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The Way of the WaySermon by Don Portwood, April 22, 2007
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus, went to the high priest and 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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with Saul stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul 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. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Sovereign said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ ‘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, and 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.’
But Ananias answered, ‘Sovereign, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Sovereign 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; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Sovereign 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.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days Saul was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
Parts of this sermon come from the chapter entitled "Born Again" from Marcus Borg's book The Heart of Christianity.
Blinded by the light
revved up like a deuce
Another runner in the night
We all know the story of Saul, knocked off his high horse and blinded by the light Led by the hand to Damascus where Ananias prays for him. He’s filled with the Holy spirit, his sight returns and within days he’s preaching in the synagogues. Saul the persecutor becomes Saul the evangelist.
What caught my attention this week were the two little words The Way, early in the scripture that Dan read. “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Sovereign, went to the high priest and 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.”
The Way is an early name for Christianity, for Jewish Christians who followed Jesus. Paul is going to Damascus to persecute people of the way and on the way he experiences the way and becomes one of the way, proclaiming the way.
What is the way of the way? Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, simplifies it for us.
The Way of the Way? – dying and rising experiences, big ones and small.
Saul’s was big. Knocked off his horse, blinded by the light, in Damascus he receives the Holy Spirit, dies to his old identity as Saul the persecutor and rises a new creation, Saul the evangelist.
That is the way of the way….dying and rising, dying to an old identity, rising to a new identity, centered in the Spirit of God.
“Dying and rising” or “being born again” are images for the process of personal transformation that’s at the center of the Christian life. To be born again involves death and resurrection. It means dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way of being; dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity—a way of being and an identity centered in the sacred, in Spirit, in Christ, in God.
Throughout the Christian scriptures, death and resurrection, dying and rising are metaphors for personal transformation.
Dying and rising with Christ is found in the four gospels and Paul’s letters. “Take up your cross and follow me”. It is the way of Jesus. It is the way of the Christian community. Paul writes in Romans 6, “All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death. Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of God, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Paul’s shorthand phrase for that process is being “in Christ” or “in the Spirit”. The result of being “in Christ” is a new way of being and a new identity, a new creation.
To the Corinthians he wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation: everything old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”
And it’s not only a personal transformation, but a communal one as well, for as Paul wrote to the Galatians, “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. The result: There is no longer Jew or Gentile, there is not longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Imagine how that changed the community, when all are one in Christ.
The gospel of John also used this imagery. In fact, for Borg, it’s the key to understanding the verse in John often used as the basis of Christian exclusivism: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to God except through me.”
In John, just as Jesus is the “Word made flesh” so he is “the way” made flesh, the path embodied in a life. The key question then becomes: What is “the way” that Jesus incarnates? What is “the way” that Jesus is? For John, as for the Christian scriptures generally, “the way” embodied in Jesus is the path of dying and rising.
Dying and rising is the only way to God. Christian exclusivism understands this verse to mean that you must be a Christian, know about Jesus and believe certain things about Jesus in order to be saved. But “the way” John speaks of is not about believing doctrines about Jesus, rather, “the way” is the path of death and resurrection as the way to rebirth in God.
According to John, this is the only way…..and, as Borg suggests in a minute, it is “the way” spoken of by all the major religions of the world.
And what is the symbol of this Way, this dying and rising? The Cross.
“If any of you would come after me, deny yourself, take up your cross and follow me.” The Church used the cross as the symbol for this dying and rising. But in the process taught us that what needs to die is our self….deny yourself, do it for Jesus, for the church, for others. That way of understanding has been used to encourage the repression of the self and it’s legitimate desires.
Oppressed people in society and in the family, have often been told to put their own selves last, out of obedience to God. Understood this way, the message of the cross becomes an instrument of oppressive authority and self-denial.
But the cross is our means of liberation and reconnection. It is not about the subjugation of the self, but about a new self. And so Borg uses the term “old” and ”new” identity and way of being. The way of the cross involves dying to an “old identity” and rising into a “new identity”, dying to “an old way of being” and being raised “to a new way of being”, one centered in God.
It’s what the good news of the gospel is all about. I once was lost, but now I’m found. I used to be hooked on, controlled by --- fill in the blank, drugs, alcohol, sex, anger, money - all the damaging things we can be enslaved too. Then the hand of Jesus touched me and now I am no longer the same.
There are powerful stories of God’s Spirit working in your lives - or the lives of others you may have only heard about.
But for many of us, our lives haven’t been that dramatic. And we mostly deal with what Borg calls the process of self-consciousness and socialization.
As we grow from a baby to a child, we become self-conscious…self aware…recognizing we are different from others around us. That leads to feelings of self-centeredness, estrangement, exile. We have all experienced this. Moreover, it cannot be avoided; it is utterly necessary.
The process of separation and self-concern is intensified by the process of growing up. Called “socialization” this process involves internalizing within the self the central “messages” of one’s upbringing. It includes language, a worldview, an understanding of what is real and possible, and includes messages about who we are and what we should be like: parental messages, cultural messages, and for many of us religious messages.
By the time we are in early adolescence, perhaps earlier, our sense of who we are is increasingly the product of culture. We feel okay or not okay about ourselves to the extent that we measure up to the messages we have internalized. Borg writes that in in our culture, these messages center around the three A’s of: Appearance, Achievement, and Affluence.
For the adolescence it comes out as: Am I ok, am I cool enough, in with my friends, do I look good, either with the right clothes or the coolest piercings?
In adulthood the issue of attractiveness continues, but then we add issues of achievement and affluence and also issues of intimacy, sensitivity, and caring. Am I enough? Am I good enough? Smart enough? Rich enough? Capable enough?
Throughout this process, we fall farther into the world of separation and alienation, comparison and judgment—of self and of others. We live our lives in relation to what Thomas Keating calls, “the false self” the self created and received by culture. Or to use language from author Frederick Buechner, we live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out.
The biblical version is that we are created in the image of God, but we choose false Gods to trust, live our lives outside of paradise, “east of Eden” in a world of estrangement and self-preoccupation. Worry-filled, grasping, sometimes victim, sometimes oppressor. That’s the false self that needs to die, that’s why we need to be born again, return from our exile, recover our true self, begin the path of living our lives from the inside out rather than from the outside in.
To be born again involves dying to the false self, to that identity, to that way of being, that is so worried about appearance, achievement, affluence, and to be born into an identity centered in the Spirit, in Christ, in God. “Riches I need not, nor life’s empty praise, you, my inheritance, now and always.”
This experience of the Way can be big, sudden and dramatic and like Saul on the road to Damascus. Like Paul we can be knocked off our high horse by health issues, work issues, relational issues, well just about any issues. Because if we all start out worshiping false Gods, then at some point we often realize the “security blanket” we’ve been clinging to, doesn’t provide the security it once did. The author Robert Short calls that discovery, “that we’ve been clinging to a false God”, HELL.
For the majority of us, dying and rising doesn’t happen like Paul in a single intense experience. It’s more gradual and incremental. Dying to an old identity and being born into a new identity, dying to an old way of being and living into a new way of being, is a process that continues through a lifetime.
This process is at the heart, not only of Christianity, but of the other enduring religions of the world.
Judaism speaks of the Way as a new heart, a self centered in God.
One of the meanings of the word “Islam” is “surrender” - to surrender one’s life to God by radically centering in God.
At the heart of the Buddhist path is “letting go”.
It’s in the Tao te Ching. “If you want to become full, let yourself be empty; if you want to be reborn, let yourself die.”
The Way of the Way is the work of the Spirit. Whether it happens suddenly or gradually, we can’t make it happen, either by strong desire and determination or by learning and believing the right beliefs.
But we can midwife the process. This is the purpose of spirituality: to help birth the new self and nourish the new life.
Spirituality combines awareness, intention, and practice.
Borg defines it as “becoming conscious of and intentional about a deepening relationship with God”.
1) Becoming conscious of a relationship with God that already exists whether we are aware of it or not.
2) Becoming intentional about our relationship with God, paying attention to the relationship through practice, corporate and individual practice, worship, community, prayer, dance, meditation, days of mindfulness.
3) so that we have an ever deepening relationship with God…a relationship that transforms us – marks us - with freedom, joy, peace and love.
Freedom from the voices of all the “would be bosses” of our lives,
the joy of the exuberant, passionate life,
the peace of reconnection to what is, the peace that passes all understanding, that no storm can shake;
and love—the love of God for us and the love of God in us.
Dying and being raised to new life, being born again, is about living from the inside out….having God’s loving, grace filled spirit fill you and liberate you from those damned voices of society, culture, family and church – that criticize us and others – harshly, relentlessly, ungracefully on:
how you should be, how you should look, how much you should make,
how successful you should be.
Living your life, not from the outside in…but from the inside out….is discovering or re-discovering, not just once, but again and again, deeper within you - God’s spirit of wisdom, love and grace.
The muslim poet, Hafiz has written, “There is only one reason we have followed God into this world: to encourage laughter, freedom, dance and love. In ourselves and for others.
Most of us go through our lives without ever being literally knocked off our horses and blinded by a light. Most of us go from day to day, year to year, sometimes searching, sometimes convinced, but rarely experiencing dramatic revelations that change the course of our lives, let alone the life of the church, as the experience of
Whether we are blinded by the light, we still receive the same grace filled invitation in the situations, especially the hard spots in our lives that Saul received on his way to Damascus, to release our false Gods and transform our hearts to God’s way of loving.