In a bible study several years ago, we were reading Acts, and upon reading today’s passage, a member said, and not at all tongue-in-cheek, “Wow! Paul had quite a ‘road to Damascus’ experience!” Indeed, he did, the original road to Damascus experience, the one for which the phenomenon itself is named.
Paul (at this point in the story still referred to as Saul) has lived in a religious milieu and among people who have formed him, and whom he has formed, to lash out against those who are different from him and who he perceives to be a threat to his way of life. He has gone so far as to be the likely ringleader at the brutal murder of Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons who became the first Christian martyr. Note that: Paul himself served as the spark that ignited a conflagration of religious violence against peaceful people that continues to this day. That’s who Paul was, and he was all-in. Such was his identity through-and-through.
In fact, the very reason Paul was on the road to Damascus was a sanctioned mission to kidnap Christians there and bring them back to Jerusalem. (For exactly what we don’t know, but judging by Stephen’s fate, nothing good.) But while on his way, something happens that literally stops Paul in his tracks. There is the flash of light. There is the arresting voice. There is the blindness. It is a bracing, and in no way gentle, epiphany. It changes Paul in an instant. But it is also just the beginning of his story…
I grew up in rural Northeast Arkansas, on the slope of Crowley’s Ridge, at the northern tip of the Mississippi River Delta. I was raised tromping around in fields, woods, and the long, meandering channel of Eight Mile Creek. Throughout my young experience, there were birds, and small mammals, and buzzy, creepy, and crawly things that interplayed with the oaks and honeysuckle and various other flora of my environment. Intuitively, I knew that it all fit together in symbiotic harmony, but it wasn’t until much later that I learned science has a name for my childhood world: ecology. An ecology is, according to Mr. Webster, “the relationships of organisms to one another and to their physical surroundings.” The way it all fits together and works together to create a world is an area’s ecology.
Social scientists have adopted this meaningful word as well. In his newest book, columnist David Brooks talks about moral ecologies.[i] Just as we all live in a natural ecosystem, we also all live within a moral ecology, an environment in which prevailing moral sensibilities all fit together and work together to define our relationships and our way of being in the world. Our moral ecology determines which values we prioritize, and which actions are encouraged or discouraged. Brooks says, “Moral ecologies subtly guide how you dress, how you talk, what you admire and disdain, and how you define your ultimate purpose.”
You’ve probably heard the contemporary parable in which the old fish swims by the young fish and asks, “How’s the water today?” Which leads the young fish to ask in reply, “What’s water?”
Importantly, our moral ecology is usually like the water in which that proverbial young fish lives. It is the milieu we take for granted. It forms us uncritically. We are rarely even aware of it. Our moral ecology is the very water in which we live, and move, and have our being.
When Paul set out on that road to Damascus, he was saturated by the moral ecology in which he lived. It was beyond him to pause and question his abuse of Christians. He’d been formed—and he’d in turn formed others—deeply to believe that Christians were the threat, the other, to be suppressed and, if possible, expunged. This was simply his moral ecology—his reality—and so he carried out his role.
But then the upending, world-changing event happens on that road. In a flash and a voice, Paul’s moral ecology is shattered. Paul’s blindness is both literal and figurative. Like his actual cornea, Paul’s uncritical vision of the world clouds over and is revealed to be illusion and shadow. On that road, Christ exposes Paul’s moral ecology—and Pau’s place in it—to be bankrupt.
Has that ever happened to you? Through the unexpected encounter, via the new voice breaking through the din, by way of meeting someone who totally challenges your presumptions, have you ever had your vision of the world thrown into clear relief for the first time, and then obliterated? Have you, with quaking knees and equally quaky heart, realized, as if outside yourself, that where you stand in the world is bankrupt and that where you stand is not where God would have you?
This is a truly shattering encounter for any of us, of course, and certainly for Paul. Sometimes this is referred to as Paul’s conversion experience. But by itself, that’s not exactly right. The final verse of the experience on the road says, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing.” Paul has been shown how wrong his whole life has been, but that’s all. He hasn’t yet been shown a new way. Paul’s moral ecology has been disrupted, but nothing has yet been put in its place.
This, too, many of us have experienced in our own lives. The eye-opening epiphany often reveals the foundation of sand on which our own moral ecologies are built, and our moral ecologies thus crumble to dust, but we know no better at that point how or what to be instead. Like Paul, our eyes are opened, but we can see nothing.
That’s why the second half of this reading is essential and should never be sundered from the first half. Blinded, Paul stumbles on to Damascus—he finishes the journey on which he’d originally set out—but instead of bullying the Christians there, he finds himself ministered to by them. Ananias opens his home to Paul. He feeds Paul. He tends Paul’s wounds. He shares words of grace. He loves Paul.
Do you see what happens here? More than anything that happens on the road to Damascus, this is the miracle of the story. In the milieu of Ananias’ home, Paul is given a new moral ecology! In place of violence, Paul is taught care. In place of othering, Paul is shown brotherhood. In place of indoctrination to hate, Paul is shown grace. Whereas the voice of Jesus on the Damascus road obliterated Paul’s old moral ecology, the hands and feet of Jesus in the form of Ananias and the other Damascene Christians provide Paul a new moral ecology, a new vision—again, both literal and figurative—to understand the way in which all the pieces of the world and all human relationships fit together. Only then does Scripture say that Paul’s eyes are opened and he can truly see. Paul’s new moral ecology is the Gospel, and by transforming Paul it will then transform the world.
This couldn’t be more important for our world, and this is the perfect lectionary reading for May Fete at the Cathedral. Since 1839, Christ Church has offered the Houston community a different moral ecology. For those who’ve walked through these doors since 1839, or 1892, or 1928, or 1979, or who do so today, the moral ecologies that saturate the world outside these doors are exposed to be bankrupt. Indeed, often people walk through these doors for the first time because they’ve had some shattering experience that has revealed to them just how destructive the moral ecology in which they’ve breathed and moved really is. But, as for Paul, that revelation alone is not enough. For the scales to fall, we must be shown a new moral ecology, the only moral ecology that can save the world. That is why the church—that is why this church—matters. In the bullying and brutal world in which we’ve all participated, the moral ecology we reveal, and teach, and practice here is one of openness, and feeding bodies, and tending wounded souls, and speaking words of grace. We form one another in these ways. We offer one another that Gospel vision. And, like Paul, we rise from here with newly opened eyes to go out and transform the world.
[i] Brooks, David. The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life, pp. 3-7.