Two Sides to Every Story
A Sermon on Acts 9:1-20
by Rev. Elizabeth Meador Strobel
Preached at Trinity Presbyterian Church of Independence, Missouri
May 19, 2019 – Fifth Sunday of Easter (C)
1Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and 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. 4He 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.’7The men who were travelling 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. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11The 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, 12and 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.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But 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; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’17So 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.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
There are two sides to every story, particularly the important stories. The story of Saul seems pretty clear cut, of course. When we first meet Saul, in Acts chapter 7, he’s the one who’s standing guard over the cloaks of those who are executing Stephen, the first Christian martyr.[i] Imagine, if you will, an angry mob about to kill someone for his faith, and one takes of his jacket before he goes in for the fight and hands it to the one he trusts most – Saul. Because Saul isn’t just an onlooker – he actively approves of killing Christians. In Acts chapter 8, we’re told that Saul has become the chief persecutor of Christians in Jerusalem, “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”[ii] He was like the secret police of the synagogue, tracking down information and throwing people into jail for their beliefs. And in our reading today, in Chapter 9, Saul has been given special permission to travel to Damascus and jail all the Christians there, too.
Saul was a very, very bad guy. The ultimate villain of the book of Acts. Even Saul himself, who later takes on the name Paul and proceeds to write most of the New Testament, admits that in retrospect he was pretty bad. But…but, you might have gotten a different story from young Paul. There are two sides to every story, particularly the important stories.
Young Saul was a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee from the tribe of Benjamin, living in the metropolitan trading city of Tarsus in modern-day Turkey. Saul could speak at least two languages, was educated in Greek philosophy, ancient legal procedures, and the Hebrew Bible. Saul was a potential shining star of his time and place, and he loved God deeply and devoutly. And in Saul’s religion, there was an underground group of people undermining his faith. There were pockets of heretics hiding in homes and catacombs claiming that God had become human and been crucified by the Romans. They claimed that the laws of their religion need not be followed too closely because of something called “grace.” Because remember, the earliest Christians were all Jewish. It took a few generations, in fact, before Christianity was considered a separate religion at all. Saul loved God, and loved his religion; he saw Jesus’ followers as those within his own faith that needed rescue from their bad theology, and it was his responsibility as a leader to show them the error of their ways. And the letter of his religious law allowed him to arrest people who were wrong, and even to execute those who refused to recant. In Saul’s eyes, he was a good guy, trying to protect the faith.
There are two sides to every story, particularly the important stories. Now, for those of us who hold up this Scripture as authoritative, we all agree that even if there are two sides, ultimately the good thing that was supposed to happen was that Saul converted and became Paul. But sometimes, even truth can be taken too far.
Do you remember the shooting at the synagogue in California last month? It happened on the last day of Passover and left three people injured – including children – and one woman died taking a bullet for the rabbi.[iii] Here’s your awful fact for the day: The shooter was Presbyterian. He comes from a tiny denomination of our tradition called Orthodox Presbyterians, who considered themselves evangelical and Reformed. And he wrote a seven page letter on why he felt it was his Christian responsibility to kill people of the Jewish faith.[iv] And I hate to say it, but y’all, some of his theology was on point – he says some good things about grace. Some of the things he said were a little too old-school Calvinist for me, but lots of faithful people agree with him. And some of the things he said, of course, were wrong. Sinful. Evil. Unbiblical. He took things too far and ended up at Antisemitism.
Now, we can all agree that killing someone because of their religion – any religion – is a sin, and a particularly egregious one. The California shooter was very wrong. The people who stoned Stephen was wrong. We condemn those acts and all like them. But, do you see how layered these stories get when we look at them from different angles? Do you see how easily we might lose our way and miss the forest for the trees?
It is so easy for us, like Saul, to be blinded by our own religiosity. In our zeal to love God, sometimes we do more harm than good. Most of us never get to the point of physically harming others, but we can inflict all kinds of spiritual and emotional harm along the way. Let’s take that California shooting, for instance. As always, it sparked a debate about guns in our country. I guarantee you that everyone in this room has an opinion on guns and gun legislation. Some of us, myself included, have very strong opinions. Some of us, myself included, draw those opinions from our religious beliefs. But we forget that ultimately, what we’re all concerned about is safety. We just define it somewhat differently. And for people of faith, we’re all trying to follow God; we just do it differently. I bet a lot of you have been thinking about the abortion debate this week, too. It’s certainly been in the news a lot. Some of us, myself included, have very strong opinions. Some of us, myself included, draw those opinions from our religious beliefs. We forget that ultimately, everyone on both sides wants to defend life; we just define it somewhat differently. And for people of faith, we’re all trying to follow God; we just do it differently. But in both of these debates, we’ve decided that you’re for or against it, and that Christians must fall on one side or they are wrong.
But, my friends, there are two sides to every story, particularly the important stories. Everything has layers, everything has shades of gray. Some things, of course, are blatantly wrong. And we should absolutely have convictions and defend them. But we have to be careful not to takes stands blindly. God trusts us with a world that isn’t simple, isn’t black and white, that takes some critical thinking and some leaps of faith. We have to be committed to always looking at the other side of the story, and doing so with love. Because sometimes, we can try so hard to do the right thing that we lose course. Hear me when I say that we all lose course sometimes. And I don’t know every right answer to every issue – I don’t even know who’s going to end up on the iron throne tonight. But I do know that some of Jesus’ last words in the Gospel of John are for us to love one another. God’s way should never lead us to hatred, or persecution, or violence, or even just petty meanness.
But here’s the good news: no matter what road we’re on, whether it’s the right road or the wrong one or just the road to Damascus, Jesus is going to show up. Thanks be to God, we can be good or sinful or both, and God still loves us and calls to us. It didn’t matter that Saul was the ultimate bad guy – joke’s on the Christians, because Paul will become a beloved teacher. It didn’t matter that Saul thought he was right – joke’s on him, because Jesus is going to show him just how blind he is. God is present in our lives and always calling us to the Way, no matter where we find ourselves.
So, beloved, know this: Sometimes we are going to do the wrong thing. Sometimes our wrong actions have severe consequences we have to face. Sometimes we will hurt others. Hopefully we’re on the right side most of the time. There are two sides to every story, but the end of all of our stories is the love of God in Christ Jesus. Our Lord leads us to goodness and holiness no matter where we are, we just have to follow. Beware of being blinded by religiosity. But also, know that our faith teaches us that God gives second chances to even the worst Pharisees. God loves you. And when we approach the world with that same love and humility, we begin to walk on the right path. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Acts 7:58
[ii] Acts 8:3
[iv] “The Alleged Synagogue Shooter was Churchgoer Who Articulated Christian Theology” by Julie Zauzmer. The Washington Post, May 1, 2019, online edition.