maybe Paul’s audience saw only failed past hopes, and a meaningless present.
Maybe we feel like that.
Sometimes life doesn’t seem “charged with the grandeur of God”
It’s just a long wrestling – painfully tragic, or pathetically trivial.
 
I suspect, that when we see him face to face,
Those who love him will also re-see their own lives.
I wasn’t just an ugly duck, but really a rabbit!
Looking back, the 3D will emerge:
I’ll see my life wasn’t just random, senseless, but had beauty and purpose and significance!
 
“The traveller breasts a last rise, looks back and sees the road behind,
the reason for its bends and turnings, and its unending movement to a goal. 
And in the vision the crooked places become straight and the rough places plain.”
EM Blaiklock writes of Paul’s conversion:
 
After life’s long wrestling, will come the resurrection, and the great re-seeing:
 
CS Lewis suggests:
“Both good and evil, when they are full grown, become retrospective…
All their earthly past will have been Heaven to those who are saved…”
The Great Divorce
 

Re-seeing: for them and for us

But for now, back down to earth, back to our story in Acts:
Paul challenged his audience to re-see their past, re-see themselves, and re-see their God, in the light of the risen Christ
They all read the same scriptures, heard the same sermon, saw the same world,
But only some saw Christ in it all.
The response was divided.
 
Some did let go of the old ways of seeing.
It seems to have been easier for Gentiles, less strongly attached to Jewish traditions, maybe with less to lose.[9]
For them, the resurrected Christ was the best news they’d heard.
Like for Paul, wrestling became embracing, re-seeing brought resurrection.
 
But “to be born again, first you have to die” – re-seeing can be painful.
For some Christ was only bad news,
It was too hard to reinterpret precious past certainties.
They were unable or unwilling to re-see.
They continued like Jacob, like the early Saul, to wrestle against men and God.
(fans of the Narnia Chronicles, remember the dwarves in the stable in The Last Battle)
 
 
Paul’s audience resisted re-seeing things like people, king, temple, law.
Different things will be hard for us
What sorts of re-seeing might wrestling with Christ mean for us today?
Briefly, 2 suggestions
 
1. the Copernican revolution: from a me-centred to God-centred life
From relying on what I do, to trusting what Christ has done.
My hard-earned achievement to God’s freely-given grace.
That’s a long, hard, life-long wrestle.
 
2. the jujitsu factor:
We may think we’ve pinned, even nailed God down, but he tends to wrestle free, resurrect, elude our grasp.
God often surprises us by using the small and weak to overthrow the big and strong.
Paul wrote
“God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise… the weak things of the world to shame the strong.”
God’s power is made perfect in our weakness
1 Corinthians 1:27, 2 Corinthians 12:9
 
——
 
So where have we been tonight?
We’ve looked at conversion as a paradigm shift, a spiritual revolution, a re-seeing.
Not just once-off, but ongoing through life.
Re-seeing God – who he is and how he works.
Re-seeing ourselves – who we are, the meaning of our lives.
 
Re-seeing is a hard process:
First comes resisting, wrestling.
Re-seeing needs a loss of old seeing, a temporary blindness, a sort of death.
But re-seeing in a deeper light brings rebirth and resurrection.
 
Wrestling, re-seeing, resurrection.
The structure of spiritual revolutions.
 
 
We’ve met past examples in the Bible.
Jacob wrestling with the stranger, wounded, yet renamed – re-seeing himself and his God.
Saul’s dramatic road to Damascus – re-seeing everything when he found Jesus was alive!
Peter’s paradigm shift – re-seeing a God who accepts Gentiles.
Paul’s audience in Antioch – re-seeing their past in the light of Christ.
 
 
We’ve played with more recent examples:
Scientists re-seeing the physical world – the Copernican revolution.
Re-seeing the duck-rabbit, the magic eye 3rd dimension
Poets re-seeing the spiritual world.
Our own re-seeing, spiritual revolutions, or conversions.
 
 
We’ve hinted at the future great re-seeing,
when we see him face-to-face,
when God himself, and our whole lives, may emerge in a new dimension.
 
 
Wrestling, re-seeing, resurrection.
A long list of examples.
 
The final question for us all:
What examples will your life add to this list?
 
How are you wrestling with God?
Where is God asking you to give up old ways of seeing?
What stops you from re-seeing tonight?

 


[1] Not, says Moses because of any intrinsic merit of theirs, because they were more numerous or righteous than others (Deut 7.6, 9.6).
[2] He gives a maxim to his students, which could well apply to the Bible: “When reading the works of an important thinker, look first for the apparent absurdities in the text and ask yourself how a sensible person could have written them.  When you find an answer, when those passages make sense, then you may find that more central passages, ones you previously thought you understood, have changed their meaning.” (Kuhn, The Essential Tension)
[3] Or, “More than one theoretical construction can always be placed upon a given collection of data.”
[4] It requires the ability to tolerate the in between ambiguity, the eyes losing their normal focus before anything new has been seen: “the ability to support a tension that can occasionally become almost unbearable is one of the prime requisites for the very best sort of scientific research”.  “Though history is unlikely to record their names, some men have undoubtedly been driven to desert science because of their inability to tolerate crisis.  Like artists, creative scientists must occasionally be able to live in a world out of joint” (Kuhn, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 79).
[5] Anomalies and crises are “terminated, not by deliberation and interpretation, but by a relatively sudden and unstructured event like the Gestalt switch.  Scientists then often speak of the “scales falling from the eyes” or of the “lightning flash” that “inundates” a previously obscure puzzle, enabling its components to be seen in a new way that for the first time permits its solution.  On other occasions the relevant illumination comes in sleep.” (Kuhn, 122).
The “decision must be based less on past achievement than on future promise.  The man who embraces a new paradigm at an early stage must often do so in defiance of the evidence provided by problem-solving.  He must, that is, have faith that the new paradigm will succeed… A decision of that kind can only be made on faith…  That is one of the reasons why prior crisis proves so important.  Scientists who have not experienced it will seldom renounce the hard evidence of problem-solving to follow what may easily prove and will be widely regarded as a will-o’-the-wisp…”  based on mere “…personal and inarticulate aesthetic considerations…” (158)
[6] Some look at the same world and see the opposite: only nature “red in tooth and claw”, ugly, violent, and meaningless, precluding any good Creator.
[7] The culmination of his transformation from persecutor taught to persecuted.
[8] “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy”. 1 Peter 1:8-9.
[9] As Kuhn observed, the younger generation of scientists is often quicker to embrace new paradigms.

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