The Way Forward

The Way Forward

April 10, 2016
Written by Kathryn Matthews

Sunday, April 10
Third Sunday of Easter

Focus Theme
The Way Forward

Weekly Prayer
God of victory over death, your Son revealed himself again and again, and convinced his followers of his glorious resurrection. Grant that we may know his risen presence,
in love obediently feed his sheep, and care for the lambs of his flock, until we join the hosts of heaven in worshipping you and praising him who is worthy of blessing and honor, glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen.

Focus Scripture
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply 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."

[The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 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. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."]

All Readings For This Sunday
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
Psalm 30
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Focus Questions

1. How does Saul resemble Christians you know today, before and after his conversion experience?

2. Why do we need the church once we sense we have been called?

3. Why do you think violence and religion are so often linked?

4. Does your church focus on converting individuals, or building up the church? What's the difference?

5. What sort of "cultural bias" blinds us today, and keeps us from welcoming and including others into the circle of God's grace?

Reflection by Kate Matthews

Most of us know the story of Saul, persecutor of the early church, who was knocked to the ground, blinded by a bright light, and addressed by the risen Christ Himself. (According to later Christian artists, he was thrown from his horse; John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan Reed's book, In Search of Paul, provides a delightful interpretation of this addition to the story.) Was that a call from God, or was it a conversion experience? The scholars may disagree, but in any case, most of us "ordinary" Christians go through our lives without ever being literally knocked off our horses and blinded by a light, in our conversion or our call experiences. We mostly go from day to day, year to year, sometimes searching, sometimes convinced, but rarely experiencing dramatic revelations that change the course of our lives, let alone the life of the whole church, as the experience of Saul did. And yet we can find ourselves here, in the story of Saul's transformation from persecutor to apostle.

The part of Saul's story in this week's passage is a reversal of sorts, but his new direction can be seen as consistent with his past as a religious scholar and a faithful son of Israel. Later in the Book of Acts, he boasts of being a Pharisee; he does not repudiate his past, who he is or who he has been. Rather, his vision is opened up to new understandings and new relationship (and new work!). In fact, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan describe his conversion as within his own tradition, "from being a Pharisaic Jew to being a Christian Jew" who "saw his Judaism anew in the light of Jesus."

The influence of our teachers

In Acts 22:3, Paul also describes himself as a student of Gamaliel, whom we met last week during the controversy in the council in Jerusalem over what to do with these troublemakers, Peter and the rest, who are preaching Christ Jesus. Gamaliel could be seen in that passage as a voice of tolerance and humility, so it's intriguing to consider how his influence on Saul might have helped to shape who he became as Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and to prepare him for his important ministry.

We've met Saul before this ninth chapter in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, of course, but only briefly, and not in a good way. At the end of chapter seven, the men who were stoning Stephen (after he delivered a particularly confrontational sermon) "laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul" (7:58), and chapter eight begins by noting Saul's approval of the killing of Stephen. As resistance and even persecution of Jesus' followers heated up, Saul participated enthusiastically: "ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison" (8:3). Luke spends the rest of chapter eight telling stories about the apostles as they preached and baptized and laid hands on people, as they drove out demons and cured "those who were paralyzed or lame"; no wonder "there was great joy in that city" (8:8).

"Breathing threats and murder"

All of this joy, however, and all of this success, evidently worked Saul up into a frenzy, for chapter nine opens with him "breathing threats and murder" (9:1). What a phrase to describe a future follower of Jesus! Saul obtained authorization from the leaders in Jerusalem to hunt down the followers of the Way as they spread their message up the road to Damascus, to "bind" them, and drag them back to Jerusalem. John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed describe this kind of "zeal" as "religious vigilantism" that "allows any outraged person" to take justice and, well, righteousness, too, it seems, into their own hands. I wonder if the same kind of zeal has contributed to the vitriol of our present political season; judging "religious fanatics" long ago and far away is not nearly as helpful as thinking about our own way of living what we believe.

So we can assume that Saul intended that the apostles would suffer the same fate as Stephen, and we grieve that this story about religious people--filled with "zeal as violence," as Crossan and Reed describe it, and yet seeing that as faithfulness--is true in every age. It's there, on the road to Damascus, that Saul's story takes a dramatic turn, and even today people refer to an experience of conversion, or call, or illumination, as a "road to Damascus" experience.

What happens next...

The lectionary passage may technically end at verse six, but commentators make a convincing case to stay with Saul on his journey. The lectionary seems to leave us hanging there, wondering what will happen next to Saul, because most of us know that he's now blind, as well as lying there in the dust and dirt of the road. He's pitiful, really, transformed from the threatening, powerful persecutor to a man in profound need and helplessness. God is at work here, though: the living Christ is not simply intervening to protect the apostles by deterring Saul from his mission. The voice that Saul hears gives him instructions right after that poignant question, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (v. 4b), and we continue past verse 6 to hear what happens next, because we know that God has big plans for Paul and for this fledgling church. With God, the picture is always big, very big, and each one of us is precious within it.

Led by the hand toward reconciliation

Ironically, Paul finds himself--the strong young man who had felt powerful to the point of menacing--meekly led by the hand into the city of Damascus, and going without food or water for three days; he must have been quite weak, and quite a sight, by then. How much of a threat could he have posed to the disciples at that point? And yet, when Ananias, one of the disciples in Damascus, had his own experience with a vision and voice, he did not react positively to the command to go to Saul and lay hands on him. We can understand why Ananias, knowing Paul's track record, might say, "Wait. What?" He might even want to whine a bit about the unfairness, and the risk, of what he's being asked to do. As Donald Davis notes, "In case God has overlooked Saul's atrocities, [Ananias] takes occasion to issue a brief reminder. Ananias is not the last believer who has seen fit to keep God up to date."

But then Ananias surprises us, once he answers God's call, and goes the extra nine yards, calling Saul "Brother." Did his heart soften, perhaps, when he saw how weak and pitiful Saul looked? Perhaps such mercy helped shape Paul's future ministry and theology. And here we might find ourselves in the story as well, because Charles Campbell says that Ananias is "an 'ordinary' Christian" who demonstrates "extraordinary courage and faithfulness," the kind of courage and faithfulness we ordinary Christians may need in order to forgive and to exercise compassion toward our "enemies" and those who have harmed us. Robert Wall also emphasizes the power of forgiveness in this story, noting that we first met Saul at the stoning of Stephen, who prayed (like Jesus) that those who killed him would be forgiven: "God's steady perspective on human destiny is that Saul is a forgiven man….[and] his stunning turn to Jesus somewhere on the Great North Road cashes in a faithful Stephen's promissory note." A lovely, and ironic, twist to the story.

The way forward

Where did Saul go with all of this? He followed the way forward to get baptized, and to share communion, and to be "ordained," and to live his life in the company of others who followed the Way of Jesus. Borg and Crossan speak of Paul being filled with the light of Jesus and the Spirit that opened his eyes and gave him "a new identity…a new community, and way of being." And this new community would include--with Paul's tireless efforts--the most unlikely people.

Perhaps the most dramatic sign of Saul's conversion was his passionate commitment to sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. Crossan and Reed observe that Saul's conversion isn't from one religion to another. He has a different kind of change of heart and mind, converting from passionately, even violently, opposing the radical inclusion of pagans to becoming instead the greatest proponent of including them--how ironic! Scholars remark on the importance of that big picture, of the wider community, and not just Saul's private experience: Charles Campbell observes that Paul devoted the rest of his life to establishing and nurturing churches rather than focusing on the conversion of individual people. In a time when many Christians focus on evangelizing individuals instead of building up churches, this is a provocative comment, and may offer a needed course correction.

Sometimes a call is a conversion

A call is a call, and a conversion is a conversion, but often they are combined in the same experience. Whether or not our faith experiences are typically accompanied by a dramatic sound-and-light show, we receive the same call that Saul did on that dusty road to Damascus. After looking honestly at our past and repenting our sin, we are called, Paul Walaskay writes, "to turn our faces toward God's future….[and] enter the process of completing God's joy by expanding God's love in the world." Luke's version of Paul's experience on that road to Damascus (the first of three accounts of it in Acts) vividly illustrates how God finds a way to reach us, even if we have to be stopped in our tracks and knocked off our own high horse. It's not so hard, then, to believe that God will find ways to enter quietly into our lives and our hearts, turning our attention away from old angers, prejudices, and loss, old convictions and conclusions written on the stone of our hearts and minds, and will open our hearts to God's way of seeing things, open our hearts to God's future of hope, a bright shining light.

If we feel that such a quiet experience isn't as good or significant or valid as those we read about in books--the Bible and others as well, Joseph Harvard urges us not to give in to a sense of "faith inferiority," because conversion is about what God is doing, not our own accomplishments or strengths. In so many conversion stories, including the ones found in Acts, like those surrounding the story of Saul, God will transform the lives of the most unexpected, unlikely people and use them in God's work. That includes you and me, and some folks we'd rather not think about, if we're honest. Surely God can't use them, we might think, but God surprises us in the most delightful ways. If we need any proof of that we might take Stephen Jones' advice and reflect on our own lives, to look back on the times when God did something amazing and turned us around just as surely as God turned Saul around on that road to Damascus.

God's grace is amazing

We might remember, then, another historical call/conversion story familiar to many of us, that of John Newton, the slave-trader who later became a pastor and hymn writer. Newton is famous, of course, for composing "Amazing Grace," but most of us have at least a vague recollection of a dramatic conversion at sea, after which Newton stopped participating in the great evil of the slave trade. We might think that Newton, like Paul, had an experience very unlike our own, a sudden, drastic turnaround in the most remarkable of circumstances. But closer study reveals that Newton took his time with this turnaround, and continued his slave-trading even after it dawned on him that God was at the center of his life. We live our lives in circumstances that may be dramatic at moments but are mostly everyday and common, and God's amazing grace is present and sufficient in every one. And even if it takes us some time, God is with us all the way, in every moment of our lives.

A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection

Plato, 5th century B.C.E.
"Conversion is not implanting eyes, for they exist already; but giving them a right direction, which they have not."

Madeleine L'Engle, 20th century
"Conversion for me was not a Damascus Road experience. I slowly moved into an intellectual acceptance of what my intuition had always known."

D.H. Lawrence, 20th century
"I believe that [one] is converted when first [one] hears the low, vast murmur of life, of human life, troubling [one's] hitherto unconscious self."

George Sand, 19th century
"Once my heart was captured, reason was shown the door, deliberately and with a sort of frantic joy. I accepted everything, I believed everything, without struggle, without suffering, without regret, without false shame. How can one blush for what one adores?"

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 20th century
"The world does not consist of 100 percent Christians and 100 percent non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so."
and
"Every story of conversion is a story of blessed defeat."

Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, 21st century
"When one of my friends becomes a Christian, which happens about every 10 years because I am a sheep about sharing my faith, the experience is euphoric. I see in their eyes the trueness of the story."

Bede Griffiths, 20th century
"It is no longer a question of a Christian going about to convert others to the faith, but of each one being ready to listen to the other and so to grow together in mutual understanding."

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