We like turnaround stories. It is not only interesting – it is encouraging to hear stories of people whose lives took very different directions. Stories of folks who had made so many bad decisions that it would seem unlikely that they would change direction – until they did. Stories of people like John Newton, (1725-1807) who worked for slave traders and captained slave ships – until he caught a fever and prayed to God to save him. And his understanding of God’s saving meant not just his body, but also his soul from the evils he had done in the slave trade. He later shared his story to change the lives for others, and his most famous hymn, Amazing Grace, is a favorite for many of us – because it tells our story too. We like turnaround stories because, the worse the sinner, the more hope we have for ourselves. If THEY can change, then so can we. Today’s story is the story of a major turnaround – the story of a man named Saul.
What makes a hero? LOTS of things!
Saul was a leader in the Jewish faith at the time of the start of the Christian church, called “The Way” at the time. He was deeply concerned by the disturbing claims of the followers of Jesus. He considered them to be a threat to the Jewish faith. So he did all that he could to stomp out this radical movement. He was there at Stephen’s trial and presided over his stoning. He was apparently unmoved by Stephen’s testimony, and even by Stephen’s prayer asking for forgiveness of those who were the instruments of his death, saying in an echo of Jesus’ phrase from the cross, “They know not what they do.”
Saul heard that this radical sect was taking root in Damascus, in Syria, because of the apostle Philip’s work there. As fast as this sect was spreading, he moved towards Damascus to arrest the followers of Jesus there and take them back to Jerusalem for trial.
You have probably heard this part of the story before – how only Saul saw a light that actually knocked him to the ground -- and heard a voice addressing him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” As a good Jew, Saul recognized this event as an appearance from God -- a theophany – and replied, “Lord, who are you?” And his answer was, “Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
THIS IS THE MOMENT when Saul becomes a hero. Blind and dazed, he is led to Damascus. He shuts up and follows directions. (pause) Well, it is a bit more than that. But he 1. doesn’t start making excuses for his persecution of Jesus and Jesus’ followers. 2. Nor does he attempt to justify what he was doing. He doesn’t argue about it at all. These are our normal reactions. From the time we are old enough to talk, we try to escape punishment by telling lies or making excuses. Ask a verbal two year-old is they dumped their cereal on the dog – and if they know this to be wrong, they will deny it – even if you saw them do it! If a three year-old has written their name in permanent marker on the upholstered chair and you ask them what happened there, they will point to their sibling – whose name it ISN’T. Teenagers will come up with truly exhausting fictitious accounts to explain what happened with the car – when the truth would be easier to tell – and easier for their family to swallow. Even at an early age, and long into adulthood, we have a tendency to deny our own actions when we are ashamed, or don’t want to face the consequences. We tell stories, partial truths, or use alternative facts to try to get out of trouble.
But Saul doesn’t do this. INSTEAD Saul is willing to completely rethink all of his previously held assumptions. He goes silent and allows himself to be led where he is to go. He fasts for three days, praying that God will make clear what he is to do now. But he knows his life will be changed and he isn’t arguing.
Saul becomes a hero because he says in his own mind, and then admits to others in word and gesture over the course of the rest of his life, three of the hardest words for any person to say: “I was wrong.”
God did get Saul’s attention! That whole light from heaven – brighter than the sun at noon – and a voice calling his name, “Saul, Saul.” Anyone would tend to notice these things.
What would it take for US to see the light? To change our point of view? Short of a theophany from God, what would it take?
That is a good question, “What would it take…?” Yesterday at the “Colours of Change” workshop, a similar question was asked. Three youth on a panel were asked what their first memory was of something that made them aware of race as a concern. What did it take for them to see the issue of race in a new way? Their answers were very different – but for each of them, something happened that made them see the needs and rights of someone else in a very different way.
What would it take for us to see things differently? In the 1968 movie, “Finian’s Rainbow,” Senator Rawkins has a turnaround in understanding after his skin color turns to black through a magical wish. Og, a helpful leprechaun, tells the Senator that what he needs is a new inside – and uses a bit more magic to make him a better person. While the storyline with magic helps to move the transformation along, the transformed Senator Rawkins indeed has a different point of view when he stands in a different place within the story. That “walking a mile in someone elses’ shoes” does the trick!
What would it take for our understanding of life to be very different than our current perspective?
A fifth grade teacher was struggling in her classroom with two students who couldn’t seem to get along. They argued all of the time, sometimes yelling at each other across the room. At recess they came close to blows so many times that they were separated each each of them at recess only half of the time. In desperation she asked the principal to come and sit down to talk with her and the two students. “What would it take for you to appreciate each other enough to get along?” she asked. They couldn’t image that could happen – so she gave them an assignment. At the start of each school day they were to report to the principal’s office where she would give each of them a set of questions. They had to get the answers from each other and return to her office at the end of the day with the answers written in. Day after day they had to find the answers to questions like, “What was your favorite vacation and why?” “Where do you go when you are sad?” “What is your greatest fear?” “Have you had someone you loved die?” You know what happened – it only took a few days. Their whole outlook about each other changed and they became the best of friends.
Those we consider opponents, rivals or enemies are often just a shift in perspective away from the possibility of friendship. Consider what we can do to get to know each other as human beings – maybe even siblings, children of God together.
Books and movies can give us a change in perspective too. We could probably each name three books or movies that shifted how we thought about something. If not – we need to change our reading and viewing materials. Pick a book by an author with a very different life experience – or go see a movie that is outside of our life perspective. Then think – does this make me rethink some assumptions? We are blessed to live in a diverse culture with many different voices – so listen to the voice of Maya Angelou or James Baldwin or the stories of Isabel Allende or Brenda Wong Aoki. Our daughters were in grade school when we took them to hear Dayton Edmunds, a United Methodist missionary and Native American storyteller in the Caddo tradition.
Dayton says about his specialty, "My purpose is to tell the story, to pass it on so that others may hear, see, feel and enjoy. As a storyteller, I strive to give a voice to the voiceless. As an artist, I seek to give a perspective from a different part of life's circle. The stories I tell and the artwork I create are to gently challenge people to grow." Both girls immediately put Rev. Edmunds on their list of favorite preachers. His stories helped them see things differently.
Sometimes this shift in thinking comes through a shock…sometimes an “aha” moment…sometimes just knowing more of someone’s story. It doesn’t have to be a bright light and voice from heaven. But when it happens, it changes our lives.
Dramatic Shifts bring about new possibilities. Saul’s seismic shift in understanding what God was doing in the world opened him up for his new mission to reach Gentiles with the message of Jesus’ love and new life! His new identity is cemented with his mission. No longer the persecutor of the church – he becomes its greatest advocate! A Complete TURNAROUND!
When Saul is taken into Damascus, another vision of the risen Christ is presented to Ananias – who goes to see Saul. We are meant to see that the Risen Christ keeps showing up – not just on Easter, not just during before the Ascension. God keeps interrupting people’s lives with a disclosure about something new. (“Oupthe!) And Ananias, after explaining what Saul has been doing, follows instructions, laying hands on Saul to heal his eyes, and being the means by which the Holy Spirit is bestowed on Saul, and baptizes him.
NOTE SAUL’S RESPONSE to all this: OBEDIENCE. It’s actually immediate obedience. He eats, and then starts preaching about the risen Lord in the synagogues of Damascus. When he gets everyone riled up, he heads out of town. When he tells his story, he shares that God’s love reached out to “EVEN ME.” And his name changes when we moves out to speak with non-Jews, Gentiles, pagans – then his Roman name, Paul, becomes his way to be heard.
Saul Paul of Tarsus has been chosen by God for a special task: to expand the sphere of influence for the Good News of Jesus Christ to people with no understanding of the tradition of the Jewish faith and relationship with Yahweh, nor of Jewish prophecy which Jesus could be seen to fulfill. He now understands that God wants the salvation of ALL people – and it is his task to work on this! To fulfill his mission, he had to persuade Peter and the other apostles (except Philip, who was noticeably already on this page) that Jews weren’t the only people who should receive this good news. And then that there are no second-class Christians – ALL those saved are equal as siblings of Jesus, our Lord.
Saul’s future story gives some clues for us as well. What happens when we allow God to shift our thinking and world view? Everything changes! And it isn’t easy – but the sense of purpose in life, the passion for serving God and other people, increases many-fold. Saul was a scholar and a leader in the synagogue – Paul became the father of the missionary movement, offering new life to many different places and peoples. The passion and energy of his letters to the churches at Corinth, Thessalonika, Galatia, Philippi, and Rome is unmistakable. This is a man on a mission! There are new possibilities opening up – because Saul is on a mission for God!
Saul becomes a hero for God because when God gets his attention, he is willing to change his point of view. He is also willing to follow God’s calling to be the missionary to the Gentiles. And everything changes – for Saul Paul – and for the non-Jews in that part of the world – and for everyone who follows Jesus since then. Saul’s turnaround is a game-changer – leading to the win.