“My fellow Jews, listen to me as I make my defence before you!”
When they heard him speaking to them in Hebrew, they became even quieter; and Paul went on:
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up here in Jerusalem as a student of Gamaliel. I received strict instruction in the Law of our ancestors and was just as dedicated to God as are all of you who are here today. I persecuted to the death the people who followed this Way. I arrested men and women and threw them into prison. The High Priest and the whole Council can prove that I am telling the truth. I received from them letters written to fellow Jews in Damascus, so I went there to arrest these people and bring them back in chains to Jerusalem to be punished.
“As I was traveling and coming near Damascus, about midday a bright light from the sky flashed suddenly around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you persecute,’ he said to me. 9The men with me saw the light, but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. I asked, ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ and the Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go into Damascus, and there you will be told everything that God has determined for you to do.’ I was blind because of the bright light, and so my companions took me by the hand and led me into Damascus.
“In that city was a man named Ananias, a religious man who obeyed our Law and was highly respected by all the Jews living there. He came to me, stood by me, and said, ‘Brother Saul, see again!’ At that very moment I saw again and looked at him. He said, ‘The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see his righteous Servant, and to hear him speaking with his own voice. For you will be a witness for him to tell everyone what you have seen and heard. And now, why wait any longer? Get up and be baptized and have your sins washed away by praying to him.’
“I went back to Jerusalem, and while I was praying in the Temple, I had a vision, in which I saw the Lord, as he said to me, ‘Hurry and leave Jerusalem quickly, because the people here will not accept your witness about me.’ ‘Lord,’ I answered, ‘they know very well that I went to the synagogues and arrested and beat those who believe in you. And when your witness Stephen was put to death, I myself was there, approving of his murder and taking care of the cloaks of his murderers.’ ‘Go,’ the Lord said to me, ‘for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’”
A persecutor is sent out to preach to the persecuted.
As Paul makes his defence, we might wonder at his calling: Who is this man, that God has called him? Saul, by his own admission, was a persecutor; an oppressor. He sought out Christians – because their beliefs and ways of life were different than his own – and arrested, assaulted and murdered them. In an ironic twist God, having opened Paul’s eyes to the genuine and beautiful diversity of those around him, sends him out to those who are persecuted and excluded by Christians, the gentiles. Paul is converted from a religiously conservative persecutor to a religiously liberal (for his time!) liberator.
Where is the message in this for us today? This reflection will be published at the start of September, when I will be helping tutors and students to prepare for a new academic year at Westminster College as we prepare for, and share in, the ministry of the Church. We are all like Paul, to an extent. We are not the obvious choice. We are those who have not accessed higher/further education before, those who have previously been excluded from public positions on grounds of race, gender or sexuality, those who have been asked to leave churches because we were just a little different.
Like Paul, some of us have had vast theological shifts during our training: from conservative to liberal. From oppressor to liberator. From liberal to moderate. Or from labelled to firmly denying that these theological labels can exist or make sense. Like Paul, we find ourselves in a place and time where community matters more than labels and sharing the Gospel message, today, means speaking our truths. We might wonder at our calling. You might wonder at our calling. But, we are called, as we are. Are you called? Will you live your truth? Will you allow your eyes to be opened to diversity?
That diversity leads us to the second message for us today. Paul is sent out to speak to those who early Christians persecuted: the gentiles. In fact, he frequently has to chastise his siblings in Christ for their mistreatment of those who are different: pointing out that the law was given for some; whilst this new experience… Christ… Grace… has been given for all. Paul does not believe that the gentiles should be oppressed, forced to live under Israelite law. Instead, he believes that God’s grace frees them from legal obligation and inspires them to new life.
Who do Christians persecute today? Who do I persecute? Who do you persecute? Can we stop?
God, Creator, Liberator and Sustainer,
You create, re-create and call each one of us every day. Help us to hear your call and put down our weapons. Help us to hear your call and tear up our labels. Help us to hear your call and unlock the prisons of ideology which hold us captive. Help us to hear your call.
You liberate the oppressed and open the eyes of the oppressor. Help us to open our eyes and to see the truth. Help us to open our eyes and to notice those we oppress or shut out. Help us to open our eyes and to witness the diversity of your creation. Help us to open our eyes.
You sustain each and every one of us. Help us to open our mouths and taste the joy of your creation. Help us to open our mouths and speak our truths. Help us to open our mouths and speak up for those who have been silenced. Help us to open our mouths.
We commit today to creative ideas, liberative practices and sustaining stories,
Alex Clare-Young – training for ministry at Westminster College, Cambridge