Texts: John 21: 1-19 (Jesus appears to the fishers)
Revelation 5: 11-14 (Worthy is the Lamb)
Acts 9: 1-20 (Saul’s conversion)
This is the third Sunday of Easter, and so it seems appropriate that our three readings this morning describe four different encounters with the Risen Christ.
The first encounter is between Jesus and his disciples back in Galilee following his death and resurrection. The second encounter is a vision of the end of time given to the writer of Revelation, John of Patmos, about 70 years after the resurrection. The third encounter is with Saul, whom we usually refer to by his Greek name, Paul. Saul is Hebrew for Paul, and the book of Acts first introduces him using his Hebrew name.
In our story this morning, Saul/Paul is struck down by a blinding light while on the road to Damascus. It is a few years after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and Jesus calls to Paul in a vision and orders him to stop persecuting the followers of the Way of Christ. Paul is not only knocked to the ground by this vision, but is also struck blind. His friends then lead him the rest of the way to Damascus.
The fourth and final encounter with the Risen Christ from our readings this morning is with his disciple Ananias in Damascus. In a vision, Jesus instructs Ananias to find Paul, heal his blindness, and baptize him.
We ended our readings today with the one from Acts about Paul and Ananias because it is about baptism, and this is a baptism Sunday for us here at Knox.
Of course, the story of Paul's baptism is far different from the three we have participated in this morning. Paul is not a baby; he is an adult and a committed religious leader. In fact Paul is a zealot who persecutes fellow Jews who follow Christ. And Paul's baptism follows a real trauma. The vision of the Risen Christ knocks Paul to the ground, and the brightness of its light leaves Paul blind. Jesus' message to Paul is stern. Paul has been persecuting Jesus and his followers, but Jesus commands him to stop. After hearing this stern command, Paul does not eat or drink for three days. Instead, he sits in Damascus in blindness and prays.
What must Paul feel after this frightening encounter? What distress must it involve? Paul believed that he had been a righteous and God-fearing man. Here is how he describes his pre- conversion self in a passage from Philippians, which we read on March 21: "I was circumcised on the eighth day. I am of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless."
Paul persecuted the followers of the Way of Christ not because he was an evil person. He believed that he was acting in the service of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Moses. But now, praying in blindness in Damascus, his whole sense of self is shattered. He thought Jesus was a false Messiah. But this same Jesus has now appeared to him in a blinding vision, and has told him that his righteous zeal is dead wrong. This is the painful and stark message that Paul receives before his baptism.
Even for people who aren't Christian, the phrase "the Road to Damascus" conjures up images of repentance, conversion and a new stage in life. But perhaps not many of us have as clear an encounter with God as Paul's encounter. And while Paul's encounter sounds painful, at least it has the virtue of being hard to ignore. Surely if any of us had such a vision, we would not ignore God's message? Is it not likely that we, like Paul, might repent and turn our life around?
But perhaps Paul's Road to Damascus experience is not so unusual. Imagine if you will that our lives as individuals, communities, and nations can be looked upon as so many "roads to Damascus" on which we are knocked down again and again by blinding visions and given the opportunity to hear God's voice. After these encounters, we are then offered a chance to sit in darkness, to pray, and to search for a new direction in life. I also want us to imagine that while we might have many encounters like this, we might not always repent or change course.
Is this far-fetched? The life of an individual begins with energy and growth, which leads to career, marriage, children, and so on. And often on this path, we get knocked to the ground and are at least temporarily blinded. We lose a job. A marriage crumbles. Beloved children cause us pain. We find ourselves sunk in addictions of various kinds. Illness strikes or other misfortunes bring us up short.
Or a nation, which once seemed shining and full of promise, finds itself at war or brought down by economic or environmental crisis. It may be threatened by internal divisions, racial tensions and other difficulties.
Now I don't mean to suggest that all such calamities are gracious gifts of God. But I would like us to reflect on how, with grace, we might use such experiences -- where we are thrown to the ground and temporarily blinded -- as opportunities for repentance and conversion.
Paul is a law-abiding man of God. But in the dark in Damascus, he realizes that his old life was full of self-righteous anger and misplaced ego. His dark night of the soul in Damascus opens his heart. Imagine the relief that Paul must feel when Ananias, a follower of Jesus, finds Paul three days later. Ananias lays his hands upon Paul, heals his blindness and baptizes him in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Paul knows that after this, his life will never be the same.
Here is how Paul describes his post-baptismal life in Galatians: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." And in Romans: "All of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life."
The old Saul/Paul is dead, crucified with Christ, slain in a dark night of the soul that follows his encounter on the road. After his repentance and baptism, Paul has new life, but it is no longer he who lives, but Christ who lives in Paul. The Risen Christ, who appeared to Paul in a blinding vision, now also lives in Paul's heart.
So it is with us. As we grow up, our egos expand and our capabilities blossom. And then -- limited mortals that we are -- we stumble or are otherwise laid low. This arc of growth and decline in life is inevitable. No matter how talented or lucky we are, we can't escape it. But Grace is always available to us in moments of crisis. The Grace might be the voice of Jesus calling us toward an ego-free life in the Body of Christ. It might be the grace of a path laid out before us where freedom and joy are found in service and not in ordinary human foolishness.
So why might we ignore such opportunities to reflect and repent after being knocked to the ground and temporarily blinded? I suppose there could be lots of reasons. Responding to the call of God can be dangerous. Like Paul, we might find ourselves preaching the Good News of Christ far and wide but often being attacked or jailed because of this work.
As well, conversion is painful. Listening to God's call during a dark night of the soul involves confronting ourselves: opportunities missed, mistakes made, and ego-traps built. If we do confront these factors, it is almost always painful. So it might seem easier in the short run to deny the promptings of Spirit and the call of Christ and remain stuck in old ways.
Further, when we do listen to the call of God, there is no telling where a life in the Spirit might take us. Like Paul it might be a life of danger. But then life without risk and danger is not really possible, is it?
Every time we love -- whether friends, spouse, children, congregation -- we are opened to both the joy and pain of living. And I believe that this two-sided reality is visible in today's baptisms in the love shown between parent and child. But we will return to the topic of the joy, danger and grace found in looking into the eyes of a baby in next week's sermon!
Or imagine, if you will, that you had been a life-long city-dweller from the East, who was once a left-wing activist and a skeptic. If such a person were foolish enough to follow the call of God, he might even find himself preaching from the pulpit of a rural church in Western Canada in front of a group of people who once were all strangers, but with whom he has now fallen in love and who seem to love him. You just never know the risky and gracious places where God's path will take one!
A dark night of the soul can become a baptism into the path of faith, hope and love of Christ. This is a free and joyous path. And though it is hardly without risk or danger, we wouldn't want any other way.
Blinding moments that open us to repentance and conversion do not occur just once. With God's Grace, they occur as many times as is necessary, even to the end of life. In each and every such instance, we are confident that the God who is Love provides us with the healing hands of an Ananias to help us; and the stern but forgiving voice of Jesus to lead us toward a life free from ego and open to the joy of love.
With Grace, this path of new life beyond ego is shown to us again and again. And then with the disciples in Galilee, we might feel compelled to cry out "It is the Lord!"
Or as in the scene from Revelation, we might then feel compelled to join in the heavenly chorus of myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands and sing, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain . . . to receive power and wealth, and wisdom and might, and honor and glory, and blessing!"
Thanks be to God.