Before Paul, there was Saul. Saul wasn’t an especially nice chap.
Preached at Christ The King Chapel, CFB Suffield, Crown Village Of Ralston, AB, 14 April, 2013. Readings for the Third Sunday Of Easter (Year C): Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
We first meet Saul in the Book of Acts, when he is introduced as a young man who is present at the execution of Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the holy spirit” (Acts 6), the first follower of Jesus to be killed for his belief. Saul is present at the execution of Stephen by stoning, and while he doesn’t through a rock himself, he helpfully stands guard over the coats of others who do participate (Acts 7:58). After Stephen has died this quite horrific form of death by stoning, Luke, the author of Acts, tells us simply that “Saul approved of their killing him” (8:1).
By the time we meet Saul next, he has graduated to a licensed position in the religious police in Jerusalem, and is thoroughly hostile to those who follow Jesus and who believe in what Luke calls “the Way”. Luke describes him as “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. He obtains a warrant to go to Damascus “so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem” (9:2). As an aside, it is interesting to note that the mention of “men or women” speaks to the importance of women believers early in the life of the church, and is consistent with the prominence of women in the gospel stories of Easter morning.
Why was Saul so hostile to those who believed in Jesus? Later in his life he describes how he was an ardent Jew and Pharisee, eager to defend his religion against what he perceived as the false belief of those Jews who had accepted Jesus’ claims that he was the Messiah: “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers” (Galatians 1:13-14). If he was alive today we would recognize Saul as that sadly familiar figure, the religious extremist, ready to defend his faith by whatever acts of violence and terror he deemed necessary. We aren’t told what he did between the stoning of Stephen and his trip to Damascus, but I think it’s safe to say there was blood on his hands.
And then Saul became Paul. Some biblical scholars debate whether what happens in Acts 9 should be called the conversion of Paul or the calling of Paul. Like Jesus calling his disciples and giving them jobs to do, as we see Jesus giving Peter his instructions in today’s gospel reading from John 21, there is a call. There is also a conversion, in that Saul has an encounter with Jesus, whom he previously thought of as a false belief, and comes out of that encounter a changed person, now Paul, believing in the reality of Jesus. I wonder why we don’t call it the forgiveness of Saul, or perhaps the salvaging of Paul?
In the appearances of Jesus to the disciples after his resurrection, it’s striking how their fear, while understandable, is unnecessary. I read somewhere that in the horror films that studios churn out today, one of the standard plot devices is of the ghost or spirit, sometimes an executed criminal, who returns to take his vengeance. The disciples may have been afraid of ghosts in general, or perhaps afraid that Jesus would punish them for deserting him in the Garden, the night before his death, after their promises to be faithful to him. Instead Jesus comes, as you may have heard last week in Luke’s story of Thomas, repeatedly saying “Peace be with you” (see John 20:19-31), which is hardly how we would expect a vengeful spirit to introduce itself. Now he comes to Saul, a guy we might well expect him to take vengeance on, and instead of ghostly punishment, Jesus asks him, rather gently, “why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4. Far from punishing him, Jesus sends Saul to Damascus with the promise of a job.
That a Saviour who once preached to “turn the other cheek” should behave this way isn’t really surprising. Forgiveness is not just a stoic virtue, something that allows one to endure repeated buffetings, but is transformative. The story of what happens to Saul says something important about how God’s economy, his way of doing business, works. Nothing is wasted or discarded, if it can possibly be helped. Saul is not seen as an enemy to be punished or a score to be settled, but as a person of God’s creation to be redeemed, recreated, and tasked: “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15). And indeed, Paul, as the world comes to know him, goes on to found churches, encourage believers, and becomes the church’s first theologian. It could be said that the gospels tell us what Jesus said and did, but Paul’s letters tell us how to think about Jesus.
So I can hear you thinking, great, Paul becomes a hero of the faith. What about me? I’m not a hero. Well, so you might say, but the calling of Paul tells us a few things about how we can understand our own calls. First, none of us are disqualified from God’s call because of what we did. If God can forgive Saul and use him as Paul, he can forgive you and put you to work. Second, just as the world needed Paul to understand who Jesus was, so the world needs you today to understand Jesus.
You as the church are the face of Christ to the world. Whether that translates into acts of evangelism, such as bringing others to church, or reaching out to others with words of love, forgiveness, and encouragement, you are needed by the kingdom. Finally, the call of God is not a call to self-importance, advancement, or reward. Notice what God tells Ananias about Saul? “”I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (9:16). A call to discipleship as suffering doesn’t sound like much fun, to be sure. But that call is consistent with the call of a Saviour who said take up your cross and follow me.
We live in a first-world society that tries to avoid suffering at all costs, including ignoring as much as possible the suffering of others, and yet is still not happy. Perhaps our own call to discipleship is to turn, see the reality of suffering, and find our fulfillment in being God’s love and God’s hands in the midst of that suffering? So today we heard the story of Before Paul. Before Paul there was Saul, a bad man who did bad things. We also heard how God saw the good in Saul and brought out that good. In that story, we also hear a reminder of what God sees in us, and how God calls us into his kingdom. None are disqualified. All are useful. All are loved. All are needed. Amen.