Acts 9:1-19 (NRSV) (reading paired with singing verses from Sing the Journey #23, "Slowly Turning"
Reading 1: 9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
STJ 23 Slowly Turning, V1
Reading 2: 8 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. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 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, 12 and he has seen in a vision[a] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 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;16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
STS 23 Slowly turning V2
Reading 3: 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[b] 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
STS 23 Slowly turning V3
One of the questions asked in the “Making home at Shalom” class I hosted before Easter was, “what is Shalom’s founding myth or founding story?” We talked about that in that class and, since Easter, in worship we’ve been looking at our collective Christian founding myth or story. That’s what the book of Acts is. Whereas Luke’s gospel paints the image of Christ in story, Luke’s book of Acts paints the image of the church in that Christ image.
That pattern can be seen in this story often described as Saul’s conversion or his Damascus Road experience. Through Saul’s experience, we see that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, can take shape in the life of another human, even the most unlikely of people.
Saul was an unlikely follower of Jesus because he was responsible for the arrest and even the deaths of Christians, working together with officials to end or cripple this new movement of Jesus followers. Yet here in this story we see that “way” or “journey” of Jesus-following would take place in Paul’s life, too. He was on “the journey” or “the way,” and his own journey would take a turn, and he would have his own kind of Holy Week experience of death, burial, and resurrection, in about the same span of time.
And it begins with darkness. Like that most agonizing part of holy week, Saul’s life is full of vitriol and hate. His way of living was its own kind of present darkness, so it seems poetic and necessary for him to need to experience actual darkness in order to see himself truthfully. Of course there is a light that flashes around him but the effect is that he can no longer see.
Like Jesus in the garden and on the cross, Saul is brought to his knees where, as Leonard Cohen sings, “from his lips are drawn a cold and a broken Hallelujah.” “Who are you?” he says.
His question is directed to the voice but it might as well be directed to himself.
When we are on the journey of faith, the question “who are you” directed toward God and toward ourselves is a part of what propels us forward.
Saul can no longer see and so in order to get where he is going, even though he has been a leader of one kind, he must now be led. Jesus had said, “when you’re young you dressed yourself and went where you wanted, but one day when you are old you will stretch out your hands and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.”
That statement evokes grave-fear that Saul faces, having lost his faculties, and spending three days in darkness without food or drink. All of these things – the blindness, the fasting, the three days – they are evocative of a kind of spiritual event; that the end of something, the cessation of motion and processes and of senses are a kind of necessary spiritual death. This is the tomb of Holy Saturday.
Think of the last time you had your world turned upside down -- some event or process that triggered a totally new way of seeing yourself and the world around you. It is a time of suddenly knowing, and simultaneously complete ignorance. To make a difficult turn in life feels for a time like the end of forward motion. When we are turning, the scenery is no longer passing us by, but seems like it’s spinning around us, disorienting and reorienting us instead.
Pivoting on the journey demands a kind of solitude. Companions like those traveling with Saul fade out of sight or consciousness. Like most bullies, Saul is lonely and he has to face his loneliness.
But he is not alone. In fact, he is not the only one experiencing conversion. So often when this story is told and retold as the model of an individual’s conversion experience, it is easy to think that Saul’s conversion was a me-and-Jesus affair. As the song says
I wandered so aimless life filed with sin
I wouldn't let my dear savior in
Then Jesus came like a stranger in the night
Praise the Lord I saw the light
Yes, solitude, and stillness are important part of encountering God, even a vocation in themselves for some, but that doesn’t mean that transformation happens in our lives happens in a vacuum. Jesus’ resurrection necessitates encounter. Think of the Ethiopian and Philip, or just about every other conversion in Acts. Even the most hermited monks are usually connected with a community for which they pray and seek mutual transformation. Conversion requires conversation and mutuality.
Who am I speaking about, but Ananias, the one who already was part of the Way, already on the journey with the Jesus movement. And Yet, Ananias, hearing about this Saul fellow, was afraid. These were people of two totally different worldviews, not to mention that Saul was directly out to get people like Ananias.
Saul was the kind of person we might love to hate, because he was so full of it himself. Maybe we wouldn't use the word hate -- in polite company, we might say "pity." But Saul was the kind of person that would seem irreconcilable to you or to me. He would challenge the non-violent commitment of anyone. We might not do anything to him ourselves, but we wouldn't be upset if something happened to him by someone else. He’s the kind of person we might desperately hope would have a Damascus Road experience.
But anytime we become laser focused on our desire for someone else’s conversion, we might suspect that we too are receiving a vision, an opportunity, maybe even a divine voice, indicating that our own conversion is in order.
Saul needed a new mind about the Jesus movement, and Ananias of the Jesus movement needed a new mind about Saul. Saul was blind and Ananias had a blind spot. Neither could be converted without the other.
That the Divine would become human, suffer, and die is not just about transforming humans and creation, it is about a transformation of God. The nature of the divine covenant with humanity is that God chooses us as instruments of God’s work in the world, also demonstrating the way in which we transform each other by humbling ourselves before even our most feared enemy, so that we might become more like them and they, like us. As the scripture says, “we will all be changed.”
James Fowler, a beloved teacher and mentor to our own James Ward, wrote a well-known book about “stages of faith”. It says faith begins necessarily with repetition, parroting what others say. Then it changes more into a story, while still being the reflection of someone else’s faith. Then we wrestle with our self in relation to others. What of this is mine and what is the community’s? If we choose to go deeper we encounter more and more questions. We lean more heavily on the community around us and their experience. We encounter faith's contradictions, but we find the paradoxes life-giving and meaningful. And there are those who continue on to find themselves living radically different lives than others around them, with a mind that this simultaneously open to the universality of God’s love in the world and yet also rooted and connected within a particular tradition of faith.
I couldn’t help but call to mind this week’s NPR spot of Bill and Lisa Schirch, whose relationship – like all covenant relationships, and yet in its own unique way – demonstrates the gifts of mutual transformation that happens when two worlds meet and journey together for a time, in their case, distinctly Jewish and Christian identities that hold together many similarities and differences that have challenged and enriched their experience of their own faith and life.
As we sang earlier, "the journey is long," and we are all at many places on it in the course of our lives.
When Jesus was finished speaking to Saul he said to him, “Rise and Go”
When Jesus was finished speaking to Ananias, he said, “Rise and Go,”
These are words of healing Jesus had offered many people in his life time, and words he embodied as he left behind the empty tomb.
There is a time when those words are for us as well: “Rise and Go.”
Whatever time it is in our lives, may God meet us there and lead us forward.
Because of turning and timing, I choose to conclude us with the version of Ecclesiastes 3 known to so many thanks to Pete Seeger and the Byrds. The text holds together that we are living paradox, and we are not static, we are always moving to something else. It prompts us to ask, what time is it in my life, or our collective life, and what do we need to do now?
To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for ev'ry purpose, under heaven
A time to be born, a time to die
A time to plant, a time to reap
A time to kill, a time to heal
A time to laugh, a time to weep
A time to build up, a time to break down
A time to dance, a time to mourn
A time to cast away stones
A time to gather stones together
A time of war, a time of peace
A time of love, a time of hate
A time you may embrace
A time to refrain from embracing
A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time for love, a time for hate
A time of peace: I swear it's not too late!