[Texts: Acts 9:1-6-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19]
Grace, peace, and mercy to you from the Triune God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today we celebrate the third Sunday in the season of Easter. During this fifty-day period, which began on Easter Sunday and will end with Pentecost, Christians remember with great joy the most important event in the history of our faith: the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave. We acknowledge during this time that, because Christ was raised, we too will be raised.
As Christians, this is our story– not only the great resurrection we will physically experience when we rise with the Saints on the Last Day– but also the small, daily resurrections we experience in our lives.
Each time we encounter God, we are made new in some way.
This is not something that happens to us once, and then we can check “conversion” off our to-do list. There is no such thing as individual salvation, at least not the way it’s presented in some religious circles. There is no one singular experience that divides people into two categories. There is no “saved” and “unsaved” binary.
Why? Because no human being can, in and of himself, be in right relationship with God. And when we believe our relationship with God only has to do with ourselves and God, we miss the point– and, often, we actually end up hurting people.
In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we see what this looks like in the form of a man named Saul, otherwise known as St. Paul of Tarsus.
Now, we know from some of his own writings that, prior to his conversion, Saul was a model Jew. He was circumcised on the eighth day, just like Jewish law requires. He was a proud, card-carrying member of the tribe of Benjamin. He was a Pharisee– that was the type of Jew he was– which required him to devote his life to keeping all six hundred and something of the laws in the Torah as perfectly as possible. And he was pretty good at it.
If you had suggested that he was in need of a conversion experience, he likely would have laughed. Why would he need to be converted? He already had all the Truth he needed, thank you very much, and he was living as righteously as any person could be expected to, according to that Truth. He had it covered. He was right, everyone else was wrong, and being right was what he did best. If anyone had any reason to brag about how good they were at getting things right, it was him.
Saul, in his zeal to keep the law perfectly, was on a mission to wipe out the followers of the Way– the radical, weird new movement within Judaism (it was, at the time, still an exclusively Jewish movement) centered around a troublemaker named Jesus of Nazareth. These people weren’t known as Christians yet– that moniker comes later in the Book of Acts. They simply referred to their movement as “the Way”.
One day, as our text today tells us, he was on his way to round up some Christ-followers so he could have them thrown in prison. He was traveling to the city of Damascus. (And yes, if you’re wondering, this the same Damascus that is now the capital and second-largest city of the modern-day nation of Syria.)
On his way there, though, something incredible happened: he encountered God. There was a blinding light, and he fell off his horse, and he heard a voice calling him by name, asking, “Why do you persecute me?” The speaker identified himself as Jesus– yep, the same Jesus whose followers Saul hated so much– and told him to get up, go to Damascus, and await instructions.
Saul needed help getting the rest of the way to his destination, because he spent the next three days still blinded by the flash of light that had knocked him off his horse and onto his rear end. He had to be physically guided by the men traveling with him, and he couldn’t eat or drink anything. He was totally helpless. I imagine this whole ordeal was pretty humbling, to say the least.
God then spoke to a man named Ananias. Ananias was a follower of the Way– a Christian– who lived in Damascus. God let Ananias know that a guy from Tarsus by the name of Saul was on his way to Damascus, and that he had been blinded along the way. He instructed Ananias to go to the house where he would be staying to lay hands on him and restore his sight.
Ananias was understandably skeptical. “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” he said. “Wait a minute. I know who that guy is, and he is not a good guy. He’s done all kinds of evil things to your people in Jerusalem. Oh, and the whole reason he’s even here in the first place is to try and have the disciples here in Damascus thrown in prison too.”
In Saul, we see a really good picture of what can happen when we get too caught up in being right. Like Saul, we can actually end up hurting God’s children in our zeal to be faithful to God. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that loving God means hating our neighbors– especially those who are different from us. We become so mired in our own rightness that we somehow manage to forget that it isn’t about us.
We can talk and read all day about God and theology, and that’s all well and good. Certainly, brushing up on our Biblical knowledge, studying the two millennia of Church tradition that have gotten us where we are today, and trying to develop a theologically sound picture of who God is– those are all important things. A solid grasp of basic theology is vital for all Christians, because how we live is so profoundly shaped by who we think God is. But if we don’t translate that into loving our neighbors, then we’re just navel-gazing for its own sake, and we’re not doing anyone (including ourselves) a bit of good.
After all, Saul was an expert on both scripture and religious practice. And yet, when he encountered God, he wasn’t patted on the back for being right about everything. He was asked, “Why do you persecute me?”
That’s not the end of the story, though. Ananias went and found Saul, as instructed. Saul’s blindness was healed, and once he’d eaten something, he started to feel better.
Saul was baptized during his stay in Damascus. As a follower of Jesus, he went on to write most of the New Testament. He was eventually imprisoned and beheaded for his faith, and is revered today as one of the most important saints in the history of the Church.
I think it’s a mistake to label what happened on the road to Damascus as Saul’s “conversion”. No, that moment is not the moment that he was converted. It was the moment his conversion began. None of us are converted just once– we are all, to quote Charles Wesley, “changed from glory into glory, till in Heaven we take our place”
Although our experiences may not seem as dramatic as what Saul experienced in today’s reading from Acts, we too are invited to encounter God.
This is the reality of Easter. This is the reality of the resurrection– that we are invited every day, every hour, to encounter the living God, the risen Christ, in our lives. We are called to receive new life, not just once, but constantly.
New life is all around us this joyful Eastertide. The earth is awakening from its slumber as the arrival of springtime turns everything warm and green again. Flowers are blooming and baby birds are hatching from their eggs. Everything about spring beckons us to see the creative hand of God at work.
Like Saul, we do not begin our process of conversion– of continually entering and re-entering into relationship with God– by being right, or smart, or zealous, or an expert on the right way to live.
We begin by encountering God.
Where do you hear God calling you to practice resurrection this Easter season?
How will you respond?