Sunday, May 11th, 2014 – Fourth Sunday of Easter
Scripture: Ezekiel 37:1-6, Acts 9:3-20
Hymns: “God of Grace and God of Glory”, “Open My Eyes, That I May See”, “Since Jesus Came Into My Heart”, “Take My Life and Let It Be”
Special Music: “Hopeless Wanderer”, by Mumford & Sons
“The Call: Finding”
When I think about the story of Saul of Tarsus, who would become Paul, there is a song that springs immediately to my mind – and perhaps not a song you might expect. Indeed, I put it to some people I know on Facebook, and they came back with some interesting responses, including Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light”, a song about how God is gonna mess you up (except in much, much fouler language), “Constantinople” by They Might Be Giants (not sure about how that one came about), and even “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk (REALLY not sure about that one). Somebody even suggested the Mumford & Sons song that we just did, and while that partially served as inspiration for this sermon, the Scripture passage inspired me to think of a different song altogether. Indeed, the song that comes to my mind is “No More Mr. Nice Guy”, by classic rock icon Alice Cooper.
Now, I know that some of you are probably thinking, “Well, THAT’s an… interesting… choice,” but bear with me here. In the song, Alice Cooper starts out as a pretty good guy, gets worse and worse over the course of the song, eventually getting punched in the face by a Catholic priest and ending the song as a total jerk.
Now, let’s say you turn the song around. Let’s say it starts with its main character being a lawyer with some serious homicidal tendencies. He gets knocked on his butt by Jesus himself, gets better over the course of the following weeks, and ends up being one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, of the Apostles of Christ.
I’m telling you, the conversion and discipleship of Paul is an Alice Cooper song in reverse.
For the record, I’m not suggesting flipping all of Cooper’s songs on their head. If you do that with one in particular, the school year is just beginning, and I’m pretty sure that a lot of you here absolutely do not want that!
So, Saul of Tarsus. Definitely not a nice guy. Not only was he not a nice guy, but he was a highly-educated bad guy. Let’s be real, it would not be unfair to look at Saul of Tarsus and describe him as the first century Palestinian Dr. Evil. He had the education of a lawyer and the theological training of a rabbi. He was a Pharisee, he served as one of the religious rulers of the Jewish people, and he was probably in line for a seat on the Sanhedrin sooner rather than later. Heck, it’s not too much of a leap of logic to assume that Saul was probably among the Pharisees clamoring to Pontius Pilate for the crucifixion of Jesus.
Speaking of Jesus, Saul looked at His disciples as a very serious threat. Think about the biggest threat that comes to your mind – terrorists, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, economic instability, national health – that’s what the followers of Jesus were to the Jewish people, as far as Saul was concerned. And so, he decided that he was going to become a one-man cross between John Rambo and the Department of Homeland Security, and wreak havoc on the followers of “the Way”, as the Pharisees had taken to derisively calling it.
Now you know, and I know, that early Christianity was no threat to Judaism whatsoever. In fact, for the first few years, it was practically indistinguishable from Judaism, with the only differences being that 1) they followed the ancient Hebrew teachings as they had been interpreted by Jesus, and 2) they believed that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah.
It was this second tenet of the belief of followers of “the Way” that troubled Saul. He likely could not have cared less that these people followed the teachings of Scripture as taught to them by Jesus. Every rabbi added their own interpretive spin to the teachings – it was known as rabbinical midrash, stories that rabbis told to explain the Scriptures. However, for Jesus to claim to be the Messiah?
No way, no how. EVERYBODY knew that the Messiah was supposed to come to liberate Israel. EVERYBODY knew that he was supposed to be a great king. And of course, Jesus’ followers knew that he was, in fact, descended from King David, and that the liberation of Israel was from sin, not from Rome. But the super-legalistic religious leadership that Saul embodied would not allow him to grasp such concepts. No, he held to a very strict and literal interpretation of the prophesies, and as far as he was concerned, this Jesus of Nazareth had not fulfilled them.
And thus it was that Saul of Tarsus set out to silence the early Christians. Now, these days, upon setting out on his campaign, his first stop likely would’ve been Fox News or MSNBC to spew vitriol and severely discredit the people he was looking to take down, followed by a lengthy Internet-hosted smear campaign, at the end of which the reputation of these followers of “the Way” would’ve taken a beating. But, since Saul did not have cable news outlets or the World Wide Web at his disposal, he took a slightly different approach, and started having Christians murdered.
To begin what can really only be described as a savage campaign with genocidal intent, Saul decided to make an example of a young disciple by the name of Stephen. Stephen had quickly gained quite the reputation as a preacher and evangelist for the Christian cause, and had himself begun to develop midrash that used Jesus’ own interpretations of the Hebrew Scripture to teach the Christian way. He was quickly developing into a rabbi in his own right, but in a somewhat different fashion. Indeed, Stephen could be considered the first Christian minister who went through theological training that was based specifically on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Peter may have been the “first pope”, but it’s not a stretch to argue that Stephen was the “first priest”!
Of course, the Sanhedrin didn’t exactly appreciate Stephen’s efforts. They were only a couple of years removed from having rid themselves of that troublesome rabbi, Jesus, and now they had this irritating young firebrand to deal with. However, this time, much to the detriment of Stephen’s continued good health, they did not have to try to convince Pilate to be their puppet. Instead, they turned to one of their own. Yes indeed, Saul of Tarsus, in addition to being a lawyer with rabbinical training, a Pharisee…
Saul was also a citizen of Rome.
And so it was that Saul, the Pharisee who could look into the eyes of any other Pharisee and likely make them tremble in fear by saying three simple words – civis romanus sum, I am a citizen of Rome – stood watch over the proceedings as the Sanhedrin had Stephen stoned to death, giving his approval to the execution and, by extension, giving the implicit approval of Rome. From that point forward, no Christian was safe.
With the exception of Jesus’ own apostles – who were considered to be somewhat untouchable – the Christian disciples quickly scattered from Jerusalem. However, those who remained were in trouble, because Saul found out where they lived, came to their houses, and locked them up in prisons. He did this church by church, town by town, removing the Christians from the citizenry with the end goal of wiping out what he considered to be a corruption of Judaism.
Saul wasn’t content to just wipe out this corruption in Israel. No, with access to the entire Roman Empire, he decided to take on Syria as well. Convincing the Sanhedrin to provide him with letters of reference to give to the leaders of the Damascus synagogue, he set off from Jerusalem, “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”. However, as Saul headed north toward Syria, something… unexpected… happened.
Just imagine it, if you will… one minute, you’re cruising along, heading northbound, when suddenly, the heavens split open. A blinding light – literally, a BLINDING light that leaves you entirely unable to see – strikes you with such force that you are knocked to the ground. And then, to borrow from Revelation, “a voice, like the sound of thunder.”
“SAUL. SAUL! WHY ARE YOU PERSECUTING ME?!”
Now, I don’t know about you, but if that happened to me, I’m pretty sure that’s the point at which I would’ve said something along the lines of, “Well, that’s it. Good game, everybody. See y’all later, I’m pretty sure that the Lord is about to smite me.” And maybe that thought ran through Saul’s head, but he didn’t just think it and leave it at that. No, instead, he turned his face toward the sky, and said, “Who are you, Lord?”
The reply that came is significant in the way that it was worded: “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.” Not, “I am Jesus, whose followers you are persecuting,” no, instead, Jesus spoke out of heaven, calling back to Matthew 25: whatever you do unto the least of these, you have also done unto me. In persecuting Jesus’ followers, so too was Saul persecuting Jesus himself. If you’ve ever wondered why, in his epistles, Paul – who used to be Saul – referred to the church as “the body of Christ”, I would be willing to bet that this encounter right here had a lot to do with it. Jesus declared directly to Saul that the persecution of his church meant the persecution of himself.
Of course, the people traveling with Saul saw and heard absolutely nothing except for this young fanatic Pharisee probably appearing to have a pretty severe episode. When he got up, he was completely blind, and had to be led into Damascus by the hand. Needless to say, there was neither presenting of credentials to the synagogue nor carrying out of any persecution when he got there!
While Saul convalesced in a home in Damascus – the home of a man called Judas, who lived on Straight Street, which, by the way, is the one and only home address you’ll find in the Bible – God called upon a Syrian Christian by the name of Ananais, telling him that he was to go to Saul and pray over him that he might be healed.
Ananais had heard of Saul, as he makes clear in his response to God – “I have heard about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.” And truth be told, had that been me being told to go heal Saul, knowing what he had done, I probably would’ve said something along the lines of, “Okay, right, SURE,” and then found the first boat to Tarshish, at which point, a storm would’ve come up, I would’ve gotten tossed overboard, and swallowed by a fish –
Wait, wrong story. Nonetheless. Unlike Jonah, Ananais actually demonstrated his faith in God by saying, “Okay, I’ll go do this.”
And he did. And Saul was healed.
The book of Acts tells us that after his sight was restored, Saul was baptized, and after that, he continued on to his original destination – the Damascus synagogue – but instead of persecuting the Christians as he had originally planned, he joined them, and began to preach Jesus as the Son of God. Quite a remarkable turnaround for somebody who so recently had been breathing fire and brimstone against Christians.
This is, without a doubt, the story of a calling, and possibly one of the most dramatic call stories in all of Scripture. But one thing that is often overlooked in this story is that there are actually TWO calls that take place. The first, more obvious one is that of Saul. Jesus had to appear to him in a way that would convince him AT ONCE to turn away from his evil path. Not only was Saul convinced, but he was convicted, and he turned his life to the service of Christ. In so doing, he would eventually become Paul, one of the greatest apostles.
But the second call – perhaps that is the more significant one in this story. The Lord called Ananais to do something unthinkable – pray over Saul, the Great Persecutor, for healing. Ananais feared Saul, but feeling the calling of the Lord on his life, he went to this wholly undesirable individual, prayed over him not just as a person but as a BROTHER, and watched as Saul was healed and called.
You and I are far more likely to be Ananais in our lives than we ever are to be Saul. After all, we’re already here, serving God, not persecuting the church. We’ve already felt Jesus’ call in our lives to follow him. But from time to time, we’re also going to feel the call to minister to people we find undesirable. We’re going to feel the call to minister to the unfamiliar, even to the frightening. And the question is, what do we do then? Do we say, “Lord, thanks but no thanks, I’m comfortable here”?
That’s not what the Lord calls us to do. The Lord calls us to minister to the least of these. Just as Ananais before us, let us go without fear – perhaps with some hesitation, it’s only human, but without fear – to minister to those we don’t understand. Let us be as Christ to them, and let us see them as our brothers and sisters in Christ.