How many of you all have ever seen a blind cave fish? Their name explains most of what you need to know about them. They are fish that live in caves, and are—you guessed it—blind. In fact, they don’t even have eyes. Scientists believe that over time, living in streams and underground lakes, they never saw the light of day. But eyes and the capability to see use up a lot of energy, so over time they evolved to not need eyes at all. And yet, they still swim, eat, and do everything they need to do in order to survive and thrive in the complete dark.
That’s the image I want you to have for today’s sermon. I want you to imagine these fish, as I preach on one of the most memorable and important stories in the New Testament: the conversion of Saul.
Perhaps you noticed as I read it how often the theme of blindness, sight, and seeing but not seeing are at play in the passage. Today and next week, we are going to explore what this narrative has to do with us and the Church.
I wish I could preach this whole sermon while you kept your eyes closed. Now, I know that some weeks some of you spend at least part of the sermon with your eyes closed, but that isn’t what I’m talking about. I am talking about the experience of hearing but not seeing. Of course, that is the experience that Saul had in the passage today. At the outset, Saul and his companions are travelling on the road to Damascus, when a bright light comes and knocks him down. Saul is immediately blinded by the light. For the rest of this passage and into next week’s continuation, Saul cannot see.
Some of us know what that experience is like, in degrees or maybe in total. But most of us depend pretty dearly on our sense of sight. So, I want to try something. Perhaps you cannot spend the whole sermon with your eyes closed, but I want to invite you to close them as I read three phrases. You see, after Saul was blinded by the light, he heard a voice—the voice of Jesus. So for three phrases from the words that Jesus shared, I want you to close your eyes. Listen, and imagine that you are Saul hearing these words for the first time.
Here’s the first. If you feel comfortable, close your eyes for a minute, and imagine yourself hearing these words:
“Why are you persecuting me?”
This was a hard one for Saul. You see, Saul didn’t think he was persecuting anyone. After all, he was zealous for God, even to the point of rounding up those heretical Christians who weren’t practicing faith the right way. He wasn’t persecuting anyone, especially not anyone who might be represented by a voice from heaven. Persecution implies unfair treatment, but that wasn’t him. So Saul might have been a little skeptical at first. In fact, in the only words in the passage spoken by anyone NOT Jesus, Saul asks “Who are you, Lord?” Now to clarify, “Lord” doesn’t mean that he knew this was Jesus right away. He is not using the word in the way that Christians later use it, as in One that is worthy of worship. “Lord” here is a polite honorific, like if we called someone “sir.” Saul here is saying, “Sorry, sir, I didn’t catch your name.”
Saul probably cannot see himself as persecuting anyone. He must have thought to himself, “I don’t persecute anyone. I solve problems. I fix disease in the community. I know right and it is up to me to protect it. I know the wrong and it is up to me to stop it. I don’t do persecution. I do holy. I do pure. Voices from heaven don’t confront me; they show up to thank me. To commend me. To confirm that I am on the right track and encourage me to keep up the good work. I don’t persecute. People who are wrong persecute others. I don’t do that.” Saul is skeptical.
So Jesus says it again, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Jesus makes it clear here as a voice from heaven, as he did when he was a voice on earth, that when you persecute the weak, the vulnerable, the oppressed, those who follow my example, then you are persecuting Jesus himself. “When you do it to any of the least of these, you do it to me.” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
And to hear these words from Jesus might give us pause. In fact, perhaps it is wise for us to ask, “who do we persecute?” Now, you might say that same thing that Saul might have thought, “who me, I don’t persecute anyone!”
And yet, are we completely unlike Saul here? Are there ways that in our actions or inactions, we are participating in persecution? Saul never threw a single rock at women or men like Steven. But he held the coats of those who did. Let me ask a few questions that might push a little far, but might be just what we need to knock us to the ground a little.
- Do we persecute people of color? Do those of us who are white benefit from institutions and practices and systems that we didn’t create, but we stand by and watch happen? Do we benefit from those structures in ways that we don’t even realize, and thus leave out those who have worked just as hard as we have, with much less of an equitable result?
- Do we persecute those in the global south by our energy consumption? Scientists have for years recognized that our carbon addiction in the United States has caused incredible damage to our planet, and most danger is caused to those in developing countries often in the global south. Is our need for our own cars, our own hot water, our own carbon-powered paper towel dispensers causing the persecution of the vulnerable of the world?
- Do we persecute women and children by our zeal for the National Football League? This is a tough one for me, because I have loved my Chicago Bears for a long time, and have loved watching the Chiefs in recent years. But on a week where we have listened to the despicable story of Tyreek Hill and what sure sounds like continuing abuse of a woman and child, I have to ask if we are inviting—in fact begging—young men to be violent and explosive and emotional monsters on the field and then we are shocked and amazed when they are the same thing off of it. I don’t know the answer here, but in a league that simply cannot stem the tide of abusive men, I think it is time to ask some hard questions. It is time to ask if we are persecuting women and children by our worship of violence?
Hard questions all around. Hard for Saul, and hard for us. “Why are you persecuting me?”
And yet, that is not the end of the story. Another phrase that caught my ear this week. Again, close your eyes for a moment as you imagine seeing nothing, but hearing the voice of Jesus tell you this words: “Get up.”
Saul heard a hard word from Jesus. But it wasn’t the end of the story. Saul could have sat there and wallowed in his guilt. He could have come to the true realization of what he had done and felt nothing but despair and grief and shame. But Jesus didn’t let the story end there. Get up. We know the rest of the story, so we know what Jesus had in mind for Saul. But in that moment, Saul didn’t. All he knew is that the voice that had just condemned his persecution, now gave him a way out of it.
You may notice that Paul’s conversion happens in context. In the chapter before, we read about the conversion of the Ethiopian, along with Phillip. Then we read about the healing of Aeneas, then Tabitha coming back to life, then Peter radically changing his understanding of who was acceptable and unacceptable with the story of Cornelius. You see, this section of Acts is all about the transformation of various individuals. Healing. Converting. Changing. Transformation. So, in this passage about Saul, he isn’t just judging him for his persecution and leaving him on the side of the road. He is transforming Saul into a powerful and radical missionary for the Gospel. He isn’t just knocking him down. Jesus tells him, “get up!”
Which is what Jesus tells us, as well. How easy it is to get stuck in patterns of guilt and shame! We see our own privilege in the world, and feel like shriveling up and laying on the side of the road. The world has so many examples of brokenness and pain and injustice, and we see our role in it and wonder if we can ever do anything right. But Jesus doesn’t wonder that. He doesn’t leave us on the side of the road. He tells us, “get up! I have a plan for you and it doesn’t end on the side of this road. It doesn’t end with shame and guilt, but with victory and love and peace and justice. So get up, and let’s get to work!”
Which leads us to the final phrase I want you to close your eyes and hear. “you will be told what you are to do.” The Voice of Jesus tells Saul that there are more instructions coming. This is a thread that continues throughout the Bible, isn’t it? Abram is told to “go to a land that I will show you.” Moses is told, “go to Pharaoh and I will tell you what to say.” The wandering Israelites are told to pack up their tents and follow the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night. The prophets are told by God that if they are faithful and show up, God will speak through them. “you will be told what you are to do.”
In short, Jesus invites Saul to trust him. If we get a clear set of instructions, then we can parse them out and decide if we want to follow them. But if we get told, “follow me,” there is a lot more trust involved!
I remember a few years ago, when we had a layover before we flew to Haiti, John Pauls and I decided to catch a ballgame in Miami. So, we went to the park and figured we would buy tickets from someone there. As soon as we got close to the front door, someone motioned and asked if we had tickets and we said no. He responded, “follow me.” John and I looked at each other and were pretty sure that this had to be some sort to trick. But with trepidation, we followed this guy and his buddy. No money had changed hands, but he kept leading us onward. Through the concourse, and through a door into another hallway. And then into another hallway, and then through some rooms with big buffets set up with food, and then out to the field, right behind home plate, some fifteen rows from the field! We were incredulous and tried to figure out how much we owed. I think we had a little bit of cash on us, and he took some, but not nearly what the tickets were worth. If we had insisted, “no thanks, we would rather spend the same amount of money for the nosebleeds,” the experience would have been vastly different. But we decided to trust, and follow, and it made for an incredible night at the ballpark.
Jesus invited Saul to trust, and follow, and he invites us to trust, and follow. Jesus doesn’t just tell us to get up and start charging off in whatever direction we want, blind and foolish. He gives us guides, like Saul’s companions, to provide wisdom and leadership. He gives us direction, like we will see next week as we read the rest of the story. And he gives us the promise of the Holy Spirit: “You will be told what to do.” If we quiet our hearts and listen, we will find that there is often the Voice of one leading us, guiding us, showing us the way. It isn’t perfect, and just like Saul, staggering and stumbling into Damascus, we don’t always get it right. But if we listen. And follow. And trust that God is leading, then we are able to overcome our blindness and make our way forward.
Which is, by the way, the rest of the story with the blind cave fish. Anyone worried about how they get around in the dark? How they find food and keep from running into the black cave walls? Scientists have discovered that they use a kind of echolocation, which is what bats use to “see” in the dark as well. The fish are able to open and close their mouths and feel the vibrations of what returns to them. Food. Predator. Wall. In other words, they are blind, but they know to listen to show them the way.
Saul teaches us that that is the way of faith. Of trust. Perhaps we are blind, stumbling, and lost. But there is One who leads and guides, who places companions beside us who know the way. There are indeed hard questions and complex needs that lie ahead of us. But we do not stumble alone. Come, let us trust the Voice who leads us as we continue the journey together.