The Third Sunday of Easter (May 2, 2019)
The Scripture for today was proclaimed through a Readers’ Theatre version, with the Narrator part read by Tom Miller; the part of Jesus performed by Melinda Burke, and the part of Ananias played by Lee Gustus.
Narr: Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women— back to Jerusalem in chains. As he was approaching Damascus on this mission, a light from heaven suddenly shone down around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him,
Jesus: Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”
Saul: Who are you, lord?
Jesus: I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting! Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Narr: The men with Saul stood speechless, for they heard the sound of someone’s voice but saw no one! Saul picked himself up off the ground, but when he opened his eyes he was blind. So his companions led him by the hand to Damascus. He remained there blind for three days and did not eat or drink. Now there was a believer in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, calling,
Ananias: Yes, Lord!
Jesus: Go over to Straight Street, to the house of Judas. When you get there, ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying to me right now. I have shown him a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him so he can see again.
Ananias: But Lord, I’ve heard many people talk about the terrible things this man has done to the believers in Jerusalem! And he is authorized by the leading priests to arrest everyone who calls upon your name.”
Jesus: Go, for Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings, as well as to the people of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for my name’s sake.
Narr: So Ananias went and found Saul. He laid his hands on him and said,
Ananias: Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road, has sent me so that you might regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Narr: Instantly something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he got up and was baptized. Afterward he ate some food and regained his strength. Saul stayed with the believers in Damascus for a few days. And immediately he began preaching about Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is indeed the Son of God.”
Well that was a quick turnaround, wasn’t it? Saul’s about-face, I mean. What a U-turn!
Here he is Chief Purity Officer for the Sanhedrin, persecutor of disciples of Jesus one day and then a follower of the Way just three days later. He’s on the warpath, trying to purge his community of adherents to this new, fringe sect. He’s got a posse with him and they’re headed into Damascus; he had written the leaders of the synagogue there announcing his visit, probably asking them to have the names of the heretics ready when he arrived.
And then… The overwhelming light. He’s thrown from his horse (I don’t know if they were riding horses, but that’s how I imagine it). Then the voice, “Saul! Saul! Why are you persecuting me?”
And Ananias. He often gets passed over because of how prominent of a character Paul is in the New Testament, but what happens to him is a drama of its own. The vision comes to him. He hears Jesus call his name, “Ananias.”
Did you notice how initially receptive he was, “Yes, Lord!” No “I must be hearing things,” but “Yes, Lord!” I say “initially receptive” because once he finds out to whom he’s being sent, he starts backpedaling that yes.
“Saul? Saul of Tarsus? That Saul? You know what he’s like, Lord. You know what he’s done and who he’s working for. And you want me to go to him?
Both of these men experience moments of transformation, and even though they’re dramatic and fantastical, I think we can see something of ourselves in Saul and/or Ananias. In their stories we can be, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts is, “detectives of divinity” and learn something about the ways that God works in our lives as well.
Consider Saul. It’s easy to cast him in the role of the villain. What he’s doing is unmistakably evil, don’t get me wrong, but a sympathetic look is necessary, if just for a moment. He was doing what he felt he had to for his people. His community faced plenty of external threats (the Roman Empire for one) and this latest group of “heretics” was an internal one—a rapidly growing sect of Jewish people who followed this one rabbi that they claim had risen from the dead. Being a Pharisee, and a good one at that (he later writes about himself in Philippians saying, “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless). He was doing what he thought he had to do to preserve his people and their traditions in the midst of a very tumultuous time.
Saul’s transformation was by no means a subtle one, and it came with an earth-shattering awareness that he was wrong about all that. So wrong. Completely wrong.
Have you ever been wrong? Me neither…
Transformation is often born in a sudden awareness that we’ve gotten it all wrong. Take Ray Anderson. Anderson, a fellow Georgian, was once CEO of Interface, the largest carpet manufacturer in the world. He built Interface into a company that churned out $1.1 billion a year. But one day he read a book (be careful when you do that), The Ecology of Commerce. He described reading it as a “spear in the chest experience.”
I read on and was dumbfounded by how much I did not know about the environment, and the impacts of the industrial system on the environment — the industrial system of which I and my ‘successful’ company were an integral part… A new definition of success burst into my consciousness, and the latent sense of legacy asserted itself. I got it. I was a plunderer of Earth, and that is not the legacy one wants to leave behind. I wept.”
Anderson overhauled Interface’s operations to make them more carbon-neutral and, like Saul, became an evangelist of sorts as one of America’s fiercest advocates for corporate environmental sustainability. I love what he said to a group of executives: “We are all part of the continuum of humanity and life. We will have lived our brief span and either helped or hurt that continuum and the earth that sustains all life. It’s that simple. Which will it be?”
Some of us tell similar stories of dramatic U-turns. Our consciousness about how we have harmed our fellow human beings, our siblings is not so much raised as it is crashed down on us like a wave. We have “come around” on issues of racism or sexism or homophobia because we, like Saul, suddenly come to grips with how we in our privilege have hurt people. The scales fall from our eyes and we finally see how our well-intentioned attempts at doing or believing the right things or even how our complacency actually does violence to others.
Some of us tell other stories of dramatic U-turns. We got clean of an addiction after “bottoming out.” We were reconciled to our families after seeing what a nightmare we were to live with. Or we came to faith after it was pressed upon us that our lives were headed in the wrong direction.
Still others of us don’t quite fit the Saul profile. We’re more like Ananias in his moment of transformation: we said “yes” to just one thing that was challenging, maybe even frightening. Not only was he scared out of his wits, “You want me to go to him?” but when he goes and seeks Saul out, Ananias embraces him as a sibling in Christ: “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.” He heals the man.
I can think of at least three non-profit organizations—one in Kentucky, one in New Mexico, and one in Washington State—that all had their genesis the moment when one person took the step of encountering “the other” as we say. They took the risk of befriending someone different than themselves, someone across on the other side of some imaginary social line, whether they were a person who slept outside, or a refugee, or a gang member.
When Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, was once asked about what marks a call to ministry, he posed a question back, “Can you receive people?” Can we, like Ananias, follow that nudge to be open to another person, even though that might be intimidating for us?
Some of you tell stories about how your lives changed when you said “yes” to something that scared you. Like Ananias, you pushed past your comfort zone and were transformed.
Maybe you’re a Saul. Maybe you’re more of an Ananias. Maybe both. Or neither. But here’s the thing: the stories isn’t really about them.
The Book of Acts is often called “the gospel of the Holy Spirit” because it tells the story about how God birthed the church. Zooming out from either Saul’s life or Ananias’ life, zooming out to the big picture, and you see how the Spirit was at work. You see the Spirit uniting Jewish people and other people from throughout the Mediterranean rim, weaving a community wider and deeper than anybody could have ever imagined. And it changed the world.
Maybe we’re proven wrong. Maybe we take a step out in faith. Who knows what the Spirit is up to?