April 10, 2016
Two young women. One white. One black. The young black woman is carrying schoolbooks. Her eyes are shielded by sunglasses. She is walking steadfastly forward; no indication that she is looking at the faces in the crowd around her. The young white woman is standing a few feet behind her. Her face is contorted by hatred. Her mouth is open, and although the black and white photograph reveals nothing more than images, the young white woman's expression makes it clear that her words are filled with venom and rage.
This is an infamous picture from what is known as the Little Rock Nine. In 1957, following the supreme court's ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, the state of Arkansas made an attempt to comply with the order to integrate public schools. Nine African American students were chosen to integrate Central High School in Little Rock. They attended school under the protection of armed guard. For their courage and their trouble they were spit on, screamed at, verbally abused and physically attacked.
This picture of these two young women is on display at the museum at Central High School. Next to it is another picture. In this color photograph, two older women stand together, with their arms around the other. Their faces are lit up by broad smiles. It is the same two women in both pictures. Elizabeth Eckford and eight other young men and women braved hatred and violence just so they could go to school. Hazel Bryan, along with many others -- young and old -- opposed their presence in their school with their words and their actions.
But something changed; something was transformed. A completely unlikely and seemingly impossible conversion happened because these two women who were separated by skin color, hatred, ignorance and unjust law became friends. A dramatic conversion indeed.
That's what we have in our story from Acts this morning -- a dramatic conversion, the dramatic conversion of Saul; perhaps the most dramatic conversion found in scripture. Our first encounter with Saul happens two chapters earlier. When Stephen was dragged off to be stoned, Saul watched over the coats and cloaks of those who threw stones. After Stephen's death, Saul began ravaging churches and persecuting those who worshipped in Jesus' name. He dragged off both men and women to prison. Following this account of Saul's persecutions, two other conversions happened. Simon, who was a magician, became a believer. Then Philip met the Ethiopian Eunuch, interpreted scripture for him and baptized him immediately upon his conversion.
These were amazing conversions in their own right, but the conversion of Saul is the pinnacle of these three transformations. It was a completely unlikely and unexpected conversion. Think about the very first words of our story.
"Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord..."
Still breathing threats and murder. This evocative imagery is not just wordplay on Luke, the author's, part. It suggest that the persecution of followers of The Way was not just Saul's casual hobby. It was the foundation of his existence. It was as innate to him as his breath. He was not just plotting or planning or considering persecution. He was breathing threats and murder.
He was breathing this violent persecution on the way to Damascus. Apparently he was no longer content with rounding up the believers in Jerusalem. His territory of persecution was expanding. Yet while on the way, the impossible happened. On that road to Damascus, a light from heaven suddenly flashed around them. Saul dropped to the ground and heard a voice speaking to him.
"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?"
This voice proclaimed that he was Jesus, the one Saul persecuted. Saul was to go to the city and there he would be told what to do. All those who traveled with Saul, all those on the way, heard that voice. But only Saul left that encounter blind. Without his sight he was completely helpless. His companions lead him by the hand into Damascus.
Saul was not the only person who encountered the Lord in this story. His conversion did not happen in a vacuum. Ananias was a disciple living in Damascus. In a vision he was told by Jesus to go to the street called Straight, to the home of Judah. There he would meet a man from Tarsus named Saul. At that very moment, Saul was praying and experiencing a vision of his own. A man named Ananias would come to him, lay his hands on him, and Saul would once more see.
To no one's surprise, Ananias was hesitant. This was Saul! Saul! Saul's name was well-known. Saul was a man intent on doing evil to the faithful. How could Ananias go to him and pray for him and lay hands on him? But Jesus told him that the Gentiles would be reached through Saul. Saul would be an instrument of and for the gospel.
So Ananias obeyed. He went to the house where Saul was staying. He prayed for Saul. He laid hands on him, and at his touch something like scales fell from Saul's eyes. He could see once more.
This is the story -- the dramatic, impossible, unlikely story -- of Saul's conversion. Saul, the zealous persecutor of the disciples of Jesus would become Paul, the zealous proclaimer of the good news of Jesus. But it seems to me that more than one person was converted in this story. In some ways, Ananias was converted as well. Saul was left blind and helpless and had no choice but to trust the people who cared for him -- on the way and once he reached Damascus. But it took incredible trust on Ananias' part to do what he was called to do. This was Saul! I am sure that there were people who were skeptical of Saul's conversion. Was this real? Would it last? Would Saul truly be an instrument of Christ or would he revert to his former ways? Would he once more travel the way of persecution? Was Saul truly converted?
We know that he was. We have his letters, accounts of his travels as evidence of that. But I think that conversion is a tricky business. It's not that I doubt it happens. It isn't that I don't believe people who proclaim their conversion. But it seems to me that conversion, true conversion, is not just a one time thing. Saul's conversion was undeniably dramatic. But as one commentator put it, he didn't go to Damascus, sing a few verses of "How Great a Foundation," and set off on his own way. His conversion began on the way to Damascus, but it was in Damascus, in a community of believers, where his conversion took root.
Conversion and community go hand-in-hand. Saul was blinded by his encounter with Jesus on the way. Perhaps that was necessary. Perhaps Saul had to learn what it meant to depend on others for his very life. After all, how could he inspire new communities of disciples if he didn't first understand how vital and necessary community truly was.
So this is a story about conversion. But it is also a story about trust. It is a story about community. It is a story about how faith is deepened and solidified not solely through our own means, but through the support and prayers and love of those around us. The older I get, the more I realize that while a personal relationship with God is necessary, it doesn't stop there. I once believed that I could be a Christian in private, on my own. I had no need of church. But I was wrong. It is in the community that my relationship with God deepens. It is in community where I encounter the living God and see the eyes and hands and face of Christ in others. It is in community where I not only grow in my own faith, but where I am continually challenged to reach out to and help and care for all of God's children. It is in community where I find help and hope as we travel together on the way.
Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!"