Come home to Calvary
Second act stories are interesting to me. Especially when the second act seems so different from the first.
Maybe some of you are in the careers you planned to be in from the time you were young. But I thought I’d be speaking from a political lectern and not from a pulpit. Young me would also never have bet that I’d be one of the first of my friends to marry and have kids. And I also did not have San Francisco anywhere in my plans.
Thank goodness for a life that doesn’t turn out the way you expect it to. I wouldn’t change a single thing I didn’t plan.
In the early 20th century, there was a product to clean wallpaper. When homes were heated by coal and woodstoves, the wallpaper would get dirty. The product sold well until cleaner heating systems were discovered.
Then the sister-in-law of the man who owned the wallpaper cleaner asked him, “can I use some of that cleaning putty with my preschool students? Clay is too hard for them to manipulate”.
And Play Doh was born. The second act of the wallpaper cleaner has been much more fruitful than its first act, by far, with more than 3 billion cans sold.
Our story from the Book of Acts today tells us of the beginning of the apostle Paul’s second act, as the church’s first, and best read, missionary. It’s hard to remember that Saul was just doing his job when Luke describes him as “breathing threats and murder” against the disciples. He’s a zealous Jew, which means his job was defending the faith well, zealously.
We don’t like the job he was doing, because we are on the other side of the situation.
The transformation of Saul in this story is remarkable.
The transformation of everyone else in this story may be even more remarkable.
Yes, because of his “road to Damascus” experience, Paul completely changes everything. He loses his job, his friends, his faith tradition, even his prestige and reputation. While we can appreciate what he gains—new life in Jesus Christ, etc.— it doesn’t erase what he’s giving up in order to respond to Jesus.
This is often referred to as Saul’s call story. It occurs to me that it is also “the call story of everyone else so that Saul can have a call story”.
Let’s start with Ananias. First, he’s the one, not Saul, who responds to God with “Here I am, Lord”. (Saul had asked “who are you, Lord”?) Ananias is a good, faithful Christian. And not afraid to ask God questions. “I appreciate the call, God, but lemme just tell you a bit about this Saul character. I know you’ve got a lot going on and might have missed a few of the horrible things he’s done to your faithful people”.
Ananias is a great illustration of faithful discipleship. Willing to listen for God, to respond to God, to question God, and then to follow where God leads.
God hears Ananias’ questions and gives him an answer. Don’t be afraid to question God. And be willing to respond when God gives you an answer.
“Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel…”
Ananias, at this point, could have done a few things. He could have said, “nah, thanks. I’m good. Someone else can take that message.”
He could have said, “fine, I’ll do it.” And then gone and grabbed Saul by the collar and said, “alright you murderous scum, God wants to use you for some reason, but I don’t like it and I’m not going to pretend I endorse or forgive you for killing my friends. Let’s go.”
Instead, he goes to Saul and says, ‘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.’
Despite his initial misgivings, he greets Saul as a brother, as family.
Everything changes for Saul because a stranger greets him as family.
Everything changes for us, because a Ananias greeted Saul as family, and Saul then was God’s instrument to share the Word to the world.
As the story continues, Paul gets up, the scales come off his eyes, and he immediately goes out and begins to preach. By his own accounts in his letters, Paul is not a looker. He’s not charismatic. His zealousness is his best feature.
And yet people still flock to his sermons. They know who he was, and they give him a fair hearing, and are convicted by his preaching. “For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ 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?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.”
What if nobody in the crowd had been willing to give him a listen? What if they decided that since they knew his first act, they knew everything they needed to know about his second act? Once a murdering jerk, always a murdering jerk?
It’s hard for us to put ourselves in that place with Paul because we know his second act. We know who he became.
Who are the people we meet today, however, whose second acts have not yet been written? Are we willing to trust that God still has a story for them? And that perhaps that story needs our participation?
One of my favorite podcasts is Revisionist History by Malcolm Gladwell. He takes obscure moments of history and spends 30 minutes talking about them. The History major in me is a sucker for that kind of storytelling. I listened to an old episode this past week called “The Road to Damascus”. It was about a terrorist who walked into a CIA station and offered to become a plant in the terrorist organization in which he’d been active. He didn’t want money. He wanted to atone for his sins. He had killed people, destabilized society. He wanted a different future for his second act.
The CIA accepted his offer. And we got intel from him that led to some important arrests. Carlos the Jackal was arrested in 1994 because of the intel from this spy.
The problem for our spy, on his road to Damascus, came about because people in our government decided his first act—as a terrorist whose actions had killed American citizens—mattered more than his second act.
It’s a long, complicated story, and we don’t have time today to get into it all. It made me realize though how uneven we are about offering second chances to people. And how important it is that we attend to that problem. Sometimes there are good reasons we are skeptical of another person’s conversion. Sometimes, it reveals our own prejudices and preconceptions.
What if the apostle Paul had only been judged for his past, known by what they already knew about him, with no opportunity to live into the future God was creating for him?
Sometimes we need second acts because we make mistakes and bad life choices. Sometimes we need second acts because the structures of our society judge and limit people before they get a first act.
We are more likely to give people who seem to be like us a chance at a second act. How many times have we heard “it was youthful indiscretion” or “that was locker room talk” about misbehavior from a politician we support, while deploring the same behavior from an opponent?
How do we know when someone has had a real conversion experience to a new future, a second act? How do we tell if we should listen to their preaching or walk away from the hypocrisy?
God is ever and always calling us into new relationships, and into deeper, family relationships. Relationships where grace is our calling, rather than judgment and exclusion.
Ananias could have stuck with the judgment he correctly was feeling about Saul. God told Ananias that God had other plans for Saul. And Ananias was able to hear God’s voice, and then go greet Saul as a brother, giving him a chance to redeem himself, and to do so as family. When we are family, and not strangers, we are connected one to another by bonds of mutual responsibility, respect, and hope.
And the truth is, family is not always protection from pain. Our family can let us down too. We’re still called to treat each other as family, as if our lives depend on each other.
That said, this sermon is not suggesting we stay in toxic relationships with abusers. Remember Ananias didn’t give Saul a second chance on Saul’s word, but because he was sent by God. And Saul spent three days in fasting and repentance before Ananias went to him.
Saul was also called into different relationships in his conversion.
He too, had to decide to give up the righteous judgment he was carrying against the people who were practicing their faith differently than his tradition had taught him to do. When he encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, Jesus says “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
When we judge and persecute others to the extent that we do not help them toward redemption, toward their next act, we are persecuting God.
I’m not suggesting we get rid of consequences for actions that hurt people, or that violate our human compacts that strive to allow us to live together in peace. But if the consequences don’t leave room for God’s voice to speak, in the life of today’s Sauls, in the lives of those called to hear him preach—then we miss our opportunity for redemption too.
It’s always easier to see the ways other people have missed opportunities for redemption than it is to see the ways I have done it. And so, I continue to listen for God’s voice. I continue to leave silence in each day, so God’s voice might have an opportunity to penetrate the busy-ness of my routine. I try to catch myself before I rush to judgment against another person, so I won’t hinder the dreams God is creating for someone else.
I work to be aware of the moments when I have deserved judgment and have instead received grace, and seek to be grateful for the opportunities to live into many second acts.
My call story to ministry is not as showy as Saul’s. I was not blinded by the light. My companions on the road didn’t hear Jesus talking to me. My call story has been, instead, a series of second, third, and fourth acts, new chances offered by other people.
The work of our Matthew 25 Partners is about second acts. In a few minutes, we’ll hear from Toni Eby from SafeHouse, our newest Matthew 25 partner, about their ministry giving women safe haven and shelter.
When we support opportunities for people to live in safety, to be housed, educated, fed, and nurtured, we are answering God’s call for second acts. This is one of the reasons your giving and serving matter. Together, we can do more than any of us can do on our own.
How about you? How has God used other people to speak God’s mercy into your life, welcoming you as family? How has God’s voice called you to come alongside someone in need of a second act, another chance?
Think of the stories that have yet to be written in those lives. May they be stories of hope, and transformation.
9 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus.