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.
There are so many ways to read scripture--you can read it as a prayer (some scripture lends itself better to this than others, say the Psalms verses Leviticus.)
You can read scripture to explore how different faith communities understand their world, their lot in life, their purpose. You can read as an ethnographer or a historian.
You can read scripture to learn how to be human--how to love one another (as Jesus has loved us); how to treat those around you who have needs (leave your leftovers in the field); how to respect your father and mother.
You can read scripture to try to solve a problem or get direction in your life. Some call this reading the Bible devotionally. I’m struggling with “A” so I will read the scriptures until I wrestle an answer out of it.
There are many ways to read the Bible, to read our sacred text and scripture. Some better and some worse; different ways appropriate for different times in our lives and our faith. When I am reading our passages and preparing for Sunday I usually move through a few different approaches to get different perspectives and to listen for the Spirit.
I want to share with you the way that stuck out to me this week as I was reading. Sometimes I read with one goal in mind: Who is God? What does this passage, this community, this story say about who God is? It’s like a study in character. I read with questions in mind like “what does God say?” “What does God do?” “Who does God speak to?” Try it; it can be really lovely and also truly unnerving sometimes.
So let’s consider today’s passage with this question in mind: who is God?
Our reading for today is the famous passage about the conversion of Saul. Saul is the worst. He doesn’t just dislike this new church, he wants it destroyed. He feels so threatened by this new teacher and this new teaching that he’s willing to kill. He’s willing to go to people’s homes and drag them out and turn them over to the authorities. He’s even willing to hold the cloaks of those who are doing the killing. He’s the worst.
Slight spoiler alert for some of you, Saul becomes Paul. Saul, the killer, who is still spouting threats at the beginning of our passage today, becomes Paul, the writer of much of the New Testament letters, master missionary and church planter. Paul, who sends out Timothy and Titus. In our passage today, what many call Paul’s conversion passage, Saul becomes a lover of Jesus and Saul becomes Paul.
This week was even the festival that commemorates this momentous event. On January 25th of this last week the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches all celebrated The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle.
This story we read today is famous because it signals a change from the ways of death ruling a young man’s life to the ways of love and Jesus taking over. Saul becomes Paul. It seems like this story is all about that change, all about Saul.
And yet, as I read this scripture this week, doing my little “character study” on God, I realized that there was surprisingly a whole lot of Jesus in this story and NOT a whole lot of Saul. In fact, the more I read it, the more I got the impression that this wasn’t a story about Saul’s conversion so much as a story about God’s work of conversion.
I’m not saying Saul is not important but, well, God is top chef in this story. God is more active. God is louder. God is pushier. God is the main character in a passage I’ve always assumed was about Saul.
God interrupts sometimes in very be-dazzling ways. God gets into Saul’s business and interrupts him in his nefarious ways. That’s who God is in this story (and much of Acts?).
God asks the hard questions. Saul, why are you persecuting me? Why are you hurting me, another translation reads. That’s who God is.
God messes with Saul, poor Saul is blinded by God, for three days, traumatized to the point he won’t eat or drink, all to set Saul straight. That’s who God is.
God sends friends (well, Ananias takes convincing), but God sends friends to care to convince to clean up and heal. That’s who God is.
Do you know how many words Saul says in his own conversion story? FOUR. “Who are you, sir?” he asks. That’s it. GOD is the busybody working all things for good. God is the main speaker, mover, and shaker, even in the life of someone as famous as the Apostle Paul. That’s who God is.
I think it is easy for us to make “us” the center of the story. To make Saul the center of this story.
I think it’s also easy for us as we explore the book of Acts to make the church the center and aim of the story of the early movements of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. That’s kind of what this whole series has been about. Acts is the first new church community--how can we learn from them? Garner wisdom from their experiences? See how they operate in the world? What are they doing right that we can replicate? Just like we assume Saul is the main character of Acts 9, we can mistake the church as being the main character in the whole book of Acts.
In his book Joining God, Remaking Church, Changing the World, Alan Roxburgh bemoans this trend in the diminishing landscape of churches. He talks about how we’re so worried about the church surviving and what the church can do that we’ve made the church the center of our faith story, rather than God. We’ve made the church the main actor, top chef, center character. We’ve even limited God’s work to the church. We are so busy asking questions like “how can we fix church” we forget that “the church is not the primary actor, but God is” (43).
As we look at the first big conversion and personal transformation in the book of Acts I think it is a good reminder to us that we are not the main actors, everything doesn’t depend on us, doesn’t make or break with us. We’re not, just like Saul wasn’t, the center of this much bigger story of church, of God, of love, of faith. God is.
As a new worshiping community we are starting off on an adventure in a time where churches are declining, even “getting it wrong” you could say. We are living in a time where faith communities are forced to follow God into unknown territory. And we might be thinking we’re going to write a great conversion story for ourselves. We might be thinking we just need to find the silver bullet that will make church cool again or relevant. We might be thinking that we better not mess this up. If it depended on us, maybe. But it doesn’t, God is the one to step in and sort it out, just like Jesus did for Paul.
God is a force to be reckoned with, a force that will interrupt us when we’ve got it wrong. A force that will care for us and send us friends where we didn’t expect to find them. A force that networks. A force that blinds and heals and disorients and knocks us off our high perch. In the conversion story from death to new life, God is the center of the story.
I was trying to think of an example of this that I’ve encountered this year in our faith community of God elbowing me or us out and taking charge. Now, I’m still pretty foggy in my mind from this weeks long illness, so I’m sure there are lots of stories that I just can’t remember today, but this one popped into my mind.
This August the discernment team was trying to figure out next steps to announce after our final worship experiment. What was our faith life together going to look like? We’d swung a lot of different directions from monthly brunch to weekly rotations of learning and worshiping. I felt like the church couldn’t get this wrong. In the back of my head were all sorts of hesitations: don’t start worshiping regularly too soon, you’ll get stuck in tradition. You don’t have enough people to manage a creative initiative. You don’t want to look too traditional--be creative, think outside of the box. Are people going to be disappointed if our faith life looks like everyone else’s faith life? Weren’t we supposed to try new things? All the nay-saying voices for each idea we’d explored were shouting at me in my own head.
I decided to call every person on the discernment team to get a better sense of what the Spirit was doing. There was one particular phone conversation with Dan Souther that I remember being a “moment.” I’m not going to lie, I think we were both stressed out, about things in the church and outside of the church. And in my bronchitis fog this morning I don’t even remember exactly what was said, but I remember God’s presence. I remember hearing on a subconscious level: Jenelle, stop trying so hard. Just let God do God. And I remember Dan “saying” that he really felt like people just might need to show up every Sunday to see each other--nothing too complicated. Nothing crazy. Just God.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be so painful for us as it was for Paul if we shape our aim a bit differently from the start here at Ormewood Church, following God on the adventure instead of wandering off on our own, or shouldering the world, or making the story about us. Lord knows we don’t need another story about a church to make the headlines. Maybe we can be like the Acts church by thinking less about church and more about God’s crazy and loving ways in the world.