I sat in my study at home yesterday and pictured myself as a parishioner, not necessarily at Stairs, and pondered what I might need to hear on a Sunday morning. As a preacher, I am conscious that most weeks, there are a variety of needs and desires on a Sunday morning, depending on circumstances, personality and what’s going on in the world.
Would I need to hear a word of hope? Of challenge? Of comfort? Of assurance? Something else? What might you be looking for on a Sunday morning? Those of you on Zoom or Facebook Live could type your response in the chat or comments. What’s on your mind this morning as we’ve gathered for worship.
Today’s reading is from the book of Acts, it’s one of the accounts of Paul’s conversion from a persecutor of Jesus’ followers to becoming one of the most ardent and zealous of Jesus’ followers.
Just for fun, I Google mapped the distance between Jerusalem and Damascus, which is in Syria. Its 271 km. According to Google 56 hours of walking. And although this account of Paul’s conversion is often depicted with Paul falling off his horse, there is actually no horse in the story… and Google maps doesn’t offer horseback as a mode of transportation anyway. So 271 km, a short distance in our time, but significant in Paul’s time, a few days journey at least.
And he is not travelling alone, he is accompanied by a number of other men. This account takes place after Paul had stood by at the stoning of Stephen, and had gone house to house, dragging Jesus’ followers out and imprisoning them! So listen closely to these words of an almost unbelievable conversion in Acts 9:
Meanwhile 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 who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 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. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 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, 12 and he has seen in a vision[a] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 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; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[b] 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
There is A LOT going on in those 19 verses! A couple of key things stood out for me.
Paul has this staggering experience, a blinded by a bright light, a voice who claimed to be Jesus, instructions to go into Damascus and wait for further word. Paul is a devout Jew. And while Paul is the central character in this story, I’m not sure that he is the most important one.
Ananias is a follower of Jesus, living in Damascus and when Jesus calls him, he responds with those words that we hear repeated over and over again in scripture when God calls ordinary people, “Here I am, Lord.”
Here I am, Lord. Four short words. Four short words that mean I’m here, what do you need me to do?
When Jesus tells him however, he argues a bit. Wouldn’t you? You ever argue with God? Or with Jesus, when one of them gives you a nudge about something? I certainly do!
After all, Paul has been the most zealous of persecutors of Jesus’ followers. Why on earth would Ananias risk being anywhere near him.
But his role is the crucial one, without him, there is no conversion story. For a call and conversion to another way of life does not happen in solitude… it only happens in community.
Paul had that experience on the road, but without the willingness of Ananias to meet with him, lay hands on him and allow him into that community of believers, there would be no conversion.
Have any of you seen that video of one man dancing all alone on a hillside? It looks as if it might be at a concert or something. He’s out there, all alone, looking a bit like a fool. You can watch it here.
Until someone joins him… and he shows him the moves. And then there’s two of them dancing… doing the same moves, and the second one gestures for others to join… and there’s a third… and then a fourth… and suddenly, it’s a movement. Suddenly, there’s an entire hillside moving in sync, not just because that first one person was willing to get up and look like a fool by doing something different than anyone else… but because that second person joined them… and then that third person…
Maybe that’s why Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there.”
So, what does this have to do with anything we are struggling with in our world today?
Think of the movements that started because one person was willing to look foolish and start something or propose something that went against the prevailing established order?
We’ve got one sitting in our parking lot! The idea of car sharing was ludicrous just 25 years ago and we only have had it in HRM since 2015. It took someone willing to go against the popular notion that owning a car was normal and think of a different way for people to experience access to a vehicle.
One person’s idea wouldn’t have gone far though would it, without others to follow.
Think of the local food movement, or even buy local for gifts. That had to start with someone putting forth that idea… and then someone else getting on board, until buying local food is fairly common.
Both of those have a huge environmental impact and with the price of diesel at 2.53 and most of our food travelling 1200 km before we eat it, the cost of food is only going to increase. Eating local is a way that we can both support local farmers and reduce our environmental impact.
Think about slavery. The Bible was used to justify slavery. There were individuals who, at great risk to themselves, spoke out against slavery. And there was that second person… again a risky spot… and then the third… and then it became a movement… and even through racism still impacts people of colour today, we have had a complete conversion of the idea of owning people.
The final point I want to make is this… that blinding flash of light, that period of fasting, the laying on of hands by Ananias… all of those were incomplete… it was only complete when Paul was drawn into the community.
Paul, one of the most hated of men, turned away from his ways of violence to the way of Jesus.
Jesus is that guy dancing on the hill. He’s inviting us to follow him. To be that second person… or the third… or the fourth, or fifth… To invite others into the dance!
To be called, converted and claimed into community!