Easter 3, Acts 9:1-20
Imagine knowing that someone is out to get you. They will stop at nothing to find you and when they find you, they want to arrest you and your companions. They want to put you in chains and they want to see to it that you are put on trial and convicted in front of the Authorities. Imagine if someone is so against what you and your friends believe and what you stand for that they see their life’s mission and purpose as hunting you down and erasing you from the world, using whatever means.
How would you feel?
Then imagine this. The very same person who is hunting after you and wants you arrested, has a sudden change of heart. You hear reports that not only has this person halted his mission to find and arrest you and your companions, he is in fact staying with your friends nearby, recuperating after a dramatic encounter left him temporarily blind. You are just learning about the details of all that happened, but the one who was out to get you and your companions, you now find is one of your companions, a member of your group!
How would you feel now?
It’s astonishing to think that the person who has had probably the most influence on the Church and its thinking in its history, isn’t one of the 12 disciples (the companions of Jesus who followed him, and lived with him in the 3 years up his death and resurrection) but is somebody who actively persecuted the Church, in its early years, and who took it upon himself to hunt Christians down and bring them to trial. Yet Saul, as he was called then, had a powerful encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus that not only changed the course of his life but also changed the Church, his new family.
Let’s face it, Saul was an unlikely candidate to be one of Jesus followers. I think in looking at the story of Saul’s dramatic change of heart we need to appreciate how hard it must have been for the first Christians, based in Jerusalem, to admit him into their fellowship, knowing what they did about Saul’s background. In Acts 9:26 it says that when he came to Jerusalem, ‘they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.’ And can you blame them?
There must have been discussions like: “Can we really trust him?” “How can we ignore what he did to us?” I can imagine that it wasn’t all plain sailing when Saul joined the family. I can imagine it must have taken some time before Paul gained their trust, before they felt truly comfortable being around someone who had previously wanted them dead. But some from the Church stuck up for Paul and stood by him: they could see his potential and the way God was working through him. We’re told it was Barnabas who was the one who introduced Saul to the Apostles and it was he who seems to have taken Saul under his wing and mentored him.
Then later on having spent time with the Church, Saul, now renamed Paul, with the same energy and focus of mind in which he hunted down Christians, begins to take the message of Jesus out into towns and cities beyond Jerusalem. His journey and his encounters tell him something hugely significant about God’s plans for his Church. The good news of Jesus was not just for a small group of his followers and it wasn’t just for the Jews, the people that God had had a special relationship with and the family that Jesus and his disciples were members of.
God was on the move and Paul could see that the good news of Jesus was for the whole world. He was witnessing people, from very different backgrounds to himself and the original followers of Jesus (people who had previously believed in many different Gods) come to recognise who Jesus was and new Churches were emerging in different parts of world.
This made things tricky: not everyone liked what Paul was telling them. As the Church welcomed new members, those in the original Church of Jerusalem wondered if things had gotten out of hand. How could you be one of us, when you don’t practice our traditions or read our scriptures (special books) or follow our rules? How could you be one of us when for centuries your peoples have persecuted us the Jews? How can we trust them?
But Paul was well placed to understand how God meets those on the outside, and how God can change the heart of even the most hardened opponent. If God could accept Paul and forgive Paul and love Paul, then Paul knew more than most how God’s love was boundless.
The story of Paul is the story of the Holy Spirit, that is God’s power working in this world and we can see how in the early days of the Church it was the Holy Spirit that was driving the spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, far and wide, and in often unexpected ways so much so that it’s often hard for people to keep up.
Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road is one of those moments when the Holy Spirit breathed new life and energy and purpose into the Church through the most unlikely channel: but this brought with it a great deal of discomfort and pain to the Church, because they had to learn to love and embrace Paul. They could have easily rejected Paul, out of fear and suspicion, or Paul could have easily rejected the Church, frustrated by its stubbornness, and become an independent missionary. But thankfully Paul was welcomed and recognised eventually as someone with the Holy Spirit, who brought new life and zeal to the Church’s mission. The Church released Paul to courageously spread the Gospel while Paul was faithful to the Church that had welcomed him.
I like to think that this is the key to the Church’s resilience and survival, that it doesn’t just welcome people into it who are exactly like those who are already members, it also embraces those who are different and those who are broken and complicated, and those like Paul who reveal to us something of God that is new and challenging to us. In the tension and discomfort that this brings, a spark is lit that renews and pushes the Church forward into action.
So if you are sitting in Church, feeling like a complete outsider, or if you feel like your past prohibits you from being a full member or if you feel that God can’t possibly work in you and through you, please remember Paul and where he came from and know that God finds you valuable. He can and is using your life for his glory, even if others lack the vision to see it.
And if you are worried for the future of the Church, and you see that so many people growing up today in the UK have no experience of attending Church or exposure to the Christian faith, then also remember Paul and what God did through him. God can transform lives and will continue to do so, but the next generation of Christians will look very different to you. They will come from a different place and they will challenge the Church and lead the Church in some new directions, that will inevitably cause us some discomfort. But we need in the Church more Barnabas,’ these are people who can see where God is working in people’s lives and their potential. People who can mentor and support young Christians, and empower them within the Church so that they are not just on the periphery but centre stage in its life.
We need to be a Church open to where the Holy Spirit wants to take us even if it means taking us out of our comfort zones
The Thy Kingdom Come initiative (May 30th– June 9th) is the time between Ascension Day, when Jesus goes up to his Father in heaven, and the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes down on his disciples. We are encouraged to pray for people we know, who we want to come to know Jesus.
I encourage you to think about the people you want to pray for, whether it be friends, family members or colleagues, but please also pray that we will uncover the ‘Paul’s’ in our community: the people who will challenge and disturb us , and show us something new of God