3 OF EASTER — 18 April 2010
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 a.m.
Acts 9:1-20 | Psalm 30 | Rev. 5:11-14 | John 21:1-19
Get up and enter the city; and you will be told what you are to do.
Have you ever had a vision? I never have. My guess is that you haven’t either, most of you, but I might be wrong about that. The state of the world and the church is such that if you did see a vision, and you told anyone about it—even a priest—maybe even especially a priest!—they might well call some nice people to come and escort you away to a new home! If you have had a vision, or think you might have, and you want to tell somebody about it, I promise to listen and not to assume from the outset that you need nice people to come for you. But most of us don’t have visions; and those who do have them don’t normally have them very often. Some people who have visions — especially a lot of visions — really do have problems, and their visions may be arising out of their problems. But some visions really do come from God, and some people really do have them.
Today in the first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, we hear about a couple of visions which we believe were visions which genuinely came from God. The first vision was given to one Saul of Tarsus, a young and zealous Pharisee, who had grown up in the province of Cilicia on what is now the south coast of Turkey but who now studied and lived in Jerusalem. We more often refer to him not by his Hebrew-Jewish name Shaul, but by his Greco-Roman name, Paulos. (Lots of Jews had two names in those days.) The second vision was given to a Jewish Christian named Ananias who was a member of the new community of followers of Jesus in Damascus, in Syria northeast of Galilee. (Right where Damascus is now. In fact, Straight Street is still there.) And in these two visions we see something of what God is up to, and how God operates, and, perhaps incidentally, why visions are rather rare things and why that’s okay.
Paul was one of those people who was so single-mindedly religious that the only way God could get through to him was by knocking him off his feet. So God knocked him off his feet. We call that “The Conversion of St. Paul.”
Note what happens in this encounter. (Incidentally, this story occurs three times in the book of Acts; it’s first told here in chapter 9 that we just heard, and then later there are two accounts of Paul himself telling it, in chapter 22 and again in chapter 26. I’m picking up from all three tellings.) Paul sees, apparently, a blinding light, and he falls down and hears Jesus speaking to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And Paul says, “Who are you?” And Jesus says, “Who do you think? So who else have you been persecuting? And why do you keep resisting me so hard?” “Okay, okay,” Paul says, “I take your point. So now what?” And then Jesus says to Paul (and I think this is significant): “Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Jesus doesn’t tell Paul very much in this vision. All he really tells him is, “Go on into Damascus and wait for further instructions.” That’s all. After such a big flashy start, it ends up being kind of a disappointment, as visions go. But, Paul goes on into town. Well, he’s led into town; you see, God not only knocked Paul down to get his attention, God also blinded him so Paul would know God was serious about this whole thing.
(We have this notion that a word from God is always going to be soothing, and comforting, and supportive, and just the thing we’ve been wanting to hear. Well, I’m sure God does some of that, but actually, in the Bible, God kicks a lot of backside. Be careful if you have a vision in which you are told just what you wanted to hear. “Oh, you poor thing, I know how hungry you must be out here in the desert! You really need something to eat before you starve! Why not command these stones to become bread?” Beware of visions like that!) (But I digress.)
So Paul goes on into Damascus. Meanwhile the second vision is taking place. This is a much less dramatic and much more businesslike kind of affair. Jesus appears to Ananias and tells him to go find Saul of Tarsus in Judas’s house on Straight Street, and heal him of his blindness. (Simple enough!) Ananias says, “Say what? Saul of Tarsus? That Saul of Tarsus? Hey, maybe instead I could just go sell subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal in Teheran.” But Ananias is a good disciple, and he goes. And Ananias finds Saul, lays his hands upon him, 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.” And Paul regains his sight, and rises and is baptized by Ananias into Jesus the Christ, whose followers Paul had come to persecute.
Sometimes God works very directly. (“Hey Saul! [Smack!] Listen up!” Or, “Ananias. I need you to run an errand for me and I need it right now, and I’m in a hurry, so here it is.”) But most of the time, and generally as soon as possible, God gets others of us into the act. (“Saul! Have I got your attention now? Good! Okay, Ananias will come to see you. He’ll tell you the rest.”) God normally reveals the divine self to us through other people. Again: God normally reveals the divine self to us through other people. Not normally in visions. And when God does give us a vision, God is very likely to do something like giving somebody else a vision too, to be kind of a check-and-balance on us. Because some visions are delusions, and some visions do come from the Devil, and if a vision tells you all sorts of wonderful secret knowledge that only you know now, and nobody else is in on it, and because of this vision you are now the Great and Wise Seer, then your vision may not be very reliable. On the other hand, if the vision is basically a kick in the pants to get you doing what you really knew you should have been doing all along, and it immediately leads you into collaboration with other people for the building up of the community, and it all fits in with the Holy Scriptures and with overall Christian experience, then there’s a much better chance that your vision was the real thing.
But even more to the point: we don’t have to sit around waiting for visions of any kind. It is primarily—not exclusively, by any means, but primarily, directly or indirectly—through other people that God speaks to us. Through the worshiping community as together we hear and meditate upon God’s Word in the Scriptures, and through the world whose need for healing God is sending us to meet: there it is, here it is, that God makes the divine self known to us.