Waylaid On the Road to Righteousness.
A Japanese Christian wrote of the experience of his country before and then a precisely 8:16 on the morning of August 6th, 1945. In 1941 the Emperor of Japan declared war on the United States and its allies. At first the war effort made of Japan a bee hive of economic activity. Next it endured an inferno of unrelenting of bombings. And then, in a flash of a hundred suns, everything stopped. He went on to write that an unexpected halt is a religious experience if it occasions a discontinuity between who a person thinks themselves and who they think themselves to be become; a moment of crisis, a moment of truth.
I am indebted to Eric Barreto to see how Luke introduces to us Saul of Tarsus. When first we hear of him Luke tells us that he was standing guard over the coats of those who stoned Stephen and not as a merely passive witness. No, he “approved of their killing him”. Saul’s reputation grows to that of the arch-persecutor intent on “ravaging the church … dragging off both men and women,” to prison and even death. Acts, as we know, was written by a Christian for other Christians. That is, Luke’s readers know the story of Saul and how the movie ends! But by introducing him in this way, Luke establishes the dramatic halt and the discontinuity that redirects Saul’s life. This is foundational how we understand God’s graceful but not always subtle or easy pull on our lives.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
To see this as a simple account of Saul’s conversion is to miss half the story. Saul does not just turn away from a previous way of life; more importantly, he is called, commissioned to walk in a wholly new “Way” like the experience of Isaiah or one of the twelve. The point is emphasized by the fact that within this story there is another calling.
In Damascus there was a follower of the way named Ananias. Ananias is spoken to by the voice of the Lord and is called to visit a house where the feared man from Tarsus named Saul had taken lodging. I think it would be fair to characterize Ananias’ response to God’s call on his life as: “You’ve got to be kidding. I’ve heard about this man and all the harm he’s done to your people…” The risk of even being in Saul’s presence could be a death sentence! It reminded me of a photo I saw on Facebook of a chicken walking by a Kentucky Fried Chicken sign. The caption read “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” But the Lord is unrelenting and reveals to Ananias in one brief sentence the nature of Saul’s call and the form Paul’s ministry will take in the remaining chapters of Acts. Luke says “He will bring the gospel to kings and Gentiles alike. And he will suffer for the sake of the gospel.” He also reveals what is central to the gospel. The good news is expansive and 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. Regardless I can’t help but imagine Ananias praying the 23rd Psalm as he approached the where Saul was said to be staying.
It will be much later, in Antioch, before the faithful followers are first called “Christians.” Prior to this time the movement was known as followers of “The Way.” “The Way” is a powerful metaphor for the early church and for us. 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 places of worship to walk on the road God had set out. “The Way” suggests that faith is a living, active way of life.
As Saul travels the 150 miles from Jerusalem toward Damascus he is struck by a heavenly light and addressed by a heavenly voice. This voice belongs to none other than Jesus. What an excellent reminder that Jesus is never absent from our lives. Jesus asks Saul why he has sought to persecute him. Jesus’ instructions to Saul are specific yet ambiguous. Go into the city, and there you will discover what you need to do.
We do not simply “know” about our vocation as we would an itinerary on a travel schedule. Much less do we choose it! Instead vocation is something that happens to us. It is an experience, an uninvited breaking in that upsets all our plans and expectations. There are four things common to God’s call on people’s lives. First, the idea of a call implies an agent outside of ourselves. We do not simply “choose” a course of action, rather we respond to a summons. Second, the summons is often counter to our idea of what we want to about. Abraham doubted that God’s covenant with him could be fulfilled. Moses complained that the Israelites, to whom he was sent by God, had never listened to him. Jeremiah not only resisted his call, but continued to complain that God had overpowered him and placed him in an impossibly difficult circumstance, even protesting that God’s call had made him “like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter”. Jonah fled in the opposite direction from Nineveh and Jesus prayed to be delivered from his ‘cup’.
A calling, in almost every case, involves hardships. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Paul all found themselves under threat of death by their community. In Jesus’ case it was carried out. He called others to follow the way of the cross. Paul’s vocation is accompanied by physical ailments, imprisonment, beatings, and exile. And finally, from the point of view of answering the summons, the greatest danger appears not in willful resistance, but in the possibility of being diverted or distracted from the goal. The last petition in Jesus’ model prayer is an acknowledgement of the power of distraction. He prayed, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul’s reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct has preceded him. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul was a member of the Pharisees and was taught by none other than Gamaliel. But Saul did not agree with his teacher on how “followers of the way” should be treated. Merely arresting, convicting and punishing those in Jerusalem wouldn’t satisfy; he wanted to rid the earth of this movement and its followers. As a missionary of righteousness Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest the followers of Jesus and return them to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus was only one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.
Suppose you were one of those followers of this new path and had just arrived in Damascus, and you had learned the whereabouts of a group of believers. Prompted by the news that Saul was soon to arrive, with the authorization of the chief priests and the Sanhedrin to arrest and extradite the followers of The Way this Meeting of Friends of Jesus had gathered for a time of prayer. For what do you imagine they would have prayed at this special prayer meeting? Do you imagine anyone prayed that this Saul might be converted? I could believe someone might have prayed that Saul be somehow divinely “terminated.” I can imagine that those who gathered to pray would have prayed for the protection of the church in Damascus and for the safety of individuals and the most visible Christians. No one, it would seem, was even thinking of what God was about to do.
And quite likely there would have been another group meeting on the evening before Saul arrived in Damascus—those who did not believe in Jesus as their Messiah, and who eagerly sought the eradication of the church in their city. They may have been compiling a list of suspected followers of the Way.
What a shock Saul’s conversion must have been to both groups! To the church, Saul turned out to be a friend, a fellow-believer, in fact, a flaming evangelist, who proclaimed Christ more clearly and powerfully than anyone had previously done in Damascus. And the second group, who were waiting for Saul to come and help them deal with the followers of “the Way,” were about to discover that Saul had changed sides, perhaps bringing other members of the opposition along with him. Saul’s arrival took the wind out of their sails by his response to God.
Understanding the significance of the call of Christ on one’s life is of great importance. Luke repeats Paul’s story three times in the rest of Acts. It is a story not just of what Christians know about the early days of the church but how this and other stories can enlighten our understanding of how God recruits and directs God’s work in the world. Are we reminded not to exclude our supposed enemies from the work God might do in the world? How might these stories of the call on a dusty road to Damascus or from the safety of a caring community open us to new ministries and challenge people to consider if their zeal for righteousness, like Saul’s, has been misdirected and even destructive. Does it encourage us to expect God to call us to do difficult things and go to unexpected and risky places? As Christ called Saul and Ananias, is there a possibility that you too are resisting that voice in your own life?