I would be willing to bet that if we were to go back 10 or 20 years, you’d probably say that you’re not the person today that you thought you’d be back then. Maybe your career has taken a different path. Maybe your faith journey is much different from what it used to be. Maybe you’ve changed physically. Joe Tranquillo has significantly less hair today than he used to. Here’s an example. And in case you’re having a hard time seeing the difference I took the liberty of highlighting it for you.
Now, I’m not super privy to what I was thinking about 20 years ago, because I was 6 at the time. But even 10 years ago, I would never have thought that I would 1) be a pastor in Pennsylvania, 2) be married, and 3) have a house crawling with babies. But God has this amazing tendency to swoop into our lives and completely change everything. It doesn’t necessarily matter what we’re doing or where we’re going because if it’s not what God wants us to do or where God wants us to go, we’ll quickly realize it just like the character in our story this morning.
Now, some of you probably know that this “Saul” in our passage this morning is the same as the apostle Paul. Paul is just the Greek version of the name Saul. That’s the only difference. And Paul is, by no means, “overlooked.” The church was, by and large, built upon Paul. Paul’s letters make up two-thirds of the New Testament; he’s easily the most influential person in the history of Christianity besides Jesus himself. But, what we do often forget is that Paul had a life before that. What we do often “overlook” is that before Paul was the church’s greatest apostle, he was the church’s greatest assailant.
And let’s set aside, for a moment, the particular nature of Saul’s job and focus for a minute on his mode of existence. Our text says that Saul was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” It’s amazing, isn’t it, that when anger and rage become your default posture in life, hating someone or hating a particular group of people becomes as easy as breathing. And even when your default posture isn’t that of anger and rage, it’s easy to fall into this. It’s genuinely difficult for me not to hate Trump. It’s genuinely difficult for me not to hate ICE agents. It’s difficult to see who these people are and what they stand for and what they’re doing and maintain a posture of grace toward them. Hating can be as easy as breathing; loving is the hard part. And we could never get there if it wasn’t for God’s interference. And this is exactly what we see happen here with Saul.
Saul is doing his thing; he’s persecuting the church; he’s arresting Christians. And, while he’s on his way to the city of Damascus, this happens: “…suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…’” Now, this is what’s called a “theophany.” God revealing Godself to someone. And in the grand scheme of the biblical narrative, this scene isn’t unique. The flash of light, the double-naming, Saul falling to the ground — these are all classic, traditional characteristics of God’s revelation. We see similar scenes in the Old Testament when God speaks to Moses and Aaron; we see similar scenes in the New Testament during the transfiguration of Jesus. There’s really nothing special or unique about this scene other than what is said: “Why do you persecute me?” Jesus’ identification with the persecuted community is extremely important here.
And there’s an important distinction that needs to be made explicit, as well, and that’s the difference between criticism and persecution. Criticism of the church is not the problem. We need criticism. We need to be critical of the church because the church is a dumpster fire. You all don’t know the half of it. The church is a nightmare and Christians are the absolute worst. Don’t even get me started on the clergy. Nothing bugs me more than when pastors talk about their churches like their romantic partners. “Oh, they’re just so amazing. They’ve stuck by me through thick and thin.” Listen: DO NOT stick with me through thin. If I stop preaching the gospel, if I stop providing leadership or casting a prophetic vision, then get rid of me. Toss me aside. I’m in the service industry, I’m just overpaid. Criticism of the church, including its leadership, is not the problem. Pointing out problems and not letting them off easy is the only way the church is going to grow and change and evolve and be pushed into the future. And that includes the willingness to cut ties with things that previously made us comfortable; ministries, buildings, pastors, etc.
The problem isn’t criticism. The problem is persecution. At this time in history, Christians were the minority; they were treated as second-class citizens, that were systematically eliminated and killed. And there are places in the world where Christians still occupy this space and are persecuted as a minority group of hunted individuals. But that’s not the persecuted group here. Let me say that again for anyone who may be unsure: CHRISTIANS ARE NOT PERSECUTED IN THE UNITED STATES. Regardless of whatever the stupid people on the Christian Broadcast Network or Fox News are saying, Christians are not persecuted in the United States. Christians are criticized in the United States because we tend to be extremely un-Christlike. But we’re by no means persecuted. So who is? People of color? LGBT people? Immigrants and refugees? These are groups that, in our time and place, are treated as second class citizens; are being systematically eliminated and killed.
So, with that being said, there’s an important theological question here: If Jesus appeared to Saul on the Damascus road and told him that HE, Jesus, is the very person Saul is persecuting, is that because Saul is persecuting Christians, or because he’s persecuting the poor and powerless? This is the big, underlying question my doctoral research is trying to answer — where can the authentic body of Christ be found? Is the Body of Christ located exclusively where the believers are, or where the people described in Matthew 25 are? The hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, imprisoned, etc? And take note of this moment because this is a rare instance that I’m not just pointing out a problem, but am actually giving my opinion. And my answer is that the authentic Body of Christ, first and foremost, resides with the poor and powerless. That every time Saul killed members of the disempowered and ostracized community of Christians because of their identity, it was as if he was killing Christ again and again and again.
And every time members of the disempowered and ostracized communities of color and LGBT people and refugees are killed because of their identity, it’s as if Jesus is getting nailed to the cross again and again and again. And yet, when we think about this story of Saul, and think about who he was in the first part of his life versus the second part of his life, we’re struck with the great contradiction of the Christian faith: How could this be the guy? How could Saul possibly be the one to be the greatest apostle and evangelist in the history of the Church? How could 2/3 of the New Testament be written by this guy? And there is an answer to that. But, before we get there, let’s point out an elephant that often makes its way into the room when progressives and conservatives talk, and that’s: If God could use Saul — one who used to hunt and murder Christians — then who's to say that God can’t use someone like Donald Trump? It’s a fair question, and I think that God could use Donald Trump. That’s not the issue. The issue is one of repentance.
We learned a few weeks ago about this guy named King David who had an affair with his BFF’s wife, and then killed his BFF to cover it up. And he was God’s chosen. But when confronted with the evil he had done, he turned from his ways and asked for forgiveness. The same with Saul. He’s God’s anointed — despite his flaws. But when confronted with the evil he was doing, he repented. To repent means to do a 180; to completely turn away from what you were doing; to rearrange your life and change. David did this; Saul did this; tax collectors and sinners in the gospels did this. It’s the difference between all the examples in our bible and someone like Trump. I have a hard time not hating Trump, but I still do my best to pray for him. That one day his heart will soften; that one day his eyes will be opened. And Trump is just a lowhanging fruit. I’ve said this before. It’s easy to take aim at someone like Trump because he’s on a global stage, but what about you?
Some of you had a life before the one you do now and know what it’s like to feel like God could never use you. You know who you are. Or maybe you’re in a space right now where you’re feeling like God could never use you, whether it’s because of problems in your personal life or problematic relationships or whatever. You know who you are. Or maybe you’re like me and know full well that you’re basically train wreck but, for whatever reason, God had a lapse of judgement and has chosen to use you anyway. Listen, you all know where you are on this journey. You all know where you’ve been and what you’ve been through. And I’m here to tell you that, no matter where you are on the journey, if God could use Saul, he can use you. Think about what I said last week: God sees everyone you refuse to see. And, from time-to-time, that includes you. Sometimes we refuse to see ourselves and our worth. Sometimes we wake up in the morning and look in the mirror, and don’t see anything but disappointment and regret looking back.
But when you discover who you are in Christ — when you discover how loved you are, how wanted you are — then it might as well be like a light flashes around you and you’re knocked to the ground by God’s glory. Because, as our bible says, God is love. So when you love one another and love yourself, you’re encountering the living God. Now, we’re coming back to this story next week to pick up where we left off and we'll see what happens to Saul after this, but between now and then, just know that you can be God’s revelation for this world. That there will never be a time when God can’t use you or you’re beyond redemption. You’re loved and you’re called to give love freely. Let’s pray that we might remember that.