We’ve heard this story before – this story of the Apostle Paul’s transforming experience of the Risen Christ, on the road to Damascus. Just a few months ago, we heard Paul’s version of the story – in 1 Corinthians – the short version – Paul looking back on this moment – how he had persecuted the early church; how he experienced the Risen Christ and Resurrection; how he had been transformed, forgiven, and called. “But I am the least of the apostles because I persecuted the church – but by the grace of God I am what I am, and God’s grace was not without effect.” A humbled Paul.
This morning’s scripture is the rest of the story – the more-detailed version we read in the Book of Acts, which is likely a sequel to the gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of what happened on that road – of the Apostle Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ – and then of his experience with Ananias, one of the people he had been hunting down – and all the life that flowed from that. In the Book of Acts, this is the story of two men: Paul and Ananias.
Maybe we should rewind just a bit. When we pick up this story, it’s important to remember that Paul is not yet the hero of the church. He’s not yet the Apostle Paul – he still has his old name Saul of Tarsus. (You can think of Paul, as the apostle formerly known as Saul.) Saul is devout and zealous, committed to the law. To him, the followers of Jesus – in these early days a movement called “the Way” – are radical and a threat – a threat to law and order. So he’s tracking them down, imprisoning them, and bringing them into the religious courts. Saul is there, approving, when the crowds stone Stephen to death. Saul (who someday will become Paul) is not a nice guy.
And when we encounter him this morning, he is on the road again “breathing threats and murder.” Saul has his latest assignment – he has obtained letters from the authorities to round up these people who call themselves “the Way,” women and men, and to bring them in for prosecution. But on the Road to Damascus, Saul is stopped in his tracks. He encounters the Risen Christ – first in a bright, blinding light. And then in a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul replies, “Lord, who are you?” “I am Jesus Christ whom you are persecuting.”
And then the voice of the Risen Christ says, “Get up and go into Damascus, and you will be told what to do.” And then all is quiet. There Saul is – the mighty persecutor – lying in the road. He opens his eyes, but he can’t see. Saul’s companions stand there speechless. They lead him by the hand into the city. Where he will encounter Ananias.
We’ve talked about Paul’s experience of the Risen Christ and what it meant to Paul. This morning, I want to think some about what it meant to Ananias – this other guy in the story – what did Paul’s experience of Resurrection mean for Ananias?
So, Saul/Paul is raging around persecuting the followers of the Way, he’s rounding them up, taking them to be imprisoned and tried. He’s knocked to the ground by his experience of the Risen Christ, left without sight, basically carried into the city, helpless.
And the scene shifts. The Risen Christ comes to Ananias in a vision, and says, “Ananias, get up and go help this guy Saul, lay hands on him, and heal him so that he might regain his sight.” Go help, Saul. This guy who just yesterday was hunting you down – breathing threats and murder. Go help... Saul.
What does Saul’s experience of the Risen Christ mean for Ananias? Well, as a first thing, Ananias is being called to go risk his life. Ananias names that – “Saul? From Tarsus? But Lord, I have heard about this guy – all the evil he is doing to the people you love. And now, he has official orders to round us all up.” Saul is hunting down followers of “the Way.” Ananias is a follower of “the Way.”
Ananias is being called to go serve one whom he sees as both enemy and threat. Saul, who is breathing threats and murder – Saul, who is hunting you down – you go find him, you go help him. The Risen Christ says to Ananias, “This Saul, he is my beloved too – whom I am choosing and calling to bring my Good News more broadly than anyone has ever imagined – to Gentiles, and kings, and every family on earth.”
Ananias is being asked to re-envision this Saul – to see him differently – to see him as God’s beloved too – even as the breath of Saul’s threats is still warm in the air. “Ananias, this Saul is my beloved too – go, lay hands on him, heal him, help him.”
By now, I’ve told you a few stories from the many trials that Janie Spahr faced in the national church over the years. For those who may not know her yet, Janie is a lesbian minister who came out in the early 1980s. The national church has since changed – but back then (and until pretty recently), what followed her coming out was a number of prosecutions and trials intended to shut down her ministry.
Janie was already an experienced pastor, and not long after she came out, the Downtown Church in Rochester New York called her to be their pastor. But a prosecution and lengthy trial ensued, and the national church eventually held that Janie could keep her ordination, but that as an out lesbian she couldn’t pastor a church. During those trials and those early days, what people said was vicious. The Downtown Church hired her anyway – in a different role – to be an evangelist of God’s expansive, inclusive love throughout the church.
As Janie ministered within the LGBTQIA+ community over the years, she celebrated the marriages of same-gender couples – honoring our families and our loves – and prosecutions and trials followed that too. I was one of the attorneys who represented her in those trials.
The last of those trials was not long after California said that our marriages were legal. The Presbyterian church prosecuted Janie for the marriages of same-gender couples she had married, and at the trial, the couples testified to love and marriage – and Janie’s pastoral care – it was an amazing three days of testimony. But the church court, convened in a fellowship hall in Napa, found her “guilty.” They found that what Janie was doing did embody the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they thanked her for that, but then they said, “but we are constrained” – constrained to follow what they thought were the rules of the church. I think I’ve told you that part of the story. Some of you were there.
Not long after the trial, I went to a Presbytery meeting, and as I walked up, the first people I encountered were three of the judges who had found Janie guilty. They called me over, eagerly greeted me, and started to explain – “Scott, of course you understand, we just were doing what we had to do – our hands were tied. We hope that things go well on appeal.” Now the church has changed – we know that – we wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t. But in that moment, I had seen what they did to Janie – I had heard the couples she had married weep in that fellowship hall – and in that moment with those judges – well, I was not my best self. I don’t remember exactly what I said, but it was essentially this: “You know what you did.”
I went immediately to find Janie – and told her the story – can you believe it? Can you believe the nerve? And here is what Janie said to me: “Scott, we have to let people apologize however they need to.” Can you believe that? Such... grace. After all the prosecutions and years of pain, Janie Spahr said, we have to let people apologize however they need to. I wonder how many times, in my broken moments, I have needed folks to extend grace like that – to me – to let me apologize however I need to. What I experienced in that moment was what I already had come to know – that for Janie Spahr, the gospel of Jesus Christ really is good news for everyone. For everyone.
Look at what Ananias does next. He experiences the Risen Christ. “Go find Saul. Go help Saul.” This man who is breathing threats and murder, who is hunting you down. “Go find Saul.” And Ananias, goes and finds Saul. He walks into the room, where Saul sits unseeing. He places his hands on Saul. He says, “Brother Saul – Brother Saul. God has sent me so that you might see again. Be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Ananias reaches out and touches Saul. Calls him brother. Heals him. And shares with him the gift of Holy Spirit – the gift of Pentecost – the Holy Spirit descending into Saul in the hands of his Brother Ananias. And Saul opens his eyes, and sees. And then... then... Ananias baptizes him.
In just a moment, we will celebrate a baptism. In baptism, we celebrate and name that each and every one of us is a child of God. We affirm that we are created in the image of God – each and every one – in the broad diversity of God’s creation. We are claimed in the waters of baptism as God’s own, and we are named Beloved – God’s Beloved. In the waters of baptism, our all our brokenness is washed away and healed. Plunging into the water, we enter into the death and Resurrection of Jesus – just as Jesus entered into the fullness of our life and death – rising up together in the bright dawn of the new day of Resurrection. We proclaim together that we are part of God’s New Creation – God’s goodness planted more deeply in us and in the whole world, more deeply than all that is wrong. We celebrate our baptism.
In our baptism – we are baptized into community – into a family of all God’s children – you and me and Ananias and Saul – one family – one body. You see:
When your identity is in Jesus Christ,
and my identity is in Jesus Christ,
we are in Christ together.
There is no separation.
In Christ, we are baptized into life with each other.
There’s this moment in this morning’s Scripture – when Ananias lays hands on Saul, and prays for Saul – this man whom only yesterday Saul has been hunting down – “Brother Saul, be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And Scripture says that the scales fall from Saul’s eyes and he sees – imagine that – he sees – Ananias. There they are together, and in his experience of Resurrection, the first face that Saul sees is the face of his brother, Ananias. Saul’s vision of the Risen Christ, of Resurrection, is embodied in the voice, and the face, and the touch of his brother Ananias.
From this transforming experience of the Risen Christ, the Apostle Paul will come to insist on the welcome of all people. It is a welcome that he first experiences in Ananias – in Ananias’ words, in his touch, in his prayer, in his healing, in Ananias’s face-to-face presence in the midst of Saul’s deepest need. It is grace and Resurrection that we experience in each other, together.
In just a moment we will celebrate a baptism – the baptism of Phoebe Chavez. Phoebe has said that she is excited to be part of this church because she knows that, at this church, everyone is welcome. As we celebrate this baptism – and our own baptism – we experience Resurrection – life and love so much bigger than we ever imagined – right here, right now, and on into forever.
It is no small thing, no small thing – when today and every Sunday we say these words: Whoever you are, wherever you are on your spiritual journey, there is a place for You. Here.
© 2022 Scott Clark
 See https://www.togetherweserve.org/post/the-threshold-of-forgiveness-1-corinthians-15-1-11-fifth-sunday-after-epiphany  See Eric Barretto, Commentary on Working Preacher, at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/third-sunday-of-easter-3/commentary-on-acts-91-6-7-20-3 For general background on this passage and the life of Paul, see Udo Schnelle, Apostle Paul: His Life and Theology (trans. M.E. Boring) (New York: Baker Publishing Group, 2005); Eung Chun Park, Either Jew or Gentile: Paul’s Unfolding Theology of Inclusivity (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003).
Photo credit: Leo Rivas, used with permission via Unsplash.