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Do any of you have a story – something that happened to you – that’s your go-to conversation piece. It’s the one that your close friends or your spouse have heard a dozen times. Or does someone in your family – seems like it’s often dad – have a story that they’ll always tell at a gathering, cornering the new person. It’s the story that the ones close to you hear the first sentence of and roll their eyes a little because they’ve heard it a million times. Maybe it’s about an amazing coincidence, a famous person you met, something that changed your life. This story right here – Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus – this is the one he tells at parties. This is the one he uses as an example in every sermon. This moment become the basis for his life and ministry from this point on. In the book of Acts he tells it twice more, and he references his conversion in his letters as well.
But the thing about this story is, it’s not just about Saul. And yet we’ve often told and retold this story ourselves – or I should say the church has (we don’t talk about Acts much at all here) – as a model and example for personal conversion. Conversion means a dramatic change and is something that happens between me and Jesus. Flannery O’Conner apparently said, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Well, there’s not even a horse in the story and that’s just an example of the lore that surrounds this story.
Sure, Saul is the one at the center of it. But like all good stories, the supporting cast is vital. This is not at all a story that happens in isolation. The ‘meanwhile’ at the beginning of the story says it all: “Meanwhile Saul [was] still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. Because what does ‘meanwhile’ mean? That ‘meanwhile’ says that while Paul is having this experience, there’s other stuff going on. An Ethiopian eunuch is having his own experience with the good news, learned through Philip, Peter is preaching, doing the work that Jesus called him to do on the shore, the church is budding and blossoming. When Jesus breathed on the disciples in their fear-locked room, something got started. But meanwhile here’s Saul and the only breathing he’s doing is in service of stamping out the Spirit breath.
So when Saul is blinded by the light the church is already shaped and formed. And in fact, the voice asks him, “Why are you persecuting me,” by which Jesus is identifying with and referring to the people of the Way, whom Saul has done his zealous best to get rid of. While Saul is having his vision, there is a parallel story going on already around him. Peter preached the vision of Joel at Pentecost that men and women would prophecy and that the Spirit would be poured out. This is already happening all around Saul.
It is this context that allows for the people in the supporting cast to be put in place to make Saul’s conversion even possible. The very first thing that happens to Saul after having his vision is that he is made utterly dependent. Very quickly, the voice that accompanies the blinding light moves from accusation and interrogation – the voice of Jesus says, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ – to commission – Saul is sent: ‘get up and enter the city and you will be told what you must do’. But how is he supposed to get to the city, to navigate it? He is made totally helpless. This is a total turnaround – he has exuded strength, confident, arrogance and now, cut off from his sight and thrown into confusion, he is dependent. The men who he was traveling with initially help him, but the people on whom Saul must depend are the ones who he has been persecuting: the community of The Way.
Call cannot happen except in and to community. What came next for Saul is not, in fact immediate conversion. This is a process. Having been blinded and accused of persecuting people of the Way, having been led to the house of a follower of the Way, having been told to wait in this house for something else to happen, cannot have inspire confidence is Saul. He is not by any means yet a follower of the way himself. It takes another vision and then another and then a reconciliation and healing before Saul does another 180.
Call happens through community – through the recognition and offering and affirmation of gifts by other believers. It’s true, we can have an internal sense, an inkling that there’s something in us, or a passion for something, areas that we try or excel. It is the community of faith, their discernment and affirmation, listening to God together and seeing the same thing, that the voice is honed and tested. This is what happens to Saul. It may be the experience of some of us as well.
Back in the day, some of you know, I was a hairstylist. I did that after college (the course and everything) even though I was most interested pastoral ministry. It was not on a whim, exactly, but because although I was interested in ministry, that was something for down the road. I thought hairdressing would be interesting and fun. Well, it was but it was also miserable and not for me and I could tell that it was not what I should be doing, but it took someone in my community of faith to name it. It took Sol Janzen to say to me, ‘there’s an opening for a Volunteer Coordinator position in one of our MCC VS jobs. I think you might be the right person for it.’ for me to give me notice at the hair salon and move on to something that was my place.
I don’t think that my Sol had a vision that I should take that position, but that is what happened in the story of Saul’s conversion. And this is where the double vision business, of the title comes in. A follower of the way named Ananias (one of several in Acts) has a vision and at the very same time as Saul too is having a vision. “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.” Ananias is to become the interpreter of Saul’s experience with Jesus.
But as is so often the case in scripture with those called to prophecy or ministry, he doesn’t go right away. He says, I’m freaked out! This is one of the bad guys! You want me to what?! Surely Saul is also frightened. After all he’s done, can he expect a follower of the way to treat him mercifully? The two are called to reconciliation in Judas’ house.
And Ananias finally responds, hearing that Saul will not only become a follower, but because of it he will necessarily be persecuted. Saul’s conversion is in process, but so is Ananias’. From resistance to understanding and openness. And when he arrives at the house on Straight Street, he calls Saul ‘brother.’
He laid his hands on Saul – in much the same way as we lay hands on members here when we bless or send them – and Saul’s vision cleared. I’ve spoken with people who’ve had cataract surgery or Lasik surgery. And I think those of you who have had these kinds of procedures might be the best placed to understand what that experience might have been like. My mother tells me it is like a miracle. In that moment of laying on hands, Saul’s vision clears miraculously and his vision for his future also clears. He Ananias has prayed that he may receive the Holy Spirit and Saul responds by committing himself to the Way through baptism. He joins the community of believers whom he has so recently been terrorizing.
The result of this double vision – the call of Jesus on Ananias and on Saul – is a profound reconciliation. No longer will Saul be the persecutor. Instead he will immerse himself in the community of faith. The Syrian church becomes his first teachers and supporters. They become his first listeners as he witnesses to Jesus transforming power. They will send him off to Jerusalem and around the middle east.
There are not too many of us for whom our story that we tell and retell is related to the way that we came to faith. There are several people in this congregation who mark their anniversary of coming here to worship, of their baptism, or becoming Christian. Those are stories – testimonies – that I have heard here in this place repeated because of their power in the life of those individuals. But for many of nothing so dramatic occurred.
However, there are still opportunities to tell each other our stories, to be shaped by each other, to have test our vision of calling for ourselves and for the church against the vision and calling of others. As we engage in discernment with each other for our congregation, that is, in fact our primary task. Next week we’ll talk even more about that task of discernment.
May we, God’s people be community to each other, searching for the voice and face of Christ and sent from community into the world.