Rev. Dr. David D. M. King, OSL
Sunday 1 May 2022
The Third Sunday of Easter
Saul of Tarsus. Known throughout the land as the archenemy of the disciples of Christ. He is the villain, persecuting anyone who believes in Jesus.
But he is beloved by the religious authorities. He is zealous for the faith, and he is able to stamp out these wrongheaded heretics. He wants to make sure that no one is led astray by these strange new ideas, wants to be certain that believers are taught correct doctrine. Saul is a fervently religious man, zealous for God’s cause. And it is out of true devotion to God, to the word of the Bible, and to God’s ways that Saul strikes out against those misguided disciples, those followers of the Way.
We don’t often recognize that, because we have already drawn our lines between good and evil. But for Saul, a deeply religious man who has spent his entire life studying the scriptures and seeking to be a devout follower of God, this act that we call persecution is an act of piety. Saul deeply believes that God is on his side, and that these new followers of Jesus are wrong, are dangerous, and are leading people astray.
And so, in his deep religious fervor, Saul strikes out in judgment in destructive ways. And by doing so, he finds himself not helping God, as he had intended, but opposing the new thing that God is doing.
It’s certainly not the first time, nor the last time someone with deeply-held religious convictions has turned to judgment and destruction. Religious zeal is very often a source of oppression and violence in the world—or at least the justification for it. We know how religion can be twisted. We know how devotion and zeal can at times lead us in the wrong direction. We know how great passion for God can sometimes bring us to do things that are in opposition to God.
And that is what happens with Saul. His devotion is twisted into judgment, persecution, and violence, until he ends up opposing the God he seeks to serve.
And so what is to happen to Saul, the great persecutor of Christ’s disciples? What is to happen to all of those who have turned religion into an excuse to kill and terrorize? Shouldn’t God deal harshly with them? Shouldn’t God bring them to justice, as we would say? Shouldn’t God strike them down and send them to hell?
That seems to be what Ananias thinks. When God calls on Ananias to go find Saul and offer him healing, Ananias responds, “Are you sure that’s what you want to do, God? Maybe you haven’t heard, but this man Saul is your enemy. He is an evil man who has been threatening your people.” It’s actually a bit humorous to read, as we hear how Ananias tries to convince God that Saul is really not worthy of healing or redemption or salvation.
But it is a very human response. We do the same sorts of things. We say, “No, God. That person is evil. That person is unredeemable. That person is beyond help.”
But God has another plan for Saul. God says simply, “This man is the instrument that I have chosen.” And we know the story. Saul, whose religious zeal has made him the chief persecutor of early Christians, is transformed on that road to Damascus. Saul, the enemy of the church, becomes the greatest of the apostles of the church, a man we know better by the Greek version of his name: Paul. That same zeal that led Saul to kill is transformed by God into a zeal that leads Paul to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to people all over the world, to go out on a limb and preach the Gospel to Gentiles, and to set the very foundations of what we know as Christianity today. The action of the Holy Spirit in Saul is able to redeem him, to take his tremendous gifts, and to redirect them from destruction to instruction, from religious persecution to spiritual revolution. It changes him from an oppressor to a confessor of the name of Jesus Christ and of the transformative grace that Christ embodies.
Because that is the heart of the Christian message. God’s grace to forgive our wrongdoing, and God’s power to transform our lives into something better, just as God transformed Paul from a judgmental religious fanatic into one of the greatest proclaimers of God’s grace.
And just as Saul was not the first or the last to pervert religion into oppression, he is also not the first or the last to experience the redemptive power of God and to be transformed by it.
Many of you may know the story of John Newton. An 18th-century British sailor, he had a spotty career, but he ended up captaining slave ships, transporting human cargo from homes in Africa to slavery in the Americas. While he was on one of those ships, like Saul he experienced the grace of God. It took a little time for his life to be changed. But he quit being a slave ship captain. He became a lay preacher in England. Eventually he was ordained an Anglican priest. And as the Holy Spirit continued to work within him, John Newton became an abolitionist. When a member of the British Parliament, William Wilberforce came to Fr. Newton fed up with politics and seeking advice, it was Newton who convinced him to stay in Parliament and work for God and for abolition from within the system. It was Wilberforce who, through tireless effort, encouraged by John Newton, finally brought an end to the British slave trade. John Newton, once a slave ship captain, became an important force in ending the very slave trade of which he was once a part. And how? Through God’s amazing grace.
In fact, John Newton is better known as the author of that beloved hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Having been a wretch, a slave ship captain, he knew what it meant to be saved by grace. He knew what it meant to be transformed through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Barbara Brown Taylor, a respected preacher and professor tells the story of when she was “on a seminary admissions committee. They turned a student down, a student who obviously had few academic qualifications for theological study. But he wrote them from his jail cell to tell them that the parole board would let him out if they let him in. They invited him to plead his case before them. … [And] this big guy came in and told them that, as a young teenager, he had held up a convenience store. All he remembered was brandishing an unloaded gun at the clerk, an off duty policeman spotted him, shots rang out. Then, before the oak table of the seminary admissions committee, he pulls up his shirt to show them where the policeman’s bullet got him in the gut, went out the other side. ‘That was my Damascus Road, my burning bush!’ he exclaimed.”
Taylor continues, “Of course, we didn’t want to admit him into seminary. But what could we do? We knew Acts 9! If God could make an apostle out of Saul the murderer, what might God do with a guy with a gun?
“It was just the sort of thing that a God who would raise Jesus from the dead might do.”
Resurrection, you see, isn’t just about living with Jesus in the sky by-and-by. Resurrection is also about a transformed life right here, right now. It’s about taking a murderer like Saul and making him a missionary. It’s about taking a doubter like Ananias and helping him to give that murderer another chance. It’s about making a slave trader into an abolitionist and making a convicted criminal into a seminarian.
It’s about you, and it’s about me. There are places where we fall short. There are ways that we hurt one another, ways that we judge and discount our neighbors. There are people that we are sure are outside the reach of God, and so we treat them as if they are. Like John Newton, we participate in systems of racism and oppression. Sometimes we are aware of it, and sometimes we are not.
But God is here, right now, to open our eyes, to change our minds. God is here, right now, to heal our wounds, to disrupt our apathy. And God is here, right now, to transform our lives, to turn us away from destruction, violence, bigotry, and judgment and to turn us toward grace—that amazing grace that sets us free and sends us out in joy to be God’s people, seeking freedom not just for ourselves, but for all of God’s children. Because if God could make an apostle out of Saul the murderer, what might God do with you, and with me?