Scripture: Acts 9:1-20
We are continuing this week with a series called “Unraveling,” which is helping us to see how God sometimes uses the spiraling, coming-undone moments in our lives to unravel the fears, emotions, assumptions, and attitudes that may be preventing us from experiencing transformation and new possibilities. We’ve seen this especially in the scripture lessons after Easter, where Jesus’ resurrection – itself an unraveling of sin and death – becomes the new pattern of the way that God works in our lives and in our world. We have begun to see that when our world begins to fall apart, when we are spiraling because of loss, or change, or fear, that God can surprise us with hope, with joy, and with unconditional love, as God takes those loose threads and begins to create something new.
Today’s scripture lesson is about another kind of unraveling – the kind of unraveling that sometimes needs to be done on the inside – so that we can become the person God calls us to be, and so that God can help us find our true path. And while today’s lesson is especially fitting for our graduates who are about to embark on a new journey, it is certainly a lesson for all of us, because no matter where we are on life’s journey, we all have a loose thread or two that threaten to undo us along the way.
Will you pray with me?
Will you come and follow me if I but call your name? Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same? Will you let my love be shown, will you let my name be known, will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?
Will you leave yourself behind if I but call your name? Will you care for cruel and kind and never be the same? Will you risk the hostile stare should your life attract or scare? Will you let me answer prayer in you and you in me? (The Summons, John Bell)
We learn first about this man named Saul in Luke’s writings of the Acts of the Apostles. These writings are basically an extension of Luke’s Gospel, which tell of the events that happened after Jesus’ resurrection – events which led to the creation and spread of the early church. In chapters 7 and 8, Saul is described as the one who held the coats of those who stoned Stephen, a Christian who was stoned to death by a religious council who saw the entire Christian movement as heretical. And Saul, himself a devout Jewish leader, was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder. After that, he took it upon himself to go from door to door in Jerusalem, looking for anyone who claimed to follow the way of Jesus, the heretic, and would drag them off to prison, women and men. Here in chapter 9 we learn that he continued to “spew out murderous threats against the disciples” and even asks the high priest to give him letters authorizing him to go outside of Jerusalem to continue to weed out this religious sect. And Luke places the story of what happens to Saul on the road to Damascus right among several other stories of surprising transformations that involve the most unlikely people of diverse backgrounds – those of a Samaritan, an Ethiopian Eunuch, Saul the religious terrorist, and a Roman centurion. What is God up to in these stories, why is Christ calling “those people” into a relationship with him?
As we think about life journeys today, even though we are not starting off on a path to new educational opportunities or new jobs, or new phases of life like our graduates, we all do have the opportunity to travel on a spiritual journey of letting God unravel our assumptions and attitudes and preconceived notions about those that we would call “other.” In our world today, we have perhaps never felt so divided. There is such a culture of “us vs. them” especially here in the U.S. as we grapple with politics and global migration and the continued fight for civil rights and liberties. So what does it mean for us who are followers of Jesus’ Way today to see others the way Jesus sees them? You see, Saul thought he was completely justified because of his own religious convictions to harass and persecute Christians. He approved and even helped orchestrate the imprisonment and murder of those who he and others thought threatened their religion. If Jerusalem was a Jewish nation, then imagine how threatening it must have felt for them to see a new religion spreading and taking hold in their land! They thought that their religion was the only true religion, that their interpretation of scripture was the only correct interpretation, that they had the moral high ground.
I don’t know about you, but I can draw some parallels here to the way I’ve heard people comment about how “America used to be a Christian nation, and we’re losing our heritage! We need to make America great again!”…. or about how those in the United Methodist Church today are arguing over who’s in and who’s out when it comes to ministry and ordination and marriage. Kind of sounds like the kind of attitude that God saw in Saul. And graduates, you are not immune from this kind of thinking, either about nationalism or religious interpretation or status or race. Even though you have known a more diverse world in your lifetime, be careful as you go out into the world that you don’t allow others to shape and form your opinions for you. As you become adults, you’ll have the opportunity to get to know so many new people. Be careful that you don’t assume or decide something about people before getting to know them. Don’t equate people with stereotypes. I think that’s one of the things we can all ask for God’s help to unravel within us. Because as humans, we want to associate with people who are like us. We want to find our tribe. And we’re competitive. We want to think that our tribe is better than all the other tribes, and so we may pit ourselves against the other. But is that the Way of Jesus? Is that the path that God calls us to?
On the road to Damascus, to find and rout out other Christians, Saul was surrounded by a light from heaven, which blinded him and took him to his knees. Flannery O’Conner who wrote some of our beloved hymns of faith once said of Saul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” (William Willimon, Acts Interpretation Series) Here Saul has been thinking that those following Jesus were the heretics, but then God breaks in with blinding light to begin the work of unraveling. Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” and he replies, “I am Jesus, the one you have been persecuting.” Wouldn’t it be great if Jesus would just speak that loudly and clearly to us all the time? Even Saul’s companions heard Jesus’ voice speaking, even though none of them saw anyone. But Saul’s experience isn’t typical, it isn’t the norm. That’s not how Christ chooses to get our attention. I think Saul in his blinded state is like a lot of us most of the time. Who knows how many times Christ has spoken to us through another – through the hungry man on the side of the road, the imprisoned mother, the addicted son, the abused daughter, the abandoned child, the elderly relative, the lonely neighbor, the grieving coworker, the foreigner waitress or farm worker – saying to us, “I am Jesus, the one you are harassing, the one you are persecuting, the one you are ignoring, the one you are looking down on, the one you are shaming, the one you don’t recognize, the one you are too blinded by pride or arrogance or prejudice to see”? Or, how many times have we been so caught up in trying to become who we think we’re supposed to be that we have let ambition, cultural values, economic security, fear of conflict, or even love of conflict keep us from being our authentic selves, and from hearing Jesus saying to us, “I am Jesus, the One who loves you just the way you are”?
And then, sometimes, Christ speaks to us like he spoke to Ananias. Times when we may perceive a nudge of the Spirit, a tug at the heart, something that convicts us that we should answer God’s call to open our minds, to offer help, to love those we perceive as enemies, which might even include our own self. Now we get the chance to put the shoe on the other foot, so to speak. Saul is not the only person in this story who needs an unraveling. Ananias was a disciple of Jesus. Philip had taken the good news of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus to the Jews who were living to the north of Jerusalem, so there were already pockets of Christian disciples in Syria, including Damascus, where Saul was heading. When Christ spoke to Ananias and told him to find Saul and put his hands on him to restore his sight, his first response was that of self-preservation. “You want me to do what? You want me to go out myself to the person who has come here looking specifically for people like me so he can drag me off to prison and a religious inquisition which will probably result in my death?”
It seems that Ananias also has a bit of a pre-conceived notion about Saul. And, like we all probably tend to do at times, Ananias questions this call, and makes excuses. And we can relate, because we also don’t want to take risks to share our faith with people who scare us, or volunteer our time and talents for the fear of missing out on doing something more fun or important, or spend our money on things other people may need if it means giving up something we’ve been saving up for, or associate with “certain people” if it hurts our own popularity or social status. We’re pretty good at coming up with all kinds of excuses when God seems to be calling us to a new path. But Jesus isn’t having it with the questions or excuses. Christ commands him to Go! Telling him, “this man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.”
Both of these men have been called by God to experience an unraveling of who they thought they were, and of what they thought about the “other.” One experienced a blinding light followed by three days of darkness, in order to finally see clearly the path that God has chosen for him. The other wanted to talk his way out of following Christ’s Way, questioning whether this was really the path he had to take. Sometimes, we may need to be knocked off our horses like Saul, in order to confront the thoughts, behaviors and attitudes that cause us to make enemies out of those who don’t see things the same way we do, or those who don’t share the same religious or political or cultural values. May we, like Saul, be willing to humble ourselves enough to let God lead us to a new path of seeing each person as a beloved child of God. And sometimes, like Ananias, we may feel that nudge to be the answer to someone else’s prayers, and be tempted to let our fears, our ambitions, our pride or our pursuit of happiness keep us from being the person God is calling us to be – a person who is generous with our time, our resources, and our kindness; a person who is attentive to the needs of others; a person who is willing to offer help and healing and comfort. May we, like Ananias, find the humility and vulnerability to be a true follower of the Way.
The transformation from Saul to Paul was a dramatic one. But the blinding light and voice from heaven may keep us from seeing another important aspect of this transformation – it did not happen with God alone. Once God spoke to each of these men, it was only through their connection to each other – through relationship and community – that each finally found their true path, their true calling. Graduates, as you go out into the world, remember that you are not alone. This community of faith called Maple Grove goes with you in prayer. But there will be other communities of faith wherever you find yourself who would be happy to welcome you, and walk with you, and give you strength and courage for whatever path you find, and for becoming the person God has called you to be.
And friends, the church is the gift that Christ has given all of us to find our identity as disciples and world-changers. Saul found a new identity as Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, and he found a new path as a missionary and church planter among the gentiles, those who didn’t grow up in a religious tradition of knowing God. Paul spoke of his conversion in his letters to the church in Corinth, and I love the way he phrases it in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
What parts of your identity can you ask God to unravel today so that you can become part of a new creation? How is God calling you to make the world around you a better place, by instead of breathing threats and destruction, breathing words and acts of kindness and peace? Let’s pray:
Will you let the blinded see if I but call your name? Will you set the prisoners free and never be the same? Will you kiss the leper clean, and do such as this unseen, and admit to what I mean in you and you in me?
Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? Will you quell the fear inside and never be the same? Will you use the faith you’ve found to reshape the world around, through my sight and touch and sound in you and you in me? (The Summons, John Bell)
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