Big Church Week Two - "The Wrong Choice"
God's ideas about fueling a movement are "whack."
[If you don't know what the word "whack" means, you need a primer on your hip-hop speak circa 1989. Or you can simply read the various definitions here.]
Take the way that God transformed the Apostle Paul, for example.
God decided that Paul (formerly known as Saul) was the perfect choice to give movement to The Way (which was what Christianity was called in those early days... I sort of like it better to be honest!).
And that's exactly what Paul/Saul did.
Without Paul there would have been no rapid expansion of The Way to the Gentiles, and eventually to Rome itself. Paul accounted for 13 of the 27 books of the New Testament, not to mention being the Church's first real theologian.
Here's the thing, though. If you didn't know how the story ended, you would have never predicted any of this stuff happening. Saul enters the story of the Church as a bad guy.
The passage of Scripture that we are going to be studying today starts off like this: "Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples." The word used to describe what Saul was doing is the Greek word lymainomai, which is translated "destroying" but was used most often to describe things like wild boars destroying a vineyard, or a wild beast ravaging a dead body.
He was given writs of extradition to go and retrieve Christians who were hiding in Damascus among the Jews who were living there, presumably to bring them back for trial, imprisonment and perhaps execution.
Like I said... a bad guy.
Here's the passage of Scripture (Acts 9:1-19) that describes what happened on the way to Damascus:
1 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. 10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.Lots of scholars have spilled lots of ink trying to figure out why Saul was so fanatical about stamping out the followers of The Way. Carl Jung, one of the fathers of Psychology wrote, “Fanaticism is only found in individuals who are compensating secret doubts...”
Some have surmised that he might have actually met Jesus, or at the very least heard him speak.
Saul's teacher, his rabbi, was Gamaliel---who we learned last week showed a certain amount of restraint when it came to reacting to movements that challenged the institution. Gamaliel didn't show any signs that he actually believed any of the things that Jesus taught, or was affected by what the disciples continued teaching.
But at least he showed restraint. Saul doesn't show the kind of restraint his rabbi seemed to teach. It's almost as if he is trying to compensate for something. When he not only observed, but took the very blame for the martyrdom of Stephen, one of the first Christian deacons, he saw the way Stephen died---much like the way Jesus himself died, forgiving his tormentors and commending his spirit to God.
It's not entirely clear what his motivation might have been, but what is clear in the text is that Saul is an enemy. God chose an enemy to become the Early Church's greatest evangelist, missionary, theologian, pastor, preacher, teacher and writer.
Sometimes when we read the story of Paul's conversion it produces what I have heard called "faith inferiority." In other words, most of us look at the dramatic way that he was transformed from enemy into missionary and we don't have a story that stacks up. Most of us will say things like, "I have always been a Christian." or "I have always been in Church." We might also qualify our Christian experiences by saying things like, "As long as I can remember..."
But there's something else going on here that we need to understand before we minimize our own role in the story of the Church.
Saul/Paul's call moment is so important to the early Church that Luke (the author of Acts) covers it three times in his account. And here's where it gets really interesting. The way in which Jesus calls out to Saul/Paul connects his call moment to some great call moments in the Old Testament---also to some unlikely people. When Jesus says, "Saul, Saul..." we recall God calling "Abraham, Abraham" and "Jacob, Jacob" in Genesis and "Moses, Moses," in Exodus. Each of these were called out, and each of them was the "wrong" person, so to speak.
Then Jesus does something fantastic. He says to Saul/Paul, "Why are you persecuting ME?" The destruction that Saul/Paul is meting out to The Way is being done to Jesus personally because the Church is His body. To which Saul/Paul replies, "Who are you, LORD?"
I love this. All of the doubts and the fears that fueled his fanaticism melt away in the face of the One who he knows deep in his heart has the answers to everything he is seeking to find.
Great story, that gets even greater.
But that still doesn't solve our problem with the "faith inferiority" issue. What we need to know here for the purposes of our study is that Saul's conversion story is part of a larger narrative about how God chooses the wrong people.
IN GOD'S ECONOMY IF YOU WANT TO FUEL A MOVEMENT, PICK THE WRONG PEOPLE TO LEAD IT.
Let's see how all of this fits together:
In Acts 8:4 we have this moment where Philip preaches to a bunch of Samaritans and they all become believers. Samaritans were the wrong people. They were wrong because they were ethnically "other" from Jews in some pretty historic ways. There was no love lost at all between Jews and Samaritans. They also worshipped God, but in the wrong ways and in the wrong places. Yet, God chooses them.
In Acts 8:26 Philip converts an Ethiopian eunuch who had visited Jerusalem, presumably seeking knowledge and wisdom in one of the great cities of the ancient world. He was on his way back to his position within the palace of Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. It was his position so close to the queen that necessitated his being made a eunuch. In the ancient world he was sexually deviant, neither a man nor a woman and he was racially other as well. Yet God chooses him.
In Acts 9 we have the conversion of Saul--a witness against The Way who is transformed into a witness for The Way. He is an enemy. Yet God chooses him.
In Acts 10 we see the conversion of Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army. This was a man who was not only ethnically other from the Jews, but was also an Occupier, a tool of the Empire and an enemy. Yet God chooses him.
And here's something that needs to be pointed out. The main character in each of these stories is Jesus. Just saying.
So what does this mean for those of us who don't really have all that dramatic stories to tell? What does it mean for those of us who don't feel all that important, useful, usable, etc. for the kingdom of God? This is an important teaching for us because on any given Sunday when I look out into my congregation the reality is that more than a few people barely made it there. They doubt themselves, and their commitment. They worry that their faith won't measure up to the others who are gathered with them.
The truth: We are all the wrong people.
What do the wrong people look like?
It's the person so ben on promotion at work that they let their marriage suffer and even fail.
It's the angry teenager who can't forgive her parents so she gives herself away to boys who don't love her.
It's the ever pleasing wife who becomes an enabler to her husband's drinking and watches her children slip away.
It's the demanding parent unwilling to give his child a break.
It's the person who is struggling with the secrets of their sexuality, and the guilt they carry with them in silence.
It's the judgmental Christian who looks down on everyone who is not like them--even the people they gather with every Sunday to worship.
In other words... they look like you and me.
I want to show you a vision of what God sees in the wrong people...
Watch this video of 10 year-old Christopher Duffley singing the National Anthem at a Teamsters event in NYC. Christopher is blind and autistic. His birth mother was addicted to drugs and on oxycontin and cocaine when she was pregnant. Christopher's adoptive parents discovered his gift of singing when he was four years old. They also happen to be devout Christians:
Here's the thing---that's awesome. And everyone focuses on Christopher, which is completely right because it's the unlikely nature of his talent that makes us wobbly inside.
Christopher doesn't just sing at Teamsters events---he sings in churches, and in rallys all across the United States where people gather to hear the Gospel. It's awesome and extraordinary.
But there's something else here that is even more extraordinary. This little boy was a throwaway---a child that had no real future, no prospects. He was wrong on every level. But this family, this father adopted him and took him into their home as a baby---knowing how difficult their life would become as they cared for him. They raised him in love despite his brokenness and gave him the space and the grace to become an inspiration.
This is a beautiful illustration of the love of God for those of us who are "wrong." The world does not see us as God sees us.
Do you feel wrong? Do you feel incomplete? Do you feel unworthy?
It's time to join the movement.