04/15/18 – JV – Saul’s Wake Up Call

SAUL’S WAKE UP CALL

April 15, 2018
Jazz Vespers
Acts 9:1-20
Rev. Denise Clark-Jones

 

I’m sure you have met people like Saul. He is just full of law-abiding righteousness and religious piety. He’s a member of the exclusive Pharisaic Judaism club. The constitution and by-laws are extensive and inflexible. You have to be willing to tow the party line to be a member in good standing. Saul accepts this tribal mentality and answers to the rallying cry of ‘It’s us against them!’ He’s going to purge his world of these heretical followers of Jesus who pretended to be the Messiah. These so-called followers of “The Way” are a threat to what little power the Jewish establishment had left living under the rule of the pagan Roman Empire.

But that isn’t Saul’s only motivation. Rubbing out the competition wasn’t part of Jewish law, that was the Roman law, the way of the Empire. Saul isn’t a mere religious zealot, he is a man who has conveniently joined his religion with his politics. Jews that got along with the Romans did much better for themselves than those who didn’t. Saul has the esteemed honor of being a Roman citizen even though he was a Jew. We’ve seen what happens in this country when political expediency and economic gain are rationalized and even promoted with the added cache of being “Christian” or the self-justification of being “godly.” When I use the word “godly” I mean “god” with a small “g.” The false “gods” that are human idols dressed as the real One.

Notice how quickly Saul justifies breaking the most sacred tenet of the Hebrew Bible – to preserve and protect life.  Early in the book of Acts, Saul is portrayed as an angry vigilante. He uses violence in his persecution of the Christians, who threaten his identity and way of life. Saul had led the charge to stone Stephen, the Christian martyr. We see in our society today how basic Christian values against violence, hatred of the other, and injustice are disregarded by those who claim to be Christians. Human sin is devious and powerful. Thankfully, God’s goodness is greater.

Much is made of Saul’s dramatic encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus as a “born again” conversion experience. But the text doesn’t bear out that this is a “Just me and Jesus” type of experience. We all know someone who claims to have had a “Damascus Road,” sudden world-shattering trauma that shook their unbelief right out of them and filled them with faith –it makes for powerful sermons and best-selling books. If you are waiting for an ear-splitting alarm to go off and awaken you to a call to become more faithful, you may have already missed lots of alarms ringing with fewer decibels.

First, let me say that if you look carefully at the text, there were lots of other people that assisted in Saul’s conversion. Jesus didn’t do it alone and he didn’t start from scratch. Saul was already very knowledgeable of the Hebrew Bible and attended worship whenever the synagogue doors were opened — just like Jesus. The difference was that Jesus read the Hebrew bible holistically, not taking individual laws out of their context.  He read the Law with an understanding of the historical and social context, which gave him an understanding of the spirit of the Law. Jesus saw that, beyond the letters of the Law, there were central themes that revealed the nature of God as the Creator of Life, who steadfastly loved these flawed human creatures even when they failed to keep the covenant and broke God’s laws. Jesus understood that God judged, but with mercy and compassion. Jesus read through the Bible and learned that God chose the Jews for a purpose and that purpose was to bring all the nations to God as the highest authority, not to eliminate them. Israel was blessed to be a blessing to all others.

Secondly, Saul needed a much louder wake-up call than most. He was so sure of his self-righteousness, he needed to be struck blind and dumb to get his attention. Saul was out to commit murder and mayhem against Jesus’ followers. The transformation of Saul the Christian-slayer to Paul the Christian evangelist would be akin to a Klu Klux Klan member joining the Black Lives Matter movement. His transformation was so life-changing, the risen Christ gave him a new name and Saul became Paul.

Jesus didn’t meet Saul on the road to Damascus so the converted Paul could impress people with his special relationship with Christ. This dramatic conversion testified to God’s amazing power to initiate a complete transformation. We must remember, though, God used ordinary folk as instruments of change — folks like Ananias.

Ananias has a transformation too, but we tend to overlook its significance because it doesn’t seem as dramatic as Saul’s. Ananias had his Jesus credentials. He was a Jewish priest who had taken his Jewish faith as a foundation of his belief in Jesus as God’s promised Messiah. God had never been distant from him, he was still praying to the same God as before. When God called to him, he recognized immediately who was calling him because the voice was familiar.

While Saul is experiencing his transformation on the road to Damascus. Ananias, the representative of the church in Damascus, is undergoing his own transformation. Yes, he knows the Lord is speaking to him, but he isn’t sure about the message. How could the risen Lord choose?  Like Saul, Ananias was part of a club too – the Jewish- Christian club. Ananias wasn’t out to get the opposition, like Saul; but, he didn’t see the need to take any risks that might adversely affect his Jesus club. ‘We’ll worship quietly, live in fellowship with one another, and stay safe. If we start leaving the security of our little house churches, we might lose what we have. Yes, we want new members, but only if they don’t pose any risk to the status quo.’ Sounds like a lot of Mainline Protestant churches, doesn’t it?

Saul and Ananias are both challenged to change their entrenched perceptions of what it meant to be faithful, but in doing so, go back to the basics Jesus taught from the Hebrew Bible. Ananias is challenged to step out in faith when God calls him to take a risk. Saul is challenged to look at the Bible, including the Law, with a completely new perspective. He had lost his way in his adaptation to the political and social realities of the Roman Empire. He thought he was being “super faithful,” and could not see that he had substituted doctrine and tribalism for faith in the God revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Ananias’ inner transformation is demonstrated in his calling the former Pharisee Saul, “brother.” He lets go of what he thought about Saul and saw him as Christ did. By accepting the risk of loving, Ananias becomes the instrument of Saul’s healing. Ananias is the instrument by which the new “Paul” is rescued from the captivity and the oppression of measuring up to doctrinal standards to embrace the freedom of forgiveness and unconditional love. May we be so transformed by the risen Christ that we live both resurrected lives – being life-givers in a death-dealing world.

Amen

 

 

© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois