A Change of Heart

by David Baer, April 15, 2018

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Text: Acts 9:1-19a

Many years ago, a little girl discovered a lost cat outside her home. The cat was injured, hungry, suffering from exposure, and in a terribly bad way. With the help of her parents, the girl wrapped the cat in a blanket, brought it inside, and fed it milk. When it was time for the girl to go to bed, she didn’t want to leave the little animal in whom she had invested so much love and care. She was worried that if she didn’t stay by its side, the cat might not make it. But her mother gently smiled and urged her daughter to pray for the cat and then go to sleep. The mother said, “I’ve seen sicker cats than this survive.”

The little girl grew up to be a minister who served as the interim pastor at my family’s church, and she told us this story on her first Sunday with us, after our former pastor had left under difficult circumstances. I was just old enough to realize that the adults around me were very worried about the future of our congregation, and as she spoke and looked out at us and said again, “I’ve seen sicker cats than you survive,” we all chuckled. It was brilliant—on the one hand, it showed us that she was a compassionate person who wanted to help wherever she saw hurt. On the other hand, it emphasized that we were situated in a story where there was every reason for hope, that with a little care and a little prayer we too would become healthy again.

“Resurrection,” writes author and pastor Frederick Buechner, “means that the worst thing is never the last thing.” The miracle of Easter—the stone rolled away, the empty tomb, and the crucified, wounded Jesus alive and breathing peace and power on his astounded disciples—is the proof of the good news that the worst thing is never the last thing. But in these days following Easter, we’re going to look at what it means to live as a resurrection people.

The story we read today usually gets described as the “conversion” of Paul (or “Saul,” as he’s called here), but I think it’s actually meant to be read as a resurrection. When Paul later writes about the transformation in his life he says things like, “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19b-20). When Paul looked back on what had happened to him, it seemed to him nothing less than dying and being born a second time.

Conversion of Saint Paul (Michelangelo Buonarroti).jpg
By Michelangelo - From Web Gallery of Art - http://www.wga.hu/index1.html., Public Domain, Link

But if you look carefully at the way this story is told, you see it here too. This reads like a resurrection story. When you hear that Paul is three days without sight and without taking food, you can’t help thinking of the three days Jesus spent in the tomb. And then there’s this word that keeps appearing in the story. When Paul encounters Jesus he falls to the ground. One of the things Jesus tells him to do is, “Get up!” And when Ananias comes and lays hands on Paul, praying for him to recover his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit, it says Paul “got up and was baptized.” The Greek word used can mean “get up” in the everyday sense, like getting up from the table, but it literally means “rise,” and it comes from the same root as the word for “resurrection.” It’s interesting that Jesus also tells Ananias to “get up”… Let’s remember that—there’s more than one resurrection going on here.

Paul the Pharisee, Paul the zealous persecutor of disciples, Paul who breathed threats and murder against the followers of Jesus died on the road to Damascus. His old self couldn’t survive a confrontation with the risen Jesus. And if this were an ordinary story of just vengeance, that might have been the end of it. You can imagine a story where Paul simply drops dead on the road, can’t you? He had set himself against God’s Son. He had horrible, evil intentions for the community Jesus loves, a community he identifies with so strongly that he regards their suffering, their persecution as his own. Jesus doesn’t say, “Why do you persecute them?” He says, “Why do you persecute me?” And so you can easily imagine this story ending with Paul getting his just desserts, a murderer punished, life for life, as it says in the Torah. It would be a much easier story for the church to live with, as we’ll see with Ananias.

But in fact Paul’s story does not end when Paul’s old life does. Paul the enemy of Jesus died on the road to Damascus, and Paul the apostle of Jesus rose to new sight and new life three days later. This is the Paul who would go into the synagogues in Damascus and announce, to everybody’s surprise, that Jesus is the Son of God. This is the Paul who would himself suffer persecution and death for Jesus’ sake. That’s one resurrection that took place in Damascus so many years ago. And if you’ve ever been in the place of Paul, waking up one day to see how wrong you’ve been, how much harm you’ve caused–if you’ve ever wonder whether you’re outside the reach of forgiveness and life-change, then his resurrection is the one for you to hold onto. Because whatever wrong you may have done, you know Jesus has seen sicker cats than you survive! The story of Paul on the road to Damascus shows us just how far God’s grace and forgiveness and transforming power can reach.

But Paul is not the only one who needs to be raised to new life in this story. Jesus says, “Get up! Rise!” to Ananias as well. Jesus says “Get up!” to the church insider who’s fearful and suspicious of Paul for good reason. Because the old Ananias has to die too. He has to die to his assumptions about who can and can’t serve God’s purposes, who can and can’t be part of the family of faith gathered by Jesus. Go and heal this man Paul, says Jesus, and Ananias protests that “this man” (he won’t even use Paul’s name) has done so much to harm the sisters and brothers Jesus loves. But Jesus reveals his purpose for Paul to Ananias. Paul will carry the message of Jesus to the Gentiles, to people like you and me who aren’t part of the Jewish faith. And he will suffer for it. Ananias dies to his too limited understanding of Jesus, and he rises to a life where he can love his enemies and pray for them and do good for them. There are a whole lot of names Ananias might have liked to call Paul. But what term does he actually use, when he meets him? “Brother,” he says. Brother, be healed, be filled with the Holy Spirit. Be baptized, and join your new family. But let’s realize that, as much as this was new life for Paul, it was new life for Ananias too. Jesus was yet more powerful, yet more gracious than he had dared to imagine. And by dying and rising with him in grace, Ananias became powerful and gracious too.

One of my best friends from my college days is someone I met in our campus ministry. There’s no good reason the two of us should have been friends. I’m white; he’s black. He’s gay; I’m straight. He struggled in school, while book learning came much easier to me. He grew up in the city; I was from the ’burbs. I was a go-along-get-along sort, and he was a born contrarian. We had so little in common that if we hadn’t been housemates, I’m not sure we would have made it beyond a handshake. I confess that I was annoyed when he threw bombshells and roadblocks into our community life, and so I held back from really getting to know him at first. And as we settled into our first term sharing living space in the campus ministry house, he was the one who reached out to me to call me on my coolness toward him. I realized I had to “get up.” I had to die to the small-heartedness that failed to make room for the friend God had placed down the hall from me. And when I did, I found that God raised me up into a friendship that nourished me through college and that endures to this day.

“Get up!” Jesus says to Ananias. And Jesus calls to us too, in our insecurities and anxieties. Is there something God has put in your heart to do, some change you need to make, some call to do good that you need to respond to? What hurts have you been indifferent to? What hopes have you too quickly dismissed? What are you afraid of? What is stopping you from reordering your choices, your relationships, your way of life as someone who lives with the knowledge that you are God’s beloved child?

“Get up!” It’s a powerful invitation. It stops enemies in their tracks. It overcomes hostility and estrangement. It marks entry into a new life. And it’s all connected with the resurrection of Jesus himself. His rising opens the way for our rising—not just at the end of physical life, but at the end of a way of life that is harmful or just too limited for his purposes. “Get up!” calls us to courage, to the love of enemies, to cast off the old and embrace the new. May you rise to God’s new life for you, may you rise with Jesus—not just on the last day, but today. Amen.