Sunday, May 1, 2022

Phil Kniss: A funny thing happened on the road to...

“Belonging and Transformation - turning points on the journey”
Matthew 6:22-26; Acts 9:1-19a

Susan Bedell and David Brubaker share testimonies guided by the prompt:
Tell of a time when someone did or said something for you, that ultimately redirected your life path, or helped you see something you previously were unable to see.

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Acts chapter 9, in many of your Bibles, has a heading like,
“Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.”
That’s accurate.
Problem is,
we have a shallow understanding of “conversion.”

In the Christian world,
conversion implies one of two things happened:
either someone converted from one religion to another,
Buddhist to Christian, Hindu to Muslim, etc.,
or . . . someone converted from a life of evil, sin, and depravity,
to a new life of godliness, peace, and joy.

Acts 9 doesn’t fit the mold.
Saul of Tarsus had neither of those conversions.

Saul, later renamed Paul,
did not convert from one religion to another.
He was a Jew to the core,
and remained so after his “conversion.”
Saul did not become a Christian.
This was long before the schism
that separated Judaism and Christianity.
What happened was Saul joined a small Jewish movement
known as “People of the Way.”
He kept studying Torah, attending synagogue,
practicing Sabbath, and eating kosher food.
It’s just that he started doing those things
while hanging out with other Jewish disciples of Jesus.

Furthermore, Saul did not convert from depravity to godliness.
He did not once reject God, and now embrace God.
He didn’t turn from being self-centered to God-centered.

Saul had a sterling reputation.
He was righteous and religious.
Passionate and zealous, but a good man.

Both before his encounter on the road to Damascus,
and after his encounter,
Saul was a zealot for his faith,
for his people, for his God, for his tradition.
Before and after his “conversion,”
he believed deeply that his religious framework
was right and holy and God-breathed.
He believed it was essential for salvation.
It was a necessary good that needed to be defended.

That was why he was on the road to Damascus.
He was in an epic struggle on behalf of Torah, the Temple,
and the kingdom of God.
He was being obedient to God,
who had called him to this ministry.
In fact, he had a letter from God’s high priest that proved it.
Saul strongly believed, along with other religious leaders,
that the “People of the Way”
were a mortal threat to them as a Jewish people.

Saul had noble intentions.
The same noble intentions, incidentally,
that the religious leaders had a few years earlier,
when they turned Jerusalem against Jesus.

Both were motivated by the noble intentions of keeping the peace.
Palestine was still occupied by the brutal Roman Empire,
so it was to the everyone’s benefit to peacefully coexist
until the political situation changed.
If these radical “People of the Way” gained even more ground,
causing more unrest,
Herod and Caesar would turn against the Jews,
with all the military might of Rome,
and they could be wiped out forever.

Saul knew he was right about his mission.
He was doing God a favor by fighting for the right.
He had a pure heart and a clean conscience
as he went town to town leading the charge,
tamping down this resistance movement,
throwing disciples of Jesus in prison,
making sure they wouldn’t live to do it again.
He was on God’s side.
No doubt about it.

But then, a funny thing happened on the road to Damascus.

Saul was converted to a different way
of seeing the reality around him.
And ironically . . .
or maybe not-so-ironically . . .
a new and keener vision emerged
after he was struck blind.

After a courageous pastoral visit by Ananias,
Saul’s blindness was healed,
and he was folded into the very community
he was trying to destroy—
the “People of the Way,” followers of Jesus.

His zeal for God and God’s purposes did not change!
It continued undiminished.
But it was redirected.
And, his motivation remained exactly the same—
to preserve the work of the God of Israel,
and help usher in the reign of God.

Just think about this for a minute!
This story both inspires me,
and it . . . I don’t mean this the way it sounds,
I mean it exactly the way I’m saying it . . .
it scares the hell out of me,
and it should scare the hell out of all of us.
I am not swearing. I am speaking literally.

So many religious people . . . and especially religious leaders . . .
have a righteous zeal for God and God’s agenda,
that can so very easily be co-opted and used by the devil,
by the powers of hell.
Our zeal for what we think are the priorities of heaven,
can sometimes have hellish consequences,
giving evil a stronger foothold in the world.

It doesn’t take much effort or imagination
to find countless examples in our world,
where this is precisely what is happening.
Religious warfare is a thing—
it has cost millions of human lives throughout history.
Nearly every major religion of the world,
has carried out a holy war, at one time or another.
There’s an interesting argument
that the war in Ukraine has some of those elements.

But we can’t point fingers only at the global stage.
On a much smaller scale, on a personal scale,
it’s something I need to guard against.
Does my zeal for God’s agenda (or what I assume is God’s agenda),
despite my most noble intentions,
ever end up getting co-opted by the powers of evil?
That should sober up any one of us.

Saul’s eyes were opened.
He saw the light.
His religious framework was rebuilt,
and his zeal redirected.
Otherwise, this world may never have known
about this fringe movement within Judaism.

The other thing to point out here,
is that Saul was not persuaded
by hearing a more convincing argument.
For Saul, there was no rational pathway
that would lead him to a different point of view.
It took an existential crisis, a blinding and earth-rattling encounter,
for him to see.
Well . . . for him to be blinded . . . and then to see.

You know, when it comes to present-day application,
this cuts across the whole theological spectrum.
This is no defense of liberalism against conservatism . . .
or vice-versa.
I am not arguing for uncritical openness to everything.
Of course, there is a place for being wisely discerning,
carefully discriminating between right and wrong.

But especially now, in a time where we are so deeply divided—
politically, culturally, racially, socially, theologically—
all of us, once in a while, need to take a deep breath,
and ask ourselves some hard questions.
We need to at least entertain the passing thought,
that we could be missing something.
That there might be a point-of-view we haven’t seen yet.

Then, if God is trying to reach us,
trying to open our eyes to
a new and more life-giving perspective on what is true,
maybe God can get through to us
with something a little gentler,
than knocking us to the ground and striking us blind.

We should always at least entertain the notion
that our perspective is limited.
We should get used to the sound of our voice saying
the most dreaded phrase in the English language:
“I could be wrong.”
When we say that out loud, we open up our lives just a crack,
enough to let some light in,
enough for the Spirit to get hold of us,
and do the real work of transformation.

If our aim is be transformed,
to become the whole human person God created us to be,
then we need to never stop listening,
to never stop thinking we have something to learn.

It’s good to have convictions.
It’s also good to hold those convictions with some humility.

Yes. Let’s name and affirm what we believe to be true,
and God helping us,
let’s live by what we believe to be true at this time.

But let us also nurture a holy openness of mind and spirit.
God still speaks.
So let us keep listening.

This isn’t a malady that effects only the young and brash.
It’s not automatic,
that the older we get,
the more we realize how much we don’t know.
Any of us, at any age, are likely to be living with some illusions.
Thing about an illusion is,
we never know when we have one.
Until we are given the gift of dis-illusionment.

Because we are human, the direction our lives are moving
should always be subject to change,
whether we are young and exploring many possible paths,
or whether we have already lived the biggest chunk of our life.

The stories we heard from Susan and David
both happened when they were in the first half of their lives.
I hope I am still practicing the art
of being willing to change direction when the Spirit speaks,
whether through an Ananias, or a Mary McClelland,
or a spiritual director,
or through one of you, my church family.

Since we all fall short in this way,
let’s join together in some words of confession.

one God, we confess we are often a living contradiction.
        We outwardly project unquestioned certitude and conviction,
        while concealing from others and ourselves,
        our nagging doubts and lingering questions.
all God of the in-between spaces,
        meet us here, at the intersection of
        overconfidence and self-doubt.
one Show yourself to us on the road,
        not to dispel all doubt,
        but to reassure us of your love and presence
        as our journey turns in new directions.
all Heal us. Forgive us. Accompany us.
one The God of Saul and Ananias is with us still.
        Jesus meets us where we are,
        shows us what we need to see,
        and promises to stay with us on the road, wherever it leads.

—Phil Kniss, May 1, 2022

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