sermon by Rev. Jessica McCrae
John, an avid golfer, came in from the course one Saturday. His wife, Mary, asked him with whom he had played that day. He said, “Oh, no one in particular.”
She asked, “Why don’t you play with Bill anymore?”
John replied, “Would you like to play golf with someone who throws his clubs, swears all the time, lies about his scores, moves his ball in the rough and won’t stop talking while you’re trying to play a shot?”
“Of course not!” said Mary.
John said, “Well, neither does Bill.”
Today, as we begin our summer series on Paul we are looking at his first “adventure”, that moment along the Damascus road that is often referred to has his conversion. It is an interesting story that has a wonderful lesson for us about the willingness of God to meet us exactly where we are, and the ability of God to come, bidden or unbidden, into our lives and bring radical and transformative new life.
It is also a story that invites us to look at ourselves and our own lives. For some, like the story I just told of our golfer, we are invited to be honest with ourselves about the things that are interfering with our happiness or holding us back from fullness of life, like anger, selfishness, and a determination to always be right. For others we will hear this story and wonder how many times we have missed God coming into our lives and calling to us, over the years. We will wonder what we would do if God finally came to us in such a dramatic way, and whether we could have the courage to admit when we were on the wrong track, whether we could have the courage of Saul, to change. For all of us though, I think when we hear this story we can’t help but recognize that we are far from perfect, we all carry some unpleasant bits within us, but despite that, God can still use us to spread the Christian message of God’s love and hope.
After all, Saul was a pretty nasty guy when it came to his interactions with others, especially Christians. The first time we meet him in scripture he is holding the coats for those who stoned Stephen to death. Saul didn’t like to necessarily do the killing himself, but he could sure incite a crowd. But in the book of Acts we see Saul go from someone doing everything in his power to stop the followers of Jesus, to becoming a crucial part of the early church community, helping to spread their message further into the known world. It is a remarkable story of a change of heart and turn around, an incredible example of what God can work in the hardest of hearts; a story of grace and redemption and enemies becoming brothers.
It is a story of transformative new life, an example of the Easter story taking root in the lives of ordinary people, people like you and me. It is an example of it never being too late, and one never being too old, to change. It is a story that speaks to the human condition, that transcends time, and is as meaningful for us today as it was for Saul, because it reminds us that Christ is at work in our lives, even if we didn’t invite him.
You see this isn’t Saul’s story, not really, this is God’s story. The central action in this story comes not from Saul, but from God. When Saul, is walking down the Damascus Road and has his epiphany “a-ha moment” he has not done anything to invite Jesus into his life, it just happened. God, being God, did not need an invitation to work an incredible transformation. A heart that was hardened by fear – and really that is why Saul was terrorizing the early followers of Jesus, fear – was overcome by God’s love for humanity made known in Jesus. Into that fear Christ came and called him, called him to a new vocation – helped him to realize that God would use him to preach and teach to a whole new group of people, the Gentiles, and spread the message of God’s love and hope further and wider than anyone could have imagined possible. So this story is also a reminder that the transformation of one person, of one heart, has the power to change the world.
In that moment along the Damascus road, a whole new and larger world was opened up to Saul (literally and metaphorically) and he was made aware that God’s love was not just for some people, and not just for those who were kind and perfect (because God knows, Saul was often neither of these things) but for all of the world and all of humanity, just as it is. This is a story of God meeting God’s people exactly where we are, as embittered and fearful and frustrated and mean as we can sometimes be, and opening up a whole new world. Rather than a story of condemnation, as we might expect for someone as cruel as Saul could be, it is a story of embrace, of God’s love opening up a whole new and broader world for this man whose world view, because of fear and anger seemed to get narrower by the day.
This is, no doubt, a miracle story. It is the story of God breaking in, without invitation, to the heart of a man who was seized by fear and anger and helping him to see a new world of possibilities before him. It is a story of transformation and change where none seemed possible. It is a story of what God can do, plain and simple, not just in the heart of Saul, but in all our hearts. Because let’s face it, we all have days where we can be a bit nasty, where fear gets the better of us and anger takes over. Whether it is over silly things like a game of golf, or whether we disrespect and put others down because of our own insecurities and fears, our anger can fracture relationships, pull us further from who God calls us to be, and impact the world around us. But this story tells us that God can break into even our most unlovable bits and transform them.
This point is emphasized further in what I think is one of the more interesting elements of this story. It comes after the well know “conversion” on the Damascus road. Most people know that part of the story, but fewer know what comes next, that Saul was left blind after that event and was taken by the hand to Damascus where he is unable to eat or drink for 3 days. After this someone named Ananias comes, and directed by God lays hands on Saul and Saul is healed, is baptized (the first actual decision we see him make in regard to this new calling) and begins to regain strength. God’s action in our broken lives. Remember, Jesus said that those who become like a child will reach the kingdom of heaven. Saul, went from stubborn strength to child-like dependence, where he had to be taken by the hand unable to see, to Damascus. What a blow for a man who was so used to calling the shots, for a man who caused other men to tremble in fear of him. But it was necessary for his full transformation, for we are told, only when he became dependent like a child was he able to regain his sight and see his new path. And then there is the reference to 3 days – for 3 days Saul was unable to eat or drink. We can’t help but be struck by the allusion to the three days from Jesus’ crucifixion to resurrection, telling us that whatever happened on the road to Damascus it signified for Saul a journey from metaphorical death to new life and new beginnings.
Whatever happened on that road to Damascus, it was big. And it was all God’s doing. Kind of like the ultimate recycling project. God took a man who was made out of strong stuff, had faith and determination, but was clouded in anger and fear and God broke him down a little and gave him a new purpose. And it was the start of what would be a great adventure for Paul and a great adventure for our church, which continues to this day.
Let us give thanks that the love of Christ is for all, and let us do what we can to invite and welcome that transforming love into our own hearts. And with childlike wonder let us be led by God into the new world that God is opening up for us. Amen.