Rev. Seth Patterson
May 1, 2022
Scripture: Acts 9:1–9
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus, went to the authorities and asked 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?” 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.
What does it take for you to change?
How do you know when it is time to make changes in your life? What compels you to give up something or some way of being that has been important to you . . . to change something that has become habitual, easy or comfortable?
How have you realized in the past that a different path could be taken, a different future hoped for, a new way of being? Have you ever had to do so?
These changes could be large or small. It could be a change in a relationship or the tone in which you write an email. It could be a decision to change your food consumption to choosing to smile at strangers. Maybe it was your comfort level on public gatherings in a new Covid moment, or a decision about how and where you spend your money. You know yourselves and you know each other. What does it take for you to change?
Today we have been told again the story of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. As we heard earlier, it took a momentous event for Saul to change: a bright, blinding light and an unseen voice. Saul was a longtime persecutor of the followers of Jesus and had been said to have taken part in the killing of Stephen, an early leader in “The Way,” which would one day become Christianity. Here we encounter Saul, a prominent person of Roman Palestine, both a Pharisee and a Roman citizen, asking permission to travel to Damascus and persecute anyone affiliated with The Way. Scholars suggest that this particular story occurred five or more years after Jesus was killed, so the followers of Jesus were still active and so was the desire to eliminate them.
It must also be noted that the request to travel from Jerusalem to Damascus was no small thing. Damascus, now the capital of the modern nation of Syria, is about 150 miles from Jerusalem. This means it could be up to a two-week journey by foot. Saul was very serious about his intentions to find members of The Way and bring them bound back to Jerusalem. This journey may not have been rare 2,000 years ago, but it certainly wasn’t done casually or without purpose.
So, as he and his companions were approaching Damascus, many days into their long journey, he experienced what we call a theophany, or an encounter with a manifestation of the Divine. This theophany was both visual and auditory, with a blinding light and the voice of God through Jesus. His companions heard the voice but did not see anyone nor did they see the blinding light. This experience left Saul blind and helpless. This Theophany left Saul a changed person. This moment changed Saul the persecutor of the followers of Jesus into Paul the Apostle, one of the most fervent spreaders of the message of Jesus. Saul was called into something new, and it took a Theophany to initiate the change.
There are many historical, medical, and psychological theories about this moment. They range from questions about sunstroke or exhaustion to a stroke or a seizure and epilepsy. The fact of the situation seems less important in this moment to the truth of the encounter: that it left this human profoundly and forever changed.
Change is difficult. You know this, and yet I think we often forget exactly how hard it can be. To change is uncomfortable, sometimes even painful. I have heard my father say more often times than I can count in my life: “People only change when the pain of not changing exceeds the pain of change.” It speaks such truth. So often we only make changes to our lives or institutions or societies when the only way forward is to change, when we have no other choice, when it is either change or calamity. I recently heard from a wise friend that he only retired from a demanding job after he got sick in a scary way. How many people only change their diet after the heart attack or reform an institution after something goes very wrong? Change is difficult, and we often only do so when not changing will hurt worse.
Change also invariably contains loss of some sort, and we typically do not like to have loss. Even good change contains loss. I remember being in a classroom conversation in Divinity School about loss and change, and someone was arguing that good changes didn’t have loss because the end result was good. Now, Nora and I had a newborn at that moment and this baby was one of the greatest gifts in my whole life . . . and the amount of loss was staggering! We lost sleep, the ability to function as the adults we once were, we lost the built relationship of just two of us. Even wonderful change has loss.
The poet W. H. Auden, in his poem “The Age of Anxiety,” says this: “We would rather be ruined than changed. We would rather die in our dread than climb the cross of the moment and let our illusions die.” Does this feel resonant to us in some way?
Here again we have become witness to Saul experiencing great change—a change so profound that he knew something was different even if he didn’t yet know where this change would take him. Saul was in a privileged position and had no need to change. He had power and position and the important protection of a Roman citizenship. His persecution of the followers of Jesus was acceptable at the time. He was firmly in the right according to the mores of his time. He was upholding the status quo religiously and civically and was in no way out of bounds in his persecution.
But then the discomfort of change was put upon him. He was blinded and frightened and heard the voice of God through Jesus. He was called out of the habits of his culture and civilization, called away from everything that he knew was right. Through blindness, he was called into a new way of seeing and acting in the world. He was called away from being Saul the persecutor and towards being Paul the Apostle. He was called into change. And it was deeply uncomfortable, I am sure.
What does it take for you to change, to move through the discomfort and loss that comes with change? Do we need a blinding light and the voice of God through Jesus for us to leave behind the things that no longer work for us, to give up the ways that we separate ourselves from God, to stop persecuting other beloved children of God just because our society tells us they are less worthy? Do we need a theophany to be able to let go of some of our more hurtful paths? Would we stop overconsuming from the earth if the light of God blinded us? Would we dismantle the caste systems that are in place if a voice from the heavens came to us? Would we stop inflicting violence upon others, stop accepting poverty as inevitable, stop disconnecting ourselves from others if Jesus told us that these actions were persecuting him? Do we need a theophany to change? Do we need God to shake us from our foundations in order for us to listen? Do we need to become blind in order to gain new sight?
Maybe we do. Maybe we do need a theophany to make the pain of change worthwhile. Maybe we do need God to knock us down on our collective roads to Damascus. Maybe we do need this. What if this has already happened and we weren’t paying attention, or we dismissed it as being sunstroke or exhaustion? Maybe the theophany is all around us and we have altogether stopped noticing. What if we are waiting to change until we experience the dramatic calling of God and it has already happened—and here we are still on the ground, blinded, waiting for our sight to return? Maybe its time to get up.
It is potential that a theophany has already happened. It may still be happening. If we are people that believe that God is still speaking, that God is present within, among, and between us, that the other is lovable just like we are, then the theophany is ongoing. It may not be as direct or dramatic as in this story, but the visible manifestation of God is everywhere and always—we just have to want to see it and then let it change us. We have to be brave enough to get off the ground, blinded and afraid, and let our companions on this road walk with us. We need to let go of the assumed surety of our past and be willing to be led into an unknown future. We are asked to be courageous enough to let God change us, to see the world anew and act in love. We have to allow ourselves to be blinded so that we can see the way that God is calling us to see. We have to stop persecuting Jesus who is found everywhere in our world. We have to be willing to change.
This is our calling. This is what is asked of us. This is who we get to be. We are supposed to receive the surrounding theophany and change. To change doesn’t mean to forget who we were before, but to root ourselves in that past in order to be changed for the future. What was past is not what will be, but all that will be is rooted in the soil of the past.
What does it take for you to change, for us to change? What does it take to pay attention to the theophany, this continued visible manifestation of God, that is around us always? How do we respond to this calling, this powerful, blinding gift?
May we receive this calling with grace and humility, love and compassion. May we be courageous and not be stopped by the discomfort of change. May we stop persecuting Jesus in our midst. May it be so.