Who are you persecuting that God is calling you to join?
Today, we explore the story of Saul, the man who became better known as the Apostle Paul. And you might be wondering, “Isn’t Paul kind of a stretch for our series?” After all, we are together exploring the stories of believers throughout the Scriptures who have been out of the spotlight. Lesser known heroines and heroes who remind us that the call to faith is not just about a select few. But everyone of us. And so, you might be wondering how we can include the man who wrote more of the New Testament than anyone else. Who became Christianity’s first significant theologian. Who accomplished great things in the missionary movement of the Church in its early years. But, today, I don’t want to talk about that man. About the Apostle Paul. Today, I want to talk about Saul…the man before he became the legend.
Saul, who was persecuting Christians, travelling from town to town to have them arrested or killed. For the story of Saul goes largely untold. However, Saul’s story can be an important one as we understand his motivations – and ours as well. Today’s passage takes place after all of the Paul stories we have already explored: Lydia, Lois and Eunice, Timothy. It takes place in Acts after Paul has gone on all his missionary journeys, started and built churches, and converted people on two continents. But his work was not without its critics. In the 22nd chapter, he is called back to Jerusalem in order to account for his actions by Jewish Christians, upset because as he converts people, he fails to make them Jews first. He allows them to follow Christ as they are, instead of forcing them to first change their lifestyle to follow Jewish practices and rituals. And the Jewish leaders are mad. “He is watering down the message, and basically failing to keep them accountable to what is a necessary part of conversion to the way of Christ. You cannot be Christian, unless you behave in this way first.”
And so, as the passage opens, Paul is basically trying to save his life. Standing in front of an angry mob, chained as a prisoner, he is trying to make the appeal that he is indeed being true to the faith. He is trying to prove his Jewishness in front of those who simply don’t believe that he has the credentials. And the way that he does it is to tell his origin story.
I assume that many of you know what an origin story is. It seems like every other movie in the theaters today is some type of origin story. Basically, they take a well-known character and return to an earlier time in their life and development and tell the story of how they came to be who they are. The Star Wars prequels that came out 15 years ago told the origin of Darth Vader. Many of the Marvel comic book movies that have come out have told the origins of Captain America or Iron Man or the Incredible Hulk. The Godfather, Part II is an origin story about the Corleone family and their rise to mafia powers. Ethan and I read last year a recently released origin story of the Boxcar Children. Perhaps you remember Gertrude Chandler Warner’s famous story of four children who ran away from home and lived in a boxcar. We read The Boxcar Children Beginnings, serving as an origin story to how and why they ran away. All of these are examples of origin stories.
So Paul here tells his origin story to this angry mob of Jewish Christians: Paul tells the story of Saul. He tells of his upbringing, at the feet of Gamaliel. This was a big time name drop. Gamaliel was a member of the ruling Jewish council, and a part of the Pharisee elite class. To sit at the feet of Gamaliel meant that when he was five, he began his training along with one of the most influential and powerful teachers of the Jewish faith. It would be one of us saying that we learned church history from Martin Marty, or evangelism from Billy Graham. Or for that matter, how to coach basketball from Bill Self.It was a big deal name drop, and it cements his credentials as a bona fide Jew.
Next, he retells his story about his conversion, in great detail. At noon, at the brightest time of the day, a light even brighter and more blinding came from the sky. With it came the voice of Jesus, who called him to stop persecuting Christians and become one. And in case anyone doubts his story, he uses the method for proving miraculous events – naming the witnesses, including the devout Ananias, who confirms his story and his calling.
Finally, he recounts an additional story in which he received further direction from God, while praying in the Temple. There can be no doubt that an experience of God in the very Temple of God must be a bona fide example that his credentials as a good Jew are all in order.
Here is a man, taught by the top Jewish teachers, spoken to by Jesus himself, convicted in the Jewish Temple as he was offering Jewish prayers. You can’t get more official than Saul. Point made. Case closed. You can take off these chains, now, thank you very much.
Rhetorically, he uses his origin story to make his point. But theologically, something more subtle is happening. Will Willimon says that what Paul is doing here is distinguishing between tradition and traditionalism. Both Paul and his accusers are appealing to tradition. His Jewish Christian accusers suggest that Paul is not faithful enough to the tradition of his people. Paul argues in return that what he is doing is precisely in line with their tradition. In fact, he argues he is more in line with tradition than they are. In contrast, what they are motivated by is not tradition, but traditionalism. For Willimon, this means “blind obedience to what we have always done.” But traditionalism is not actually tradition. Traditionalism is worshipping the trappings of God found in one specific cultural system, instead of actually worshipping God. It is one of the primary dangers of the people of God throughout our history. The Golden Calf. Asking God for a king because other nations have them. Worshipping the Baals, the gods of the neighboring tribes. And again, Paul says, the people of God are guilty of traditionalism by insisting that following Christ means following him in the method assigned by one specific culture, because we have always done it that way.
But Paul in his sermon to his angry mob of accusers points to this moment in time in his origin story to explain that Saul – in that moment – had a choice. Every good origin story has a choice. Will Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader or will he choose the light side of the Force? And Saul could have chosen traditionalism, the Dark Side. In fact, he was on his way to arrest Christians in Damascus because he had indeed believed that their faith and way of life was not pure enough. Or he could have chosen tradition, the Light: the ancient practice of obedience to God and the ways of God even when it leads us to a surprising level of grace. Saul chose the latter, and never looked back. Even when it meant accepting people whom he previously rejected as unfit for the faith, he chose the light over the dark. And became the hero that we know today as Paul.
Happy ending, right? The angry mob hears his story, takes off his chains, and joins him on his next missionary adventure.
No. Unfortunately not.
In fact, Paul’s story makes them even angrier, causes them to try and kill him on the spot, and begins a series of trials and punishments that last until Paul dies in chains. You see, the unfortunate reality is that the people of God often prefer the safety of traditionalism over the complexity and courage of tradition.
Some things never change.
And so, this morning, I want us to sit a little while in the discomfort of Saul. Instead of rushing to celebrate Paul, I want us to wrestle with his choice. Between traditionalism – worshipping the cultural trappings of the way that we were raised – and tradition – worshipping the living and active God that surprises us with judgment-free grace.
Jesus asked Saul on the road to Damascus “Why do you persecute me?” And today the question haunts us, as well. Who are you persecuting that God is calling you to join?
Why do you persecute me?
Why do you judge someone as sinful while God has chosen to see them as loved?
Why do you disregard others as wrong while Jesus is pleading for you to see them as right?
Why do you dismiss some as different while the Spirit is using them to do a new thing?
All of us are on the road to Damascus in one way or another. Breathing threats and murder against someone. When the blinding light fades, the question remains: “why?”