Musical Prelude and Service
Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is one of the most well known
stories in Christian scripture I suspect. The term Road to
Damascus conversion is used to describe a radical shift in a person’s
perspective and attitude.
This moment that we read this morning is one of the most significant
events in the early development of the Christian Church. Paul goes
from persecuting Jesus followers to preaching the gospel message and
building churches himself. It is Paul who makes the decision to preach
to and convert gentiles, broadening the audience of Jesus’s message.
But if we aren’t careful, if we do not really read this story, we may be
left with the impression this conversation was a moment that only
involved Paul and Jesus in the middle of that road.
But that of course is not the case. Paul has people following him and
they take this blind Saul to a house. And then God speaks to Ananias
and directs him to go and visit Saul and minister to him.
Imagine that. As Ananias says in response to this call; he knows who
Saul is. He knows what Saul has done. How can he possibly trust Saul
not to arrest him and imprison and perhaps kill him? Why should he
care about the fate of this man who has inflicted pain and terror on the
followers of Jesus?
And yet, Ananias relents. He travels to the house Saul is staying in. He
sits with Saul, cares for Saul, and instructs him on what these followers
of Jesus believe.
And after three days of blindness, the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, he
takes the name Paul, signifying his conversion and he becomes a very
active apostle preaching to people throughout the Mediterranean
world, and of course writing a lot of significant letters.
One of the things we spent a lot of time on in seminary was what we
call theological reflection. The way we were encouraged to participate
in this practice had some structure and since we were marked on our
reflections, we were expected to include a number of different
elements from pertinent scripture to some hopefully weighty analysis;
but at its core, the point of a theological reflection was to ask the
question, “where is God in this thing that just happened?”
How do we perceive God at work in the things that occur in our lives?
Looking at the story of Saul on the road to Damascus, we can easily
point to Paul and Ananias hearing God, or Jesus speaking to them at
crucial moments. That’s obvious. But one can also point to Saul’s
followers guiding him to the house. We can point to the hospitality Saul
receives once he gets there, and of course his conversation with
God is at work in the kindness; the generosity, the grace of these
people who move Saul to his transformation from attacking the
followers of Jesus to becoming one of them.
It is a moment of transformation for Saul, but also one of healing and
transformation for this early Christian community. It is a moment of
repentance and ultimately reconciliation. But it is reconciliation that
comes after Saul is left completely vulnerable. Struck blind, he is
powerless. He is helpless and completely at the mercy of the people
Saul/Paul does not simply appear in front of this community and say,
I was wrong, and I am sorry. He arrives in absolute vulnerability.
He acknowledges his complicity and his participation in the violence
inflicted on these people. He begs their forgiveness and then commits
himself to a new way of life. Reconciliation demands more than a
simple “I’m sorry”.
We quite often reflect on Paul’s letters and the theology that develops
as he builds communities of faith on his journeys. We consider the
words he writes to build communities that cross different cultures and
practices; seeing past their differences to be united in and through
Jesus the Christ.
But I think it is important to remember and to celebrate the fact that
Paul did not do this work on his own. He worked as part of a
community, or a series of communities. From these very first days as he
was cared for and taught by Ananias and others to the people who
followed him on his journeys. Timothy, Titus. The many women who
supported him with their resources and who carried his letters to the
churches he wrote to. Phoebe, Priscilla, Junia, Lydia.
Paul did not work in a vacuum. He worked as part of a community.
And so, on this day of celebration and thanksgiving, we reflect on the
community that is Grace United Church in Dunnville. It started from
humble but strong roots.
At the earliest moments of Grace, it functioned as a community of faith
led by circuit riders. In 1850 the Nanticoke-Dunnville circuit of the
Wesleyan Methodist Church was formed. A team of Methodist
preachers who travelled throughout the region offering worship in the
small communities they entered. They carried their bible and various
tools needed for the job. Prayers, hymns, scripture, sermon and then
on to the next town. In his book Growing in Grace, Lorne Sorge notes
there were earlier itinerant preachers, part of what he refers to as the
saddle bag brigade of the Niagara Circuit.
These were preachers who traveled to various stops in the region,
preaching, offering communion, and organizing communities of faith.
In any case, it was out of the work of Rev. John Hunt and Rev. John
Baxter that a congregation in Dunnville began to grow. From preaching
in the camps, to using space in a public school, to renting room above
Frank Ramsey’s Menswear Store. By 1853 they built their first chapel on
the corner of Alder and Cedar.
Leaders of the Methodist congregation started to build on our current
location in 1904 with the laying of the cornerstone on Dominion Day
that year. The new Grace Methodist Church was dedicated in 1905,
and it was part of church union in 1925 when the United Church of
Canada came into being.
We have preserved the names of many people who contributed to the
church over the years through pictures and stained-glass windows.
People who contributed to the building of this church. Many other
names are not so prominent, but their work and their generosity should
not be discounted. So, whether they are named or unnamed, we need
to honour what they gave to help this community of faith grow.
I spend some time reflecting on the importance of community. What
does it mean to be part of a community? How do we contribute to the
building and growth and maintaining of community?
Today I want to emphasize the way communities provide a place for
people to grow into who God sees them becoming. It is in community
that we develop our personalities. We do not grow in isolation but as
part of something bigger than our individual selves. Communities can
stifle the individual – for them to become who the community thinks
they should be. Or they can celebrate the unique and wondrous people
God has created and who God sees them becoming.
We are all becoming someone. It doesn’t matter how far into your life
you might be. You are still becoming, and how do we as a community
play a part in that becoming?
In today’s story, the community of Jesus’ followers in Damascus had
someone thrust into their midst. Certainly he wasn’t someone they
asked for; he wasn’t how they were looking to grow their community.
But it became apparent he was on a journey to becoming someone
new. And they worked with Saul; they worked with God, figuring out
that God was definitely at work in their midst. And they nurtured Saul
as he became Paul.
May we be open to the mysterious and sometimes strange ways that
God works in our midst. May we be open to seeing how we as a
community are called to help the people around us – the young and the
more mature become who God sees them becoming.
Rev. Warner Bloomfield
Music provided with permission through licensing with CCLI License number
2701258 and One License # A-731789