Acts unfolds with acts or scenes as in a grand play, “The Acts of the Apostles.” Our passage begins with directions: “Meanwhile.” Meanwhile, in simultaneous time, God’s unfolding drama leads Philip on one stage and Saul on another. Acts 8 began, “at that time, the church began to be subjected to harsh persecution…those who had been scattered moved on- preaching the Good News.” (Acts 8:1-3) If events unravel and scatter our United Methodist Church, we have choices: we can quit church, we can give in, or we can engage in mission moving on while spreading Good News. In the face of persecution, Philip persisted in preaching good news as the church moved onto new people and beyond old ideas. Indeed, without persecution perhaps the church would have not taken notice of Philip, or included Gentiles, or worshiped on Sundays, or eaten pork barbeque. In two scenes, the Holy Spirit leads Philip to reach across old boundaries- some geographic and some theological. Philip goes to Samaria baptizing former sorcerers. Next, Philip baptizes an Ethiopian eunuch. Deuteronomy 23:1 banned eunuchs from the Lord’s assembly. If we feel life’s winds blowing hard against us, maybe God uses even ill-winds to lift us up like a seedpod, and carry us into new fields to grow new understandings. The cross brought Easter. Perhaps persecution can seed something beautiful.
Acts 9 begins, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” What ill winds and toxic words fill your lungs? What air do you regularly breathe? Are you focused on what is pure, excellent, admirable, true, holy, just, lovely, and worthy of praise? (Philippians 4) Do you daily exhale threats, mean tweets, untruth, jealousy, ignorance, hypocrisy, hatred, greed, fear, elitism, descension, cowardice, bitterness, arrogance and other deadening air? Remember, how on Easter Jesus breathed on the disciples: forgiveness, boldness, authenticity, and love? ( John 20)
Again this week, Easter three, the lectionary text brings us to the scene of a church trial. Did you know Luke’s four previous acts tell of four arrests and Stephen’s martyrdom? Our passage begins with Saul leading a gang to terrorize and arrest those belonging to Way- trial number five! Suddenly, just outside Damascus, a light from heaven flashes around Saul, encircling and drives Saul falls to his knees. A voice calls out from the halo, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?” The unknownness haunts Saul; it questions him to the core. Could God be with these I see as perverters of God’s truth? Might my passion for God drive harmful decisions? Saul stammers into the searing light, “Who are you, Lord?” The yet-unseen Lord responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Let’s put ourselves in Saul’s shoes. He was sure he was right. He had the papers from the high priests, the seminary education, the law, the tradition, and Scripture all on his side. Suddenly, his theological worldview is undone!
Jesus continues, “Now get up. You will be told what you must do.” Get up, Saul, and you will be told what you must to do! Who wants to be told what they must do? And yet to follow Jesus, we must live with a sense of always seeking direction, of confessing our blindness, and waiting for God to lead us. “Think not of tomorrow,” Jesus said, “Lose your life to find it, keep on knocking, seeking and searching, seeking first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6, 7) Do we live with a sense of awestruck wonder that realizes God’s love exceeds our understanding?
Saul’s traveling companions stood speechless. They hear the voice but see no one. They pick a broken Saul up off the ground. When Saul opens his eyes, blindness remains. Saul must be led by hand into Damascus. For three days Saul remains unable to see. Saul is ill or fasting, not eating or drinking. Saul is praying. Do not miss the metaphor of blindness. In addressing spiritual blindness, Jesus says “because you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” (John 9) Jesus warns us to not call anyone “instructor” (Matthew 23), oh but how we church folks love titles and authority. We love to say, “we see!”
In blinding Saul with heavenly light, God opens Saul’s eyes to understand scripture in new light. On the Damascus Road, Saul will come to see Scripture, theology, and tradition through an experience of new insight. It is a theme in Luke. Easter experiences opens our eyes to read the scripture in a new light. On Easter’s Emmaus Road, Luke 24 tells “how beginning with Moses and all the prophets, the yet-unrecognized Jesus interpreted the things about himself in all the scriptures…. Then the disciples’ eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus… They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while the unrevealed Jesus talked with us on the road, opening the scriptures to us?” Luke’s last paragraph begins: “Then Jesus opened their minds to understand the scriptures.” Perhaps there is something to that?
The Empty Tomb is not the end of faith. Jesus promises to be with us to the end of the earth, even just two or three of us, and gives us the power to interpret scripture. (Matthew 16, 18, 28) The once fiery persecuting arch-defender of a misconstrued orthodoxy comes to write: “You are a letter of Christ, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts…. God has made us ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3)
As a Junior in college, I felt knocked down, blind-sided, betrayed, and left out. What is this Lord? But after the whirlwind, a gentle breeze came- Whoosh: slowly sweeping away dusty debris and jingling lost chords. . As we stumble, when we can’t see, when we be there to pick each other up and lead each other by the hand. Let us fast and pray. Oh, I have seen even harsh winds carry seeds to a better fields. Maybe, one day, I will better trust the Wind.
On a dusty Damascus road, Jesus shakes Saul’s deepest understandings cracking open his tradition and opening his eyes to see familiar passages in new light. Indeed, Paul’s experience will become scripture! Now, no one but Saul saw Jesus along the Damascus Road, just a big light. Perhaps that is why some called Paul a lesser apostle and why Paul gets chippy about the “so called super apostles”? (2 Corinthians 11, 12) It is indeed strange to me how progressives don’t embrace Paul who is a theological innovator and champion of inclusion, against the party of circumcision, kosher rules, and legalistic scriptural interpretation.
The Holy Spirit uses Paul to turn the church in a New Testament direction. Paul preaches the Good News that he once resisted. “Faith has come… in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith… There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. You belong to Christ! (Galatians 3) So the Holy Spirit uses “The Acts of the Apostles” to widen the circle of grace: baptizing eunuchs, dropping kosher rules, not requiring circumcision, ordaining Phoebe, commissioning Priscilla, including Gentiles as full members, ordaining Gentiles, and planting churches all over the world.
So where is the Spirit leading you? Could we be sure of what we see that we are blind to God’s leading? Are we too trusting of our familiar traditions, titles, positions and papers? Do we have open hearts and open minds? Do we follow Jesus with a sense of awe, wonder and discovery? What stale air do we need to exhale so that God might animate something lovely and true in our hearts? Might God turn that ill-wind to good effect and blow Good News beyond our geographic and theological boundaries, seeding new life in unexpected places?
Lord, bring us fresh insight so we might follow you in these times and places. We exhale, our stale air. We close our eyes, so we might see afresh. We fall to our knees and ask you to lead us by the hand. We listen for Jesus’ call.Come, Holy Spirit, animate our dry disjointed frame. Come Creator, shine healing light into our world. Come, Lord Jesus, create in us a new heart and a renewed mind. Amen.