Turn in the Road

Lesson: Acts 9:1-22

  Last Wednesday our staff went on our annual staff outing, a chance to get to know each other better and celebrate all the hard work that goes into Lent and Easter.  We went to the Giants’ game and it was a perfect day – warm and sunny, and the Giants trounced the Rockies.  We all had a good time, even those among our group who aren’t avid baseball fans.  Our staff run the gamut, from the folks who’d never heard of the seventh inning stretch to the person who knows all the arcane baseball jargon, like can of corn and chin music.  But even that person commented that every year, every year, something happens during the baseball season that causes him to say, “I never saw that happen before.”  I had a friend who used to quip, “So you think you know baseball,” quoting the title of an old Saturday Evening Post column on baseball, because even avid fans find themselves surprised by baseball’s quirky plays and rules.[1] 

   The story of the conversion of Paul is so familiar that people think they know it.  Saul, the brutal persecutor of Christians, is stopped on the road to Damascus by a blinding flash of light and told by a vision of the risen Jesus to get up and go on into the city to get his new marching orders: He is to become the apostle Paul, God’s chosen instrument to spread the good news.  It’s described not once but three times in the book of Acts.[2]

   So it’s easy to think you know the story of the conversion of Paul.  In much of our thinking about this story, there’s a tinge of wistfulness, if not jealousy.  Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus was so definite, after all.  So sure.  It would be nice to have definitive proof that God does exist and that God cares enough about our lives and how we spend them to stop us in our tracks.[3]

   But as with baseball, there are details we might miss if we think we know the story and don’t look deeper – if we just focus on the special effects in the road instead of on the content.  The way Paul was transformed is neither as important nor as startling as what he was transformed from, and transformed into.  Paul never uses the word conversion to describe this event.  He uses the word metanoia, the Greek word that means transformation.  Rather than a mere conversion from one religion to another, Saul was changed from the inside out into Paul.

   Saul is introduced to us in chapter 7 of Acts as the young man who took care of the coats of the people who stoned Stephen, the apostle considered to be the first Christian martyr.[4]  The narrator notes that Saul approved of the mob execution,[5] and in the flurry of persecutions that follow, Saul is described as “ravaging the church,” dragging men and women believers from their homes and off to prison.[6]  In Saul’s way of thinking, if there is a threat to your way of seeing things, you eliminate it, in the most literal of senses.

   So Saul is characterized as a man of violence even before we hear in today’s passage that he’s “breathing threats and murder.” He gets permission to search in Damascus for more of Jesus’ followers to eliminate.  And then he’s stopped on the road, and it is Saul’s violence that Jesus addresses when he speaks out of the light.  Saul hears a voice, and the double address of “Saul, Saul,” which tells us that something worth paying attention to is coming next.  “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus asks.  Saul doesn’t recognize the voice and when Jesus identifies himself he addresses the issue of violence again, this time in a statement rather than a question: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

   Jesus sends the temporarily blinded and certainly disoriented Saul to Damascus, and then he sends Ananias, a disciple there, to heal him.  At first, Ananias resists.  He’s heard of Saul, and he’s afraid.  He knows that just being in his presence could be a death sentence.  But the Lord reveals the whole plan to Ananias, and he overcomes his fears. 

   And so Saul, who has made it his goal to destroy as many followers of Jesus as possible, is forgiven and accepted and even cared for by Ananias, who calls him “Brother Saul.”[7]  Brother Saul.  This is Paul’s metanoia – his conversion: Saul, the dangerous enemy of the followers of Jesus, traded violence, retaliation and the rule of force for a way – a life, a faith – that says not only to love and forgive your enemies from a distance but to welcome them, and heal them, and send them out as your representative.

   Brian Zahnd, author of a book entitled Unconditional?: The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness reports that when he asks non-Christians what Jesus taught, nearly without exception they will mention that Jesus taught us to love our enemies.  Yet when he asks Christians the same question, they very rarely bring up this commandment.  He suspects that we who are followers of Christ tend to forget this commandment because it is so very hard to do.  And yet, he writes, it is the very kind of Christianity that can change not only Paul but the world.  Zahnd writes: “The Christlike love that absorbs the blow and responds with forgiveness is the only real hope this world has for real change.  To respond to hate with hate enshrines the status quo and only guarantees that hate will win – it’s what keeps the world as it is. …”  Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road and then with Ananias in Damascus show us once again that followers of Jesus Christ have something better to offer the world.  We are called to believe in the radical proposition that love is more powerful than hate.[8]

   The typical argument against this teaching is that it is unrealistic – that it doesn’t work.  Well, just in time for baseball season, a baseball movie opened Friday, called “42.”  42 was the number Jackie Robinson wore on his jersey when he broke the color barrier by being the first African American to play in major league baseball.  The movie is rated PG-13 because it does not sugar coat the hatred directed at Robinson or the vile language that hatred produced.  I confess I haven’t seen the film yet but I plan to. 

   The movie trailer shows a pivotal conversation between Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers’ general manager Branch Rickey, played by a shockingly un-sexy Harrison Ford.  This meeting actually took place, in real life, in Branch’s office in 1945; it’s described in several biographies about Branch and Robinson.  Branch grilled the 26-year-old Robinson for 3 hours to determine whether to play him on the Montreal team with an eye toward an eventual switch over to the Dodgers.  Rickey pressed Robinson: Did he have the guts to play the game no matter what happened?  The opposition would shout insults, come in spikes first, throw the ball at his head.


   “Mr. Rickey,” Robinson said, “they’ve been throwing at my head for a long time.”


   Rickey challenged Robinson: What if a player collides with him at second base and gets up yelling racial epithets? 


   “Mr. Rickey,” Robinson murmured, “do you want a ballplayer who’s afraid to fight back?”


   “I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back!” Rickey shouted.  Now, this is the part of the conversation that isn’t in the movie: Rickey opened up a book by Giovanni Papini entitled Life of Christ, published in the 1920’s, and read Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “But whoever shall smite thee on the cheek, turn to him the other also.”[9]  And Rickey posed another scenario: “Now I’m playing against you in a World Series!  I’m a hotheaded player.  I want to win that game, so I go into you spikes first, but you don’t give ground. You stand there and you jab the ball into my ribs and the umpire yells, ‘Out!’  I flare up – all I see is your face – that black face right on top of me.”  Rickey’s bespectacled face, glistening with sweat, was inches from Robinson’s at this point.  “So I haul off and punch you right in the cheek!”


   An oversized fist swung through the air and barely missed Robinson’s face.  He blinked, but his head didn’t move.  “What do you do?” Rickey roared. 


   “Mr. Rickey,” he whispered, “I’ve got two cheeks. That it?”[10]


   Apparently the movie doesn’t discuss where Rickey and Robinson got this crazy idea not to fight back, or the fact that Rickey chose Robinson because of the young man’s faith and moral character.  Both Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson were devout Christians.  Rickey is described as a bible-thumping Methodist who wouldn’t go to ball games on Sundays[11] and Robinson was rescued from the streets of Pasadena and mentored by a Methodist pastor named Karl Downs.[12]  There were many other Negro League ballplayers Rickey could have chosen, but Rickey knew integrating the racist world of professional sports would take more than athletic ability.  The attacks would be ugly, and the press would fuel the fire.  If the player chosen were goaded into retaliating, the grand experiment would be set back a decade or more.


   But together, Rickey and Robinson changed not only major league baseball and professional sports but the world, bringing people of color one step closer to access to civil rights. 


   Easter was two weeks ago but we are still in the Easter season.  The message of the cross is that God might surprise us, the way God surprised Paul, but God will not retaliate; God does not answer violence with violence, or hate with hate.  God answered the violence of crucifixion with resurrected life.  We, Jesus’ followers today, are both Saul and Ananias in today’s story.  We are the ones needing metanoia and the ones who bring it to the world.  We will not all be stopped in the road by a brilliant light.  We will not all hear a voice calling us by name out of that light, nor have a vision in which the Lord instructs us to go to a specific street and find a specific person and perform a specific ritual.  But we can be transformed in the ways Saul was transformed.[13]  Relinquishing the violence that seems so natural in people and in our culture, trusting the Christian community to help us do that, is not easy but it is what Jesus, calling to us from his solidarity with the oppressed and persecuted, is asking.  Answering that call will transform us.  And then, along with Ananias – and Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson – that is how we are to change the world.

   May it be so for you, and for me.  Amen.


© Joanne Whitt 2013


[1]  Harry Simmons’ column, “So You Think You Know Baseball,” ran in the Saturday Evening Post from 1949 to 1961.

[2]  Acts 9:1-19; Acts 22:3-16; Acts 26:9-18.

[3]  Mary Schertz, The Christian Century, April 20, 2004, p. 16.

[4]  Acts 7:58.

[5]  Acts 8:1.

[6]  Acts 8:3.

[7]  Acts 9:17.

[9]  Matthew 5:39.

[10] “Jackie Robinson Breaks Baseball’s Color Barrier, 1945,” Eyewitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/robinson.htm.  Branch Rickey’s account appears in: Mann, Arthur, Branch Rickey, American in Action (1957); Rampersad, Arnold, Jackie Robinson, a Biography (1997).

[11]  Eric Metaxes, “Jackie Robinson’s Faith Missing from ‘42’ Movie,” April 12, 2013, http://www.religionnews.com/2013/04/12/jackie-robinsons-faith-missing-from-42-movie/

[12]   Chris Lamb, “Faith in Himself – and God,” Aril 11, 2013, http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324105204578385092795588364.html?KEYWORDS=Robinson

[13]  Schertz, ibid.

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