We’ve spent the past few weeks looking closely
at the post-resurrection stories of Jesus:
Jesus appears to Mary—that was Easter Sunday.
Jesus appears to the apostles in the locked room
except for Thomas, he wasn’t there
but Jesus came back anyway
to show his hands and his side
that was the week after Easter
and last week
we explored John’s account of Jesus on the lakeshore
cooking fish and sharing bread for breakfast
for the disciples who had gone fishing
seeking to return to life the way it was.
But Easter is about life not returning to normal.
There are things in life that change you:
moving away to college, a decision to stand up for something big
the birth of your child, if you’re a parent
the Royals winning the world series…. (ok, maybe that’s a bridge too far)
As profound, and impactful as these things are in our lives,
scripture suggests to us that Easter is an even more life altering reality
than all of these.
For the next few weeks, we’re going to explore some texts
that suggest the ways in which this might be true.
Easter’s Impact: for us and for the world.
Today’s reading is the story of Saul’s conversion
as it comes to us from the Acts of the Apostles.
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.
3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus,
suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’
5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’
The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless
because they heard the voice but saw no one.
8Saul 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.
9For 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.’
11The 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,
12and 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.’
13But Ananias answered,
‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man,
how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
14and here he has authority from the chief priests
to bind all who invoke your name.’
15But 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;
16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’
17So 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.’
18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes,
and his sight was restored.
Then he got up and was baptized,
19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues,
saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
And may God bless to us our Reading
and our Understanding
and our Applying these words, to how we live our lives. Amen.
Anne Lamott once said:
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image
when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
Saul – the pre-Damascus Road version of the man
who would be renamed the Apostle Paul – -
represented that truth perfectly.
We meet this man Saul earlier in Acts.
He is already a famous persecutor of the followers of Jesus
described as ravaging the early church.
His life seems so focused, so successful…
…when on his way to Damascus, to persecute followers of the Way,
Saul is MET by the living Christ…
…and just like that:
this persecutor becomes the preacher,
a life of ravaging becomes a life lived for Jesus Christ.
A 180 degree change – what happened?
This is a story of wrenching movement from darkness to light,
from being “church enemy number one”
to the great leader of the church in its mission in the world.
Sure, but more basically,
…it’s also a story of what happens when God TOUCHES a life.
Years ago the church scholar Krister Stendahl wrote
an influential article on Acts 9 called
“Paul and the Introspective Conscience of the West.”
It was a critique, really, of how we in our modern world think
we have our lives put together.
Stendahl notes that Martin Luther,
when writing about Paul’s conversion,
described Paul as a man in SEARCH of something,
a person who FINALLY finds what he is looking for
there on the Damascus Road.
BUT…NOTHING in the story says that Paul was searching for anything
– - except for followers of Jesus to persecute!
This is NOT a story of a man who is miserable and tormented
until he finds a gracious God (that’s Luther’s account)
but rather a story of someone who is living life on his own terms
quite happily, thank you very much,
UNTIL, quite without warning,
he is FOUND by the living Christ.
To read the story otherwise is to read it, Stendahl asserts,
from the point of view of the ego-centric,
subjective conscience of the Western mind—
–that’s a fancy way of saying: where we always think it’s about US–
…NOT to read it as it actually meets us in scripture.
On that road to Damascus, God INTERVENES.
When we think about ourselves,
we tend to believe our lives are the result
of what we have managed to make of our lives.
Our “self” is whatever we have chosen, worked,
decided, and strived to be…
The Bible has a very different take on who we are.
Who we are, says scripture, is NOT what we put together for us
but what God puts together in us.
Scripture knows nothing of our earnest,
agonized search for God;
rather more typical of the Bible is to assert God’s search for us,
just like Paul discovered…on the Damascus Road.[i]
The Guardian newspaper once declared the 1993 movie, Groundhog Day,
the perfect comedy.
Three years ago, at its 20th anniversary,
another critic called the film the single comedy
most likely to be remembered 50 years from now.
I don’t know. But I do think that it’s a good movie to describe our modern age.
In the movie, actor Bill Murray plays the most superficial of men
who is engaged in the most inane of jobs (he reports the weather).
Murray finds himself in a hotel room in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania
on a drab February 2nd morning
to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony,
this strange American tradition of
trying to predict the end of winter,
and he wakes up to the radio blaring Sonny and Cher’s
whining rendition of their most pointless song
“I’ve Got You Babe.”
He then plods through his day,
encountering a group of wearisome people along the way.
The next morning the radio awakes him at the same time,
with the same song – Sonny and Cher all over again –
and the same weather report,
which he thinks a bit odd.
But things become even stranger as he stumbles through
exactly the same day as yesterday…
…and then the next day and the next and the next…
He’s trapped, over and over, in the same day.
And after the 20th repetition of the same meaningless day
Murray realizes he is in hell.
First, he tries a number of vain attempts to end it all
by leaping from a building,
falling in front of a speeding truck,
electrocuting himself with a toaster in the bathtub,
blowing himself (and a kidnapped groundhog) up
in a fiery explosion.
But after each attempt, he still wakes up the next morning:
same Sonny and Cher serenade…
He is desperate to find some sense of meaning amid the boredom.
So he engages in a life of crime,
doing all those things that he was reluctant to do
before his days became gruesome repetition.
…Only to find that after even the worst of crimes,
he awakens the next morning to “I’ve Got You Babe”
and begins his day all over again, without consequence.
Realizing that he has no way of escaping
the humdrum of the same day hellishly repeated,
he finally launches into a program of self-improvement.
He takes up piano.
He memorizes French poetry.
He begins to help people,
since having lived the same day dozens of times—
–he knows exactly when and where
there will be a car a women with a flat tire,
or a man choking on his meal,
or a kid falling from a tree.
He actually transforms himself into an interesting person
and, in the process, the people around him,
for whom he once had such contempt,
become meaningful to him.
Finally, Murray frees himself from hellish repetition
through this heroic self-improvement.[ii]
In many ways, this is the story that the modern world thinks we are now living:
take charge of your life and transform yourself into someone worth loving.
You can have meaning…if you choose to have meaning.
You can be good…if you work at being good.
I love this movie.
I think it’s a brilliant comedy.
…and as a follower of Jesus…I believe its story is a LIE.
We followers of Christ believe a story OTHER than what’s told in Groundhog Day.
The account of the conversion of Paul shows a person who receives a different life—
–NOT as the result of his choices
or his striving:
Our life is a GIFT from God…NOT of our devising.
How did I get here?
How did I come to possess the SELF that now possesses me?
I know how I am trained to narrate myself:
“It all began in Louisville, Kentucky…
” I was raised in a middle class environment
and a comfortable “bubble”
of solid, but cautious Midwestern norms and values.
…Modernity teaches us to describe ourselves as mostly SELF-contrived.
Our lives are the result of historical, psychological,
genetic development that occurs within ourselves.
But there’s something more there…
The writer C.S. Lewis was not really searching
for anything in his life at the time when,
in Lewis’s words, “God closed in on me,”
and he exclaimed with surprise, “So, it was you all along.”
Lewis didn’t find a new life; a new life found him.
In 1931 Lewis wrote to a friend:
“Picture me alone in that room (at Oxford),
night after night, feeling,
whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work,
the steady, unrelenting approach of the One whom
I so earnestly desired NOT to meet.
That which I greatly feared came upon me . . .
I gave in, and admitted that God was God,
and knelt and prayed:
perhaps, that night, the most dejected
and reluctant convert in all England…
. . . a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling,
resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction
for a chance of escape?
The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of humans,
and God’s compulsion is our liberation.”[iii]
Where does that new self come from?
Well, for Lewis, he was clear that it’s NOT his own intellectual achievement,
NOT some conclusion of a good argument;
NOT the result of planning his work and then working his plan:
It was pure GIFT, grace,
the result of the surprise, “so, it was you all along.”
In our modern world: the self, you know, who we are,
becomes an exclusively HUMAN construct,
something WE fabricate through our astute decisions and adventurous choices.
“I choose, therefore I am.”
What Paul discovered on that road was that
the self is a surprising GIFT of a creative God.
Christians believe that there is no “self” there until God makes a move,
until the embrace,
Of course, we are modern women and men
who have had years of education designed to insulate ourselves
from even considering the possibility
that something’s afoot other than that of our own devising.
We do NOT expect to be addressed by voices OTHER
than those that are self-derived.
Paul, that day on the Damascus Road
– was NOT worrying about the meaninglessness of his life,
he was NOT restless in pursuit of anything WHEN
–God surprised him,
and certainly God got Paul’s undivided attention—
THIS is a jolt to our sense of self!
What if the life I’m living is NOT my own?
What if I am NOT my own idea?
What if you are NOT only the sum of your choices and decisions,
but also the result of, as CS Lewis put it:
“the steady, unrelenting approach of the ONE
whom I so earnestly desired not to meet”?
One blinding light on one Damascus Road…and it ALL changed.
In the story of Saul’s conversion there is no development,
NOTHING…but a God who shows up and, in showing up—
–transforms the self into that which
the self could have NEVER been on its own.
I worry sometimes that the god we dream about is far too small.
Certainly rather safe.
The “god” of American, popular religion is a utilitarian, instrumental god
who is moderately helpful and never disruptive,
a god who is sometimes useful in getting what we think we want in life…
…but this urbane, deistic, therapist of a god
never actually gets around to doing anything,
never moves us anywhere,
never changes anything.
Such a small god can never move hopelessness to HOPE.
Such a small god would never seek to dry tears once and for all,
would never dare try to turn mourning to dancing,
would never lift up that which has been put down…
Such a small god would never surround us with God’s care
as we walk through the valley of the shadows of death
and protect us with a rod and a staff, overflowing our cup of Grace…
Such a small god can never let justice roar down
on the justice-parched places on our planet like a mighty river.
Such a small God could never have moved Martin Luther King
to write in that letter from Birmingham Jail 53 years ago yesterday:
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Theologian Robert Jenson says that’s how you can tell the difference
between a true, living God and a dead, false god.
A fake, non-disruptive god…will never surprise you.
She was a college student in the last congregation I served.
This was her third semester abroad, her third time traveling overseas.
Why on earth did she not simply act like most students
take her one semester abroad and then go home and get a degree?
Why was she so determined to do so much travel?
“Well, I’m a student, I’m 20 years old.
“I figure my major task at this time in my life is to grow up,
to be a different person than I was when I arrived here.
“I’ve found that there is no way to live in a different country,
a different language,
a different world and stay the same old me.”
It’s a parable of the Christian life:
There is no way to live in God’s whole new world and remain the same old you!
Presbyterian minister and prolific author Frederick Buechner
came to faith as a young adult – or rather faith came to him.
Out of college, he wrote a best-selling novel and was the toast of the town.
Yet his father had committed suicide when he was young,
his family was scattered,
and his life was without anchor or purpose or direction.
Restless, he went to church one day in New York City.
Legendary preacher George Buttrick was preaching.
In the sermon, Buttrick said that Jesus is crowned King,
not on a throne, with robe and crown,
but in our hearts, amid prayers, and praise, and great laughter.
And that was it: it was the “great laughter” phrase
that stirred something inside Buechner
and he ceased being his own person
and became, instead, Christ’s person.
…Years later, after hearing Buechner tell this story,
someone sent Buechner a transcript of Buttrick’s sermon from so long ago.
…In it, the words “and great laughter” do not appear.[iv]
It was an ad lib.
Just thrown into the sermon in the moment. And that was that.
Buechner was amazed:
On such thin threads of grace,
a seemingly innocuous gesture of care or compassion or love
something perhaps unexpected,
on such thin threads of grace hangs the destiny of all of us…
…UNTIL we consider that THIS is just how God acts.
This is what God does…
Only God knows the self I’m meant to be.
Only God knows the self you—by God–will become.
Only God can give us a self worth having.
And God does GIVE–in those surprising moments,
when we’re proceeding down our accustomed ruts,
just busy looking after ourselves,
and there is, as if out of nowhere—
–light… a voice…a summons…
…and we know we have been cornered,
and we mutter in astonishment,
“So, it was you all along.”
Have you known such a surprising, disrupting,
transforming encounter with the Living Christ?
Comfort even in the hardest places?
Hope beyond all reason?
Peace that really does pass all understanding?
Faith enough to move mountains in service of God’s justice?
Have you known that?
Paul, and a host of others are here to tell you: you will…
It is Easter’s absolute promise: You will.
[i] I am indebted to William Willimon’s interpretation of this passage in Pulpit Digest, Second Quarter, 2007. This sermon inspired and follows the work of the Rev. Mark Ramsey’s sermon “Surprise”.
[ii] Plot summary from www.imdb.com
[iii] C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy, pp. 238ff
[iv] From Frederick Buechner’s Sacred Journey.
Image: The Conversion of St. Paul in Legos by The Catholic Playground.