Sermon for the third Sunday in Eastertide
The lectionary presents us with two longish narratives tonight, each of which are key Eastertide texts. In the story from the Gospel according to John, we’re invited to eavesdrop as the risen Jesus offers a path of reconciliation to Peter. Three times he asks, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” echoing the Peter’s three-fold denial from the night of Jesus’ arrest. And each time Peter answers, he is commissioned to be the kind of shepherding leader that Jesus himself had been to his followers: “Feed my lambs;” “tend my sheep;” “feed my sheep.” Peter’s former identity as the boisterous disciple who in the moment of crisis had lost his nerve is overwritten. “Follow me,” Jesus says to Peter, pointing not merely to this call to be a shepherd leader but also to the truth that, like Jesus, in the end Peter will die for the sake of what is right and true.
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The other text is the story of what is generally called the “conversion of Paul.” It is one of three accounts of this experience offered in the book of Acts (Acts 9:1-20; Acts 22:6-16; Acts 26:12-18), suggesting that Luke considers this a rather central story in the life of the unfolding church. It is worth noting that the term “conversion” isn’t actually used in the text itself, and that as it is presented both here in Acts and in Paul’s own reflections in the Epistle to the Galatians, it is as much a case of radical re-location as it is a classic “conversion.”
At the heart of Paul’s relocation is his having to recognize that the people he had been persecuting with such vigilance were actually the ones who were on “the Way” of God, and that in “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” he’d actually been persecuting the Lord himself. Struck down on the road to Damascus, he hears the words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” When he asks, “Who are you, Lord?” the response is, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” “God was pleased to reveal his Son to me,” Paul will later write in his letter to the Galatians; it is an act of grace, and a revelation of what is actually going on.
And it is all very dramatic, with its bright flashing light and a voice speaking from the heavens. We watch as this man who had been willing to see people put to death for their belief in Jesus becomes someone prepared to die in defense of that very belief. As he writes in his letter to the Philippians, he was “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (3:6) And now he has been utterly re-located in this new calling, from which he seems never to have wavered.
While I wouldn’t claim to have had a “Damascus road experience”, I think it is fair to say that I was graced with a series of intersecting “Damascus sidewalks.” As I began to be woken to the idea of a call into ordained ministry, there was no blinding light or heavenly voice. But there were voices—very human voices—and there was a moment when the light finally clicked.
I was midway through my undergraduate studies at the University of Winnipeg, working toward a degree in psychology and thinking about graduate work. I already had experience working with kids, both in residential youth care and as a neighborhood youth worker, and my assumption was that I was already very much on my career path. One very cold and blustery December afternoon I gave a ride home to one of the teens I was working with, and as he got out of the car he asked me what I was doing that evening. It happened that I was attending an ordination service that night, and so I told him that I was going to a church service in which a friend was becoming a minister. Just before he slammed the car door shut, he poked his head into the car, looked at me and said, “That’s what you’re going to do too.” I brushed it off, but then just a few days later this very kind, elderly lady at church asked me if I’d ever “considered the ministry.” I made a mental note of the coincidence, but basically dismissed it; I knew what I was going to do, and ordination wasn’t part of it. Yet over the next three months, I received eight more of these comments, from a rather odd array of people; work colleagues, people at church, fellow students at university, friends… maybe I need to pay attention? No. I know I belong working with kids, not pastoring some church.
Then I was having coffee with the priest at the Manitoba Youth Centre, bouncing around some plans he had underway for a new volunteer program, and out of the blue he said, “Jamie, have you ever had the experience of having ten different people all saying the same thing to you, maybe even telling you something you don’t really want to hear?” I sort of gulped, and said that yes, I did know that experience. He replied, “I believe that is one of the ways that God speaks to us in our time.” And just as abruptly as he’d taken that detour in the conversation, he was back talking about his new program… leaving me in shock. I didn’t even ask him what had led him to offer his “ten people” comment. We just rolled the conversation to a close, and feeling more than a bit stunned I walked to my car and drove home. That afternoon I phoned my parish priest, and he said, “I wondered when you were going to want to have this conversation.” Within a month I was talking with the bishop, who in that first conversation was already planning my course of studies at Trinity College in Toronto.
Funny thing, though, is that as soon as I acknowledged that I had to look seriously at the idea of ordination, the stream of comments and questions stopped. It was almost as if once I’d been woken to the sense of call I would need to go it on my own. A few years later when I was at theological college, a group of us were sitting over coffee and telling our stories of how we’d ended up on this path. One of the people at the table was priest who had returned to the college to pursue doctoral studies, and after I recounted my experience, he sat back and looked at me with this incredible intensity. “Never let yourself forget that experience of a clear call,” he said. “It may be the only one you get.” And in so many respects he was right. I’ve had a good deal of affirmation of this path I’m on, and some powerful moments of clarity and consolation, but nothing so clear and certain as in that first chapter of my story.
For whatever reasons, it seems that God sometimes offers a kind of clarity, and then trusts us (some would say “tries us”) with the challenges of the long haul. And while the account in Acts does say that “[Paul] immediately began to proclaim Jesus in the [Damascus] synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God,’” we shouldn’t take this to mean that it was some instantaneous, straight-line path for him either. Even in Acts his story basically goes underground for several chapters, and by his own account in Galatians he “went away at once into Arabia,” afterwards returning to Damascus, but then it was fully three years before he went to Jerusalem to see Peter. (Gal. 3:17-18) It took him a while, in other words, to find his feet—to find his teaching and writing voice—and in fact there is a span of roughly fifteen years between his Damascus road experience and the timing of his earliest epistle. It doesn’t mean Paul wasn’t writing at that point… just that maybe in the eyes of the church communities (and of the Spirit!), those writings weren’t something to be saved, copied, shared.
The other thing to ponder here is what it can mean to be met so clearly by the presence of God. For Paul it meant being utterly re-located in every way; something he certainly embraced, but which at the same time would have unsettled every assumption he’d ever held. For the Damascus church leader Ananias, it meant being prepared to receive this call to go out and welcome Saul the persecutor; to care for him, pray for him, give him a safe place to stay. “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem,” Ananias says, which is a formal way of saying, “Are you kidding?” The experience of hearing the clear voice of Christ led Francis of Assisi to leave everything behind, and to become a poor man for the sake of God. Julian of Norwich met the living Christ in a series of powerful dreams and visions, and spent the rest of her life living in a small cell attached to the church in Norwich, trying to unpack what those visions had meant. Even John Wesley’s less dramatic experience at a small group study meeting— “I felt my heart strangely warmed,” he wrote. “I felt that I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me…”—led him on a path that ultimately cost him a secure life within the conventional structures of the Church of England. And ask my wife Catherine about her own experience; how after years of longing to hear a voice, see an angel, have some sort of religious experience, she found herself very, very clearly called to do something she really, really didn’t want to do…
Were I God I might do it differently… I’d be freer in handing out the Damascus road experiences, and probably considerably gentler—more pastorally sensitive—about what I would say or offer or ask of people. It is a good thing I’m not God, because the “long haul” of working it all out—to say nothing of the call to rise to having sometimes demanding claims placed upon us—can bring the deepest of learnings and the most precious of gifts.