By Rebecca Messman
Burke Presbyterian Church, Burke VA
August 7, 2022
Acts 9 1 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. 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 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.” 17 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.” 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.
Let us pray. Lord, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Many of us know about Paul’s dramatic life change on the Damascus Road. How he was struck blind and knocked clean off his horse and then became the most famous Christian ever. However, we might not remember that before this story, Saul had been hate-breathing, religious-persecuting murderer who would have worn jack boots if they had been available to him in those days. We might be blurry about the fact that Paul came to find his way again, came to the way of Christ, came to his new path, not on his own in a kind of solo laser light show, but through the critical help of several other people, through their conversions that get far less press.
The Bible mentions that Paul’s traveling companions also heard the voice of Christ. They stood there speechless and then leaned into a miracle. They were the ones to lead him by the hand to where he needed to go. They were the ones to stay by him for 3 days, that holiest number of days, to see what happened.
Then there was a Christian named Ananias who also heard the voice of Christ. To say he was hesitant to help Paul was an understatement. Saying yes to this call meant risking the lives of his entire family because Paul was known for persecuting Christians and Ananias was a Christian. But had Ananias refused to let Brother Saul change, had he insisted on remaining in the safety of his tribe alone, had he refused to lay hands on a real enemy, scripture suggests Paul would have remained blind and who knows what that would have meant for the world.
For the conversion to happen, it was not just Paul. It took them all.
The way of Christ insists that this world does not change simply by people seeing the light on their own or blasting out their best argument with no further involvement. The way of Christ relies on the feet of people who don’t have the full story but are willing to hang in there together far longer than is convenient, like those traveling with Paul. And the way of Christ needs the hands of people who are willing to let change happen even if that change feels extremely risky.
A preaching professor of mine said, “You know, I’d rather see a sermon than listen to one any day.” In our world, people can listen to sermons anywhere. On a podcast, case and point, I heard a church leader say, “Words are more portable and affordable than ever.” And as people stare into the light of a billion phones, as we are discovering that sometimes our words can bring more heat than light, more reeling than healing.
Today’s story teaches us that, yes, sometimes God knocks people right off their horse, a sudden change overtakes them and there is no going back. One day, a man marched up to me after a sermon where I had spoken about God’s mysteries and good ole doubting Thomas, he said, “I appreciate those words, I do. But I have survived a near death experience. I have been enfolded in a loving light that made me happier than anything and ever since that happened, I don’t doubt or fear death anymore. I am a different person.” That happens. I have met people who had epiphanies, in AA or the hospital or when they became a parent or at the end of their rope at work. Indeed, there are those people. And, there are other conversions, far more frequently, that involve a change of the direction of the feet and openness of the hands more so than the blinding of the eyes. People willing to go where they’d rather not go, like the companions of Paul. People willing to open their hands in compassion to the very ones they have every reason in the world to fear, like Ananias.
It was not just Paul. It took them all.
Maya Angelou said, “I have learned that people will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
One thing I haven’t seen very often at all is someone who experienced an enormous life change that sounded like: “It was a comment on Facebook that told me how foolish I was, that made me stop and think.” “It was that guy who yelled at me during the meeting, and those who wouldn’t look me in the eye, they really opened my eyes.” No, most will say something like, “I can’t believe she sat by my bedside for that many hours.” “I was expecting him to chew me out and call me a fool, but instead, he forgave me.” “I deserved an angry rant and instead she went out of her way to be generous to me. Who does that?”
“I received compassion from the people I deserved it least from when I least deserved it, and that helped change me.” Those are the words of a former white supremacist skin head named Christian Piccolini, who left a life of racial hatred and violence not because someone told him how wrong he was. His eyes were closed to that truth. He changed because he received undeserved love and compassion from the very ones he’d been antagonizing. Once it was an African American teenager who wept with him about what it is like to see your mother suffer from breast cancer. Then it was Mr. Johnny Holmes, the African American custodian of his former high school, whom Christian had menaced with his rants. Mr. Homles saw Christian later in life and initially jumped back in concern at the sight of him. But then he listened as Christian apologized, told Mr. Holmes how he had changed. And Mr. Holmes embraced him and said, “I forgive you. Now you go out and tell everyone else about your change.” And that is what Christian has done for 18 years. His TED talk has been viewed 4.5 million times.
In my own life, I think of Professor Fenn in seminary. He was often late to his own class and rarely noticed when his tie was curled over his shoulder. Hardly an arresting presence. But in seminary, there was a moment when I was knocked to the ground by the death of a friend, blinded by grief. Up until that season in my life, I had been an insufferable overachiever. And that loss made it impossible for me to get my work in on time – especially the 20 page paper for Fenn’s course that was the sole determinate of my grade. One day, I begged Dr. Fenn for an extension. He looked into my red stinging eyes and said, “Don’t turn it in. At all. I want you to write. Write it all down until what is inside is out. Let the grief come out in words. And don’t worry, I’ll give you an A- anyway.” In his gift of deep listening and compassion, he taught me grace, more than any lecture ever did.
The way of Christ looks like shocking life change, unbidden, breaking in, breaking through, breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, as Paul would go on to write to the Ephesians. But it also looks like putting yourself in a place where such encounters might happen, outside of bubbles and comfort zones. In the visit with that cousin or sibling or part of the country you don’t really understand. It also looks like opening your hands in compassion and service and forgiveness, for those who don’t really deserve it, including yourself. It looks like extending grace one more time, being generous one more time, breaking the bread one more time, because that is how Christ has treated you.
For conversion to stick, it was not just Paul, it took them all.