Open Eyes

Acts 9:1-22
4th Sunday of Easter
Elizabeth M. Deibert

Richard, Rebecca, and I watched a movie this week called, The Boy in Striped Pajamas. The story is of two little boys, one the son of a Nazi officer who has no idea what his father does and the other a Jewish boy inside the work camp. He doesn’t understand why his relatives keep disappearing. The little fellows demonstrate by their secret friendship through the fence how very sad it was for German Christians to be threatened by Jews, to hate Jews, to exterminate Jews.

Saul, the main character in our scripture today, was a faithful Jew who felt threatened by Christians, who hated Christians, who exterminated Christians. Two chapters later, something shocking happens. Saul has a personal encounter with the Risen Lord of the Christians. Hear the story:

NRS Acts 9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 11 The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." 13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."
17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

Saul, whose name was later changed to Paul, 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.” (Phil 3:5-6) He was a not an ordinary Jew. He was a Shammaite, the strictest of branch of Pharisees. ( N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said) He was much less tolerant of the Christians than his own teacher, Gamaliel. He believed the Christians were “renegade Jews leading Israel away from true loyalty to the one true God.” (Wright) To be zealous then in Paul’s day was to be extremist, militant, not just eager, as we sometimes interpret that word. Paul is the last person you think the Lord Jesus would call to serve the church as he did. How could Christ make such a risky and ridiculous choice of a man who was working overtime to shut down the early church?

I guess God calls those whom God wishes to call. For generations since Paul, the church has struggled to understand our role in affirming and stewarding the choices God makes in calling people. We are supporting Kim Adams, whom we believe God has called, but if Kim had come to us fifty years ago, we would have been suspect of her, as many were of our Sarasota friend, Marg Towner, the first female Minister in the Presbyterian Church, who attended our charter service, by the way. For the last twenty years (the entire time since Richard and I were ordained), the church has struggled to sort out whether God can call persons who are practicing homosexuals in a covenantal relationship to serve as elder, deacon, or minister. And while the church’s official position is “no” we are very divided over that, as is our culture and much of the rest of the church.

Thinking through the lens of this story, who are we, to judge a call? Are we ourselves deserving of a call? Saul was certainly not deserving, but look at what God did with him in this dramatic experience, a conversion which matched his personality – intense. He encounters the Risen Lord, in blinding light and commanding voice, “Why are you persecuting me?” Saul responds, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus Christ blinded him to help him see. Blinded him to humble him. Blinded him to make him utterly dependent on the people he hated. Blinded him to help him see. For three days, Paul saw nothing, ate nothing, drank nothing.

Now let’s think about Ananias (change slide) See this wonderful image of Ananias laying hands on Paul. What must he have thought when God told him to go offer support to someone who’s been trying to kill him. This would be like telling you to go talk to an Islamic terrorist. Can you see yourself doing that?

God says, “Go talk to him. He’s praying right now and he’s seen a vision that you are coming to restore his sight.” Ananias argues a little. I would have too. But the Lord says to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kinds and before the people Israel.” Now that took some serious faith and courage, doing what Ananias did.

Ananias even approaches him warmly saying, “Brother Saul” “There are few more dramatic pictures of the reconciling power of the risen Christ. The persecuted Ananias, in the power of the risen Christ calling his former persecutor, ‘Brother.’” (Chuck Campbell, The Lectionary Commentary) Ananias apparently did not need to be blinded to get his eyes opened to the fact that Christ could call whomever Christ wanted to call. Ananias was receptive to the work of Christ’s living Spirit.

How could they possibly rush to baptize Paul though? I mean, really. Did he not need to prove he was safe, prove he was a real convert and not a spy? I guess the combination of Saul’s humility and Ananias’ peaceful approach and the healing power which brought back Saul’s sight were convincing enough. So Saul is baptized, he’s offered food, perhaps his first communion, and he regains strength and nurture in this courageously open Christian community.

Can you imagine the look on people’s faces – Jews and Christians alike – when the chief persecutor of Christians – walks into the synagogue proclaiming “Christ is the Son of God.” Talk about open eyes. They would have had wide open, glaring eyes. What is this? How can this be happening? What a transformation of character!

Are your eyes open to all that the Spirit of the Living Christ wants to do in you? Are your eyes open to all that the Spirit of the Living Christ can do in others? Never, ever write anyone off, as beyond help, beyond God’s redeeming power. Imagine the peace, if we could only see!

God, give us vision to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly. Help us to see what you are doing, even among those we scorn, among those we see as enemies. Propel us to “extend hospitality to strangers, to live in harmony with one another, to never repay evil for evil, but so far as it depends on us, live peaceably with all.” (from Romans 12) Bless us with Christ’s eyes, eyes that truly open to know all your people on this earth as valuable and worthy of care. “O God, be thou our wisdom and thou our true word, still be our vision, O Ruler of all.” (from the hymn Be Thou My Vision)