April 14, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 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. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 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, 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." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 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; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul 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." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."
Saul’s story is so dramatic, and so well-known, even among a lot of non-church going folks,
that it has almost become a cliché. Christians like to use this story as a kind of insider shorthand - - “my Damascus road experience.” They talk about “the scales falling from my eyes” and claim this story from Acts as a metaphor for their own transformation. But modern Christians, most of us, even though we might somehow identify with Saul, rarely lay claim to this kind of dramatic change.
The word for conversion, and the title of this sermon, is the Greek word “metanoia.” Translated literally, it means, “a change of heart” or a “change of mind.” It usually gets translated as “repentance.” But metanoia is something much bigger than that. The word itself doesn’t appear in this story we’ve heard from the 9th chapter of Acts, but what we are observing, in this compelling narrative, is metanoia; a change of heart; a tectonic plate shift.
It was a radical conversion for Saul, and a life-changing moment for Ananias. Saul was the young Pharisee, the zealous, fiery servant of Adonai, who had been persecuting these wayward Jews, the people of the Way, who had embraced Jesus as Messiah. It was the fervent young Saul who held the coats of the men as they stoned Stephen to death, stoned him as he looked up and said “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” stoned him until he died, and in his last breath asked God to forgive his murderers. All this, while Saul stood by, approving.
Now, he was pursuing the Christians, hunting them down to bind them and bring them back to Jerusalem. He was planning more violence, breathing threats and murder. And then, on the road to Damascus, he was struck to the ground, struck blind while a voice challenged him, a voice that could only be that of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was an abrupt and complete stop, resulting in a total change in Saul’s life. For three days he was blind, hungry, thirsty, three days at the house of Judas in Damascus. Three days, waiting for the word of the Lord.
Meanwhile, Ananias heard the Lord calling his name. Unlike Saul, Ananias had heard the message of Jesus and believed. Now, both of them had heard the actual voice of Jesus. Ananias recognized his Lord and Master’s voice. He didn’t have to ask, “Who is that?” He recognized it and responded, as had the prophets before him: “Here I am, Lord.” Undoubtedly, Ananias had known that Saul was on the way to Damascus. Saul’s reputation was such that Christians must have passed the word along – a warning that Saul of Tarsus was on his way to Damascus, ready to lay hands on the saints, ready to drag them out of their homes, ready to bind them in chains and take them prisoner, take them to Jerusalem, take them to torment, deliver them to death and destruction.
And now, even though Saul had been on his way to lay hands on the saints, Ananias is told to go to Saul, and lay hands on him, and restore his sight. Ananias is to go to a man of violence, and offer healing. But Ananias paused. He must have been afraid. Why would anyone in his right mind go, on purpose, into the presence of this man Saul? Would you present yourself to Torquemada during the inquisition, and identify yourself as an unbeliever in Holy Mother Church? Would you drop by Hitler’s house if you were a Polish Jew? Would you visit Joe McCarthy’s house and show him your membership card for the communist party? Would you seek out one who had planned to kill you, and offer him healing, and call him brother?
Ananias did. He laid his hands on Saul and called him brother.
Saul’s sight was restored, he received the Holy Spirit, and was baptized. Saul, who had taken Christians prisoner, would now call himself a prisoner of the Lord, and would be taken prisoner for Christ’s sake. He would spread the gospel throughout the known world, proclaiming Jesus as the son of God. He would even change his name, from Saul to Paul.
Metanoia: a change of heart, a new way of thinking, a changed consciousness – metamorphosis. In the world of psychotherapy, it is called second-order change, a paradigm shift, a transformation after which everything is different, even though it may look the same. It is not a change in belief, the intellectual assent to a proposition. When Saul became Paul, he surrendered not just his intellect, but his entire self to the son of the living God. It is not a personality transplant – Saul’s harsh, fanatical streak did not go away when he became the Apostle Paul. It is not merely a behavioral change, but a shift in world view, in the rules that govern behavior, in the very core.
Ananias’ heart had to change, to undergo a gospel revolution, in order for him to go to Saul, the murderous persecutor, to lay hands on him and call him “brother.” That sort of change happens more often than we may think. We see it in the almost immediate transformation of lives when someone is knocked to the ground, blinded, by a flash of God’s presence, turned in a new direction at a crossroads. We can observe it when the addict hits bottom, and instead of overdosing, goes to treatment, and begins to help others. Some of us may have come to an abrupt stop in a therapist’s office, or in the middle of a devastating loss, with the recognition that life had changed, deeply and permanently. Some of us may have grudgingly, hesitantly, reached out in reconciliation to a sworn enemy, and found our lives radically altered by their reaching back to us in gratitude and peace.
But even though such experiences are not uncommon, many of us are more like Ananias than Saul. We can’t point to a particular moment in which we were illuminated by the unmistakable presence of God. There was no blinding light, no immediate conversion, not a single noteworthy event – neither sight nor sound, that marked the onset of a new life of faith. We were born, we were baptized, we learned about God, we came to know about Jesus, we trusted him, we lived as best we could in the light of his teachings. When he called us, maybe not audibly, but clearly, we answered, “Here I am.” And we did what he said. We just did the right thing. We didn’t go lay hands on an enemy and facilitate his conversion from persecutor to passionate promoter. But we opened hands and heart to those whom we might have rejected, and we did it in the name of the one who had called us.
It is Easter, the season of Resurrection, a season that lasts 50 days until the day of Pentecost. We think about resurrection at other times, of course – at funerals, at hospital bedsides, in times of prayer. But especially during this 50 days we are invited to contemplate what it means that Christ is raised and that we also are raised to new life.
Did it happen in a moment, like the flip of a switch from off to on?
Or was it more like the blooming of a flower, so gradual that it can’t be observed except with special cameras? When our eyes are opened to the truth of the living God, it may be both. Metanoia, or second-order change, can happen in an instant, or it can take a lifetime to unfold. But once our eyes are opened, there is no going back. Everything is different from then on.
It was a chance encounter, and for years, neither of the two men spoke of it. It was December, 1943, and Charles Brown, American pilot, was on his first bombing run over Germany. With one engine damaged and another gone, Brown’s plane had fallen back and was vulnerable to enemy fire. In ten minutes of sustained attack, most of the crew was wounded and the tail gunner was killed. Franz Stigler, a veteran Luftwaffe pilot, needed to shoot down only one more enemy aircraft to earn the coveted Knight’s Cross.
Stigler hurried into his plane and took off. As he reached Brown’s plane, Stigler saw the damage. He tried to get Brown to land in Germany, then in Sweden, but to no avail. So he escorted his enemy to the edge of the North Sea, departing with a salute. Neither pilot ever forgot, and years later, after Brown searched for Stigler, they met and became fast friends. They called each other brother, and were in close touch until they died.
Metanoia – a moment in which enemies become brothers.
Second order change – a shift in the light that alters the way we see.
A few months ago, a young woman named Megan Phelps Roper left home in Topeka, Kansas, walking away from family, from everything she had ever known. She also left her church – Westboro Baptist, the home of Fred Phelps, and she left her life of persecuting gay people, of picketing military funerals, and judging practically everyone as being wicked and bound for hell. Megan had participated in many Westboro Baptist demonstrations holding signs that announced who God hates.
Her first doubts began to arise when she was in conversation with a David Abitbol, a Jewish blogger, who quoted Jesus to her. Isn’t God funny?! Megan was asserting the Westboro belief that God hates homosexuals, that they all deserve the death penalty for their sin. David said, ‘But Jesus said ‘Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Megan first thought it was funny, a Jewish guy quoting Jesus. But then she began to realize what Jesus was talking about. “I definitely regret hurting people,” Megan says. …We thought we were doing good….”
It took months for her transformation to take root, but when she walked away, with her sister, Grace, she knew she could never return. Now Megan and Grace are exploring a life they had never before anticipated, with choices they have never had to make, and possibilities they never imagined. Megan says she and her sister don’t know what will come next for them. “We needed to think about what we believe. We need to figure out what we want to do next. I never imagined leaving, ever, so I never thought about doing anything different. I have no idea what kind of work I want to do, or where to live. How do people decide these things?”
Sure, sometimes the instantaneous conversion doesn’t stick, but turns out to be momentary, confined to the bright flash, fading away without leaving so much as a spark. Most times, though, whether it is a brilliant flash of insight or a small candle flickering in an otherwise dark night, the meaning of the light emerges over time.
So it was with Saul, on that road to Damascus. Who’d have remembered or told this story had Saul not responded and been receptive? We can only imagine what turn the tale might have taken had Ananias refused to obey the word of the Lord. But because Saul was willing to listen, to wait, to persist, because Ananias was willing to risk, willing to reach out to an enemy, the resurrection to new life continued in them. Saul, after he became Paul, carried the gospel across the known world, wrote letters to churches that became part of the canon, taught and preached new life in Christ through his works and words. We learn from Saul that sometimes what we think God wants us to do is actually our own anger and violence speaking, and that when God speaks, it is a message of good news, of love and redemption, not death and destruction. We learn from Ananias that the paradox of reaching out the hand of peace, even to the terrifying face of violence and hatred, can be transforming, for both parties. Ananias faded into the background, and while we don’t know what the rest of his life looked like, we do know what his story teaches us, what resurrection teaches:
Our knowledge is not certainty. God is always ready to surprise us. New life emerges where we have seen only death; transformation happens when love answers violence; redemption works its miracles even when we don’t expect it. Metanoia. That’s the Easter story. Thanks be to God!