Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
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 any 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 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 you are to do.’The men who were travelling 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 the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying,and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
What is In the Sky?
This past week, something very exciting happened over New England. Around midnight last Monday, a fireball shot through the night sky. Here's a video...
When I heard about it, I remembered a talk that I heard about 3 years ago when I accompanied Tasha to one of her planetary science conferences in Canada. The speaker was someone who studies meteors and meteorites. He has spent his whole adult life looking at fireballs shoot across the sky and then studying the bits of space rock that people eventually find at the ends of those trails of light. When he read the account of Saul's conversion on the road to Damascus, he saw something familiar. He saw a fireball.
Fireballs are certainly powerful. Look at these images from the 2013 fireball in Chelyabinsk, Russia. I warn you, the video can be a little loud sometimes...
As you can see in the first part of the video, the fireball itself lit up the daytime sky. If you looked at it for too long, it could make your eyes hurt. It flew through the atmosphere with such speed and force that it created a sonic boom that broke windows and blew open doors. If you had your speakers up loud enough, you heard the boom. Now, while I'm not exactly convinced that the bright light from heaven that we heard about here in Acts is a fireball, if the light that Paul saw was anything like the fireball in Chelyabinsk, I can see why he might be inspired to change his ways. It kinda makes me wonder if unexpected, powerful lights from heaven and Jesus' own booming voice might have been the only thing to get him to change his ways.
When recounting his conversion in his letters to the church in Galatia and Corinth, Paul described himself as having been a terrible persecutor of Jesus' followers. He even says the he sought to destroy the nascent church. But, he says that he saw a vision of Jesus that changed his life. While he doesn't describe exactly what happened in this vision in any of his confirmed letters (in his own writings, Paul never mentions a great light, fireball or otherwise), there must have been stories about this vision circulating. When the author of Luke and Acts decided to write a testimony and history of Jesus' life and the early church, this author included one of those stories. He, too, must have thought that something very dramatic would have had to happen in order to change Paul.
Remember that part of the Gospel where Jesus said that you need to love your enemies? Well, it sounds like Jesus' followers would have certainly struggled with loving Saul. The book of Acts describes him as "breathing threats and murder" against Jesus' disciples. In a couple of his sermons later in the book, it says that he threw women and men who followed Jesus in prison. When he is given the opportunity to weigh in on whether condemned disciples should be put to death, he always voted that they should be. Always. He was so aggrieved by them... was so certain that they were blaspheming a god whom he dearly loved that he pursued them into foreign cities in order to capture and punish them. He was certain that he was doing the right thing. He was certain that he was defending God from these people who said that they were following "the Way." Nothing could change his mind. And, then, it happened.
He was walking towards the city of Damascus with a couple of other people. A light from heaven flashed around him. Now that you've seen a fireball, try to imagine that kind of brightness surrounding him. He fell to the ground. Remember that sonic boom knocking out windows and knocking people down in the video. Saul is like one of the folks in those office buildings, but, rather than hearing a sonic boom, or perhaps hearing within the boom, he heard the voice of Jesus saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul, not knowing what the voice is, asks "Who are you, Lord?" With words that echoed through his chest, he heard "I am Jesus, who you are persecuting." With those words, Jesus aligns himself once again with the suffering of humanity, identifying so closely with the people who love him that when they physically suffer, he physically suffers. Jesus then told Saul to get up and go into the city. He will be told what to do when he gets there.
Imagine having been so sure that you were right that you were willing to put people to death who disagreed with you. Imagine having been so sure that you are the righteous one that you chase the people you've decided were your enemies from city to city. Now, imagine that one of these people is the one who will bring you healing. That is where Saul is: unable to see... too affected by what has happened to eat or drink... praying and waiting to hear how he will be restored... soon to learn that a follower of the Way will bring God's forgiveness to him. Imagine that you are Ananias, the one who has to go lay hands on Saul. This is probably the last guy, short of Caesar himself, who you would imagine Jesus asking you to help. And, yet, it happened.
It turns out that Ananais didn't need a fireball to get his attention. He just needed a vision of Jesus. As soon as he heard Jesus, he thought he was ready to do whatever he asked... at least until he realized that Jesus was going to ask him to go see Saul. Ananais said that he's heard about this Saul guy. He's awful. Is Jesus sure that he wants to heal him? Jesus said, yes. I'm sure. I've got a job for him. It won't be easy. My jobs rarely are. But, he's the one to do this one. To his credit, Ananais went and he gently laid his hands on the one who, only three days prior, would have happily had him killed. Turns out that Jesus asked a lot of Ananais, too. As we know, Jesus' missions are often hard ones. Thank goodness the Holy Spirit was there to do the actual healing. Something like scales fell off Saul's eyes... all the hatred and fear that he had for the people who he believed to be so different from him fell away. He could see. He was baptized. He shared a meal with the people present. He gained strength. He gained a mission. He began to preach. He began to be called his Roman name, Paul, in honor of his mission to the Gentiles. And, all it took was a little fireball and a vision from God. That's not much, right?
In the sermon last week, I asked you to think about who in our community would be surprised if we showed up, speaking words they understood, and sharing our testimony of God. I think this fiery story asks a couple different questions of us. Scholar Eric Barreto suggested that we spend some time discerning if our own zeal has ever been as misdirected or even as destructive a Saul's once was. If it was, how did or how is the Holy Spirit intervening to help correct it? He also pointed to the difficulty of both Paul's and Ananais' missions. Faith in Christ did not make their lives easier, even though it did make their lives richer. How can we shift narratives of faith away from understanding God as one who only wants to make our lives cushier and easier into an understanding of God who walks with us into unexpected places as we do very hard things? And, I think there's a tough lesson about enemies here, too. On the one hand, a powerful man is forced to see the humanity in the people who he sees as his enemies. On the other, a member of an oppressed religious group is asked to be willing to see God working on the heart of the one who could have hurt him. Reading this passage, we might ask, what does it really mean to trust God to deal with our enemies, especially if it means we might have to work with them later?
Most importantly, though, I think our question is are we actually willing to listen to the Holy Spirit, in whatever form it comes? Are we really willing to change even if it means re-evaluating the values that we most hold dear? A fireball knocks over our walls. A still small voice echoes in our chests. What do you see in the sky? Will you let it change how you are living?
Works Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon:
Eric Barreto: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2835
James Boyce: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=563
William Hartman's talk titled "Chelyabinsk, Tunguska, Zond IV, and the Road to Damascus," presented at the 76th Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting (Edmonton, CA: 2013)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.