A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr C ~ Easter 3 ~ Acts 9:1-20
Picture it. It’s 36 CE (or thereabouts) roughly 3 years after the time of Jesus’ death and resurrection. A man named Saul is on the warpath. He is a zealous man, intent on wiping out the upstart movement that had become known as ‘The Way’. In Saul’s mind this movement was heretical, blasphemous even. They followed a person Saul thought to be a false Messiah – a rabble-rouser named Jesus of Nazareth, who his followers believed had died on a cross and then was mysteriously raised up. Saul had obtained warrants allowing him to arrest any man or woman he found that was a follower of The Way of Jesus. He was travelling north from Jerusalem toward Damascus when our story for today picks up.
I’m going to circle back to the start of this later and do some poking at it, but for now I want to treat the story as a broad archetype. By that I mean to see it as a pattern, or a pathway from ‘not’ being a person of the Way of Jesus to being one.
Acts 9:3 says – Now as Saul was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
Saul was on a certain path, and then in the midst of that he had an experience that changed everything. The story speaks of a light flashing. Perhaps it was an actual visual thing like a bolt of lightning, but it doesn’t have to be. Perhaps it’s nothing more (and nothing less) than the dazzling brightness of a new thought dawning on you. When awareness comes it can feel like the whole world exploding in your brain and shattering some of the things you used to think were real and true. I suspect for most people that sense of awareness creeps up on you and emerges stealthily over time rather than being a lightning bolt – but I ain’t saying lightning doesn’t strike!
Something happened to Saul on that road trip from Jerusalem to Damascus. Something that made him stop in his tracks and re-examine his life. Earlier than Luke’s writing (Luke wrote both Luke/Acts), in the book of Galatians, Paul (Saul’s new name) writes about this Damascus Road experience himself, but it’s much more vague. Luke, as always, likes to give lots of details in his storytelling.
In Luke’s telling Saul has a conversation with the Spirit of the Risen Jesus. He doesn’t see Jesus – he just hears his voice – and Jesus is disappointed. Acts 9:4 “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Notice that the voice doesn’t say, “Why do you persecute my followers?” Jesus makes it personal. Paul replies with a “who are you?” And the answer came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Saul’s fellow travellers apparently heard the voice, but saw no one. And, as we all know this story so well, Saul got up and even though his eyes were open he couldn’t see – which, frankly, describes a lot of people! And then we get the key line – Acts 9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Gee, I wonder what that’s supposed to make us think of?
Three days in the dark and not eating or drinking. And then he awakens and emerges into a new life.
Obviously this is an Easter reference! Saul has to die to what was so he can be reborn into what will be – into God’s loving Way.
Then the story shifts to one of my favourite biblical characters – Ananias. Ananias was a disciple of The Way in Damascus. Out of nowhere he experiences a vision of Jesus who tells him he must go and find Saul, and pray with him, and lay hands on Saul so that he might regain his sight. First of all, Ananias is a very faithful man, and his first response was “Here I am, Lord.” That is until he heard who he was supposed to go and pray with. Saul wasn’t just some guy. He was well known to the people of the Way. Saul was public enemy number one in their minds. Imagine the worst person you can – Hitler, Putin, the list goes on – now imagine that Jesus tells you you’re supposed to go and make nice with them and pray with them. So Ananias says, “Say what now? Him? Oh, you’ve got to be kidding. He’s the worst!” But in this vision Jesus persists and explains that Saul will actually become a great leader and preacher championing The Way.
I really feel for Ananias. I can only imagine how conflicted he must have been. But, being a faithful man, off he goes to pray with Saul.
Acts 9:17-18 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.
Let’s pause here and think about Saul’s journey. He had a stop-in-your-tracks enlightening experience, he endured a symbolic dying and was ‘in the tomb’ for 3 days, and now, upon receiving prayer, and the laying on of hands, he becomes filled with the Holy Spirit. Can you see the pattern? An awakening of some sort stopped his former path, he died to that former path and spent some time in the darkness of unknowing (maybe it was like a wilderness time), and then he receives prayer and healing through the faithfulness of a mature person of faith, and it brings him out of his tomb and into the light of Christ.
After such a blessing, after such a gift of renewed life, his very first response, his first action, is to be baptized. Baptism is an act of surrender, an act of trust (especially if you’re doing the immersion kind), and an act of initiation, of becoming one of the People of the Way of Jesus. Saul’s second response was to spend several days with the disciples in Damascus, eating, regaining his strength, learning from them, experiencing their vibe, discovering what this renewed life kinda looked like. I think this time of Saul’s being among the disciples is severely overlooked. He’s often written as kind of a loner – going off on missionary journeys and doing his own thing. So it’s really important to see that before he did that he was nurtured and formed in Christian community! (Just like us!)
And then his last action in this reading is that he begins his public ministry as a preacher, going out and sharing the story of Jesus in synagogues. Can you imagine what kind of reception he may have gotten in some of those places? Maybe that’s why he needed to go and minister among Gentiles – because it may have been hard for people who knew of him before to accept the ‘new Saul’.
So that pattern again – an awakening,
a time of unknowing,
dying to what was,
receiving blessing through persons of faith,
emerging into a renewed life, symbolized by baptism,
being formed and nurtured in Christian community,
and then living out your calling by sharing the love of God in the world.
I’m not sure at what moment we might say that Saul was truly changed – but through this process, this pattern, it’s clear he was. Imagine going from being public enemy number one to being part of the group you were persecuting! Encountering the light of Christ, well, that changes everything, if you’re ready to receive it.
And that leads me back to the start of this story. I have a confession to make. The start of this story really bugs me! It’s just because of the way it’s written. The beginning suggests Saul was perfectly happy being a persecutor. He obtained the warrants and he was on his merry way to go and do what he thought was right – when out of nowhere Jesus stops him short and strikes him blind. After that, it’s a beautiful story of awakening. But I hate that in the way Luke frames it, it begins with a coercion.
God does not coerce! God nudges, cajoles, draws, lures, entices, shines, inspires, but God does not coerce. If God imposes God’s will on us, then we don’t have free will anymore. And it also opens us up to a host of terrible theological conundrums – like if God could coerce a bad guy like Saul why doesn’t God step in and knock other bad people to the ground with dazzling lights?
And this is problematic because Saul would become Paul, who had such a profound influence on Christianity that people look to his story for inspiration – and they can interpret it as “God did it TO him” rather than “God was there FOR him when he was questioning or wondering.” I wish Luke would’ve added just one more line like, “As Saul was travelling he began to think about these people he was persecuting.” Or, “As Saul was travelling he saw an act of kindness and it caught his attention.” I just want a glimmer, a crack in the hard stone, something that allows God’s pervasive presence to be noticed. But I don’t get to write scripture. I just get to interpret it.
Maybe it’s enough to say that ‘something’ happened on that road, and for Saul it changed everything.
Now, I’m preaching to a bunch of people who are already part of a loving Christian community. We’re the ones Saul hung out with after his awakening. So I guess my question for us is:
how can we reach more ‘Sauls’ – without coercion – just with shining examples of loving-kindness and compassion – and a readiness to say why it is we’re inspired to live and love the way we do?
Are we open to accompanying wanderers and wonderers as they go through the disorienting journey of realizing former patterns and ways were not life-giving, giving them the space to experience their own time of unknowing, and then prayerfully laying on hands (literally or figuratively) and supporting them as they join our nurturing and faith formative community?
Are we ready to be Ananias and respond to God’s call even if it stretches us out of our comfort zone?
If so, then that changes everything!
In this Easter season where we celebrate new and renewed life, what kind of new life and new ministry might Jesus be calling his church (us) into? That is a question worth exploring – and that’s what we’ll be doing over these next few weeks as we look at the shaping of the early church in the book of Acts. The series is called “That Changes Everything.”
I hope you’re ready, Ananias!