“Unraveling Identities”
Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
The Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
19 July, 2020
Week 6 in “Unraveled” Series
Acts 9:1-20

If you were going to be introduced to the whole world in a public way, what characteristics and convictions would you want others to know about you?  What would you say are the most important facts about your identity?  Now…What would it take to completely change your sense of who you are, what you believe, where and whom you belong to?

According to The Cambridge English Dictionary, ‘Identity’ is:
“Who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group that make them different from others.”[1]  Yourdictionary.com says identity is: “Who you are; the way you think about yourself, the way you are viewed by the world, and the characteristics that define you.”[2]

We probably will never enjoy the opportunity to articulate to the whole world what we’d like to be known about us.  But our lives, our actions, and the groups we associate with—our relationships with others—will tell stories about our identity, about our deepest values, commitments, and character.  Especially in moments of stress or testing.

In today’s reflection on our theme of “Unraveling”, we’re introduced to a couple individuals whose sense of their personal identity, values, and vocation (or purpose in the world) were revealed in exactly such a moment.  And their respective responses changed the world.

If you’ve read much of the New Testament outside the gospel accounts, chances are you’re already familiar with the identity and values of the first character—because he wrote many of the letters we call the New Testament Epistles.  Saul, whom we know better as Paul was very proud of three key features of his identity (as often happened to Biblical characters, his name changed when his true, God-given identity was embraced).

First, in his letter to the Philippians he writes: [I was] “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.”[3]  In other words, he was very proud of the purity of his Jewish lineage, heritage, and religious practice.  As we heard at the very beginning of our Scripture lesson today, the zealous (some might say fanatical) pride he had in his Jewish identity worked in actively destructive ways for a time.

Second, at two other points in the Acts story[4], Paul refers proudly to his Roman citizenship and the privileges he’s entitled to as a citizen.  History and the Scriptures don’t tell us how he came to possess the coveted status, but it was unusual for a Jew to be a Roman citizen.  Still, that Roman citizenship featured in his life, and in the ministry God had in mind for him, opening political and cultural doors that would otherwise not have been open to him.

Third, and finally, in addition to being a Jew and a Roman, Paul was proud of his education in Greek culture.  He was born in Tarsus, which was an active Greco-Roman trade city in what today is south-central Turkey.  In Acts 22, when he’s recounting the story of his conversion experience to a dubious audience of Christians in Jerusalem, Paul reports that although he was born and raised in Tarsus, he had been sent to study at the feet of a famous rabbi in Jerusalem called Gamaliel.  So, he was also proud of his education in Greek culture even though it was presented through the lens of his Jewish teacher.

All of the features of Paul’s identity up to that point had been conferred on him by way of his family history.  His Jewish faith, his Roman citizenship, and his education in Greek language and culture.  And these key features of his identity remained central to the work and ministry God had in mind for him after the unraveling experience he had on the road to Damascus.

Up until the moment of crisis where he was blinded and fell to the ground as he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”, this man had been “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,”[5] procuring letters of permission from the high priest to bring back Jewish Christians bound in chains to face the interrogation and possible sanctions of the Temple leaders.  In Chapter 8, it says that in the immediate aftermath of the stoning death of a man called Stephen—the first Christian martyr—”Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”[6]

Clearly, in his earlier days, Saul was convinced that followers of the Way (which is what Christians were called before they were called Christians) were Jewish heretics, and that the Lord’s honor demanded their extermination.  What he didn’t understand at that point was that the ways of God made known through Christ Jesus—the ways of the God who is Love and Lord of All—don’t include instigating fear or terror.  The ways of Love are not the ways of chaos and confusion, and do not include the practices of manipulation, domination, and control so commonly practiced by people in this world.

Saul had been a good student, and eager to serve the Lord as a Jewish leader. Somehow, he’d gotten tripped up in his zealousness, and was serving a misguided mission and cause with the Lord’s name inappropriately attached to it.

But God had a purpose and a greater plan for all that passion.  In a moment of profound unraveling, where he must have questioned his experience, his sanity, his grip on reality, and everything he had previously understood as true, Saul was confronted by the One he had been persecuting.  Against all reasonable expectation based on how he had been representing the Lord in the past, Jesus met him on the road to Damascus not with snarky words or menacing gestures, but with a question that invited self-reflection and a recognition of their relationship.  “Saul, Saul—why do you persecute me?”

Actually, Saul/Paul would have a bit of time and help in processing all that was happening to him, from a follower of the Way: a man called Ananias.  Ananias, in fact, had had a small unraveling of his own.  While Saul was out on the road experiencing a blindness both literal and spiritual, Ananias heard the Lord telling him to go to Judas’ house in Straight Street, to minister to a man whose name he immediately recognized as a threat.  “‘Lord,’ Ananias replied, ‘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…’”[7]

It’s possible that none of Paul’s work would have been accomplished if Ananias had refused to accept Saul as a child of God with an identity and purpose not yet fully revealed to the world.  Ananias, and the example he set, left room for the possibility that there was more to the truth than he recognized or understood.  Contrary to many who would have dismissed Saul as having wreaked havoc therefore being irredeemable, Ananias demonstrated a hope and confidence that God might have plans and a divine purpose for the man who had been so destructive.

What neither Ananias nor anyone else could have known in that moment was exactly how the same combination of attributes that had been used to terrorize Christians would be transformed by Love (including the love shown by Ananias and other Christians) in order to call even more people to the Christian fold.  And not just in his own day, but for millennia to come!

Paul’s was not the last conversion story, of course.  There are plenty; some of you have conversion stories of your own.  Some of you will be familiar with the story of Megan Phelps-Roper.  Megan is the granddaughter of the notorious Fred Phelps, founder of the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas.  She wrote a book called Unfollow, and gave an excellent TED Talk, which I highly recommend.

Like Saul, Megan was steeped from the cradle in the doctrine of her family’s religious tradition and their particular interpretation of it.  Hers included a lot of hate and anger with what they perceive as the wickedness of the world, a lot of suspicion of others and an inability to see those unlike themselves as loved by God or redeemable in any way.

Our identities are, in many ways in our earliest days, shaped by influences over which we have absolutely no control—and usually, even less conscious awareness.  Like most children, Megan “believed what [she] was taught with [her] whole heart.”[8]  She truly believed that, by picketing the funerals of soldiers and protesting at rallies for LGBTQ people, by shouting at people who held different beliefs and practiced their faith in other ways, she was doing what she could—along with her church—for God’s sake.  “This was the focus of our whole lives;” she said, “it was the only way to do good in a world that sits in Satan’s lap.”

But then, something happened.  Megan took to Twitter back in 2009.  At first, it was a way to push her church’s ideas out via social media, to continue fighting for what they believed was the righteous truth.  But, to her surprise, at some point, a group of people refused to respond to her hate with scorn and vitriol, but instead started asking her questions.  It seemed they truly wanted to understand her . . . and eventually, she found herself wanting to understand them, too.  It was a mutual exploration into their respective identities, into who each one thought they were, what they stood for, as defined by their own experiences and thoughts and passions, and by what their actions and words said to the world.

She began to realize that, for all their passion and certainty, Love was not at the center of the Westboro Baptist Church (or her own) identity.  She began to see the inconsistencies, the deep flaws, and hurtful practices of her community’s ideology, and could no longer justify their actions, especially the cruel and dehumanizing ones.  The grace of God, at work in the conversations of people from dramatically different points of view, transformed lives even as each of them were drawn into a deeper understanding of their true, God-given identities, their divinely-inspired characters and purpose.  The 21st-century Christ- and Ananias-figures who first asked Megan why she was persecuting them, and then ministered to her as she began to recognize her blindness, who asked her questions but did not condemn her, who refused to return insult for insult, now represent her beloved community and family.

Observing the unraveling of our public discourse, the similarly destructive impulses that ruled her former church, and the fact that this path will not take us where we want to go, Megan Phelps-Roper now offers wisdom by reflecting on her experience, sharing both her mistakes and the ways she’s been strengthened and changed.  Her zeal to change the world for good, for God’s sake, which was previously characterized by destructive, hateful, and divisive behaviors has been transformed.  Although she might not personally describe it this way, her energy is now channeled into helping individuals and communities reflect on their own authentic, God-given identity by teaching us healthier ways to engage in life-affirming, even transformational, conversations, on inviting us all more deeply into the practices and ways of Love.

That’s the power that God’s grace has to transform our understanding of who we are, to root us more firmly in our divine character and God-given purpose.  In this age where identity politics are being used with great effect to drive wedges of division, and social media is often used to sow seeds of confusion and misinformation, as followers of Jesus Christ, in this broken, hurting, hurtful world, you and I are called to embrace the challenge of bringing, and receiving, a grace-filled conversion and transformation.  Even if it means unraveling identities.  Amen.

[1] (Cambridge English Dictionary)

[2] (www.yourdictionary.com

[3] Philippians 3:5

[4] Acts 16:27-38 and in Acts 22:25-28

[5] Acts 9:1

[6] Acts 8:3

[7] Acts 9:13-15

[8] https://www.ted.com/talks/megan_phelps_roper_i_grew_up_in_the_westboro_baptist_church_here_s_why_i_left/transcript#t-547594

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