Sunday, April 18, 2010

Guest with a Bad Reputation

Saul, before he becomes Paul, is one bad dude, an anti-Christian. In order to complete the work that has been begun by Saul's transformation into Paul by an encounter (Theophany or Christophany) with the risen Jesus, the church and its leaders must with courage and forgiveness welcome the transformed Saul to the table, much as Jesus welcomed Simon aka Peter to breakfast after Peter's denial.

Acts 9:1-20

The Murdering Visitor

Saul was still "breathing threats" and murder against the disciples (mathetes) of the Lord. (Acts 7:58-8:3) Saul was on the wrong side in the conflict early on, at the stoning of Stephen.

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He moves quickly from mere "witness"--garment guard or coat check--at a stoning, taking on ever greater involvement and an ever more active role. Saul starts quickly down a terrible path of destruction, first simply by "taking pleasure in" the "elimination" of Stephen (suneudokeo, approving or taking pleasure; see Jesus' "woe" to those who witness and approve the killing of the prophets in Luke 11:48; also anairesis, "removal" by murder). Soon Saul is breaking into homes, terrorizing families, and abducting both men and women (suro, dragging away; paradidomi, handing over [same word for betrayal, by Judas of Jesus] to prison). In Acts 4:29 already, even before the stoning of Stephen, we hear the disciples praying for courage in the face of such threats against their lives. It is poetic justice, or ironic, that the one who bound and imprisoned disciples who were followers of the Way will soon enough himself be bound and imprisoned as a disciple of Jesus (e.g., Acts 22:29). Saul is aligned in his behavior against the disciples with both Judas (betrayal) and Barabbas (murder, phonos; Mark 15:7, Luke 23:19, 25). Saul's murderous intent (and very likely also "success" at murderous action) is not portrayed as a tragic mistake of circumstance, a one-time slip. Saul is not a victim of police entrapment. As Jesus says (Matthew 15:19, Mark 7:21) and as Paul will affirm (Romans 1:29), murder comes straight from the murderous heart. Saul, however he may have viewed his own actions, is not a commandment keeper.

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The kind of atrocity in which Saul participated is still known to us today, the victims are now called The Disappeared, e.g., in Argentina (Project Disappeared; see the Wikipedia article on "forced disappearance," which is now recognized as a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Court, without a statute of limitations.

We are all quite aware of the "conversion" of Saul on the road to Damascus. (Which we should be, since Luke recounts it three times with slight variation in Acts 9, 22, and 26.) We know from hundreds of paintings and Sunday School drawings that Saul is caught up short, stopped in his tracks, floored by the lightning flashes of a heavenly spotlight.

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Fallen to the ground, Saul hears a voice asking "Why are you pursuing [persecuting, dioko] me?" After inquiring as to the identity of the one who is speaking to him, Saul receives the classic response that God thunders from out of a theophany ("I am," ego eimi), but with Jesus as the predicate nominative: "I am Jesus." Moreover, the voice adds a personal note: "I am Jesus, whom you are pursuing [persecuting, the double entendre cannot but assert itself]." In other words, Saul has caught that which he did not know he was seeking. His "sir" is his Lord. Perhaps it is saying too much to say that those who persecute the church are really, but ignorantly, pursuing Christ in their destruction of his body. Maybe. But the prayer of Stephen (and Jesus) seems apropos: forgive him [Saul], he's ignorant. His blindness at the encounter with the risen and ascended Christ is only the latest symbol of Saul's real situation. The other details--Saul's three day fast and the like--point to his sharing the sufferings (with the pattern of death, burial, resurrection) of the one whom he was persecuting.

Though much has often been made--and for good reason--about brave Ananias, the disciple who hears and obeys the commandment from the Lord to "Go!" to Saul, what are we to make of the equally important person named Judas? We know his name and his address on Straight Street in Damascus, and we know that he is a man of hospitality.

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Judas welcomes this murderer into his house; he provides shelter and eventually provides food, and perhaps even the pool in which Saul was baptized. But Judas does not receive the acclaim that Ananias receives. I doubt any of us could have named him if the question had come up in a trivia game before we read the scripture this morning.

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Ananias in his approach to Saul foreshadows Peter, who in the very next chapter of Acts must be told three times not to call anything impure that God has made clean. Peter is sent to the home of Cornelius, a centurion in the Italian regiment, and must embrace him as a brother and stay with him as a guest. In order to accept his mission from the Lord, Peter must overcome the prejudice he has against things that Jesus said cannot defile a person, for example, what a person eats. But Ananias had to overcome his fear of Saul's past, a real past, full of persecution and murder, things that Jesus said come out of a person and so do defile the person. So Ananias rightly receives his due, but what about Judas, Saul's host while Saul ate, drank, slept, and gained strength in Damascus and began to preach the gospel? Without Judas, there cannot be an Ananias or an answer to Saul's prayers for restoration. Without Judas, the person Jesus has chosen as an instrument to suffer and to carry the name Jesus before the Gentiles and their kings and before Israel itself would not have known the grace that accompanies Christ's judgment, the strength that comes from our fellowship with brothers and sisters, and the mission on which he would embark at once to bring the gospel to Greek speakers.

Hospitality is important. Hospitality to those against whom we hold prejudices is vital to the gospel. Hospitality to our enemies will rock the world.

John 21:1-19

Forgiveness, Welcome, Call

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Jesus provides ample example of this Way toward forgiveness and hospitality in his appearance by the Sea of Tiberias. Here are the disciples who forsook him and denied him at the crucial hour. They have shown what sort of men they are. Simon Peter is here, leading the pack back to fishing for fish. The risen Jesus, still without permanent room and board, welcomes their return with open arms on the shore, sharing his fire and his fish. Jesus meets them with an invitation to fellowship: "Come and have breakfast." After breakfast Jesus takes Peter aside and tells him to feed and tend the sheep, renewing Peter's call to follow Jesus.

So Peter and Paul are joined in this week's reading as recipients of the Lord's forgiveness, hospitality, and call.

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