Acts 9:1-20 CEB
Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”
Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”
Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.
In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
He answered, “Yes, Lord.”
The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”
The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. After eating, he regained his strength.
He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.
We’ve all had interruptions in our lives. Sometimes they are small, like leaving the house and not being able to remember if you shut the garage door or unplugged the iron. It could be something larger, like a rockslide in the Wind River Canyon or too much snow in the Big Horn Mountains interrupting travel plans. Saul (later Paul), in our reading this morning, has his travel plans to Damascus dramatically interrupted by a flash of light and an encounter with the risen Christ! At first, this kind of interruption seems far removed from our own experience, but a closer look will reveal that Saul’s interruption impacted more than his travel plans, it completely changed the course of his life. He had been on his way, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1 NRSV). Instead, God knocks him off his feet which had been so firmly planted on the wrong path. There have been times in all our lives when we too have been on the wrong path in life and in our relationships, inflicting harm on ourselves and others. What caused us to change? Maybe we did not see a flash of light, but that does not mean that God was not involved. At the same time, we are still stubborn and short-sighted people, much like Saul, so our divine interruptions are not once in a lifetime but continual. In the end, we must ask ourselves, where are we still on the wrong path? Where do we refuse to see? Where does God need to show up and interrupt us to help the scales fall from our eyes so we may see the right path where we will breathe life, not hate.
Looking at our scripture this morning, we have this extraordinary account of Saul encountering the risen Christ and experiencing a dramatic conversion, but maybe not the one we normally assume. Usually, this section is titled, “the Conversion of Saul,” where he goes from being an unrighteous Jew to a righteous Christian. Just one problem though, this encounter happens not long after Jesus ascends into the heavens and most of Jesus’ followers do not call themselves Christians, rather they are Jews that follow “the Way.” These “persons who belonged to the Way,” are the very ones Saul is looking to capture and bring back to Jerusalem in verse three of our reading. There is nothing for Saul to convert to yet, and if we want to talk about him being unrighteous because of his Jewish faith, I am afraid that Saul’s own words oppose this idea, for, in Philippians 3, Paul says, “‘With respect to righteousness under the Law, I’m blameless.’' Saul did not view Judaism as bad and Christianity as good, for it would take more than a century for these two to become distinct religions. Rather, his shame is that Saul was so sure in his cause to bring these followers of the Way to justice, to punish what he is so sure is wrong. Now, I am not saying that Saul did not have a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, but I do not think it looked like what we normally envision as a conversion from one religion to another. Instead, he has a moment of metanoia, Greek for a “change of mind” normally associated with conversion, but here relating to the change of heart he has in this transformative encounter with Christ.
Like Saul, have you ever been so certain of something, that you have no doubt at all that you are on the right path until the very moment that you are interrupted? John Newton, the writer of our closing hymn, Amazing Grace, this morning had that experience. Before writing this well-known hymn, Newton walked a path that led him to sea where he took part in the Atlantic slave trade , until the storm swept over his ship, and in that moment his life was interrupted. In that moment, he called out to the Lord for mercy, changing the course of his life as he reflected whether he was a man worthy of mercy. Before he had been the most profane man his captain had ever met, but in the next few years, Newton abandoned the slave trade, and eventually, he became an avid abolitionist. He wrote the words to Amazing Grace, something perhaps only possible because he had felt that power of God’s interrupting grace in his own life that led him to have a moment of metanoia, a change of heart that convicted him and called him to a life to right the harms and wrongs he had committed.
While Saul and Newton sound exceptional, we have all had these moments of metanoia, not restricted to Damascus roads or storm-tossed ships. Many of us have even been life-long Christians, but that does not prevent us from needing an interruption from time to time to convert some corner of our lives. Sometimes, we have been interrupted while we were on the wrong path, catching ourselves doing harm to someone we know and love. Maybe we put too much into our careers and then relationships with spouses and children suffered. Maybe we found ourselves being too strict with family and friends, and now we see them pulling away. You can probably think of more examples. In addition, we have even been close-minded before, inflicting harm on ourselves and others in our ignorance, great and small. We have said things, not always knowing everything, and we have all had to watch as our words like barbs have stuck in the people around us, wounding them deeply. Sometimes we were stubborn, sticking to what we said or did and defending it to the death, but other times perhaps we realized that the wrong thing had been done or said and we had to make a change. Friends, this is a moment of metanoia.
In this way, we are not so different from Saul in our scripture this morning. Yes, he has this dramatic blinding light that sweeps him off his path and even gets the voice of God knocking his world askew, but at this encounter’s core, Saul realizes he was on the wrong path and had a moment where he realized he needed to change. We have all caught ourselves having done the wrong thing, being on the wrong path, and having been ignorant of the feelings of others. Many of us work to change when we realize this, but what caused us to change? Have we ever examined the aftermath of our metanoia, our repentant transformation? Who or what interrupted us? It may not have been in a loud voice or accompanied by bright lights, but God was no less involved in our change than with Saul’s. On our own, we are often too stubborn and too short-sighted to see we need to make a change, and perhaps, a bit of God’s grace is what it takes to transform us.
I am a Christian, so in this season of Eastertide, I gladly acknowledge that the resurrection of our hearts and minds is possible, and what that means is that I have to believe that through God in Jesus Christ we all have the ability to change. Here, I turn to a distinctly Methodist understanding of grace and its justifying nature for assistance. You see, justifying grace often gets confused for that one and done conversion moment, being born again in Christ! That understanding is short-sighted. We are still a people who have not been resurrected fully, so in our stubbornness, we still find ourselves on the wrong paths. We find ourselves clinging to harmful thoughts and opinions, and we still have moments where we need to admit we were wrong and repent. When Saul becomes Paul and writes letters to the churches, he grumbles and complains. He displays his stubbornness and impatience because he is human like all of us. What do we and Saul need in these moments if not another dose of justifying grace? We constantly need these metanoia moments! We need to be reminded again and again in those times where we follow our will and our way at the cost of the good of our neighbor and our relationship with God. We constantly need God to help us see that we are headed away from the love of our Lord and the love of our neighbor, and by the same measure, this same God will also help us change.
Like Saul, like Newton, and like so many of us, these metanoia moments are invitations to not only be transformed, but they are also invitations to answer God’s call for our lives and to follow. We can resist interruption, never wanting to experience a moment where we were wrong! How foolish! We have all been wrong before and we will be wrong again. The only shame there is if we refuse to listen to God’s voice, refuse to even consider change and persist in our ignorance and in the paths that can only lead to breathing murderous threats against our fellow human beings. Tell me, what would have happened if after Saul went into Damascus, blind and waiting, Ananias, the other figure in our story, refused to listen. Ananias had to not only believe that change and transformation were possible, but he also had to go to someone who had been the enemy of him and all other followers of Christ! Ananias needed to accept Saul’s repentance. He had to go to him, and give him the call, blessing Saul with the Holy Spirit to carry life rather than death to the world! Both had moments of metanoia.
What about us? How will we react when God interrupts our lives? It may not be with lights and loud voices, and it may even come in the form of the most unexpected people. How will we respond when what we thought was right ends up being wrong because we were blind to the harm we were breathing into the world and into our relationships? There is no shame in being wrong, as the mark of our faith and the example of Saul is that the most mistaken of us can become the greatest messengers of God’s grace in this world. My friends, this is a world where we do not like our paths to be interrupted, but to never be interrupted is to ignore the voice of God in light or in another person. We do not like to be told we are wrong, but to never be wrong, is to never be in need of grace. I can say with confidence that we are a people in need of God’s grace and God’s metanoia constantly, so let us welcome the interruption that invites life into our world and the world around us. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman