Witnesses - Week Two: "On The Damascus Road"
This is what is known as the Season of Easter in the historic church calendar, and for the next several weeks we'll be continuing to celebrate Easter, and we'll also step further into our sermon series, "Witnesses."
Because where we are in respect to Easter Sunday is about the time that those first-century followers of Christ were asking a question--which is the same question you and I ought to be asking, too: "Jesus rises. Now what?"
It's a good thing that we are not alone in asking this very question. Jesus' disciples wondered the same thing, and almost immediately after Jesus was raised from the dead. We know this because of the book of Acts.
I love the arc that the story in the book of Acts takes.
It begins with a bunch of scared people in a room, wondering what is going to happen to them---disciples of Jesus, who are afraid to venture outside the door because they think they might be killed.
It ends---literally---with the word "unhindered" as the Apostle Paul sits imprisoned in Rome, which was widely known as the "very end of the Earth," preaching the Gospel, furthering the movement of Christ.
I'd call that a movement, wouldn't you? But how did this happen, really? It was because of witnesses.
That's what this sermon series is all about---a bunch of people living differently. Living a Resurrection life because they witnessed something that changed them forever.
And we have a chance at this. To bear witness to what has been raised to a new life in us--to live a Resurrection life. That's what we're going to do for the next several weeks all the way through the season of Easter.
Before we jump into today's teaching, I want to share a bit of my own story--about a time when I got unstuck. And then I began to realize that the reason I had become unstuck was that God was calling me to something new, and I needed to move in a new direction.
I know that sounds pretty church-y, but bear with me... here's what happened.
I was a year into a Master's degree in History, about to work on my thesis. I had been accepted to several doctoral programs to pursue my Ph.D. in History and I was on track to become a British History professor.
My major professor, who was a renowned scholar and expert on 17th-century British politics and religion told me that in his 40 year career he'd had only two students who he thought had what it took to follow in his footsteps, and I was one of them. Everything was planned and worked out.
Except, I was miserable. I felt stuck. I had no joy in what I was doing. I didn't want to really admit it, but where all of my joy and all of my energy was being directed was toward my job as a youth director at a small church.
And one day, I had a professor speak truth into my life and everything change.
The story about how I am not stuck.
What that did for me was loosen up all of the barriers in my heart, and my head. I didn't know what was going to happen next, but I knew that I was heading somewhere unplanned.
We all know what this feels like to some extent. The moments when we begin to realize that we just might be called to do something more, to be a more engaged follower of Jesus. We begin to see more clearly that our truest sense of joy comes from doing things for the right reasons--none of which have to do with success, riches, power and the like.
And no matter what we are being called to do, we know in our heart of hearts that we are being called to do it because of Jesus and what stumbling after Jesus means to us.
Even when we feel like we are unqualified, unprepared and probably the last person on earth Jesus would use.
Today: We are living a Resurrection life when we realize that we are called.
The passage of Scripture that we are going to be studying today starts off like this:
"Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples."
The word used to describe what Saul was doing is the Greek word lymainomai, which is translated "destroying" but was used most often to describe things like wild boars destroying a vineyard, or a wild beast ravaging a dead body.
He was given writs of extradition to go and retrieve Christians who were hiding in Damascus among the Jews who were living there, presumably to bring them back for trial, imprisonment and perhaps execution.
Talk about being the wrong kind of guy to be used by Jesus.
Here's the passage of Scripture (Acts 9:1-19) that describes what happened on the way to Damascus:
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. 10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.Lots of scholars have spilled lots of ink trying to figure out why Saul was so fanatical about stamping out the followers of The Way.
Carl Jung, one of the fathers of Psychology wrote, “Fanaticism is only found in individuals who are compensating secret doubts...” Some have surmised that he might have actually met Jesus, or at the very least heard him speak. And it wrecked him.
Saul's teacher, his rabbi, was Gamaliel---who we learned last week showed a certain amount of restraint when it came to reacting to movements that challenged the institution. Gamaliel didn't show any signs that he actually believed any of the things that Jesus taught, or was affected by what the disciples continued teaching.
But at least he showed restraint. Saul doesn't show the kind of restraint his rabbi seemed to teach. It's almost as if he is trying to compensate for something. When he not only observed but took the very blame for the martyrdom of Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons, he saw the way Stephen died---much like the way Jesus himself died, forgiving his tormentors and commending his spirit to God.
It's not entirely clear what his motivation might have been, but what is clear in the text is that Saul is an enemy. God chose an enemy to become the Early Church's greatest evangelist, missionary, theologian, pastor, preacher, teacher and writer.
But Saul/Paul is stuck down, blown away, shook up and blindsided. The only thing he can do while he is sitting on his butt in the middle of the road is, "Who are you LORD?" At that point, Paul still isn't completely sure who struck him down, but Jesus clears that all up for him.
Jesus does something fantastic. He says to Saul/Paul, "Why are you persecuting ME?" The destruction that Saul/Paul is meting out to The Way is being done to Jesus personally because the Church is His body. To which Saul/Paul replies, "Who are you, LORD?"
I love this. All of the doubts and the fears that fueled his fanaticism melt away in the face of the One who he knows deep in his heart has the answers to everything he is seeking to find.
Great story, that gets even greater.
Sometimes when we read the story of Paul's conversion it produces what I have heard called "faith inferiority."
In other words, most of us look at the dramatic way that he was transformed from enemy into missionary and we don't have a story that stacks up. Most of us will say things like, "I have always been a Christian." or "I have always been in Church." We might also qualify our Christian experiences by saying things like, "As long as I can remember..."
But there's something else going on here that we need to understand before we minimize our own role in the story of the Church.
Saul/Paul's call moment is so important to the early Church that Luke (the author of Acts) covers it three times in his account. And here's where it gets really interesting. The way in which Jesus calls out to Saul/Paul connects his call moment to some great call moments in the Old Testament---also to some unlikely people.
When Jesus says, "Saul, Saul..." we recall God calling "Abraham, Abraham" and "Jacob, Jacob" in Genesis and "Moses, Moses," in Exodus. Each of these were called out, and each of them was the "wrong" person, so to speak.
But that still doesn't solve our problem with the "faith inferiority" issue. What we need to know here for the purposes of our study is that Saul's conversion story is part of a larger narrative about how God chooses the wrong people.
Throughout the book of Acts we have story after story of God choosing the wrong people...
In Acts 8:4 we have this moment where Philip preaches to a bunch of Samaritans and they all become believers. Samaritans were the wrong people. They were wrong because they were ethnically "other" from Jews in some pretty historic ways. There was no love lost at all between Jews and Samaritans. They also worshipped God, but in the wrong ways and in the wrong places. Yet, God chooses them.
In Acts 8:26 Philip converts an Ethiopian eunuch who had visited Jerusalem, presumably seeking knowledge and wisdom in one of the great cities of the ancient world. He was on his way back to his position within the palace of Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. It was his position so close to the queen that necessitated his being made a eunuch. In the ancient world he was sexually deviant, neither a man nor a woman and he was racially other as well. Yet God chooses him.
In Acts 9 we have the conversion of Saul--a witness against The Way who is transformed into a witness for The Way. He is an enemy. Yet God chooses him.
In Acts 10 we see the conversion of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. This was a man who was not only ethnically other from the Jews, but was also an Occupier, a tool of the Empire and an enemy. Yet God chooses him.
And in Acts---- Paul turns and heals a young woman who has been trafficked to be a fortune teller, and God knows what else. She's a slave, she's been abused, she's probably mentally ill from her experiences, and God chooses her to be a witness after Paul heals her.
So what does this mean for those of us who don't really have all that dramatic stories to tell? What does it mean for those of us who don't feel all that important, useful, usable, etc. for the kingdom of God?
This is an important teaching for us because on any given Sunday when I look out into my congregation the reality is that more than a few people barely made it there. They doubt themselves, and their commitment. They worry that their faith won't measure up to the others who are gathered with them.
The truth: We are all the wrong people.
What do the wrong people look like?
It's the person so bent on promotion at work that they let their marriage suffer and even fail.
It's the angry teenager who can't forgive her parents so she gives herself away to boys who don't love her.
It's the ever pleasing wife who becomes an enabler to her husband's drinking and watches her children slip away.
It's the demanding parent unwilling to give his child a break.
It's the person who is struggling with the secrets of their sexuality, and the guilt they carry with them in silence.
It's the judgmental Christian who looks down on everyone who is not like them--even the people they gather with every Sunday to worship.
In other words... they look like you and me.
And we live into the stories we tell ourselves about how wrong we are, don't we? And we can become so full of pride that we never admit it. Or we are too full of shame... We believe the lies about who we are and what we've done--about how we can never be forgiven, really. How we can never be called by God.
I want to show you a vision of what God sees in the wrong people...
Watch this video of 10-year-old Christopher Duffley singing the National Anthem at a Teamsters event in NYC. Christopher is blind and autistic. His birth mother was addicted to drugs and on oxycontin and cocaine when she was pregnant. Christopher's adoptive parents discovered his gift of singing when he was four years old. They also happen to be devout Christians:
Here's the thing---that's awesome. And everyone focuses on Christopher, which is completely right because it's the unlikely nature of his talent that makes us wobbly inside.
Christopher doesn't just sing at Teamsters events---he sings in churches, and in rallies all across the United States where people gather to hear the Gospel. It's awesome and extraordinary.
But there's something else here that is even more extraordinary. This little boy was a throwaway---a child that had no real future, no prospects. He was wrong on every level. But this family, this father adopted him and took him into their home as a baby---knowing how difficult their life would become as they cared for him. They raised him in love despite his brokenness and gave him the space and the grace to become an inspiration.
This is a beautiful illustration of the love of God for those of us who are "wrong." The world does not see us as God sees us.
Do you feel wrong? Do you feel incomplete? Do you feel unworthy?
That's the first step in realizing that God is calling you. Because God is. We are all being called.
And we know that we are living a resurrection life when we realize that we are called.