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The Same Road in a New Direction

Easter 3, Common Lectionary Year C

Acts 9:1-6(7-20)

©2019 Elisabeth R. Jones

Scripture audio file
Sermon audio file

When we portrayed this tale together
with the children present,
I’m afraid I wussed out.
I softened Luke’s characterization of Saul of Tarsus a little, making him out to be potentially, “one of us”
sincere, but misguided,
heading on the right road to righteousness perhaps,
but not quite getting it right,
a bit like trying to navigate through the Turcot
on a weekend.

Luke’s portrayal is a bit, no, a lot less likeable.
You see, when Saul of Tarsus appears in Acts
a few chapters earlier,
he is the man who holds the coats while Stephen,
a disciple of the Way of Jesus, is stoned to death.
A chapter later he is – and I quote- “ravaging” the early Christian communities, dragging off women and children and men to jail for following Jesus.

I’d like to think that Luke is simply piling this on thick,
stretching credibility,
making Saul more of a fictional evil character
than a real one,
but then again,…. maybe we have seen or known
the likes of Saul as Luke portrays him;
the strident one condoning, even egging on the racist violence,
the ones who show up at affirming church garden parties
or at multicultural rallies with their anti-Islamic,
or anti LGBTQ signs.
And there is nothing in the world quite so frightening,
and ugly, and evil, as moral rectitude
dressed in religious garb of every and any religion.
Saul and his ilk
those who put rules above compassion,
those who exclude rather than love,
are everything that the Dream of God stands against;
the antithesis of everything Jesus taught, lived and died for.

So I’m sorry, Vincent,
the man you portray this morning
is the last person I would choose to walk
the road of life with,
the last person I’d welcome into my home,
or my religious community.
The road that man was on, as far as I’m concerned,
leads straight to hell.

However, and for this, God be thanked,
I don’t get to write this story;
I don’t get to choose the ending for it.
They are not my benchmarks for holiness
that are weighed in the balance here,
but God’s.
This is in fact, God’s story.

Let me show you how we know this:
As Saul and his goons are making their way
from Jerusalem to Damascus – a 200 km, or 8 to 10 day trek,
of increasing suspense,
like Dementors scouring a darkening sky,
“breathing their threats and murder…..”

Suddenly, out of nowhere, defying credibility on every level,
there’s this massive cosmic light show,
complete with sonic boom
and heavenly voices.
Luke’s textual signal that God
is in our midst, with power and purpose.

“Yeah!” We shout from the sidelines,
Now he’ll get it!
Just desserts from the hand of the Almighty!
The Green light sabre, the willow wand,
cracking the sky with instant judgment
for Satan’s henchman Saul!!……….

But…. I don’t get to write it!
Luke’s voice from the heavens,
this time, is the quiet voice of the Crucified One,
who speaks not with condemnation,
but with a question:

“Saul, why?
Why do you persecute me?
Is this the road you want to be on?”

To every Saul who ever was,
my wussy version, or Luke’s,
Jesus’ question is the same:
“Why? Why does fear rule your life?
What are you afraid of?
What would happen if your belligerent certainties
or your fragile insecurities,
were dismantled and dis-armed,
by compassion,
by care,
by love,
by vulnerability willingly shared within community?

What road are you on?
What road do you want to be on?”

The roads we all travel, with certainty or fear,
you know the ones I mean;
the Devil-may-care teenage rebellion road;
the “I’ll take care of my health when I’m older” road;
the “just one more drink” or smoke, or roll of the dice road;
the political or religious certainty road that allows me to trample and bully;
the turn-a-blind eye to corruption, or injustice, or racism, or sexism road;
the road where we are stymied of our creative uniqueness because we are fearful of what others might think;
Are these the roads we want to be on?

What gets me every time I read this text,
is Jesus’ oddest answer.
We expect a repentant U-Turn,
a cosmic deviation,
but instead, Jesus’ instruction
is to take the same road in a new direction.
This road Saul is on doesn’t change!
It’s Saul who changes.

These life roads we’re on,
raising the family,
getting through school in one piece,
trying to age with wisdom and grace,
trying to live healthily with chronic illness,
those roads towards meaningful, fulfilling vocational occupation,
towards emotional health or familial reconciliation,
towards a faith that embraces rather than excludes,
all these paths, roads,
these journeys, may not necessarily change outwardly
when the voice of Jesus meets us on that road.
It is we who change.

That change is not easy, God knows.
We may find ourselves, like Saul
interrupted, upended,
for a significant three days,
reduced to death-like darkness,
awaiting our own resurrection,
and, significantly,
reliant upon the kindness of others
to help us walk our roads,
and reach our destination.

And there’s the rub!
It’s where this incredible story
meets the potholes of reality.
Luke tells us that God had a bit of a tough time
convincing the Christians in Damascus to trust that Saul,
their arch-enemy-
was indeed a changed man;
that he could be trusted with
his own newness of life,
and with their lives.

One of the group, Ananias, said to God,
what I would have said.
“You have to be kidding! Do you know, God,
what this man has been doing to those of us who
follow the Way of Jesus?
No way is he coming within a country mile of us!
No way can such evil in the world be changed!
No way can the broken be mended!
Impossible! Incredible!
No way can the sinner be forgiven…!”
(Unless of course, that’s us)

But that’s the thing about this “Way of Jesus” isn’t it?
We’re a strange and motley crew, we who walk it,
and from one day to the next
we never quite know if we’re saint or sinner,
broken or whole,
lame or leaping,
Saul or Paul.

But this we do know, because of this Gospel:
to Jesus it doesn’t matter.
Doesn’t matter what we’ve done,
what detours we’ve taken,
who we’ve hurt in the past,
how easy or how hard it is
for us to stick to the Way,
this road of humility,
compassion, care,
of love and vulnerability,
of grace and forgiveness,
of commitment to community,
and to living God’s Dream.

All that matters is that we
listen with our heart,
that we hear the voice of Jesus
as often as we need to,
Not a word of condemnation, only this question:
“What road are you on?”
What road do you want to be on?
Well then, travel on, follow me.”

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