- The Washington Times - Monday, July 23, 2007

The following are excerpts of a sermon given recently at Arlington Presbyterian Church by the Rev. Sharon K. Core, church pastor.

That Paul is a controversial figure in the life of the Christian church is without contest. That opinions about Paul range from total disregard to complete embrace is also without contest. And what I would venture to guess is that our reaction to Paul has something to do with how we understand some of his writings or how we have heard some of his writings interpreted.

But how did Paul get his start? How much of his story do we know? The first time we meet Paul, Luke calls him by his Jewish name, Saul. Saul makes his appearance at the stoning of Stephen. As hatred and rage overtake the crowd, Saul stands on the sidelines guarding the coats of those hurling the stones. And that day when Stephen was killed, a severe persecution begins against the church — and Saul is leading the charge. He ravages the church. He travels from house to house, dragging off women and men and throwing them into prison. Their crime? Their faith — their willingness and conviction to be followers of the Way.

Saul is relentless in his persecution. Why he exhibits such hatred and terror is not known. Perhaps he cannot fathom the idea that people would live believing that God — not Rome, not the nations — rules the world. Such a belief cannot be reconciled with a progressive world empire.

The day Saul travels to Damascus, we are reminded we are still in the company of public enemy No. 1. He is still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. He now goes to the religious authorities and asks for letters of introduction to the synagogues in Damascus, so that he may carry out his reign of persecution there. With letter in hand, Saul makes his way to Damascus.

As he nears the city, light flashes around him. It drives Saul to his knees and a voice thunders: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul is confused as he asks for identification. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” comes the reply. Jesus tells Saul to get up, go into the city and await further instructions.

Saul”s traveling companions are dumbfounded. They hear the voice, but see no one. With a mother”s tender hand, they help Saul to his feet and guide him into the city. The once-feared persecutor of the church is rendered helpless.

As Ananias greets the day, he may have some idea of how he would like to spend his time. The conversation with God probably was not on his list — especially when he hears what God wants him to do: “Go to Judas” house on Straight Street and look for Saul.”

Now, there were no BlackBerrys, or wireless Internet or TVs at the local market. But news did spread, especially bad news. Had he heard God right? Surely not Saul, not the one responsible for imprisoning so many people. Surely this can”t be the one God is talking about.

God turns a deaf ear to Ananias” objections. “Go,” God says. “He”s my choice to take My name to the Gentiles and the kings and the people of Israel.” What exactly is God thinking? God is choosing Saul — the one who condoned Stephen”s killing, the one hauling men and women off to jail, the one breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. This is the one God is choosing to proclaim God”s name to the Gentiles?

God”s choice of Saul is an affront to the apostles and cheapens Stephen”s memory. If God really follows through with this, there are going to be huge credibility issues. God, at the very least, should have Saul vetted. And Ananias tries; Ananias tries to get God to rethink this whole thing. But God is determined and commands Ananias to “go,” for God has already made up God”s mind.

Traveling through the streets of Damascus, Ananias must be playing the conversation with God over in his mind. “Saul, I cannot believe God is sending me to see Saul. He is the last person I want to spend time with. And God may have gone too far this time. Yes, Moses had his issues. Jacob was no prince charming. David surely had his share of mess-ups. But we”re talking about Saul here — the one who has done absolutely nothing to deserve God”s grace.”

That”s what I would have been thinking anyway. My human judgment in response to God”s activity.

The grace of God is communicated to Saul with the touch of Ananias” hands — offering him healing, the promise of the Holy Spirit, claimed in baptism.

It is possible, is it not, that not only has Saul been converted, but Ananias as well? It is possible, is it not, that the undeserved grace given to Saul has also been given to Ananias? It is possible, is it not, that the same opportunity for conversion and the same grace is given to us as well?

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