Some of us have had our cataracts removed and we still remember the feeling of amazement when the doctor removed the eye patch. It’s a sudden and startling reversal. “I once was blind but now I see” – were the words that came to my mind at the time. It was as if “something like scales” had fallen from my eyes.
I love this story about Saul of Tarsus who becomes for us the Paul the Apostle. I love the startling reversal, the U-turn in his life. I love the way the story is told, folding in so many other biblical images from so many other stories: the split open sky, visions into the heavens, a blinding light, the three days of darkness. Days like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Days like Jesus in the tomb.
Gene Boring and Fred Craddock say: “The whole story is not about Saul’s successful quest for God, but about the grace of God that transforms a persecutor into a missionary. Readers are called not to admire Saul, but to rejoice that they belong to a church whose mission is empowered and directed by such a God.”
Paul’s vision, Paul’s epiphany – this moment of coming to awareness; this “ah hah!” moment; this “now I get it” moment – is a resurrection story. Paul is turned from death to life, from darkness to light, from dead end to new possibilities; he once was lost but now he’s found, once blind but now he sees. Smugly self-righteous, Paul is brought to his knees. Blissfully ignorant, Paul is shown what is really real and truly true. Arrogantly judgmental, Paul is judged and confronted and challenged and called and sent by the Risen Lord himself. The Holy has split open the heavens and intersected his life and nothing will ever be the same again. And all of it is God’s doing.
We think of Paul’s Damascus Road experience as a story of conversion. But Paul was not really converted, at least he was not converted from one religion to another; he was not converted from non-faith to faith. You couldn’t have found a more devout, authentic, passionate man of God in all of Israel. What happened to Paul is that he received a call. His life was re-directed, re-oriented, re-focused, re-invented for a whole new life and a bold new work.
As for these people he went to Damascus to attack, these people Paul was so sure were blaspheming the one true God by claiming Jesus as Messiah, these people of the Way; these very people, in another startling reversal, ended up welcoming the one who had been their enemy, loving him, supporting him and empowering him to live out this divine call.
There is the unlikely murderer Saul, chosen and called by God for ministry. And then there is the odd, enigmatic Samson…
As we are reading Acts during this Living in The Story week, we also are reading The Book of the Judges. This book overflows with stories of other unlikely heroes, (mostly) men attempting to intervene in the downward spiral of Israel away from covenant faithfulness to the one true God and into societal chaos. It didn’t work; these judges could not stop the cycles of disobedience even though their work sometimes delayed the inevitable apostasy and disintegration.
The judges too were “called” by God. The Samson story says that in his youth, “the spirit of the Lord began to stir him…” The way the Samson story is told, astute readers can’t help but notice numerous biblical themes coming together: an angel visits a barren couple and promises a son (Abraham and Sarah, Elizabeth and Zechariah); the father asks the angel’s name (Jacob wrestling, Zechariah); the father “sees” God in the angel and fears he will die (Moses); the son is consecrated from birth and marked by acts of ritual purity (John the Baptist); the son is destined to deliver God’s people; in the end he is betrayed and with his last breath and his arms outstretched, he defeats the enemy with surprising reversal (Jesus). Again and again the Samson story testifies to God’s unexpected, undeserved mercy and faithfulness. Samson’s dubious moral character and foolish hot-headedness only underscore God’s mysterious way of choosing and using some of the most unlikely people for ministry.
Do you know Sara Miles? She was raised in a completely secular world by parents who had rejected the Christianity of their childhood. “Superstitions,” they taught their own children in the next generation. And Sara completely agreed.
So there is no real explanation why Sara found herself mysteriously drawn to the little Episcopal Church in her neighborhood. As she tells the story, she had never in her life heard a gospel lesson, never said the Lord’s Prayer, never even mentioned the name of Jesus except as a casual expletive. But for some reason, on this Sunday morning, she found herself sitting in a pew, standing for the hymns and then—amazingly—coming to the Communion Table, receiving the bread and the wine.
“The body and blood of Christ,” the woman in the long white robe told Sara. And she took. And she ate. And Sara Miles was changed forever.
“Jesus happened to me,” she says.
Sara recites how confused she was over this unexpected, unsought event. Maybe she was hyper-suggestible to the new environment. Maybe she was overly emotional, like being caught up in a particularly glorious concert or a natural wonder. Maybe she was crying because of her pent up grief.
But the word Jesus remained lodged within her and wouldn’t let her go. In the introduction to her book: Take This Bread – Sara Miles says:
“I was hungering and thirsting for righteousness. I found it at the eternal and material core of Christianity: body, blood, bread, wine, poured out freely, shared by all. I discovered a religion rooted in the most ordinary yet subversive practice: a dinner table where everyone is welcome, where the despised and the outcasts are honored…. In this book, I look at the Gospel that moved me, the bread that changed me, and the work that saved me, to begin a spiritual and an actual communion across the divides.”
Her ministry became a local food pantry there in the San Francisco area. Healthy food offered generously and abundantly for any and all. And for Sara, the most logical place in the world to host such a food pantry was right there, at the Lord’s Table, where she had received bread of life offered generously and abundantly.
Hers is another fascinating Damascus Road story, a resurrection story; yet another story of God’s unlikely, unexpected, unpredictable grace.
All stories of call, conversion and transformation are not so immediately and suddenly dramatic as Paul’s or Sara’s. You know something of my own story: how very, very long it took for me to be able to see a new way for my life. It was like I had spiritual cataracts, something like scales limiting my vision and keeping me from recognizing my call. Thankfully, the Spirit of the Risen Christ has never given up on chipping away at my blindness. Thankfully God has placed a whole lot of Ananias’s in my path as I have made my journey.
Some of you are also on a journey to a whole new way of being and seeing. And it can feel like a very long three days, can’t it?
But whether the reversal is sudden or slow, it is still startling. To change our mind about some of the things we had come to believe; to change the direction of a life; to change our assumptions, our habits, our motivations; to be changed from people who enjoy being served into people who love to serve others; to be open and obedient to God’s work of transformation; to be willing to let Jesus happen to us. These kinds of U-turns, this reorientation comes from the work of the Resurrected Christ pouring out resurrection life into the world.
This life that is oriented and reoriented toward God allows us to keep our priorities aligned properly. Power and pleasure don’t take over but rather they find their proper place and appropriate balance. Pride and privilege lose their appeal; they seem like small and foolish motivations in light of the passion to follow in the way of Christ who came among to serve.
In this reoriented living, lives that were fragmented begin to come to wholeness. We don’t think of ourselves as a teacher and a Christian, as a builder and a Christian, as a plumber and a Christian. Our vocation may the way we pay the rent; it may be our best way to use the skills and talents we have; it may be a good way to serve our neighbors. But bottom line – we are not what we do; we are God’s. And when we finally figure that out, when our hearts finally begin to swing like a compass toward the true north of God’s life, God’s love, God’s way—then and only then do we know something about resurrection.
One of my favorite things to do in my local community is to read to second graders once a week. These children are lively and lovely and bright. Once, at the end of a school year, they each gave us thank you cards in which they had created acrostic greetings. Here is one little girl’s thank you:
T = terrific reading
H = happy
A = an angel
N = nice
K = knowledgeable (didn’t I say they are bright!)
Y = yummy cupcakes for our party
O = oriented to go to heaven
U = understanding
There! That’s it, isn’t it? “Oriented to heaven.” Not pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by-heaven but rather God’s-kingdom-come-on-earth-as-it-is-in-heaven heaven. Not God’s heavenly banquet one of these days, but everyone – here and now – eating delicious, healthy food in abundance (and a few cupcakes along the way as well!) And everyone, here and now, welcome at the Table of the Christ
God’s people, people of the Way, people walking by the Spirit, actually living out the heaven that is on the earth: where the eternal intersects the material, where the ordinary is transformed into extra-ordinary, where hearts swing like a compass to the love of God and love of neighbor, where the grace of God transforms.
May we more and more become people of the Way: the Way of the Christ where Resurrection Life continues to be poured into every death, every darkness, every dead end.
May we more and more become Ananias for others who are on the journey: welcoming, loving, supporting, empowering God’s work of transformation.
May we more and more become Sauls and Pauls; open and obedient to God’s radical call.
And may more and more Jesus keep on happening in all sorts of unexpected, unpredictable places.
Living in The Story reflections for Week 23: Acts and Judges
Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) 398.
Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballentine, 2007).
The Conversion of Saul by Michelangelo Buonarroti 1475 – 1564
Samson and Delilah by Caravaggio, Michelangelo (1571-1610)