Unraveling That Reveals a New Path
There is a full room at Judas’ house. We are familiar with this story of Saul’s conversion to Paul, but there is more than one character whose path is unraveled at Damascus.
First, of course, there is Saul. He considers himself a faithful Jew; a zealous defender of the faith. He knows what he knows about God, and the law, and how things are supposed to work, and nothing can move him from his mission to eradicate the foundling group of followers of Jesus. He feels justified in his enthusiastic pursuit of those he considers heretics.
They worship the chief heretic, the one they believe was the Messiah, the one who died in a crucifixion fit for a criminal. Saul makes it his mission to let all with ears to hear and eyes to see know what happens to heretics who continue to follow that ghost.
But on the road that day, traveling to Damascus, he is struck down. There is a blinding flash of light, and then nothing – only a voice unlike any he has heard before, the voice of Jesus, and an instruction to follow the directions he will receives when he arrives in the city.
Saul isn’t alone as he travels; he has a retinue of assistants and servants who also hear the voice. They see nothing, but that their master and leader is suddenly helpless as a babe. Without sight, he depends on them to help him, guide him, and keep him safe. They must lead him by the hand now, and he must follow. Without them he would be lost, or worse.
There is a disciple in that town, by the name of Ananias. He is a disciple of Jesus Christ, one of “the Way”. Like all disciples is constantly on the lookout for those who would wish to do him harm simply because he worships and shares the good news of the Lord Jesus Christ. He believes in Jesus, the Messiah, the love of God who was born into the world with power to heal and cure, who preached good news about the love and mercy of God.
On that day, along the road and in the city, each of these experiences an unraveling of their own as God works to transform them and place them on a new path.
Saul’s life, identity and worldview are suddenly altered, broadened, and made new. The result of this unraveling and transformation is a new path for Saul, along with a new name. This path finds him witnessing to Christ rather than persecuting him. He will risk danger, go to new and unfamiliar places, and will endure prison, persecution, and trial as he sets forth on this new path.
He also finds himself belonging to a new community with hope framing his new perspective of God’s working of faith within us. He finds himself in uncharted territory, where he will learn to trust in Jesus and rely on the hand of God leading and guiding him to places unknown and experiences unforeseen.
Like Abraham and Sarah before him, like Simon, whom we know as Peter, as a sign of the transformation and realignment that makes him an apostle of Jesus and a change agent for Gentiles, he is given a new name – Paul.
He is set on a new path, with new insight into the glories of God and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Paul becomes the foremost apostle and missionary to the Gentiles. His understanding of the resurrection of Jesus has helped formulate the theology of every Christian denomination.
Ananias is a disciple of Jesus. When the Lord comes to him in a vison and calls his name, Ananias answers, as Samuel did before him, “Here I am, Lord.” But when he receives detailed instructions to go to the grand persecutor of Christians to heal and assist him, Ananias protests. He cannot understand why the Lord would use him to heal one who so earnestly serves as the enemy of the church and all who believe in a profess Jesus Christ as Lord.
To follow the Lord’s command requires Ananias’ fear to be unraveled. To follow Christ’s will means unraveling his perceptions of what the family of God looks like, for it is God’s will that Paul become an ally and apostle.
To answer the call, God transforms Ananias from fearful, hesitant disciple to change agent for Saul. He is given a new understanding of the power of God to grant new life and new identity to the wayward, the sinner, the unbeliever.
Paul is transformed by God from enemy to brother, from persecutor to “chosen instrument”. His transformation is radical, his story, dramatic.
This story is often titled “The Conversion of Saul” but it is not only Saul who is changed. Each person in this story is witness to the broadness of God’s mercy and forgiveness and is thus changed as well.
How do our stories align with the characters in this narrative? What attitudes, perceptions, and convictions need to become unraveled in our lives in order to live as true disciples of Christ?
Do they have to do with who we see as acceptable in God’s eyes and who is rejected? Is it our understanding of where the limits of God’s mercy, love and forgiveness lie?
What attitudes is God working to unravel in our lives and in our world? What beliefs about other people need to be transformed?
Our world today is consumed with conflict and dissention. In so many ways we have lost the ability to speak, to debate, to respectfully research the information we have that forms our opinions. Anyone whose beliefs or opinions diverge from our own immediately becomes the enemy.
Rather than learn from one another as Paul learned from Ananias, we stake out the territory of our beliefs and guard them as zealously as Saul once zealously defended the traditions and Laws of Judaism.
Political, racial, and religious divides create pockets of distrust and misinterpretation. Divisive individuals find fertile ground for disseminating misinformation and myth that too many receive as gospel truth.
What needs to be unraveled in our lives? In what ways do we need to be truly enlightened and transformed?
In our study on Tuesday, we watched a TED Talk given by Megan Phelps-Roper entitled, “I Grew Up in the Westboro Baptist Church: Here’s Why I Left.” You can check on Zion’s Facebook page for a link to the video. In her Talk, Megan reveals what it was like to grow up in the notorious Westboro Baptist Church, and how she absorbed the vitriolic teachings there, and took part in marches and protests, carrying signs condemning various groups and people to hell. There was no question for her that this way she had been taught was the right way, the right belief, the right actions to take.
But then she came, through the patient conversation and persistent nudging of strangers, to consider another way of thinking and being. It took courage. Ultimately leaving that church meant turning her back on her family and everyone and everything she had ever known.
She describes four small but powerful steps that are essential when confronting someone with strongly held and beliefs or convictions that counter your own. Following these steps can help unravel the animosity that fills our interactions with those who see things differently than we do. The steps are not difficult, and they are consistent with what Christ himself revealed, but they seem so hard to follow if we are unwilling to open our hearts to another person:
1. Don’t assume bad intent. Realize that like Paul, the other firmly believes not only that they are right but that they are in the right. Think about that for a moment. Unraveling preconceived notions or a lifetime of learning or deeply held beliefs takes time, patience, deep active listening and respecting the other.
2. Ask questions. Develop curiosity about why they believe as they do; come from a place of interest rather than testing or rebuttal. Allow your anger or distrust to become unraveled and show care and love rather than impatience or disdain.
3. Stay calm – don’t escalate. This appears to be a lost art in todays world.
4. Make your argument. This step invites you to share why you believe something is true. Do not assume that your position is obvious. In articulating how you got there both you and the other person have an opportunity to learn with mutual respect and honesty.
Jesus did a lot of teaching. He did a lot of explaining. He did a lot of listening. He still does, and we too, need to do a lot of listening. Through prayer, we listen to the voice of God and we listen for God’s leading.
Listening with care and respect to the fears, concerns and beliefs of others and engaging in thoughtful conversation can bring healing and better understanding along the way. We are not responsible for unraveling the hearts and passions of others – God can do that. Your actions can go far to bring peaceful interactions to our world. Be willing to have your own convictions unraveled; to discovering there are better ways of viewing things or learning that your interpretations and assumptions are wrong.
As we listen deeply to one another God can and will unravel our expectations and our deeply held – but sometimes flawed – convictions. God will bring healing and compassion to our conversations. God will bring the ultimate transformation we all need through the forgiveness of our sins, our prejudice and our stubborn adherence to our opinions and false beliefs.
Look to Jesus who leads us and guides us as Saul’s friends led and guided the blinded Saul. Look to Jesus who unravels the path we have planned, and places us on one of his own design. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses all understanding guard your hearts and your minds. Amen.