As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
- Acts 9:3-5
Disclaimer: This is not in any way about the 1978 classic single from the band The Who, but if you've already started humming "who-who, who-who," go ahead and hit this clickbait link and it'll offer you 5 minutes of nostalgia. I had to stop and listen before I could go on, too.
Ok, now for the real stuff. Good questions are the root of profound growth. Jesus seemed to know this, since he posed over 300 questions to his listeners throughout the gospels. But today is a reminder that some questions are so transformative that they may just change the course of our lives.
Diana Butler Bass, in her book Freeing Jesus, reminds us of the story of Saul's (Paul's) conversion. This is the moment when an extremist for violent persecution and religious purity would become an extremist for love and grace. Saul is on his way to raid synagogues and capture anyone who belonged to The Way, which was the first name for the people of Jesus. And while he's heading toward Damascus, the post-resurrected Jesus meets him in a wave of blinding light that knocks him over.
Bass notes how interesting it is that in the midst of this overwhelming encounter, the first words out of Saul's mouth aren't What do you want?? or What are you doing?? or even, What's happening??? AHHHHHHH!!!
Rather, it's this: Who are you?
That single starting point, she suggests, becomes the basis for the next 3 decades of Paul's life. In each missionary journey, in each attempt at starting small and messy church communities, Paul continues to work out that same question... who are you, Lord? And, at the risk of sounding like a heretic, I'd suggest that Paul comes to many different answers as the years and letters go by. As he should...because Jesus is so many things. Go ahead and read the New Testament to see what he concludes.
The reason that Who are you? is such a powerful question is that it is about connection before anything else. Who is the one question that we must have an answer for before a relationship can begin, and certainly before love can flourish. We may have many other questions, but humans can only feel safe and grounded in relationship when we feel like we know who another person is. It's foundational for trust. It's deeper than basic information, and it's a question that requires ongoing exploration. I certainly know that who I am is not the same as it was fifteen years ago.
In our discipleship, allowing ourselves to constantly ask "who are you, Jesus?" opens the door for ongoing growth in the deep places. Rather than simply quoting recited creeds, we are invited to pursue and experience Jesus in fresh ways throughout our entire lives. If we think that getting the information right about Jesus is more important than growing in formation with Jesus, we may go our entire lives never actually encountering who Jesus really is. And if we never get there, we may never get to the point of being so changed by that relationship that it carries over into a life of love, mercy, and grace to the world around us.
What if you sat for a few prayerful moments this week and asked that profound question...
Who are you, Lord?
Perhaps it would provide an opportunity to notice where Jesus is meeting you in this chapter of your story. And perhaps you'll be surprised.
Jesus, draw me into who you are, not simply to gain information, but so that I can walk more deeply with you.
"Thinking he was the gardener....”
On Easter Sunday, I shared about an often ignored detail in the resurrection story. Upon seeing the risen Jesus for the first time, Mary mistook him for a gardener. And I offered the perspective that perhaps, rather than it being a mistake, she was exactly right. Maybe the death-conquering, resurrected Lord of the earth was also kneeling in it, carefully preparing the soil for the slow process of bringing forth life.
It seems appropriate to continue with this image for a little while this spring. People are emerging from their homes, the weather is warming up, and yards and gardens are once again coming alive. Now is a season where growth is a little more noticeable, though for several months, it's been all but invisible in the fields and forests around us. But all along, things have been happening.
The resurrection is certainly a revolution- a flipping of the narrative of death and condemnation! But our subsequent journey with Jesus is often more evolution, if we're honest. We don't particularly like that part; a microwave-ready experience is easier than simmering a stew all day long. And talking endlessly about all the information we know is certainly easier than sitting quietly with Jesus, letting him slow us down and cultivate our character. But discipleship is a process and not a destination. And we often get stuck when we expect a revolution experience all the time.
We need to embrace how Eugene Peterson described Christian discipleship: a long obedience in the same direction. That really doesn't sound like a revolution. That sounds like an incremental journey of lifelong movement. Perhaps we struggle with this process of growth because we've been sold a false narrative that suggests that if you're going to change, God will make it easy and pretty instantaneous. If we've been trained to only look and talk about revolution, we may miss the primary work that Jesus does as the resurrected gardener of our souls.
Walking with Jesus can be both restful and difficult work. It requires intentionality. Becoming more aware, more compassionate, more grounded, more emotionally mature... these things are not instant coffee. They are cold brew. They are not supermarket purchases. They are garden cultivation. They are not a podcast listen. They are authoring a full length novel. It's slow, evolution type stuff.
Jesus brings transformation to our spirits, our minds, and our actions. Sometimes it happens in significant jumps. But most of the time, it happens in microscopic little moments of obedience, where humility is more important than ego. It comes when we make the choice to love with a word or action in the smallest of ways. When we choose generosity at a moment when looking out for ourselves and our stuff would be easier. It comes in the moments of sitting with the words of Jesus even when we don't feel much. These are small seeds that Jesus will bring fruit out of. And before you know it, you might just look back and realize that in Christ you've become a new creation, as Paul stated it. Maybe our evolution is more revolutionary than we think.
Let's intentionally lean into the process of discipleship with Jesus. And let's do better at celebrating the tiny moments of growth with the family of God around us. It can be incredibly inspiring to hear someone say, "yesterday I chose to turn off my phone for five minutes and write a prayer in my journal, laying down my stresses." Incremental moments bring fruit over time, and we need to share them! Resurrection takes many forms. Let's hang out in the garden with Jesus.
Jesus, cultivate my spirit today so that my life reflects your heart and hands just a tiny bit more by nightfall. I trust you for growth.
And they were greatly distressed and began to say to him one after another, “Surely not I, Lord?”
The drama of Holy Week takes a step up in intensity today. As we enter Jesus' final days, today we remember the exchanges in the Upper Room, as Jesus shares his final meal with his disciples. Today is called Maundy Thursday, from the root word meaning "command" (or mandate). It's the day that we remember Christ giving his great command to selfless service, shortly after he humbles himself to wash his disciples' feet. Love one another.
But that's not an isolated moment. The entire evening balances on a knife-edge, with political and relational tensions high. It seems clear that something is about to go down, and Jesus has alluded to his own capture and death multiple times. And then as they're eating, Jesus drops a bombshell: One of you is going to be betray me.
What happens next is sitting in my mind. The disciples get really anxious. But then they go around the room, and each one says the same thing. "Surely not I, Lord?"
Now, it's difficult to read tone, but I'm imagining these questions aren't so self-assured as Peter's loud refusal to let Jesus was his feet a few minutes earlier ("You'll NEVER wash my feet, Lord!)
No, I'm hearing a creeping worry approaching in each one's question.
You definitely don't mean me, Lord.
Why would each disciple be so concerned? It is perhaps because each of them knew that it was indeed a distinct possibility? Is it because they knew that fear and doubt and self-preservation was already right at the edge of their consciousness, waiting to jump right in front of the commitment to love each other and trust Jesus? (picture for a bit of levity)
Some Christian traditions have used the cross to point a finger directly at people, hoping to change folks with the eternal power of guilt. While I don't believe that forceful guilt actually draws us to Jesus, I do relate deeply with the insecurity of the disciples. I know that I'm capable of turning my own way instead of toward courageous love and discipleship. I know that I am often complicit in systems of injustice. I know that if I was sitting there with Jesus, I'd want to assume it was that other guy he was talking about, but I'd have a sneaking suspicion that it might be me. If you never have that suspicion, you may want to do a little further reflection. What if your toxic trait is that you're sure it's always everyone else who has a toxic trait?
In the coming two days, we have the opportunity for this sort of honest admission to lead us to freedom. There is great power in "admitting." We admit that we have the temptation to run and hide too. We admit that we've done harm instead of embodying the fullness of love. We admit that we've moved toward self-preservation rather than faithfulness, and it sometimes feels like we've betrayed Jesus.
When we allow ourselves to admit that surely it might be I (I know, bad grammar), then we open ourselves up to the healing journey of Jesus. In fact, it's in the admitting that we move to where we need to do be for Jesus to do his work in us.
James Finley reflects on "the power of admitting" frailty in his course on Mystical Sobriety:
"The admitting then brings us to a place in which, if this is up to me, it is not looking good. As a matter of fact, if this is up to me, I think it’s despair. But the very fact that I’ve risked despair opens up a whole new possibility because maybe it’s not up to me. Maybe there’s another way."
One of the great tragedies of the gospel is that Judas never had the chance to see Jesus take his failure and despair to absorb and transform it. It would have been an incredible redemption story. I can't imagine how many lives he would have touched when he told of how Jesus had enough love and forgiveness even for him. He would have gone around in such joy and grace, committed to doing good work.
As we consider the meal, the towel, the cross and the silence leading up to Sunday, let's not be afraid to admit our own frailty. There is life, grace, and hope on the other side of our honest vulnerability.
Jesus, it might be me. So I ask you to take my fear, my weakness, and my sin, and remind me that your love is still larger.