Saul Becoming Paul – 4,22,07

There once was a man named SaulThe followers of Jesus he tried to kill allUntil on his way to DamascusA light around him did flashcusAnd straight to the ground did he fallStraight to the ground did he fallAnd heard a divine voice to him callIt said ‘hey you’re killing me manWe’ve got to redirect your plans.’And so began Saul becoming Paul.                 Think for a minute about some of the images of God that you have in your mind.  Some of those pictures or metaphors that serve to give you an overall sense for who God is.  A common image for God is that of a father figure.  This is how God is portrayed in some popular works of art.  I think particularly of Michaelangelo’s ‘Creation of Adam’ painting with God reaching over down from the clouds to touch the spark of life into the human he has just created.  Although we know that God isn’t just a large, old, bearded father in the sky, this image has had a powerful effect on the human imagination.  Some of the biblical imagery of God pictures God in this way, like the prophet Daniel’s picture of an Ancient One seated on a throne with white clothing and hair white like wool.  Some of the language for God as father in scripture is more intimate.  Jesus uses the familiar ‘Abba’ for God, perhaps best translated “Daddy.”  This is a common image, but there are many images.  Perhaps you picture God more like a mother.  A nurturing presence.  One who carries the world within her body and gives birth to new possibilities.  One who holds us within her embrace.  Scripture also pictures God in this way.  Isaiah says, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.”  Jesus pictures himself as a mother hen, desiring to gather together all the children of Jerusalem under the protection of her wing.God as judge seems to be a rather pervasive image in many people’s minds.  Or God as warrior.  You may carry images of God that go beyond a human image, seeing God through other aspects of creation.  Native American spirituality saw the Great Spirit as being present throughout the created world.  In the animals, in the wind, in the trees.  In scripture Moses has a plant revelation of God through a bush burning yet not consumed in the middle of the desert.  At Jesus’ baptism the Spirit of God is seen to be revealed in a bird in flight, a dove that descends on Jesus as he comes up out of the water.There are also less concrete images of God.  Like God as peace, as love.  God as the higher power, God as forgiveness, God as presence.  We probably carry with us a combination of images for God although one or two may be more dominant than others.  Whatever these images may be, they inform our spirituality and how we see the world and our place in the world.  The way we imagine God subtly, or not so subtly affects all other parts of us.  We may be acting out of an acceptance and embracing of these images, or a rejection of these images.  But one thing is for sure.  We all have God images that influence us.This was also the case for Saul of Tarsus, the man later known as the Apostle Paul.  To put the most gracious spin that we can on the person of Saul, let’s call him a committed person of faith.  Deeply committed to the God of his ancestors to the point of allowing his understanding of God to be the driving force behind his entire life.  In his letters that he wrote later he referred to himself as “zealous for the Lord,” as “blameless” in his careful observance of following God’s ways, as he understood them.  And Saul was not only committed, he was concerned.  Concerned about maintaining boundaries between faithful Israel and the faithless.  Concerned that God’s name not be misused or abused by those within Israel and that the true faith would remain strong.  There is nothing wrong, per se, with being a committed, concerned person of faith.  The image of God that dominated Saul’s mind, however, was that of a God for whom there was an inside group and an outside group and who acted as a policing agent between the border.  Those from the outside were welcome on the inside, as long as they followed all the rules and practices.  And once on the inside there must be obedience and submission to God’s ways.  Whenever this group, God’s group, was threatened, it was the duty of the leaders to do what was necessary to maintain security, and purity within the group.And so we meet up with Saul on his way to the city of Damascus to deal with what we may call a disturbance from within.  Acts 9:2 says his plan was that “if he found any who belonged to The Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  At this point the word ‘Christian’ hadn’t even been invented, there was simply a group of Jews who considered themselves to be followers of Jesus of Nazareth who were finding themselves at odds with other Jews, sort of like a difference of practices within the same denomination.  Mentioning that Saul was after the ‘men and women’ could well indicate the important role women were playing in this community.  This group of Jesus followers had come to be know as “The Way” and in Saul’s eyes they were blurring the God-ordained boundaries between the in group and the out group, between the sacred and the profane.  And Saul is remaining committed to his image of a God who demands clear distinctions between the inside and the outside, the pure and the impure.      On the road, he has an encounter which shows a number of signs of this being a divine appearance.  There is the presence of light, often identified as a symbol for God.  Saul falls to the ground, similar to Ezekiel and Daniel in encounters they had with God.   There is the repeating of the name Saul, Saul, much like God calling out Abraham, Abraham, Moses, Moses, Samuel, Samuel.  We’ve got here the makings of a classic divine appearance, only with a rather shocking twist.  On the other side of the line, in the place where God is supposed to be, is a suffering human being.  Saul has a revelation of a God identified with a suffering human being, Jesus.  This encounter of the Risen Christ is the beginning of a great unlearning within Saul, who is now on his way to becoming the apostle Paul.  It is an unlearning of the pervasive, persistent notion that God is one who calls for defending the purity of the group.  An unlearning of a God who has anything to do with violence.  Unlearning of a God who blesses only those on the inside.  It is the beginning of learning about a God for whom there is no outside, for whom ‘the sacred group’ includes everyone.  A God for whom there are no outsiders, and as soon as we construct an outside, it is God whom we have placed on the outside.  And so Saul’s revelation is one where he sees God on the outside of his own sacred world, being the very one that he has been excluding, often rather violently.  V. 4  ‘Saul, why do you persecute me?’  Saul had to answer the only way he knew how, “WHO are you?”From this revelation, Saul’s world goes dark.  The man who thought he could see so clearly, is now blind, unable to see anything, his whole world completely incomprehensible.  V. 8 and 9 “Saul 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 to Damascus.  For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”  Saul’s sight isn’t restored until he is visited by Ananias, one of those followers of The Way.  Ananias’ first words to him are “Brother Saul.”  After this one whom he had considered to be an enemy calls him “brother,” and invites him to receive the Holy Spirit, the text says “something like scales fell from (Saul’s) eyes, and his sight was restored.”This event is often referred to as Saul’s conversion, which is quite true, but it may be a misleading name.  This really has nothing to do with Saul being converted from Judaism to Christianity, since there wasn’t even a thing called Christianity at the time.  If Saul is simply being converted from one religion to another then there is nothing particularly extraordinary about the power of the resurrection that he experienced.  Saul’s conversion wasn’t a transfer of religions, but an exploding open of his own religion such that the boundaries and fences he had believed to be in place around him simply collapsed.  If I have drawn up a world in my mind where there are holy and right people on the inside and unholy and evil people on the outside, and then if it is revealed to me that in this world that I have drawn up I have in fact placed God on the outside, among the bad people, “numbered with the transgressors” scripture says of Christ, then I have got a lot of unlearning to do with what this God is all about.  Jesus, who occupied the place of shame, the place of the outcast, had been vindicated by God and was now revealing that it is God’s own self who is that outcast.  For Saul, on his way to becoming Paul, the crucified, risen Christ would become a central image of God.  In all his letters he writes in this way.  The Anabaptist movement of the 16th century saw itself as trying to recover what has been called a Christo-centric view of things.  That all of our images of God must be seen through the lens of Christ and that Jesus is our central icon, our central image for who God is.  We cannot ever get away with constructing an outside, of those who are outside God’s care, because as soon as we have done this, as soon as we have excluded any, it is God whom we have excluded.    This has been a difficult week for our country.  The killings at Virginia Tech were brutal, senseless, and downright scary.  The circumstances are worlds apart, but there is still the voice of the Risen Christ calling out on behalf of those who were killed saying, “Why do you persecute me?”  Why do you continue to kill and injure and destroy?  Why do you continue to cut short the lives of those who are just in their youth?  Why?  There is a tendency for us to ask Why in these cases.  Why God did something like this happen.  Through Christ God asks the same question back.  Why?  Why do you persecute me?Living in an era that has seen two world wars, the Atomic Bomb, the Holocaust, And Lord knows how many other outbreaks of war and violence, we desperately need this image of God that is revealed to Saul.  The evils of our time do not flow from heaven to earth, as if God were unleashing this violence on us, but flow from earth to heaven, a direct assault on the God of life.  Central to our images for God must be the crucified and risen Christ who suffers by human hands and is made alive in God.  “Why do you continue to persecute me?”  This risen Christ teaches our blind eyes how to see.  How to recognize a brother and a sister where before we saw an enemy.  How to see God present in the most God-forsaken situations.  With the Risen Christ on the loose, it is not a safe, predictable world.  With this image of God imprinted on our minds, we can’t hold on to our normal categories of who’s in and who’s out and whose side God is really on.  Whenever we encounter one who has been excluded, or one who has been counted as an enemy, or one who has been harmed for whatever reason, we must believe that we are encountering the face of God.  Whenever our nation tries to define a group as outsiders or evil, we simply can’t go along.  With eyes that have seen the light of the resurrection we believe that God dwells on the margins of our structures of order and control, in solidarity with those who are considered cursed.  This is what that little band of disciples who were followers of The Way came to believe.  Those people who would later be called Christians.  That group that Saul who had become Paul so deeply influenced in his travel and preaching and writing.  Paul for whom the crucified and risen one came to be identified as a central image of God.  Our images for God subtly or not so subtly influence all other aspects of our lives.  May we see with opened eyes the Risen Christ among us.