"I'm not going to him. He's crazy."
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 20th: Psalm 146; Isaiah 59:9-19; and Acts 9:1-20. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
This story is from a number of years ago and I cannot remember all the details. It was a listing of the most influential people in history. On that list, Saul of Tarsus, who will assume the name Paul, was listed above Jesus of Nazareth. This seems strange in the context of a Lenten Blog, but in a data driven survey Saul of Tarsus had a much larger footprint than Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’ ministry concentrated on Galilee, Samaria and Judah. He did gain followers, but He dies alone as a crucified insurrectionist. Saul of Tarsus, on the other hand, takes the life and message of Jesus and spreads it throughout the Roman Empire, and lays the groundwork for an organized church that continues to share Jesus worldwide. It is hard to imagine Christianity without Paul.
The twelve disciples are not nearly as active in missionary work as Saul of Tarsus. It is even rather difficult to explain their ministry. They may have remained as some sort of the whole in Jerusalem. This was the earliest center of Jesus’ followers, but the Twelve were not the leader of the Jerusalem community. The Jerusalem community was rather traditional. As such, authority was thought to be best expressed through heredity. Remember that the Gospels go to great length to arrange for Jesus to be born within the lineage of David so that Jesus could assume the mantle of Messiah, an hereditary title based on the tradition of the Messiah as the Son of David. The leader of the Jerusalem church, and an authority for the most traditional faction of the earliest church, was James, the brother of Jesus. The eponymous New Testament Epistle is credited to James’ hand.
The Twelve almost seem to have assumed an otherworldly authority. They were the living connection with the historical Jesus. Their presence was valued. However, as a group they never approach the energy or success of Saul of Tarsus – which is amazing. In today’s reading from Acts, we have the story of how Saul meets Jesus. They never cross paths during Jesus’ lifetime. Saul, trained as a Pharisee, is actually opposing the followers of Jesus. In his enthusiasm for destroying the church, he is traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus on a mule when the heavenly Jesus knocks him off his ass and onto his … well, you know.
This is a personal, spiritual encounter. As such, it is beyond verification. Saul of Tarsus claims that the heavenly Jesus has chosen him for a ministry to the Gentiles. His proof is his word. Imagine how this must have gone over with the Jerusalem church authorities and the Twelve. They know Saul only as an enemy. They know that Saul has no connection with the historical Jesus as they did. This, and understandably so, has forged their faith as tradition bound, conservative. Jesus is understood in the Jewish context of Jesus of Nazareth, and again as understandably so. Now Saul comes along as a stranger and a known enemy, and he begins talking about breaking away from tradition, about reaching out to the Gentiles, about redefining the ministry of Jesus. Who is this man?
Throughout his ministry, and you can read it for yourselves in his Epistles, Saul of Tarsus was opposed by a very conservative faction of the church that insisted on maintaining a Jewish tradition within Christianity. Paul answered with a gospel that focused on salvation through belief in Jesus as the only essential. And it all started on the Road to Damascus.
One of the first titles for the church was “the Way.” We hear it in today’s reading. The Way expresses the belief that we are followers of Jesus. Jesus leads and His path is the Way. It is nomenclature that embodies the vitality and movement of our faith. The Way is the antithesis of any notion of stagnation. We are not called to protect where we are in the faith; we are called to follow the Way. Ours is a faith constantly expecting change. We arrive at a faith that fulfills us, but it is an oasis not a destination. In the oasis, we are refreshed and recharged. We are readied to move forward again, to our next oasis. This is what the Way implies, and in the New Testament we encounter it for the first time when we meet Saul on the way to Damascus to confront the people of the Way.
Saul of Tarsus was an extraordinary evangelist, more successful than any other New Testament person, and he came out of nowhere. The unexpected is always a part of our faith. Don’t be surprised by it. Be surprised if surprises disappear. Let Lent surprise you. Be honest enough to challenge your suppositions. Be like Ananias: “I’m not going to Saul. He’s an enemy.” But Ananias listens to the heavenly Jesus, goes to Saul, and greets him as “Brother.” What an unexpected turn of events this must have been for Ananias, but look at its results. Again, may Lent surprise us as we continue to follow the Way, a path laid out for us by a crucified Saviour.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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