Text: Acts 9:1-19a
The first time we meet Saul he’s a part of a dramatic and violent scene. He’s overseeing the stoning of a man named Stephen. This is the end of Acts chapter 7. Stephen has just given a lengthy public speech, a sermon, highly critical of his own people. The individuals listening are agitated to the point of transforming into a mob. In the words of Acts, “with a loud shout they all rushed together against him.” Outnumbered and overpowered, Stephen is dragged out of the city and stoned to death.
Had everyone there paused, surrounded Stephen’s lifeless body, and posed for a photograph, it would have looked remarkably similar to the many pictures of lynchings from within our own country. In 2015 the Equal Justice Initiative published a five year study recording 3,959 such lynchings of black women, men, and children that occurred in the US between 1877 and 1950. A number of these lynchings included a congratulatory group photo, duplicated as souvenirs and postcards.
Stephen is remembered as the first Christian martyr. Saul of Tarsus, who we also know as Paul, as in the Apostle Paul, as in St. Paul, is remembered as having been there, apparently a key instigator. Acts says that this crowd “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul,” and that Saul “approved” of Stephen’s killing. Several verses later we’re told “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house, dragging off both men and women, (committing) them to prison.”
Were Saul alive today we may very well refer to him as a religious terrorist. Is it going too far to suggest that Saul of Tarsus could have been Saul of the KKK, or even Saul of ISIS? Maybe, maybe not. Or maybe this makes Saul seem too different from us, someone we could never be.
There is more to the story. Quite a bit more. Famously, Saul undergoes a radical conversion. It takes place as he is traveling on the road to the city of Damascus. He’ on a mission to find and arrest people who were followers of the Way – what Christians were called before they were called Christians. What happened on that road has had a remarkable impact on Christianity as well as Western culture. His being blinded by the light, and then having scales fall from his eyes are images and phrases that we still use. It’s the classic conversion experience. Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, finds the event so important that he includes it three different times throughout Acts, recounting the same story, with only minor details changed each time. The first time, which we read in Acts 9, is told through the voice of the narrator. The second time, in Acts 22, Paul tells the story to crowds who want him arrested outside the temple in Jerusalem. The third time, in Acts 26, Paul includes it in his testimony to King Herod Agrippa, before he heads to Rome.
One way of thinking of Paul’s conversion is that he is converted from hate to love. A man of violence in converted to peace. That’s one way of thinking about it.
But what if this way of thinking of Paul’s conversion misses the key insight? I suggest that the pre-conversion young man, the violent religious extremist, was motivated not by hatred and bigotry, but by love and faithfulness. Saul of Tarsus, Saul of the lynch-mob, was driven by devotion, committed to the good, and filled with love, yes love, not after his conversion, but before.
Before you start looking around for stones to hurl at me for suggesting such a thing, consider…
Consider the world through the eyes of Saul. Or, just consider the world.
For as long as recorded history, and before, humans have formed group identity by defining an in group and an out group. We depend on our group, our tribe, our religion, our nation, to give us a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and, more theologically, a sense of goodness, righteousness. Our tradition is blessed by God, or Providence, and our own wellbeing flows from the wellbeing of the group. It follows that the proper response to any threat to the group is met with resistance. The greater the threat, the greater and more justified the resistance. The more one loves the family, is faithful to its calling, is devoted to its principles, the more one is driven to guard and protect it, no matter what the cost. To allow the threat to fester is an act of betrayal.
Ironically, the greater the threat, the more unified it enables the religion to become. Internal and minor disputes are put aside and people join together in the righteous cause, to cast out the trespasser. At times such an enemy can almost be a needed glue to hold a group together.
This is the game, the cultural pattern, that we homo sapiens revert to so easily. Rather than being an exception, an outlier, Saul is a chief embodiment of this pattern. He is completely devoted. He is utterly committed, not to evil, but to preserving the good, the integrity of his tradition. He is faithful to the extreme. These deviant Jews, followers of the Way, must be sought out and extinguished for the sake of God and all things holy.
Last week, Abbie took Lily and Ila to visit her family in Kansas for spring break. Left with a quiet house, Eve and I decided to have a Star Wars movie marathon, watching episodes 4 and 5, then watching 1-3 to fill in the back story. I’m a little movied-out, but we’ll likely watch 6 and 7 soon. I was familiar with the basic outline of the story, but had never watched a whole Star Wars movie all the way through.
Now that I’m semi culturally literate in this area, I’ll try to refrain from filling every sermon with a Star Wars reference, but here’s one for today. I didn’t find the transformation of the young Anakin into Darth Vader convincing on all accounts, but one of the most persuasive parts of the story was portraying Anakin motivated not completely by some sinister wish to rule the galaxy, but motivated by love, by saving a life of someone he loves, and, even by peace. After helping defeat the enemies of the empire, the new emperor assures his new servant Darth Vader that he has brought peace to the galaxy. Darth Vader becomes evil by becoming absolutely committed to the good, or at least a twisted version of the good. Or, at least, that’s one thread running through the story.
When Saul travels the Damascus road he goes with a clear sense of the righteousness of his cause. He’s defending his group against the threat from within. He goes in the service of God, the good, the sacred. What he experiences is a complete undoing of this entire way of seeing.
The voice of Jesus, which Paul will later understand as the voice of God, speaks out to him and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul, servant of God, encounters the Divine, the risen Christ, not as one who affirmed his in group, but as the very outsider he was seeking to destroy. He had drawn a circle around the Divine, only to have the Divine appear to him as one locked out of his circle, the victim of Saul’s own righteousness. The voice speaks, the light flashes, and Saul’s whole way of seeing the world collapses.
Light typically helps us see, but in this case, the light is a revelation of blindness rather than sight. The light of Christ reveals to Saul that he has been entirely blind all along. It doesn’t help him see, at least not initially. It lets him see that he can’t see. Now he actually experiences blindness as a physical reality. Acts says that he was without sight for three days, and neither ate nor drank during this time. In short, Paul stops functioning as a living being in the community of life. The given and take between world and self ceases. No light or food or water enters his body. The three day period is likely no coincidence. It mirrors the time between Jesus’ own death and resurrection. If Saul is to re-enter the land of the living, it will be on completely different terms than it was before. He will not be able to pull himself up by his own bootstraps and continue life as usual. There is a clean break. His world has been uncreated. It will take an act of grace for him to begin life as a part of a new creation. The new creation will not just be in his own soul. It will be the creation of a new way of forming group identity. A new way of being a part of the land of the living.
This is what gets underway when Ananias, one of the enemies Paul had been pursuing, goes to Paul, enters the house in Damascus on the street called Straight, reaches out his hand to blind, hungry, and thirsty Paul, and says, “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.” The new creation begins when the old sacred structure collapses, and one formerly deemed outsider now becomes brother. This is what enables Paul to see, not just a person standing in front of him, but a possibility of a new way of forming community. One without outsiders, neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free. Everyone a child of Abraham, a child of God. One in which there are no more crucifixions or lynchings or stonings of the enemy.
To quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn, himself one who was cast out when he challenged the sacred structure of Soviet Russia: “It was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” “The Gulag Archipelago” p. 24. This could have come right out of one of Paul’s epistles.
Reading Paul’s conversion this way might help us see our current polarizing world with fresh eyes. Seeing with these eyes can help us resist the idolatry of nationalism and militarism even as it might help us engage more compassionately with those promoting these very things. Or at least it can help us reframe the conversation. Rather than seeing everyone who disagrees with us as motivated by hate, we might wonder or ask what it is they are seeking to be faithful to. What vision of reality motivates them? What is it that they love? Their answers may be different than our own, but it’s a different kind of conversation than mutual disdain. For those of you who have been the target of a righteous mob, who have had all the anxiety of a group focused against you, to cast you out, I recognize that these kinds of conversations, where your own humanity is at stake, can be toxic. Sometimes it’s better to stay away and let friends and allies have those conversations for you.
Perhaps more importantly, reading Paul’s conversion this way might help us turn this story back on ourselves. Rather than just creating a new in group, a new circle of righteousness that defines itself over and against other groups, we can wonder what it might be like to be a part of a group in which there are no outsiders. As soon as we draw a circle around who is worthy and who is not, who is enlightened and who is ignorant, as soon as we draw that boundary, Christ appears to us not as an insider, but as an outsider. We are a part of a new creation with a mighty center and no perimeter, and there are no borders to defend. As the converted Paul repeatedly said to the Galatians, “You are free.”