April 18, 2010

“A Change In Plans”
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)

Acts 9:1-19 (ESV)
1 But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
3 Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
4 And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
5 And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
6 But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

Saul of Tarsus is on his way to Damascus to try and do what the Liturgical Police were unable to do last week: to quiet the Jesus movement.
The description of this journey, as it begins, is brief; almost too brief. In my mind’s eye I picture Saul and his entourage leaving Jerusalem, traveling through the Damascus gate of the city, making their way toward Shechem, beyond the Jordan, to Damascus. I do not know, nor do you, where they were on this journey when this event occurred. We can all recognize that like any journey it began in one place and it ends in another.
They have not yet arrived at Damascus. That much we know. They were ‘on the way.’

Not too long ago this text came to mind, it was during an evening out. I was the trophy husband for my dear wife at a party. It was one of those community education fundraisers. The high rollers from the community were there, the local politicians, and mere mortals, educators from the district. I had gone over to the bar and gotten a drink, and was standing there by myself. Another fella wandered over and we started to chit-chat. The usual stuff: how about this weather, what do you do? He was a civil engineer so we talked shop for a while. He asked where I worked, I told him I was a minister. He gazed at me with that certain, “no, really, what do you do” look. And I had to run down the whole journey of my Christian life. He commented that he didn’t really like that term. “what,” I asked, “Civil Engineering?” “No,” he said, “Journey.”

What’s wrong with the term journey? He said he didn’t like it because it implied that he had not arrived, that he was in the middle of something. I explained to him that this idea of process, or change, or transformation, was central to the Christian faith. We argued about it a bit. He was of the camp that believed that once you accepted Jesus you were done, that was it, you had been reconciled to God and that was that. He didn’t ask the date “I” got saved, but I was afraid that for a minute he was going to go there. Now I am not afraid of a good argument, but I realize as soon as anyone where there is fertile ground for a discussion and where the soil is compacted and there is only a chance to be talked at, not talked with. So I changed the subject…to politics; and just to jerk his chain further, I started talkin’ politics.

I wanted to bring up scripture in the conversation about journey, but this was a secular function. It was supposed to be a party, and I hoped that someone else might be interested in talking to me. Nothing shuts down your interaction with the folks at a cocktail party like quoting scripture. But this very story, the account of Saul’s transformation along the Damascus Road kept coming to mind.

I could not help but think of this proud religious leader and scholar, on his way to straighten out some heretics up in Damascus. He had brought along some interns I suppose, maybe a couple of temple guards in case things got dicey. He was assured of his position, and like so many folks these days he had listened to the authority of scripture and tradition and knew he was right, not based upon some personal opinion but on the testimony of the faith.

We don’t know if he was struck by lightning, or if the presence of the resurrected Christ was simply so bright and overwhelming that it appeared that way. We don’t know. What we do know is that he was changed, transformed. What was once certain, was well, now not so certain. That is why I like the idea of our Christian life being portrayed as a journey. See, to say we are on a journey is more accurate than to say we are on a trip. To me, a trip implies travel from one point to another and back. Think of it as sight-seeing. A journey, to me, means that we have left one place and are on our way to another place, literally and figuratively. A journey changes us. There are things that happen to us, and things we do as a consequence, all along the way.

Now, just down the road from here there is a church that says that “When Jesus comes into your life you change.” I know there is an idea out there in the Christian world that suggests that once an individual receives Jesus into their life they are changed. I agree with this, but I want to add two caveats, first, that we realize this isn’t an isolated, individual, me-n-Jesus event; and second, that it is the journey itself that changes you.

What we really find here, if we actually listen and are not overly influenced by artistic or theological images that have been overlaid on it, is not “me and Jesus” but rather Jesus encountering Saul; this is Saul in the midst of his own community bent on destroying Christians, where he then finds community and care in the household of one Christian, and then gains the opportunity to share his testimony among many more. Saul is no solitary hero. He’s a man whose closed mind and narrow social networks have been changed and then, eventually, radically widened by Jesus and the people he has called “church.”

See the lasting mark of transformation is not a date circled on the calendar, but the whole course of your life. Our story, Saul’s story, is only worth telling if we include the whole thing, beginning to end.