Coming to See (A sermon on Acts 9:1-19)
Given the nature of reality in the world, science is able to predict certain things with great accuracy, like eclipses and full moons and the ebb and flow of tides. Our lives have been significantly improved by the discoveries and inventions that are based on predictable patterns in our world. Certain generalities regarding human behavior are also fairly predictable. For example, had we been born in India, there is more than a 99 percent likelihood that we would be Hindu, or something other than Christian. Our individual human freedom is limited by any number of factors besides just where we live, such as genetics, our early childhood experiences, the nurturing we received or didn’t receive, our opportunities or lack thereof, our education, and the list goes on and on. A lot of what we are, what we have, and who we become is based on luck of the draw, and many factors over which we have no control. However, we are not locked in. The good news we preach is good news because at the heart of the message is that we can change. And though we have a strong tendency to resist change, in our better moments, we can see the value of change, and in our best moments we can see areas where we need to change, and make efforts to change.
Our text today is about an experience of enlightenment that leads to a major change in the life of Saul of Tarsus, who we know as the Apostle Paul. Positive change will rarely happen without experiences of enlightenment. We first meet Paul in the book of Acts at the death of Stephen. The crowd was so infuriated at Stephen’s preaching Christ that they dragged him out of the city of Jerusalem and stoned him. Paul was present granting his approval, perhaps even inciting the crowd. Luke tells us that “Saul approved of their killing him.” After Stephen’s death Luke says a “a severe persecution” broke out against the disciples of Jesus, and Paul, according to Luke, “was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” committing them to prison. Here is a man inflamed with such zeal and passion for what he thinks is the purity of his faith, he is willing to imprison and even kill opponents he considers heretics. As Paul makes his way to Damascus to arrest disciples of Jesus he encounters a bright light that leaves him blind. Luke says that he “got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could not see.” You will probably not find a better description of our need for enlightenment anywhere. How many of us walk around with our eyes wide open, but we cannot see. Enlightenment is a spiritual work of grace in our lives whereby we come to see truth in a deeper, transformative way that moves to become more loving, grateful, and compassionate persons. Drawing from Paul’s experience in this passage of scripture I want to develop two points.
First, like Paul we need to have an experience of grace that enlightens us to our sins and addictions, which prior to such an experience we did not recognize as sins or addictions, and justified due to our blindness. Prior to this experience Paul appears to be absolutely confident thinking he is doing God’s will by ridding the land of these heretical followers of the way of Jesus. Paul is completely blind to his own self-righteousness, and the deeper fear and hate from which his actions spring. Luke leaves us no sense that Paul ever questioned his actions or had any remorse or regret or guilt about what he was doing to these followers of the way. He seems perfectly at ease and happy to go about, as Luke puts it, “breathing out murderous threats against the disciples of Jesus.” Paul was addicted to a negative, exclusive version of Judaism that fostered prejudice, hate, and self-righteousness. You have heard me say often, religion can be the best thing in the world, or the worst thing in the world. When we use our religious faith (in our case our Christianity) to justify our sin, then our Christianity becomes the worst thing in the world. We would be better off not having any faith at all.
Luke describes in our text today an experience Paul had of the living Christ that altered his world-view, his God-view, and his self-view. When Paul describes this experience in his letter to the Galatians he describes it as a revelation and an experience of grace. Paul says “God called me through his grace.” In his First letter to the Corinthians Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am.” Grace is the only appropriate word to describe any experience of enlightenment. From Paul’s perspective the experience that enabled him to see was completely due to the grace of God.
In the movie “Flight” Denzel Washington plays a pilot, Whip Whitaker, who is an alcoholic. He does this amazing maneuver with the plane in order to crash land, which was his only recourse. The maneuver that he performed, flipping the plane upside down, saves most of the people on board. Four passengers and two flight attendants are killed, and others, of course, are injured, but his ability to rotate the plane saved the rest on board. The amazing thing is that he performed this phenomenal maneuver while legally intoxicated.
Well, there is an investigation and because he has this high powered legal team with the know how to work the system, all he has to do is lie one final time to get off free (and of course, he has been lying all along, lying most of his life – to others and to himself about his alcoholism and drug use.) This final lie, however, is different. Because this lie would send a friend and coworker to prison. They found empty alcohol bottles in the trash on the plane. Somebody has to go down. If it’s not him (they were his bottles) then someone else to has to become a scapegoat and take the hit. Well, when that moment came, he just couldn’t do it. He couldn’t justify himself, he just could not lie this time. He finally had to own it. So he went to prison.
The movie concludes with Whitaker’s confession to a group in prison. He had been in prison for a while and he tells his story and what he is currently doing to make amends, to make restitution. It’s a story of coming to see. It’s a story of enlightenment. He ends by saying, “This is going to sound real stupid from a man locked up in prison, but for the first time in my life I’m free.” He is in prison. But he is free. He is free from the control of his addiction over him. He is free from all the deceptions and lies. He is free from that downward, destructive cycle of denial and avoidance. To put it in the language of a healthy spirituality – he is now free to discover and become his true self. In the language of Christian spirituality we would say, he is free to discover and become his Christ self.
What sort of experience would it take for us (you and me) to come to see the truth about ourselves, to see and own our false attachments and addictions? What would it take for us to see God and others and ourselves in a more potentially transformative way? What sort of experience would draw us in to the goodness and grace and love of God? What would it take? Would it take some great experience of suffering? Or maybe some great experience of love that unleashes a profound, overwhelming sense of gratitude that wells up and overflows from our hearts. What kind of experience would it take? Perhaps only God knows. I don’t know. We are all unique. We are each one different. We can only really understand these things in retrospect. It takes what it takes. I don’t know what that is for you. To be honest, I don’t even know what it is for me. It takes what it takes – whatever that may be. So first, enlightenment is an experience of grace that enables us to see our sins as sins. It enables us to see our false attachments and negative addictions for what the are. It enables us to see our need for transformation, and sparks a passion for transformation.
Second, enlightenment is about coming to see our common connection to one another and to the Divine Life that binds us all together. Experiences of enlightenment open our minds and hearts in ways that enable to see that we all belong. We are all one people. We are all children of God. We all share the divine life of God. This was a startling revelation to Paul.
As Luke tells it, there is a blinding light and then a voice that says, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” Saul asks, “Who are you?” The voice responds, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Why does the voice say “I am Jesus,” and not I am Christ? Because Paul, who never met Jesus as far as we know, needed to understand the connection. The eternal Christ, the universal Christ, the cosmic Christ that Paul will come to preach became incarnate in the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Paul needed to see that connection. It’s interesting that in his letters Paul never uses the name “Jesus” alone. Often Paul simply speaks of “Christ” using the single word. But in those instances where he does use the name Jesus it’s always in connection with Christ – either “Christ Jesus” or “Jesus Christ.” In this experience of enlightenment, which Paul attributes completely to the grace of God, Paul gets the connection. But that is not all he gets. The other connection he gets is that the divine life that became incarnate in the man, Jesus of Nazareth, is the same divine life that dwells in all of Jesus’ followers. The divine voice who identifies himself as Jesus says, “Why do you persecute me?” To persecute the followers of Jesus is to persecute the risen Lord because they/we share the same divine life. The life that became incarnate in Jesus lives in Jesus’ followers. That life lives in you and me.
Paul would later come to understand, perhaps after additional experiences of enlightenment, that the divine life, the Christ life, not only dwells in Jesus’ followers, but in all humanity and all creation. According to Luke, in Acts 17 Paul speaks to the philosophers of Athens and tells them that the one true Lord is Lord of heaven and earth, and gives to all mortals life and breath. Paul goes on to say we all are “God’s offspring” (God’s sons and daughters, God’s children) and in God, the Lord of heaven and earth (the Christ) “we live and move and have our existence.” It would seem that experiences of enlightenment continue to expand Paul’s horizons. And in his letter to the Romans (8:22-23) Paul even broadens this to include “the whole creation” which, he says, “groans” for ultimate redemption. Paul understands that the redemption of the creation is tied to the redemption of humankind, the children of God. The Spirit of Christ that is in us exists in all the creation too.
Paul’s encounter with Christ that Luke describe in Acts (not just once, by the way, but three times) explains the mystical language Paul uses in his letters about being “in Christ” and about Christ dwelling and living in us, which language he uses over and over again. Marcus Borg rightly, I think, calls Paul a Jewish Christ mystic. We are one people. We share the Christ life. The Spirit of Christ resides in us all. We all constitute the universal body of Christ that Paul envisions being gathered up and reconciled in Christ in the fullness of time.
Thomas Merton, was something of a Christian mystic, who wrote about the Christ life or the Christ self as a reality dwelling in each of us. And like Paul, his understanding flowed out of his own experience. Merton writes about an experience of enlightenment that he had while standing on a busy street corner in Louisville: “I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I love all those people that they are mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. . . . Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of the heart, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor doubt nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person [-] that each one has God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more wars, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed…
Dr. Bailey did his Ph.D dissertation on Thomas Merton. Recently he revisited Merton and presented a paper on Merton. Dr. Bailey points out in his paper that Merton believed that union in the life of God would be inevitably expressed through union in the Love of God. Dr. Bailey describes Merton’s view this way, “Union in the love of God regenerates the creature through that love. Love is the sign of union, the sign of the new person. If the individual’s life is characterized by love, it takes on the new image, the form of God. One who has experienced the pure love of God in union becomes a source of love for others.”
It’s all about love, sisters and brothers, because as 1 John puts it, “God is love.” Living life in Christ is not just learning how to love like Christ (it is that, but it’s even more), it’s Christ loving in us and through us. It’s the Christ self doing the loving. The Christ who indwells us is love. The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ is Love. This is why Paul says, “the greatest of these is love.” This is why he says that “the fruit of the Spirit is love,” first of all, before it is anything else. It’s why Paul says to the Colossians, “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Love is the center that holds everything together.
When we, by the grace of God, experience enlightenment, then we, like Paul, and like Merton, and like many other Christian mystics, and mystics of other religious faiths, will see that we all share the Divine Life, whose essence is Love. We will come to see that we are all one people, we are all connected, we all belong, and we will proclaim like Paul, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of us are one in Christ Jesus.”
O God, open our eyes, for we have been blinded by our false selves. We have been blinded by all the messages we have internalized that tell us we are better than others or less than others. We have been blinded by our pride. We have been blinded by feelings of superiority and by feelings of inferiority. We have been blinded by our attachments and addictions. Visit us in your grace, O God, that we might see all of this and see where we need to change. Open our eyes, Lord, that we might see that the beauty and goodness and grace of Christ reside in every human being and in all creation. Open our eyes, Lord, so that we will see how we are to love your creation, and how we are to love all people, and how we are to love one another, and how we are to love ourselves. For only then will we actually experience what is already true – that you are all in all. Amen.