April 26, 2015
First Lutheran Church
THE CONVERSION OF THE CHIEF OF SINNERS
In I Timothy 1:15, Paul calls himself the chief among sinners, because of his behavior prior to his conversion on the road to Damascus. Luke, the writer of Acts, gives us some insight into Paul’s statement. The first time we hear about Saul of Tarsus in chapter 7 of Acts, Luke tells us that he was standing guard over the coats of those who will execute Stephen, the first Christian martyr, in brutal fashion. Saul is not just a passive witness. He approved of the stoning, and several more. As we move to chapter 8, Saul’s portrait as arch-persecutor is enhanced as Acts recounts that he ravaged the church, dragging off both men and women and imprisoning them. Then Luke turns to the impact of these persecutions; leaving the reader for a moment wondering what role this Saul might play in this story.
Of course, Acts was written by a Christian for other Christians. That is, Luke’s readers know who this Saul is. They know what turns his life will take. In short, they and we know how the movie ends. But by introducing him in this way, Luke establishes the dramatic u-turn Saul’s life is about to take. In doing so, he draws a portrait of calling that continues to shape how we understand God’s graceful but not always subtle or easy pull on our lives.
The beginning of chapter 9 finds Saul continuing to persecute the faithful followers of Jesus. This scene reveals something crucial about the character of the discipleship of these early believers. It is not until chapter 11 that that believers begin calling themselves Christians. In chapter 9, they are known as followers of The Way, a powerful metaphor for Christian identity. Instead of being identified by a set of beliefs, these faithful communities were known by their character in the world. Christian faith was a way of life and one that impelled individuals and communities to leave the safe confines of home and church to walk on the road God had set out. The Way suggests that faith is a living, active way of life.
There is a rich irony that Saul travels great distances persecuting these followers of The Way only to be struck down on the way to Damascus. His missionary work will be lived out on the road in his many journeys around the Mediterranean. His dramatic encounter with the Living Christ on the road converts his life entirely. As he draws near to Damascus and a slew of new persecutions, Saul is struck by a heavenly light and addressed by the voice of Jesus the Christ. Jesus’ presence should serve as an excellent reminder that his ascension is not the inauguration of a time when Jesus is absent from the life of the faithful. If anything, in Acts, Jesus’ presence is that much more palpable in the life of these Christian communities, a presence to which the risen and ascended Lord now refers.
Jesus asks Saul why he persecutes him, not his followers or his church, but him. When Saul afflicts the faithful, he actually persecutes Jesus himself. Whenever Christians are harassed and abused, Jesus is most palpably present with the oppressed. That is the distinctive characteristic of The Way. Jesus’ followers come from all strata of human life, the Beautiful People and the homeless, the well-off and the hungry, the free and those imprisoned, the blessed and the oppressed. They are not characterized by their position in society buy by their faith in the Living Christ. Saul knew who they were, making it easy to persecute them.
Jesus’ instructions to Saul are specific but cryptic. Go into the city, and there you will discover what you need to do. Saul obeys, not just turning away from his previous way of life. His conversion begins with repentance. The Hebrew word shuv שׁוּב meaning repentance, literally means to stop in one’s tracks, turn 180 degrees, and going in a new direction. He is called and commissioned to a new direction, to walk in a new Way.
The Living God works in unusual ways in Acts. Instead of continuing to dictate instructions from the clouds, Jesus calls upon a disciple in the city named Ananias. Naturally, Ananias resists these instructions. Even being in Saul’s presence could be a death sentence for him. But the Lord is unrelenting and reveals to Ananias in one brief sentence the nature of Saul’s call. He will bring the gospel to kings and Gentiles alike. And he will suffer for the sake of the gospel. In brief form, we learn what shape Paul’s ministry will take in the remaining chapters of Acts. Luke also reveals what is central to the gospel. The good news is expansive and it is broad. It reaches to the widest edges of the world seeking the lost. But God also turns to the powerful of the world and demands justice, grace and peace. This good news comes with a price, a willingness to stop in one’s tracks and go on The Way to a new direction. Paul and Ananias chose to pay that price. And since then, every Christian on The Way is asked if we are willing to the price and embrace our new lives as Jesus’ disciples.
The story of the call of Saul/Paul is a stirring and famous story. Luke himself repeats this tale two more times in chapters 22 and 26 of Acts. It is clearly important to a narrative hoping to shape not just what Christians know about the early days of the church but how these stories might shape an imagination for community in our current day.
How might the story of this dramatic call on a dusty road to Damascus give us a new imagination? Encourage people to wonder if their zeal, like Saul’s, has been misdirected and even destructive. Encourage them to expect God to ask them to do difficult things and go to unexpected places. Encourage them not to exclude their supposed enemies from the work God might do in the world.