This summer we are studying the Book of Acts which tells the story of the early Christians, following Jesus’ death, growing from a small sect within Judaism to an international religion. In the weeks prior we have seen the Holy Spirit at work moving the disciples out into the countryside telling people of the teachings of Jesus and with charismatic personalities and powers, performing healings and winning converts as they traveled.
Of course, this challenged the powers that be and the status quo. It would be alright if this Jesus cult had remained small as there were other offshoots of Judaism in Israel following other leaders. But when your numbers increase and people are drawn to you and begin to question the authority of the people in power, well…. you are a danger to the authorities and your life is in danger. John the Baptist, Jesus, and Stephen were executed to suppress uprisings and many martyrs of our day have been as well. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr and new saint in the Catholic Church Oscar Romero are two that we might immediately recall. They were threats as they called for change and change is threatening to societal structures and power. Those whose power is gained from the institutions must put down any threats to their gain.
Which explains Saul. As a child, I pictured Saul as almost a wild animal. We first learn of him in a short introduction to his work in chapter 8 verse 3 where he was described as ‘ravaging the church by entering house after house and dragging off both men and women and committing them to prison.’ WOW! That is enough to give any kid nightmares!
And as Chapter 9 begins, Saul is continuing his work to restore order and the status quo by stomping out this rising group of followers of Jesus. But, in what might be the most incredible conversion story, God calls to him.
Listen to God’s word as it is found in verses 1-8 of Acts.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found anyone who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed all around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city and you will be told what to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by hand and brought him into Damascus.
We all have heard this story. Saul, on the road to Damascus, meets Jesus. And on the road, he has an encounter with the man whose followers he has been persecuting. He meets the risen Jesus on this road and he is changed. He is blinded by the experience until a man named Ananias is called by God and goes to him and baptizes him. Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit. Something like scales falls from his eyes and his vision is regained and he stays for several weeks in Damascus spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ who just days ago he was persecuting people for following. Saul, whose name is then forever after is intertwined with his other name Paul, becomes a great evangelist for the followers of Jesus. He stays in Damascus until the ‘powers that be’ found out he converted in his beliefs and was no longer working for them and they plotted to kill him. He had to flee the city at night by being lowered in a basket through a hole in the wall of the city.
It’s a great story! Suspense and even a plot twist. But as I meditate on it, there are also so many things about this story which are incredibly relevant to us today.
Saul was a part of the establishment. He was a so believed in it that it was his mission and life calling to persecute those who threatened it. And he had what Kierkegaard called ‘a leap of faith’. He had an experience that changed his former thinking. What he believed before no longer made sense as he looked at the world through his new lenses and beliefs.
When my daughter was in elementary school her favorite person was Joe Bruce. She would tell me he was her best friend. It made sense as Mr. Bruce was the first person she saw in the morning as he greeted her at the door and the last person she saw as she left and he said goodbye. You see, Joe Bruce was a retired custodian at the school who after retirement came to the school each day as a volunteer to greet the children and stayed until school as over so he could say goodbye in the afternoon. As I pulled into the drive to the school each morning to drop Nonie off for the day, a big smile would come over Nonie’s face and she would jump out of the car to see her friend Mr. Bruce. He was that special.
Two months into the school year, I got a phone call from the principal, Miss Marter, telling me that Nonie taught her something that has instituted a change in the whole school. Up until then all support personnel at the school had been called by their first names. Custodians were called by teachers and students alike ‘Tom or Joe’ in a friendly and personal manner.
But Nonie called her best friend Mr. Bruce. And one morning Miss Marter asked her why. And she told her that she was allowed to call him Joe when she could call Miss Marter by her first name, Helen. Miss Marter said it hit her like a brick. She had been blind to the institutional racism she was in fact teaching a new generation of young minds by allowing some people to be called by their first names and not others. The scales had fallen off her eyes. She had not realized that she was indeed a part of a problem until she was able to look at the situation through new eyes.
This month we are challenging ourselves to look at our place in the pandemic of racism gripping our country and world. None of us think that we are racists. We think of ourselves as good. But, we are going to risk looking at our stake in the institutions in our country which allow some to thrive and others to wither. We benefit while others do not. These are strange ad uncomfortable conversations we must have. We too, need that Kierkegard-ian ‘Leap of faith.’ We can’t see where it is we will end up. The scales still cover our eyes. But as we work through it we will find that our change, our conversion to a new way of thinking, will help end an illness in our society. So, I hope you are working through the 21day Racial Justice Challenge. And I hope you will watch the movie 13th and join in our conversation with us on the evening of July 22nd. We need to hear where God calls us in this time and day. We need our experience on our way to Damascus. Amen.