May 01, 2022
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC May 1, 2022, third Sunday of Easter. “Resilience for Times When…” series.
Text: Acts 9:1-20
It’s fun to discover unlikely Easter songs. Some of my faves include “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” by Charles Wesley, “I’m Coming Out” performed to perfection by Diana Ross, the Gloria Gaynor classic, “I Will Survive”—and the one that hit me this year: British band Chumbawamba’s 1997 earworm, “Tubthumper” with the repeated lyric: “I get knocked down but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down.” That’s a resurrection song—a resurrection resilience song. A quick online study revealed that a member of the band said the song is about “the resilience of ordinary people.”[i]
Lord knows it doesn’t take long in life to “get knocked down”—in one of the many ways we might interpret that phrase: to be bullied, to lose something or someone we care about, to fail at something we tried hard to accomplish, to keep hitting obstacles and walls as you try to make progress toward a goal, to be humbled by a difficult task, or “taken down a notch (or many)” by someone who names a way we’ve hurt them or done harm to others.
It’s that last one that knocked Saul of Tarsus down. Saul—who most of us know as Paul the apostle—began as one virulently opposed to Jesus and the disciples of Jesus’ Way. Saul was born to Jewish parents who possessed Roman citizenship, a privilege passed to their children. He was highly educated in Jerusalem, likely under the tutelage of the famous Rabbi Gamaliel. And he brought his considerable skill, privilege, and passion to the work of persecution. Saul was present and affirmed the murder of Stephen (Acts 8:1) and was clear in his mission to hunt down Jesus’ disciples with violent intentions. (9:1)
With this clear itinerary Saul sets out for Damascus and on the way—according to almost every artist who’s imaged this moment—Saul is knocked off his horse on the road by otherworldly light—a common symbol throughout scripture, along with fire and cloud, for the presence of God. Saul, and those traveling with him, are aware of a voice who turns out to be none other than the risen Jesus. “Why are you persecuting me?” Just as Saul had never been able to perceive who Jesus was or welcome what he reveals and offers, in this moment Saul doesn’t physically “see” Jesus but only receives the message. The encounter leaves Saul not only unable to see Jesus, but to see anything. Whether this detail means to signal metaphorically Saul’s moral incapacity to perceive the error of his ways, was simply a result of encountering God’s presence and power (“blinded by God’s glory/shekinah”), or whether it was understood by the author as divine punishment is unclear. But regardless, Saul’s perception is completely messed up—so much so that he goes, with assistance, into Damascus and fasts and prays for 3 days. //
While Ananias doesn’t get knocked off a horse like Saul, he also gets knocked down, humbled by a dangerous call from God. Saul’s reputation preceded him and Ananias—a disciple of Jesus—knows he is a clear target. But Ananias is called by God to seek Saul out and lay hands on him—a ritual act that, in scripture, is often a sign of healing, blessing, call, and affirmation of gifts through the power of Holy Spirit.
Imagine for just a moment that you are Ananias. (If it helps, imagine not Saul but a present day, murderous despot in the scenario) You are a disciple of Jesus who’s been trying to faithfully follow the Way even midst violent persecution. You know this guy wants to kill you. You know what he’s done to others. You learn this murderer is the one God chooses to do important Kin-dom work. And you are asked to help make it happen. If I were Ananias, I would have some big feelings. But Ananias, the one who began his response to God saying, “Here I am, Lord,” does what is asked. He goes to Saul, greets him as a member of the family, and blesses him. (9:17 “Brother Saul”).
What happens next is given little texture in the story, but I can only imagine what it must have been like to witness such a conversion. Was it the faith, courage, and open arms of Ananias that were the tipping point for Saul? Some Spirit-fueled epiphany that Ananias and other disciples were not soulless enemies, but fellow children of God? Was it the experience of being shown mercy by Jesus? Whatever it was, Saul was baptized into a new life. And Ananias witnessed the power of God’s mercy and love in the life of even one such as Saul.
What can we learn from Saul and Ananias about resurrection resilience for the times when we get knocked down?
Notice that Saul spends three days in prayer and fasting and Ananias engages in conversation with God, naming his concerns and receiving guidance for his discernment. It sounds so basic, but when you feel most alone, most ashamed, most confused or afraid—God is with you, loving you, ready to spend some time with you, and to help you. When you get knocked down, turn to God, bring yourself into God’s presence, ask your questions, throw your tantrums, cry your eyes out, or just feel the strength of Mother/Father God holding you.
And listen. Pay attention to the message or discernment you receive in prayer. In the story for today, clarity about how to go forward comes quickly. That isn’t often the case in our lives. But it does come when we remain aware and attentive that God is up to something in us and through us—and that God wants to help us. In my experience, proverbially “getting up” after being knocked down can sometimes be a very slow process. It is difficult, holy work to heal from grief or trauma, to truly receive God’s grace and release from guilt and shame. It takes time and is holy work to allow God’s grace to work in new ways in us that set us on a new course. Healing and change take time and intention.
Turning to God provides the grace we need for resilience when we’ve been knocked down. In prayerful encounter with God several things are possible:
1. God will help us be honest about what has happened. We can rationalize things, we can fall into old patterns of self-blame, we can take too much or too little responsibility, or try to ignore whatever has knocked us down. But in the presence of God, there’s nothing you can hide—what you did or didn’t do, what you are or aren’t responsible for, what does or doesn’t matter most, and on it goes. If you are open, God will reveal to you the truth. And ALL of the truth is bathed in God’s love and mercy.
2. God will help us learn what we need to learn from the experience and will help us get up. Part of this is to recognize our need and seek out and connect with people and other resources that will give us strength to rise and keep going. A few examples: You can love and rely on both Jesus and your therapist. You can receive grace from God and support from church, friends, or a social service agency. You can practice receiving God’s love, others’ love, and self-love.
3. God will help us engage differently in the world as a result of God’s guidance through the struggle. At the very least, we will be aware of how awful it is to be knocked down and perhaps more perceptive to others having that experience. We might even focus more on offering others a hand to get back up instead of piling on with disdain, judgment, or indifference.
If there are things we need to change in our own behavior or perspective so that we stop doing harm to others or to ourselves, God’s grace will indeed help us. //
Of course there are those in the church—both in the pews and in the pulpit—who continue to use their power and privilege to persecute others and do harm. Photos of Putin lighting his Easter candle as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch presided in a pristine, ornate sanctuary won’t let us forget… Saul’s persecutions were religiously driven or at least religiously rationalized. But today we are reminded that even for Saul, new life and the opportunity to use his powers for good and not for harm became possible. If it can happen for Saul and those like him through the ages, it most definitely can happen for you.
And there are also powerful images of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine celebrating Easter last weekend.[ii] An image of a family with young children walking alongside barricades on their way to a service, people of all ages lined up in front of a bunker in a bombed out city with their traditional food baskets to be blessed, an Orthodox priest blessing Easter cakes at a humanitarian aid facility… These images of Christian hope in a time of war are, for me, powerful reminders that turning to God, relying on the love and grace and community of God and God’s people can help us keep going even in the worst moments of life.
You will get “knocked down” in life, sometimes in unimaginably painful ways, but with God you’ll always be given grace—and companions on the journey—to help you get up again. There’s nothin’ gonna keep you down. Thanks be to God.
[ii] Photos show stark contrast in Easter celebrations in Ukraine and Russia
Ukraine imposed a curfew as Russia's attacks intensified. In Moscow, Vladimir Putin attended midnight Mass.
By Adam Taylor and Bryan Pietsch