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Saul goes from sinner to saint when he dies to the judgement and condemnation he holds about followers of Jesus. Having our eyes opened to the face of love in unexpected people allows us to leave harmful beliefs behind and travel instead on roadways of renewal.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 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. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul 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. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 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, 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.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 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; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 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.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. 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.”
Often when we hear about this reading, it is referred to as the conversion of Paul. The names Saul and Paul are used interchangeably. So the Paul who is said to have written many of the letters or epistles in the New Testament is who this story is about. This story is often explained as his conversion from being the one who was persecuting Christians to then having an experience that caused him to become a believer.
When looking at this story from Saul’s perspective, he was not actually a non-believer. He had a very strong conviction to his beliefs. In the first century Saul and the followers of Jesus were members of the same religious tradition. It was his conviction to his beliefs, not his non-belief that was motivating him to target the followers of the Way (followers of Jesus). He would have seen himself as a good guy, trying to protect the faith that was so important to him. He was just trying to strengthen the people of God. Saul is the classic example of the devout person who is so determined to do good that they are blinded (literally!) to the destructive consequences of their purity campaign. He does a lot of harm as he is trying to do good.
Because they were all considered to be part of the same religious tradition, Luke would not have seen Saul’s experience as a conversion.
For Saul it was a life-changing encounter. He heard the voice of Jesus and fell to the ground, no longer able to see. In that encounter with Jesus he then in turn encounters the humans that were the victims of his violence.
Saul might have had theological differences with members of the Way, but it was his inability to see past those differences and relate to their humanity that fuelled his hatred for them. In confronting Saul, the voice from heaven challenges him to see them through new eyes as people worthy of respect.
Luke tells us that Saul lost his sight for three days and regained it after his encounter with Ananias. An interesting detail in the story is that Saul’s scales fell off allowing him to see again. Saul does not just see again; but his loss of sight and regaining it has the metaphorical significance of ceasing to see members of the Way as he had gotten accustomed to—as enemies—and learning to see them as people who deserved acceptance despite their theological and ideological differences.
More than simply a conversion, this encounter with the divine leaves Saul with a new way of seeing others and relating to them. When the voice confronted Saul, it was for him a moment of realization of his own tendency toward violence in interacting with others. What stands out in this story is the profound ways in which people can be transformed when they acknowledge the pain and damage of forcing others to see the world as they do. This is a story that turns out to be Saul’s epiphany about relating to others with whom he disagreed.
Saul’s epiphany raises questions of how we treat, or ought to treat, those with whom we might have theological differences. It suggests that we treat them with respect not because we share a common theological or ideological space but simply because they deserve respect. This is not to suggest that any view, however extreme it might be, should be condoned, but to highlight that treating the theological other with respect entails “unseeing” them as enemies, letting our scales fall off and seeing them as fellow humans with whom we can be in conversation even as we disagree.
For me this happens when I think about (or try to talk to) Christians who seem to be against almost everything and everyone that I think Jesus would stand up for and welcome into his circle of care. Seeking justice for the oppressed, welcoming the outcast or downtrodden, caring for the sick, the hungry, the homeless. Standing up for the LGBTQ+ community, for people of colour and Indigenous peoples, for single moms and children in foster care, for addicts and street workers. To me – their so-called Christian convictions are destructive and hurtful to people that I love, and I find it difficult sometimes to see them with respect and understanding or even be willing to be in conversation with them because my experiences in the past have led me to believe that those conversations will not be fruitful. But at the same time, I know that it is only through conversation that we may eventually be able to find some common ground and common understanding. Only through conversation and understanding will those scales fall from our eyes as they did for Saul.
In a broader sense this reading invites us to see the places and the ways that our convictions or beliefs cause us to be closed off to other ideas or keep us from opening ourselves to new experiences.
I think that many people have found this during Covid – the divisions that have become apparent when we’ve come up against a friend or acquaintance or even family member who believed Covid was a hoax or refused to wear masks or was opposed to vaccination or supported the so-called freedom convoy. We saw a lot of evidence in the media but also for many of us in our own experiences, where people who believed differently from us about Covid were set apart as “other” and rejected and labeled as deniers or conspiracy theorists and seen as people who are against us. Sometimes we will never see eye to eye with people, but we can always find common humanity if we let the scales fall from our eyes and open ourselves to that new way of seeing, allowing ourselves to be in relationship with them.
We may also have life-changing experiences like Paul, that cause us to see things in a new way, for some it may be retirement that is that moment for us, or the ending of a relationship or even a tragedy. For others it may be the death of a loved one that causes us to see things in a new way. For many people it has been this pandemic that has opened us up to seeing our lives and our priorities and perspectives differently.
For many Canadians an experience that caused the scales to fall from our eyes happened almost at this time last year. Last May when the remains of 215 children were found on the Kamloops Residential School site, for many people in Canada, that was the chilling reality that hit home about the truths of the residential school experience for Indigenous children. Of course many Canadians already knew of these truths, but that breaking news that travelled around the globe, finally got big press and introduced the realities into the living rooms of the average Canadian. Some of us as parents, thinking about sending our own children off to school, never to be seen again is beyond our comprehension, but it caused many of us to for the first time relate to residential school survivors and parents in a new way – as someone’s parent, someone’s child, and opened us to see the common human experience. To imagine even one child’s remains found on the school ground of Dorothy Lynas Elementary is an unimaginable thought – yet for decades, this has been the known reality for Indigenous families. Sometimes having the scales fall from our eyes is a tragic and painful experience, opening us up to new understandings that are difficult and upsetting to grasp. What does this mean for us – how do we go forward from here?
This week coming up on Thursday May 5th is Red Dress Day: the National Day of Awareness and Action for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-spirited Individuals (MMIWG2S).
Red dress day started as REDress project established by Indigenous artist Jamie Black to focus on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada and United States in 2010. The red dresses displayed for red dress day are empty, so that they evoke the missing women who should be wearing them. The colour red was chosen after the artist Jamie Black had a conversation with an Indigenous friend who shared with her “(Red) is really a calling back of the spirits of these women and allowing them a chance to be among us and have their voices heard through their family members and community.” Red also symbolizes “our lifeblood and that connection between all of us,” and both vitality and violence.
Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) refers to the human rights crisis of the high and disproportionate rates of violence and number of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. According to Assembly of First Nations from 2019, Indigenous women are three times more likely than non-Indigenous women to be victims of violence, and between 2001 – 2014 the average rate of homicides involving Indigenous female victims was four times higher than that of homicides involving non-Indigenous female victims. Current public data on MMIWG oversimplifies and underrepresents the scale of the issue, yet still demonstrates a complex and pervasive pattern of violence against Indigenous women and girls who are often targeted because of their gender and Indigenous identity.
As part of our commitment to truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples in our community and in our country, we are called to be mindful of the ways and the systems that keep these statistics current and work at changing them.
Must we wait for a life-changing experience to open our eyes to these truths or can we be led by the Holy Spirit to help us see the places we can make a difference in our own communities and beyond?
How might our own convictions, whether religious or political or social or ideological, prevent us from seeing the new thing that God is up to, or the different way that God is calling us to go? What might be holding us back or blocking us from seeing ways to expand God’s mission in the world, to bring fullness of life to those who have been seen as “other.” How can we open ourselves to something new?
We may not have an encounter with the Risen Christ with light from heaven flashing around us like Saul did, but we do encounter Christ when we have those experiences that change our way of thinking, or open us to seeing in a new way, or lead us to making a change in our life that sets us free from what may have been holding us back. On the other side of that experience is the opportunity for new life, new meaning and deeper connectedness.
Thanks be to God for meeting us on the road.