Visions of Vision

May 05, 2019
Acts 9:1-20

You’ve got to love a scripture passage that begins with: meanwhile.

Meanwhile Saul continued to breathe murderous threats against the disciples.

Okay, so maybe we don’t necessarily like what comes after the meanwhile in this particular sentence, murderous threats aren’t really things to love. But what this meanwhile does tell us is twofold – one – it reminds us that this particular story is couched in the bigger picture of stories that are happening as the followers of Jesus continue to find a way to move on with the mission Jesus has entrusted to them. Even while they are being persecuted for their beliefs, there is a whole pack of people at work spreading the good news that Jesus brought into the world and that the risen Christ commissioned them to preach. This particular passage in the written text comes right after the telling of Philip baptizing the Ethiopian eunich – another story that reminds us that the love of God is for all people. This story about Saul and Ananias is one of many tales being experienced and woven by early followers of the Way [the Jesus Way] as they spread the message of God’s love to any willing and able to receive it.

Now I said that meanwhile was twofold in meaning and here is the second task it performs: foreshadowing. While meanwhile most often refers to things that are happening simultaneously, it can also allude to something that is imminent while pointing out that the moment at hand is a space just before something dramatic takes place. For example: I am going miniature golfing at three, meanwhile, I am doing the dishes. And this use of meanwhile is very much what is happening in this moment of the text –

Meanwhile Saul continued to breathe murderous threats against the Disciples of Jesus.

Clearly, Saul’s activities are not as benign an activity as washing dishes, but what this meanwhile alludes to is the fact that, while Saul is currently about the work of persecuting followers of the Way, it will pass as something new transpires to take its place. And something new and unexpected is about to transpire.

Saul 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. What we have to keep in mind is 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 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 the faith 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 this reality as we look at the story of Saul.

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 with the fear that is perpetrated through systems of injustice – implicit and explicit racism, including a broken immigration system, and we see it in action as individuals from one faith group target other faith groups in acts of terrorism. John Earnest, the individual who is suspected of perpetrating violence against a Jewish community gathered on the last day of Passover at a synagogue in Poway California apparently wrote a seven-page letter stating his core beliefs. Beliefs that Jewish people were worthy of death – beliefs he learned through his Christian upbringing and practice and the theology that was imbedded within him. This is a real implication 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. And yet I know that hope is 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 and so I name that here in this moment as we look at this story of Saul. A story that is often called the Conversion of Saul – which many have taught as his conversion from Judaism to Christianity. This was not a conversion of faith – 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.

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 as 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.

In western art there are so many paintings of this moment! One of the most famous is arguably Caravaggio’s The Conversion on the Way to Damascus or The Conversion of Saul. Which can be seen in the church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome. It is one of two Caravaggio paintings that hang in the C(h)erasi Chapel – the other being a painting of the Crucifixion of St Peter. It is a dramatic painting the top half of which is filled with a large almost monumental figure of a horse (which we view from the rear) and a groom tending to the horse. Both the groom and head of the horse are partially hidden by shadows. The bottom half of the painting is full of bright light exposing the figure of Saul splayed out on his back on the ground arms raised toward the light. The only face fully illuminated in the painting is that of Saul and the background is so dark that Saul glows. This is a style of painting called tenebroso – which means “shadowy” in Italian and was used by Caravaggio and his followers to showcase sharp contrasts of light and dark. A fitting choice of style for representing this scripture as it is also a shadowy story.

When you go see this painting in person, or at least when I saw it in person, a velvet rope prevents you from actually entering the small chapel in which it hangs fairly highly up on a side wall.  You have to stand at the side on the threshold and look up at the piece where it hangs on a side wall. It is a hard angle to see the painting from, but as you look up at it, it looks almost as if Saul might fall out of the picture onto you or perhaps it feels like you are looking up at the same angle as Saul who is basking in the light of this moment of epiphany and you can almost feel yourself lying there in the precarious moment knocked down to the ground.

This is actually the second version of this painting theme that was created by Caravaggio for the chapel – the first was rejected by the patron – it was much more busy in composition telling more of the narrative of the story. This second painting, the well known one, is boiled down to simply the mystical moment of the light surrounding Saul. It is indeed a mystical moment, and yet Carravagio paints this scene in an unidealized way – he is presenting the divine in an everyday context. The hoof of the massive horse hovers over Saul as if it could stomp down and break him at any moment – and yet there lies Saul, in the dirt, fragile and exposed in a moment of encounter with the divine, which in the painting, like in the text is represented only by shockingly bright light.

In this composition, Saul lies on his back with his arms up in the air creating an upside down triangle that teeters on a tip instead of being firmly planted on one of its sides like a pyramid. An artistic statement of the vulnerable and world altering reality of this moment for Saul.

And this is a world altering moment for Saul.

Saul, is not only knocked to the ground by this bright light, he also hears a voice calling his name:

“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

“Who are you?”

Is Saul’s reply. A fitting response to someone who, out of the blue comes to you in a vision of light and says they are being persecuted at your hand.

“I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me.”

In this simple answer we are reminded of a great truth about Jesus: he is always with the persecuted. And, not only does Jesus identify with the persecuted, he calls it out and does something about it. A few years ago we held a non-violent intervention skills workshop here at the church as part of our commitment to be a Safe Congregation. One of the basic techniques used as a form of non-violent intervention in potentially risky situations is interruption or disruption. When we can find a way to interrupt a cycle, even for a brief moment, that moment of disruption creates a space for the possibility of something new to occur. That’s just what Jesus has done to Saul, in this moment of encounter, he has caught Saul off guard and in doing so makes space for something new to transpire. And Saul begins to experience transformation right then. Instead of being a man with authority on a mission, all of a sudden he finds himself being told to:

“Get up now and go into the city where you will be told what to do.”

And when he is helped up by those who have been traveling with him and have witnessed this moment of epiphany, even though they themselves haven’t fully experienced the divine they can sense that something unique has happened in their presence, and they quickly discover that Saul can no longer see. His eyes are open, but they do not work as they did right before this incident. It’s almost as if Saul’s pupils have been super dilated – if you have ever been to an eye doctor appointment and had your eyes examined under dilation you know what it is like to have your eyes intentionally opened in such a way as to make seeing a challenge for you even as it makes vision for others possible in new ways.

Saul, in his blindness, is taken by the hand and led to Damascus and there he waits in darkness for 3 days, unable to see and without food or drink.

And here the story takes a sharp turn – instead of lingering with Saul in a valley of darkness and shadows as he processes the experience that has just simultaneously broken open his vision and taken it away, we are introduced to a disciple of Christ living there in Damascus. Enter Ananias. Now, if I were Cindy, I might be tempted to break out into song in the middle of my sermon here. You see I grew up with a father who (happens to be here today and who also) taught me the epic Ken Medema story song about this scripture told from the perspective of Ananias. [Ken Medema, for those who may not know is a singer song-writer, who is blind, and who writes songs about biblical stories – sometimes improvising them on the spot.] And so whenever I hear the name Ananias, my instinct is to jump right into that song:

“Ananias, sitting at the window praying, waiting for the break of day…sitting by the window praying waiting to hear what the Lord might say.”

[It’s an eleven minute song…so I’m not going to sing the whole thing for you this morning…you can look it up online.]

And on this particular day, as he is sitting by the window praying, Christ does speak to Ananias. In a vision, Christ tells him to get on down to Straight Street and ask for a certain Saul of Tarsus who is there (also sitting by a window praying) and waiting because Saul too has had a vision of a man named Ananias who will come lay hands on him and recover his sight.

Poor Ananias. Faithful Ananias, who responds without hesitation when he is called – “Here I am!” And what is he asked to do?? To go offer healing to a man known to him to have caused harm to other followers of the Way. Ananias is called to put himself in the path of a man whom he knows has come to town with authorization to detain and arrest him.

Well Ananias doesn’t take this request lightly – he speaks out – he names the injustice that Saul has perpetrated on some of God’s own beloveds. How can you be asking me to reach out and offer help and healing to this one??

And Christ’s response? Yeah…go anyway. Go because just as you are being called upon to extend healing to Saul in ways that stretch and challenge your understanding of God’s love and justice, Saul too will be charged with the task of preaching Christ to all people in ways that will stretch and challenge him. Following the Way isn’t always a sensible and clear cut path. Instead it is a path that makes the complex and vulnerable choice to embrace difficult strangers as family, to extend welcome and hospitality in the face of expected hostility; a choice which makes space for the possibility of transformation and healing.

Ananias chooses this path – he heads to where Saul is staying and upon entering the house he calls Saul brother and tells him he has been sent by Christ to recover Saul’s sight and fill him with the Holy Spirit. And immediately, something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes and his sight is restored. [I said earlier that his eyes seemed to be dilated but it sounds more in this moment like he had cataracts.]

This week, as I was sitting with this text and pondering this interaction between Ananias and Saul, the phrase community care kept surfacing in my world. We need each other, we are not able to do all things alone. And even God, who can do all things alone – doesn’t. Instead, God invites people, the community, to action, to relationship, and to intercede on behalf of each other and in so doing, offer healing to one another.

Author and speaker Rachel Held Evans was featured on Sojourners Voice & Prayer of the day the other week with this quote:

“There is a difference between curing and healing, and I believe the church is called to the slow and difficult work of healing. We are called to enter into one another’s pain, anoint it as holy, and stick around no matter the outcome.”

This is a particularly poignant quote to come from Rachel Held Evans who was, herself, on an uncertain journey of illness the last few weeks which resulted in her death yesterday morning. It feels fitting to name some of her reflections here as she, like Saul who, after his conversion became known as Paul, invested much energy in caring about, challenging, and helping to guide the future of the institutional church. She wasn’t afraid to enter into the pain of others, very often pain inflicted by the institutional church, and was willing to stick around no matter the outcome. And she did more than just stick around – she used her wisdom and shared her vision for what the church might be if it would journey towards justice, reconciliation, and healing in new ways.

Ananias’ vision offered the opportunity for a cure to Saul’s physical vision and a healing infusion of the Holy Spirit. That vision in action set both Ananias and Saul on a path of healing as they both had to acknowledge the uncertainty and pain of the moment at hand and entered into the promise of transformation together.

And that is what being a follower of the Way is still about today – leaning into visions and possibilities that offer opportunities for healing and hope and being willing to join in the journey together, sometimes in unexpected ways, with surprising company, and always surrounded by the light of the divine.