by Michael UseyActs 9.1-20, The Message
Before my children were able to read, they knew several stories by heart. The stories were picture book favorites that we read to them again and again. When Ann dared to skip a page or change a word, they would protest, “Mom! That’s not what it says. Read it right.” Ann was the night owl, so she read to them much more than I; when I read to them, I would sometimes try to cut the story short: “Then everyone died. The end. Okay, time for bed!” They never bought it.
The conversion of Saul is such a story—so familiar and pivotal that even those who have never read it often know it by heart and take it to be the paradigm of religious conversion. In a surprising reversal, the person who had been the most ardent antagonist of the young church became the church’s chief protagonist.
It was a surprising time. Sick people were being healed merely by a shadow passing over their bodies. Dead people were getting a second chance at life. The gospel was being spoken even to gentiles, non-Jews. By the power of the Holy Spirit the church was taking shape, bearing witness in farther and farther corners to the grace of God revealed in Jesus. Day by day the church added to its numbers and became central to the lives of more and more people, including Saul. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul his Greek name. It was his fluency, his identity, in two cultures, Hebrew and Hellenistic, which uniquely equipped him for his mission.
Saul was building his career on the church. In the itinerant persecution of Christians he spared no effort to stifle the spread of the gospel. Saul was schooled by Pharisee moderate Gamaliel, but Saul was driven to excel in his duty. He was a worker who took the initiative and went far beyond the letter of his job description. Even before he entered the city of Damascus he had procured papers for those he wanted to have murdered. He worked overtime. In choosing Saul—“an instrument to bring my name before gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel”—God chose an intense personality bound to work overtime at whatever task he undertook. Saul knew his mission. But God knew Saul. God knew that Saul was confident, in charge, and not particularly curious about God. Capturing Saul’s attention required drama.
Some years ago on a rainy Saturday I stood on the front porch of a Habitat for Humanity house with several of you here but also with a man whom I had never met before. Roland Russoli had enlisted us as volunteers to unroll sod, plant bushes, and sweep a driveway to make the front yard of a new house look more like a home and less like a construction site, and this man was part of this workday. As we waited out the weather under the shelter of the porch roof, the man began talking. He observed that, although its timing was inconvenient for the work we had planned, we surely needed the rain.
Then, not bothering with a segue, he went directly to his main concern and asked me if I were saved. Now, when someone askes me such a question, God help me, but there is a part of me that wants to answer the way Colin Firth answered the same question from the bigoted church lady in the 2014 movie The Kingsman. He said, I’m a Catholic whore, currently enjoying congress out of wedlock with my black Jewish boyfriend who works at a military abortion clinic. So, hail Satan, and have a lovely afternoon, madam. I recommend you all memorize that response.
Now, to his credit, my new Habitat friend didn’t ask, Do you know Jesus? To which I have been known to answer, “Isn’t that the guy that cleans the pool at Hamilton Lakes?” And he didn’t ask, Have you found Jesus? “Nope, but do you want to see if he’s in the bathroom?”
But in a rare moment of decorum, I told him that I believed I was, after which he asked for the date, time and description of my conversion. It is for moments like these that I think about making up my own version of the Saul-on-the-Road-to-Damascus story: There I was, naked except for one sock, waking up on the sidewalk, in my own sick on Hollywood boulevard … But see it wouldn’t be true. I was baptized in 4th grade in Camarillo, Calif., by Jim Homes at Temple Ave Baptist Church. Like many of you I was raised in a faith tradition I was taught to love and respect, and gradually grew into the theological convictions I strive to live. Every day the conversion continues (that’s the “we are being redeemed” part of my benediction) as I am changed by human encounters, the natural world, dreams, books, art, music, and countless experiences that provide new insights into the nature of God.
My fellow Habitat volunteer was an outspoken pacifist, a good neighbor, and a self-avowed Christian who apparently knew with certainty the moment Jesus called his name and entered his heart. He knew where he was, what he was doing, what he was wearing, and prolly what was on TV that night. He was not impressed with my metaphor (not original with me) for the converted life: “If you consider a flower unfolding petal by petal over days, how can you mark the precise moment at which the bud “converts” to being a flower?” I thought it was so clever of me since we were doing landscaping that day. But it’s no match for the spectacular and unmistakable sound of the Lord’s voice from heaven. I doubted neither the man’s religious experience, nor his claim that since that moment his life had been infused with meaning. It was his easy dismissal of a conversion of a different sort that bothered me.
Christians tend to compare their personal conversion experiences to Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. Not all of us, of course, talk freely about what happened in us and to us on the way to becoming Christian. Our levels of comfort with such talk vary widely depending on our congregational culture, and our ability to be self-revelatory. But when we do think about that journey, and when we’re willing to talk about it, we say that our conversion was—or was not—a Damascus Road. We tell our young people that their experience does not need to be a Damascus Road experience, although it can be. There are many paths of Christian transformation—and the light from heaven is only one of them. We are not there yet.
In much of our thinking about this story, there is a tinge of wistfulness, a yearning. Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus was so definite, after all. So sure. Even if we dare to describe our own story as similar in some way, it pales next to the drama of the light from heaven. We do not really want something so strange and frightening to happen to us, but we would like definitive proof that God does exist and that God cares enough about our lives and how we spend them to stop us in our tracks.
It was the pivotal event of his conversion, a conversion that changed him from a perpetrator of sacred violence, a murderous zealot, against the young church INTO an apostle of Christ, a traveling theologian more responsible than anyone else for the spread of Christianity through the Mediterranean world. One day Osama bin Laden, the next day William Barber. Though he did not look much like Dr. William Barber: One ancient document describes him as short, bowlegged, bald with a large crooked nose and eyebrows that meet in the middle, the original unibrow. Talk about needing an extreme make over by Queer Eye! It was said of him in scripture: His physical appearance is not much, but his letters are powerful.
One aspect we sometimes overlook in reading this passage is that violence is the key issue. Saul is characterized in the opening verses as a man of violence. He is a young man in this story; we have been introduced to him in Acts 7 as the young person who took care of the coats of the people who stoned Stephen. The narrator says that Saul approved of the execution, and he is pictured dragging men and women believers from their homes and imprisoning them.
I’m glad we are talking about Saul’s conversion during a time we are debating whether or not to tell the truth about our nation’s violent past. Alongside the noble things we have done as a nation, we have committed some horrors. America’s history includes the selling babies in slavery away from their mothers, the sending of native children to so-called “boarding school” to erase their culture, and the separating families in Japanese internment camps, just to name a few. I don’t think we get to clutch our pearls and say, this is not who we are. If we are going to be better people, then we need to tell the truth about who we’ve always been. Facing up to the truth is the best chance we have for change. Paul was not afraid to own up and name the sacred violence and murders in his past. Neither should we be afraid to do the same.
What Paul observed that day in the dying Stephen must have been seared into his heart and mind. As he was being stoned to death Stephen prayed two prayers that were direct echoes of Jesus’ own prayers from the cross. Jesus prayed, “Abba, into your hands I commit my spirit.” And he prayed, “Abba, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Stephen prayed aloud, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he prayed “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Two prayers, one of trust and relinquishment into the hands of God, the other forgiveness for one’s killers. These had to make a huge impact on Saul. Saul first saw the face of the living Christ on the face of the dying Stephen.
But then the story veers away from Saul and the tragic events in Jerusalem to follow Philip to Samaria and on to Gaza. When we return to the story of Saul in Acts 9, his violence is still very much a problem. He is breathing threats of murder, obtaining letters from the high priest that authorize him to search for believers in Damascus and bring them back in chains to Jerusalem.
Saul is described almost exclusively in terms of his violence, and it is this violence that Jesus addresses when he speaks out of the heavenly light. Saul hears a voice and the double address of “Saul, Saul”—alerting the biblical reader that something worth paying attention to is coming next. “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus asks. Saul does not immediately recognize this voice—and when Jesus identifies himself he addresses the issue of violence again, this time in a statement rather than a question: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Flannery O’Connor wrote in a letter: I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.
By identifying himself as the one whom Saul is persecuting, Jesus identifies with the believers in their suffering. This identification is in the same spirit as the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25. But Jesus is not only identifying with the believers here. He is also making Saul’s violence the central issue of his conversion—an emphasis that Saul later confirms when he describes his pre–Damascus Road self as one who persecuted the believers to the point of death.
Another aspect that we sometimes miss in our interpretation of what happened on the road to Damascus is that this conversion of Saul is not an individual matter. The community of believers in Damascus plays a critical role. Saul is undergoing his own catharsis; he neither eats nor drinks for three days, and is blind. But another man, Ananias, is about to be transformed too. When Ananias first hears from the Lord what his part in the drama is to be, he is understandably doubtful. He protests. He knows Saul by reputation, and that reputation is not only unsavory but frightening. In his dialog with the Lord, however, Ananias is assured that this unsavory and violent character is indeed someone whom the Lord has chosen. We hear the transformation in Ananias’s mind and heart when he calls Saul “Brother.”
The light on the road and the voice that spoke out of the light stopped Saul cold, but his transformation is taken to the next step by the ministrations of Ananias as a representative of the believing community in Damascus. The insight that Saul claims in the last verse of the passage, that Jesus is the Son of God, is not a private matter between him and Jesus: “It took a community.” And a man of violence is then transformed into a human for God.
The story of Saul’s conversion is not told as the normative faith experience—it is clearly an extraordinary one. Even within the narrative of Saul’s conversion there is another model of the converted life.
Ananias was a convert to the faith, and a person who lived close to the divine. His relationship with God was conversational. Unlike Saul, he had been growing in the knowledge of God over time, and when the Lord called his name he didn’t need to ask, “Who are you?” The voice was a familiar one, and he responded as might a child who is being called by a parent from another room. “Here I am.” Unlike Saul, Ananias was not struck speechless, sightless and appetite-less. He talked back. Being in dialogue with God was not something new to Ananias. He was practiced at it. When Saul spoke with Jesus, the power of the experience immobilized him within the darkness of his own being for three days. Not Ananias. Ananias got up, went to the house of Judas and delivered the message that God had entrusted to him. Boom, done.
The perfect model of one who welcomed the stranger is Ananias who, despite his grave misgivings, obeys the Lord and welcomes Saul. And because of his gracious act, our faith is forever changed.
On the occasions that I have prayed for God’s healing to come upon someone, I have often prayed this very prayer: May the spirit of the Living God, present with us now, enter your body, mind and spirit and heal you of all that harms you. In Jesus’ name. Amen. And, by the way, any of the College Park staff would be happy to pray this prayer with any of you that requests it.
And the text says that “something like scales fell from his eyes” and he regained his sight. “Something like scales” – the language of miracle is always the language of mystery. Maybe Steve the snake can help us with this scaly mystery.
God’s means are tailor-made. Saul’s traveling companions didn’t see the light because the call was not for them. Some with subtler personalities than Saul’s, and some who are lifelong learners, come to know God in different ways because it is not as difficult for God to get their attention. But the lasting mark of conversion is not one date circled in red on the calendar, but the whole story of one’s life. In the end, Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is worth telling only because of what he did afterwards. We will not all be stopped in the road by a brilliant light. We will not all hear a voice calling us by name out of that light, nor have a vision in which the Lord instructs us to go to a specific street and find a specific person and perform a specific ritual. But we can be transformed just as Saul was transformed. Relinquishing the violence in ourselves and in our culture, trusting the Christian community to help us do that, is not easy. But it is what Jesus, calling to us from his solidarity with the oppressed and persecuted, is asking of each one of us. Answering that call in our own unique way will transform us.