Acts of the Apostles 9.1-20
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Today, we start a cycle of lectionary readings from a book in the New Testament that is neither a gospel nor an epistle, but something different. The “acts” genre contains a sequence of things that were done after Jesus was no longer on the scene in the same way, so they basically the adventures of the apostles, who are those people sent out to spread the word. (Sometimes people are confused about who is a disciple – a student or follower – and who is an apostle…and though people like Peter are both, but today we hear about Paul, who didn’t know the pre-Easter Jesus, so wasn’t a disciple of Jesus, but is sent out as an apostle.) Between now and Pentecost in June, you’ll hear all kinds of adventures that are described in the Acts of the Apostles. There are also books in this genre that didn’t make it into our New Testament, like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, which is a great read!
But back to the Acts of the Apostles and today’s famous story about a Jew born in the diaspora, in Tarsus, in what is now Turkey. And in today’s story we hear that he was called Saul (and later called Paul [Acts 13.9]), and that he was persecuting the Jews who saw Jesus as the messiah and who had introduced a provocative reform movement called “The Way” into the heart of Judaism. Saul appears to be working with the central authority of the religious establishment, the High Priest, in Jerusalem, and asks for letters authorizing him to root out followers of the Way in Damascus in Syria, about a week’s journey away from Jerusalem on foot.
And as he nears Damascus, he has what can only be described as a mystical experience…a first-hand experience of the risen Christ who appears in a blinding light and asks Saul why he is persecuting him.
Three days later, Christ appears to a disciple (not an apostle) named Ananias and instructs him to go to and find Saul and lay hands on his eyes to end Saul’s blindness. Can you imagine what Ananias is thinking? “I’m supposed to go and cure this guy who has been trying to defame our movement, arrest our people…and cure his sight? What’s the deal? He deserved to be blinded!” Ananias goes anyway.
And having experienced a sequence of miraculous transformation, Paul not only gives up persecuting The Way, he gets swept up into it and begins to proclaim that Jesus was, in fact, the messiah.
In light of centuries of antisemitism and synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and San Diego, I want to make a brief digression to talk about New Testament references to “the Jews.” When the author writes that “the Jews plotted to kill” Saul, it sounds like Saul isn’t a Jew himself. But a lot of the people in this story are Jews. Jesus was a Jew, was circumcised, and lived and died as a Jew. Paul was born a Jew, circumcised, and he becomes part of a Jewish renewal movement called The Way. John’s Gospel is perhaps the most vociferous in the New Testament about condemning “the Jews.” It is absolutely critical for modern readers to understand the context in which this was written. John and others like him were being excluded by the religious establishment, not because of their ethnicity, but because of what was perceived as their heresy. It’s not unlike the experience of being a gay kid and being thrown out your family of origin. John was a Jew…virtually all the members of his community were Jews. They happen to be part of a Jewish renewal movement that eventually morphed into a separate religion that we know as Christianity. All of which is to say that Jews are our older siblings, and it is from Judaism that every part of the Christian household descends. And if it isn’t clear: antisemitism has no place in Christianity.
So, back to Saul, later Paul. He has quite an experience. It is such a major turning point in his life that we use the term “Damascus Road experience” as an archetype to describe a sudden transformation.
And lest we think that we in the Congregational strand of the UCC are not eligible for mystical experiences, conversion experiences, or sudden transformation, allow me gently to remind you that in many Congregational churches in 18th century New England, prospective members had to display a “visible sign of conversion” before they could be taken into covenanted membership. Obviously, we don’t use that as a litmus test for membership at Plymouth and never have, so don’t let that scare you off from our new members class in two weeks!
One of things we will discuss in that class is Plymouth’s own mission statement, which you all should know by heart. “Our mission is to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ. We do this by… remember the dance?? Inviting, Transforming, and Sending.
The middle action in our mission statement is not there by accident! It is a clear recognition that every last one of us is in need of growth and movement in becoming more whole human beings. What are some of the ways you could transform and grow more Christlike? How do you need to “Go Deeper” in your faith?
A wise Jesuit writer, Anthony de Mello, wrote that “Most people would rather have a definition than an experience.” That fits most of us at pretty well. Definitions are safe. And I’m sure that Saul would rather have had a definition than an experience!
Not all of us have the Risen Christ show up, knock us to the ground and blind us to get his message across. But how many times have you said, “Show me a sign, God…and make it a big one!” This is a 2 x 4, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said “God, I need a sign…make it obvious.” But, I don’t really want to have God swat me with a 2 x 4, nor do I want to be blinded. I hope that something a little more subtle would work.
When I was in my early 30s, my former wife and I were members of First Congregational UCC in Boulder, and I had Public Relations business at the time. We had received a book from our minister by John Dominic Crossan, who has spoken here at Plymouth and with whom Jane Anne and I led pilgrimage in Ireland. Dom’s book is called Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and one afternoon as I was reading it at our dining room table, I had a sense that someone had put their hand on my shoulder. It was a palpable sense of a presence, and it came with a message: “You can do this.” For me, that was a moment of transformation that led me to change careers and become a minister. And I share that with you not because I think you all should become ministers, but rather to let you know that people do have transformative, life-changing, sometimes mystical experiences…and not all of them involve lightning bolts, blinding lights, or 2 x 4s.
So, what have been pivotal life-changing moments in your experience? I have an Episcopal priest friend who uses acronym to describe those moments when we are confronted with change: AFOG. A.F.O.G., which stands for Another Fantastic Opportunity for Growth…though the F-word she used was not “fantastic.” When have you been faced with an AFOG or transformation or crisis that shifted life? For some people, getting into a 12-step program is utterly transformative and directs them toward the Spirit. For others, the process of becoming a parent changes their spiritual life and opens a new access point to the sacred.
If you are on the church mailing list, and if you’ve opened your mail, you read that during Holy Week I found out that my prostate cancer has returned, and I’ll be starting hormone and radiation therapy, and the outlook is still good. That’s an AFOG. I don’t know if there is a message I’m supposed to get from my journey with cancer, but I hope it will become clear. I do know how many of you have dealt with cancer with grace and courage and faith, and you are my examples. And I know that God is with us every step of the way. I know you’ll want to do something, so I would be really grateful if you would keep me and Jane Anne and our family in your prayers.
One of the things we all can learn from Paul’s example is that sometimes we have a transformative experience when what we’d really like is a safe definition. And we also can learn from Paul that after you’ve found yourself on the ground, you can get up, and that you will be changed, and you can go forward in new, unimagined directions. God has a lot of surprises yet in store in each of our lives, and in our common life as a congregation. So, be on the lookout for moments of transformation…and if you find yourself on the ground, know that you have a God-inspired community to lend a hand.
© 2019 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.