Altered by the Story

February 25, 2024
Acts 9:1-22

Stories are powerful tools. They are outlets for expression, communication, revelation, and education. Stories offer us insights into the content of the story itself, and also, if we pay attention, stories can offer us insight into the intention, purpose, or motivation of the storyteller. Stories can break us open to new ideas and new ways of being in the world. They can challenge our notions and understandings. They can inspire us to compassion and action. Good storytelling invites the listener into the story as engagement, as opportunity for growth and transformation. Stories alter us.

The way Luke, the credited writer of Acts, tells of the blinding roadside encounter between Saul and Jesus is a curious and highly dramatized story.

Saul – also known as Paul – tells his own version of his transformation near the beginning of his letter to the Galatians:

Galatians 1:11-16a

You have heard, I know, the story of my former way of life in Judaism. You know that I went to extremes in persecuting the church of God and tried to destroy it; I went far beyond most of my contemporaries regarding Jewish observances because of my great zeal to live out all the traditions of my ancestors. But the time came when God, who had set me apart before I was born, called me by divine grace, choosing to reveal Christ through me, that I might spread Christ among the Gentiles.

As Paul writes about his own revelation, the focus is much more on the outcome of Christ being revealed through him and less on Christ being revealed to him.

The Acts passage tells a different story. In fact the whole Acts passage we heard today is full of story upon and within story. Within this one pericope (a fancy word for passage or section of the text), there are a variety of different stories offered to us by Luke, a lover of stories.

The Acts passage, much like Paul’s own telling of the tale, begins with the story of Saul persecuting the followers of the Way. Followers of the Way, in this case, are members of the Jewish community that have taken up the teachings of Jesus and are living them out – they are following the way of Christ.

It is really important to keep in mind that the followers of Christ, at this time in history, were not yet Christian in the way we understand Christianity to exist today – as an independent formal religious institution. They were a part of the Jewish community who were living out a path of Judaism that incorporated the teachings of Jesus, they were followers of The Way.

There were differing approaches to living out and practicing Judaism at that time, just as there are still different approaches to living out all faiths in this time. We still don’t all agree on what it means to live in relationship with God and each other in the world. It is important to clearly name and hold this reality as we look at the story of Saul.

Saul, himself, is a fiercely religious Jewish man. He is a Pharisee – a highly knowledgeable and deeply devout lover of God. He is committed to leading and preserving the faith. In the Christian tradition, Saul is often portrayed as a villain. This is because, when we first encounter him, he is presented as a persecutor of the followers of Christ.

It’s important to name this because for too long the Christian tradition has taught a mindset of villainy towards Judaism as a whole. Teachings that support the villainy of a specific group of people lead towards dangerous consequences. We see that actively in our current culture when pervasive fear is perpetuated through systems of injustice – be it implicit or explicit racism, a broken immigration system, or when faith groups are the targets in acts of terrorism. There are real life implications to the teachings and practice of anti-semetic theology.

It is my hope that, at this church, you do not hear and learn messages of hate and specifically anti-semetism. I am aware that hope lives in relationship with action and so it is also part of my responsibility to speak explicitly against implicit references to anti-semetism in the Christian tradition when they come up and so I name that here in this moment as we look at this story of Saul. Saul is not a villain. He is a person of faith.

It is a story that is often called the Conversion of Saul – which many times has been taught as a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. This was not a conversion of faith, as we already acknowledged, Christianity as its own religion didn’t exist yet – Saul is a Jewish man who encounters Christ and is transformed by that encounter. And he remains a Jewish man. A Jewish man who continues to teach and preach in the synagogues and also goes on to invite Gentiles (non-Jewish people) into relationship with the creative, sustaining, redeeming God of the Jewish community. So let’s hold that reality in our minds as we explore this story a bit more. This is a story about people in the same faith tradition who practice their faith in diverse ways.

Saul is on a mission to teach, preach, and preserve the community of faith as he has known it to be. He is devout and committed to protecting the Jewish tradition from the new ideas and practices that were being preached by Jesus’ disciples. Ideas that he, at some level, perceives to be a threat. In pursuit of protection and preservation, Saul leads a charge against the followers of the Way. Followers of Jesus. When we encounter him at the beginning of this passage, Saul has asked for and received the authority, from the high priest, to arrest any followers of the Way he encounters on his travels and bring them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. With these papers of power in his pocket he is on route to Damascus. It is there on that path that bright light suddenly surrounds him and he falls to the ground in a moment of divine encounter.

Saul, with radiant light shining down around him, falls to the ground and hears a voice speaking directly to him. That voice is saying “Saul, Saul. Why are you persecuting me?”

I wonder what possibilities are running through Saul’s mind as he asks “Who are you?”

The voice responds: “I am Jesus and you are persecuting me.” The revelation for Saul is unique, in his efforts to stop the followers of the Way, he finds himself right in the presence of Christ. The revelation for us is the reminder that Jesus is always with those who are suffering and struggling. This is not “you are persecuting my followers” it is you are persecuting me.

And the encounter alter’s Saul. For three days he is without physical sight, waiting for the further directions that his encounter with Christ assured him would come.

As Saul waits, the story shifts to another player.

Enter Ananias. A devout follower of the Way.

And he also has a vision. Christ calls to him: “Ananias!”

To which Ananias replies: “Here I am.”

Notice the similarities and contrast between the visions:

Both encounters begin with a naming:

“Saul, Saul!” “Ananias!” Christ connects to each of them personally. When confrontation, transformation, and healing are at hand, it is personal.

It is their responses that highlight their own connection to Christ:

Saul, upon hearing his name called out, says: who are you?

Ananias, upon hearing his name called out, says: here I am, Lord. Ananias recognizes the call of Christ and is ready and willing to hear. Ready and willing that is, until he hears the message the encounter brings.

For next we are gifted with yet another story set within the narrative of Ananias’ vision. In this part of the story we hear about further visions that Saul has had – we didn’t experience these details with Saul, we only heard that Saul should wait for further directions. Yet here, Christ tells Ananias about a man named Saul, who has had a vision that a man named Ananias would come and recover his vision.

“Go at once to Saul and offer him healing.” This is the message Ananias receives. And for Ananias, this is a hard message. Ananias knows that this man has done harm to people in his community, to fellow followers of the way. He knows that Saul has come to this place with the intention and power to imprison any followers he can find. I can imagine the surprise and frustration of Ananias at this request: “Even knowing these things about him, you are asking me to go, connect, and offer healing to Saul?”

I would guess most of us have, at the very least, an inkling of the internal tension this kind of moment offers. We might know the hesitation that comes to the surface when we encounter someone who operates in the world under different convictions than our own. We might recognize the “surely not them” push back of Ananias at the thought of extending vulnerable grace to someone who has wielded their own beliefs as a tool of harm against us, or our community.

Even without experiences of harm, encounters with people who hold different beliefs than us can be challenging. They can also be eye opening and transformative. Those who came to the interfaith panel held here at HMC this past Thursday night in partnership with the Prince Georges County Office of Human Rights can bear witness to that. At that gathering a representative of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism sat together at a table and shared personal reflections about how their beliefs and faith practices foster hope to accompany them through seasons of suffering and challenge.

Each panelist brought their own beliefs to the table, their theological foundations, their personal experiences, and their political convictions. They offered insights of them to each other, and the gathered audience, in vulnerable authenticity. And while they came from different backgrounds, experiences and held different perspectives, the conversation was rich, highlighting areas of difference without instigating conflict, and offering spaces of connection beyond those differences.

This was possible, in part, because the panel was a space of storytelling. It was an invitation to welcome and receive the stories of others. It was a space of sharing and listening beyond the differences the content of those stories might highlight in order to encounter the connection of shared humanity present within each person.

When we are not open to stretching our own understandings to make space for the ways of others in the world, we can miss out on potential life-giving connections.

Raj Nadella –  Associate Professor of New Testament at Columbia Seminary in Georgia makes this point about Saul:

“Saul might have had theological differences with members of the Way, but it was his inability to see past those differences and relate to their humanity that engendered his hatred for them. In confronting Saul, the voice from heaven challenges him to see them through new eyes as people worthy of respect.”

Transformation and healing can happen when we begin to acknowledge and celebrate the differences among us; when we honor and make space for the different ways we live love into the world. It happens when we begin to connect at a human level. It happens when we open ourselves to being altered and transformed by these encounters instead of expecting others to be altered to become more like us.

This is the testimony of Ananias’ story. He hears Christ say, “Go to Saul, even in light of the differences between you, and let me be about the work of healing and transformation in Saul’s life.” In receiving that message, Ananias begins to be altered. He opens himself to loosening the tight grip of his own assumptions and expectations in order to be able to connect with and offer healing to Saul.

One of the memorable quotes from the interfaith panel on Thursday was from the Rabbi who shared this bit of Yiddish wisdom, she said: Man plans, God laughs. I confess I find this phrase simultaneously frustrating and freeing. And yet in holding it and thinking about it in relation to this scripture, I lean towards the freeing end of that response and perhaps even further towards inspiring. I receive through this a call to make space in our living and relationships for the expansive imagination and movement of God.

As a person who practices creativity in my living through the creation of art, writing, and play, I understand that we humans have fairly impressive imaginations. It is a wonder to remember that for as much creativity and imagination that we can have there is still even more opportunity and potential, and possible through the expansive imagination and perspective of Creator God. The God who created a universe designed to be ever expanding. Growth, change, and space for alterations are woven into the design of creation. They are a natural part of the context in which we experience life – expansive imagination is designed into creation and we are called to creative, imaginative expansion as we relate to each other, receive, share, and create experiences and stories with each other, as we live love into the world. In so doing, we are altered by the Spirit.