Damascus Road

http://centralenfieldclc.org.uk/index.php/rmkyba14/995/.php Damascus Road

Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; May 1, 2022

3rd Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:1-20


Liturgically speaking, we are in the Season of Easter. For seven Sundays, we generally consider encounters Jesus has with believers after his resurrection. We may witness his appearance to the disciples who are behind locked doors out of fear of the Jews. We may see him offer his hands and side to Thomas as evidence of who he is. We may journey with Jesus along the road to Emmaus and only realize who he is when he breaks bread at the table. We may join him for a breakfast he prepares along the Galilean shore. While these are all important, there is another encounter that I have in mind for us to explore—one that does not happen immediately after Jesus’ resurrection. Instead, it happens following his ascension when Jesus appears to Saul, or Paul as he is also known, along the road to Damascus. Since Luke tells us of this encounter three times—in Acts 9, 22, and 26—it begs our attention.


But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. First, let’s look back at what Paul is doing when we first meet him in Acts chapter 7. At the time, the disciples are increasing in number and the word of God is spreading like wildfire. Stephen, full of grace and power, does great wonders and signs. One day, some who belong to the synagogue begin to argue with him. They accuse him of blasphemy, and ultimately, they bring him before the council for questioning. When the high priest asks him to explain himself, Stephen responds boldly with a history lesson about Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, about Joseph and Moses, about David and Solomon. He concludes: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” Infuriated, the people rush toward him, and drag him out of the city to stone him. Witnesses place their coats at the feet of young Saul, who wholeheartedly approves of the stoning of Stephen.


Afterward, there’s no gentle way to put this, Paul, goes wild. He becomes what we would refer to as a terrorist, breathing threats of murder against the disciples of the Lord. He goes to the high priest and asks for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he finds any who belong to the Way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. But on his way to Damascus, his search comes to a screeching halt when a light flashes from the heavens. Falling to the ground, Paul hears these words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” the response is, “I am Jesus—whom you are persecuting.”


To say this is a dramatic encounter is putting it mildly. But maybe it’s so dramatic because as Flannery O’Conner put it. “…The Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” Well, there is no horse mentioned, but Jesus does come calling and Jesus does knock Paul off course.

“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus.” Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on other places Jesus has made I Am statements. Seven times in the Gospel of John, Jesus proclaims I AM: I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the way, and the truth, and the life. I am the vine. But here, in response to Saul’s inquiry, “I am Jesus.” It’s the only time it is recorded in Scripture.


While all this is happening to Paul, a disciple who happens to live in Damascus is getting instructions for a “change of course” too. Imagine Ananias’ surprise when he has a vision of the Lord telling him to get up and go to Straight Street to meet Paul. Since Paul’s reputation has preceded him, Ananias knows full well who he is, and he is rightfully concerned. How could he not see Paul as a threat? How could he not doubt Paul’s change of heart? But we must never forget that when it is God who initiates change, anything is possible. Obediently, Ananias goes to Paul, and we witness an ordination service of sorts. Ananias lays hands on Paul and tells him he has come so that Paul might regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, the scales fall from Paul’s eyes and his sight is restored—his physical sight, yes—but also his spiritual sight. In place of death threats for those who follow Jesus, now he proclaims to anyone who will listen, “Jesus is the Son of God.”


After Paul encounters Jesus, he is forever changed. He comes away with a new job (from persecutor to missionary), and a new purpose (spreading love instead of hatred). It was Oscar Wilde who said: “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” Well, these words certainly apply to Paul who starts out as a terrorist to the followers of Jesus and becomes one of the most influential leaders of the early church and a prolific contributor to Scripture as we know it.


Paul’s conversion is so radical, we may write it off as having nothing to do with us, especially if our faith journey began as a baptized infant, and we have no recollection of a time when we did not know and love Jesus. But the truth is, Paul’s story has everything to do with us because it is a story about what God can do with a life—any life. You see, even though we may think Paul is the main character in this story, the main character in this and any conversion story is God. It is God who is the author of changed lives. Paul’s story may not be typical, but it is critical because it teaches us that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace, and everyone is in need of it.


Maya Angelou once said in an interview, “I’m always amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, ‘Already? You already got it?’ I’m working at it which means that I try to be as kind and fair and generous and respectful and courteous to every human being.” For believers, conversion is an on-going process—or at least it should be. In Christ, we live and move and have our being, and with every step we take, we draw closer to the Beloved or we move further away.


We have all taken a wrong turn—certain we were going in the right direction—certain of our destination. We have sacrificed family for getting ahead. We have held onto anger and reaped the rewards of bitterness. We have behaved in ways that were unfair to people who do not look like us or who have not had the same advantages we have had or who do not see the world as we do. We have made demands of others that we have not made on ourselves. We have been stubborn and resisted making changes in our own lives while judging others for doing the same. But what happens when we are blinded by the light of Jesus? What happens when we reach a fork in the road that just might lead to transformation?


God is in the business of showing us how to correct what is ailing us. The need for a change of heart may be presented by the Word proclaimed, by a friend confronting our behavior, by a partner who speaks hard truths we desperately need to hear, by a child who tells it like it is—as only a child can, by spending time meditating on God’s word, by anyone or anything the Spirit chooses. Whenever and however it happens, a light shines within us and stops us in our tracks. Then there is a decision to be made. Will we continue on to Damascus behaving in ways that cause Jesus pain? Or will we allow our sight to be restored so that we can truly see? Afterall, Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus is Lord over every nook and cranny of our lives—or at least he should be!


In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


*Cover Art by David Teniers the Elder via Wikimedia Commons used by permission.