I HAVE CALLED YOU BY NAME
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This is one of those stories that many of us have read many times and have heard preached many times. It’s one of the most famous stories outside of the Gospels in the NT. Flannery O’Connor wrote about it “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”
Of course there’s no mention of a horse in any of the three tellings of this story that Luke has in the book of Acts. Three tellings – it’s obviously a big deal. It’s a story that is known in the larger culture, maybe a little moreso than some others. Even now. I was watching Friday Night Café with Jamie Oliver recently and his guest was Martin Freeman – Tim on the original version of The Office. Freeman was telling Jamie Oliver about how he had become a vegetarian. He talked about having a “road to Damascus moment.”
The moment where everything changed. The moment when a life turned around 180 degrees. This is a story about conversion for sure. It’s important that we don’t make it simply a story of conversion. It’s worse if we make the story paradigmatic or hold it up as some sort of ideal for Christian conversion. It can make us feel badly if we do. I’m not one to hold myself up as paradigmatic by any means, but I know that there are some of us gathered here today whose experiences are not dissimilar to mine. Raised in a Christian home. Raised in the church since your earliest memories. Growing up this way you hear stories about conversions to Christianity that were truly 180 degree turns. People who put the “turn away from” into metanoia (into repentance). If you’re at all like me you might have felt a little bit less than, a little bit cheated out of a good conversion story. You might have heard songs like “I Saw the Light” and longed for such a dramatic thing to have been part of your story. If you’re also like me you might have wandered off the path a little bit and then had your own mini-Road-to-Damascus moment when you came back. Of course, a life of unstinting devotion and unwavering faithfulness to God from as far back as one can remember is not something to be rued at all – it’s something to give thanks to God for.
As we consider the work that Jesus began and continued in his church and continues in his church by the Holy Spirit of God, let us look at this well known and beloved story and see what God has to say to our hearts. Let’s pray as we do.
This is a story about a conversion and about a very specific call. Saul is called to a work for God. In the story of Acts the call of Saul is part of the widening out of the gospel message. The good news has gone out from Jerusalem as a result of the persecution the church faced there. It has gone to Samaria. Last week we looked at the story of Philip and the man who was from the ends of the earth. Now we have the re-entry into the story of the young man at whose feet the crowd who killed Stephen laid their coats. The man who Luke tells us approved of their killing Stephen. The man who was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, and who decided that it would be a good idea to take the persecution show on the road as it were, to look for followers of the Way, and bring them back bound to Jerusalem. Men and women. Followers of the Way. Saul is on the way to Damascus.
There is something very non-paradigmatic about this story in that we’re talking about God calling Saul. This call is spelled out in the vision that Ananias sees and hears. “He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and before kings and before the people of Israel.” God’s chosen instrument. NT Wright describes the role that Paul will play in the story of God this way – “If the death and resurrection of Jesus is the hinge on which the great door of history swung open at last, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus was the moment when all the ancient promises of God gathered themselves up, rolled themselves into a ball, and came hurtling through that open door and into the wide world beyond.” We’ll see this played out in the rest of the book of Acts.
There are things to take from this story of course that are paradigmatic. Things that apply to each and every one of us, no matter what our story is or, if we are a follower of Christ, no matter what our faith story is. The first is that no one is beyond the grace of God. The grace of God comes indeed to meet us. The grace of God met Saul while he was God’s enemy. He’ll pick this up in his writing of course. “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” (Eph 2:13) You who were far off have been brought near. “For if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.” (Rom 5:10) What does this have to say in terms of what we think of people we term our enemies? Look at how God treats enemies. What does this have to say to us in terms for the qualifications that we may feel we need to come before God? I have a friend who tells me that he doesn’t feel that he’s worthy enough to come to church. This is how people may feel, maybe because we’re not getting this message out in an effective way (of course it might only be an excuse). The only qualification we need to come before God is a recognition of our need for God. Here was a man who was at least complicit in murder. This is where his zeal for his faith had led him. There is an Irish saying my father used to use and it meant it wasn’t such a big deal if someone dropped something or I broke something as I went tearing through the house or what have you. He used to say “It’s not the killing of man.” In Paul’s case it was the killing of a man. Men. Women. There is nothing in our past that God cannot turn for good. Broken relationships. Addiction. Health issues. Criminality. An overly zealous religious upbringing that left us missing something fundamental about the love of God. No faith upbringing at all. There is nothing in our past that has to keep us from the grace of God when we are confronted with the grace of God.
And this is the second thing. To be met by Christ is to be met by someone outside of ourselves. Saul’s encounter with Christ did not come about because of Saul’s own doing. We must always be aware of the role that God plays in our coming to faith. We have not come to Christ solely because of our intellectual capacity or piety. We don’t shun intellect or piety by any means - they may well be factors in our coming to Christ and hopefully are factors in our ongoing understanding of Christ and the meaning of the cross and the whole message about this life, as the angel put it in Acts 5. The point is let’s not get self-righteous or too self-congratulatory about what got us here. What we see here in the story of Saul of Tarsus is a man who is confronted by the initiative of God – the risen Christ – the one in whom all the promises of God are “Yes” and when we are confronted by the truth of the risen Christ the good and fitting and proper response is to give our “Yes” to God’s “Yes” to us.
While we are met with something beyond ourselves, there is an intensely personal aspect to conversion. Note that the people surrounding Saul can tell there is something going on but they’re not sure what. This encounter is acutely personal. The call is acutely personal. God calls out his name – “Saul, Saul…” How can we hear this and not hear the echo that sounds through the ages and think of the names of those whom God has called and hear “Moses! Moses!” and “Jacob, Jacob” and “Samuel! Samuel!” and… Hearing God’s call on our lives and coming to an ever increasing realization that we are Christ’s handiwork created in Jesus Christ for good works which God has prepared in advance for us to do (Eph 2:10). No matter how unlikely or unexpected that might seem. God preparing much more than we might have expected perhaps. God using the most unexpected people in the most unexpected ways perhaps.
And in the middle of all this, coming to an ever growing realization of our need for God. For Saul it would have been quite easy to rest on his laurels. Religious credentials impeccable. A Pharisee. Son of a Pharisee. Trained under Gamaliel. Roman citizenship and all the rights thereof which were afforded him. From Tarsus. No backwater town. A city that was right up there with the cities of its day – Athens, Alexandria. At the end of the scene Paul is helpless. He had intended to lead followers of the Way to Jerusalem – bound, helpless. Paul is ironically led himself to Damascus. Led by the hand. His eyes open but unable to see. This was surely the beginning of Saul’s realization that he would write about so eloquently to the people of Philippi. Saul’s recognition of his need for God. How often does it come about that we need to be at the limit of our own resources to know what it means to depend on God? To realize our need to be led? Paul had confidence in things of the world to spare. Those religious credentials we spoke about earlier. That background. That upbringing. “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (Phil 3:8) “Who are you Lord?” Is what Saul asked and that became the goal of Paul’s life. To know Christ and Christ’s love. He prayed for his friends that they might grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge. And to proclaim Christ. However and wherever God calls us to proclaim Christ and empowers us by the Spirit to make him known in our words and in our deeds, may that be the question of all our hearts. Who are you Lord? May the desire to know Christ, the desire to seek his face be rooted deeply in every one of us.
We can’t leave this story without talking about Ananias. Without talking about what Saul was called into. Saul was called into community. It would not have been an easy proposition for him to suddenly insert himself into a community of Christ followers whom he had so recently been bent on destroying. Ananias gets the call. Ananias says “Here I am, Lord.” The good answer. After a bit of kvetching he goes. Ananias notes the unlikeliness of the situation to God. “I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem….” But the Lord said to him, “Go…” Just go.
As happens so often in Luke and Acts, two people who have had visions get together and their understanding of God is strengthened because of it. Ananias goes and enters the house on Straight Street and lays his hands on Saul and look at what he says. Brother Saul. Welcome to the family. Even such a one as this. Even such a one as I. Welcome to the family because we’re called to do this together. Welcome to the table because we’re called to do this together. May God continue to reveal himself to us as we do.