This Sunday I decided to major on the first reading from Acts – the conversion of Saint Paul – rather than the gospel reading. Here’s what I said.
Where would we be if Jesus had decided to do background checks, or even criminal record checks, on those he wanted to be his apostles? Would he have appointed them? Or would he have decided that they weren’t suitable candidates for the job?
After the resurrection the eleven – the original twelve minus Judas Iscariot – had been keeping their heads down because they were fearful of the Jewish authorities. Whether they had actually done anything that the authorities deemed to be criminally wrong we shall never know because Acts doesn’t tell us, but they may well have had their names on an official blacklist. Paul, of course, is a different matter. Paul – or Saul as he was originally known – was, to be blunt, not a particularly nice person when we first come across him. He is a religious zealot, hounding followers of Jesus and putting them to death simply because he didn’t agree with their religious beliefs. He wants every follower of Jesus off the streets.
It doesn’t take much to imagine the outcry today if a new Pope, or a new Archbishop of Canterbury, or a new Patriarch of Constantinople, were found to have been complicit in the persecution and deaths of people because they didn’t like their religious faith. They would have a great deal of explaining to do and almost certainly would be pressurised into resigning. And yet that’s exactly the kind of person that Jesus chose when he confronted Saul on the Damascus road.
Saul, Luke tells us, is breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. And he goes off to Damascus to arrest and bring back bound to Jerusalem anyone he finds who belong to the Way. The Way is what the first followers of Jesus called the new movement – it wasn’t until later that they became known as Christians. And on the way to Damascus his life is changed. Jesus appears to him. And he asks Saul why Saul is persecuting him. Saul asks who he is, though I can’t help thinking that an intelligent person like Saul must have had an inkling – this was no ordinary encounter along the road. But ask he does – and Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting …” And at that moment Saul’s life changes.
I don’t think that anyone with Saul’s background would ever get through the selection procedures for ordination today, let alone be selected as a Pope or an Archbishop of Canterbury. And it comes as no surprise to find that, after Saul becomes Paul – after he comes to understand what his new calling is and he becomes as fervent a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ as he was previously an opponent of it, the other apostles and followers of Jesus were deeply suspicious and it took a long time for him to be accepted.
Luke tells how immediately after his encounter with Jesus he becomes blind. He is taken to Damascus where his sight is restored by Ananias, he is baptised, and staying with the disciples in Damascus he immediately begins to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues. It actually didn’t happen that quickly – as quickly as it seems to in Acts. We know, because Paul himself tells us in his letter to the Galatians, that after his calling by Jesus he then went away to Arabia before returning to Damascus. And he then stayed there for three years before he finally returned to Jerusalem to meet with Peter. And then, after staying with Peter for fifteen days he went off to Syria and Cilicia, and the churches across Judea started to hear about this man who had persecuted them but was now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy. I’d take a bet that he’d never get through his Criminal Records check today.
And yet Jesus chose him. Just, as we heard in our gospel reading today, Jesus chose those who had deserted him. And just as he chose Simon Peter who had turned his back on Jesus and denied knowing him. Jesus seems to have had a habit of choosing the most unsuitable people to be his apostles. After the resurrection neither Peter or Paul had any desire to follow Jesus and preach about him. If either of them had found themselves being considered by the Crown Appointments Commission today, or by the College of Cardinals – and it’s pretty certain that they wouldn’t – I don’t believe for a minute that they would be selected for church leadership.
But the important thing to remember about Paul’s call is, of course, that it came from Jesus, not from people. And Jesus wasn’t about to wait and see if the other apostles agreed.
Jesus had, as we all know, chosen twelve apostles – twelve men to were to be the leaders of the new church after the resurrection. But one betrayed him – Judas – leaving eleven. After the resurrection, and having begun to grasp their own calling from Jesus, the church leaders believed that the number should be brought back up to twelve, so they came up with two candidates for the job – Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas. It was a bit like the Crown Appointments Commission. Firstly provide two candidates – offer them to the Prime Minister, or on this occasion God. Then wait for the choice to be made – or not, as the case might be. The eleven waited for God to show them which of the two was to fill the place left by Judas. But they clearly didn’t get an answer as they had to resort to casting lots. God, of course, had already made his choice – Paul was to be the twelfth apostle. Matthias, whom the eleven had chosen, is never mentioned again in the New Testament.
The important lesson that the early Church had to learn, and that we still have to learn, is that the Church is not run on the same lines as other organisations. It is not a democracy. We do not make decisions about the Church of Jesus Christ by majority vote and then tell God what they are. We do not tell God who his ministers will be – he calls them. And as the calling of Saul, who would become Paul the apostle to the Gentiles, makes clear, he doesn’t call people on the basis of upright moral character. He doesn’t draw up a list of qualities that would tally with those we might think necessary. And God actually has a pretty good track record of choosing the most unsuitable people – Moses, who led the children of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land, was a murderer; David, the ideal King and ancestor of Jesus, was a murder, and an adulterer to boot!
God has his own agenda – and that is actually pretty key to our understanding of what it means to be a Christian and of how we understand our calling. If Jesus hadn’t presented himself to Saul on the Damascus road, Saul the persecutor, and chosen him to convey the good news to the Gentile world, we would have none of Paul’s teaching in the New Testament. And to give a prime example we would know, among other things, nothing of the great doctrine that we call Justification by Faith. Justification by Faith is Paul’s teaching that we are saved simply by believing in Jesus – how good we are is irrelevant, it is whether we believe that is important. As John Newton, the hymn-writer, put it:
The vilest offender who truly believes
That moment from Jesus a pardon believes.
By grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, says Paul in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul knew his unworthiness more than anyone – and Paul knew he had been chosen.
Sometimes people find it hard to be a Christian. They find it hard, not because they don’t want to follow Jesus, but because they feel unworthy somehow. They feel that if God knew what they were really like he wouldn’t want them. That they’ve done things in their life that they’re ashamed of and don’t want to face up to. Or other people make them feel that they not very good Christians, or they’ve been told by someone in the Church that their lifestyle is wrong or that they don’t conform. God, of course, knows exactly what you are like – and he loves you and wants you to serve his Son Jesus.
The thing is, if any of us we waited until we were good enough to respond to the call of Jesus, our churches would be empty. And there’d be no priests either. The message today, from Paul, from Peter, from the other disciples, is that God calls us no matter what or who we are, no matter what our lives might be like under the surface. He tells us he loves us and he says to each of us as he said to Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ He says to each of us, as he said to Paul, ‘I know what you’ve been doing and how you’ve been behaving – and I forgive you and want you to follow me.’ That’s all there is to it. Of course, if we are willing to be open to the calling from Jesus who loves us and simply wants us to love him, we have no idea where that might lead. For Peter and Paul it meant martyrdom, traditionally on the same day on the 29th June in the year 64.
Jesus knows exactly what you are like. Jesus knows exactly what a background check on your past would bring up. And he isn’t bothered, for he reaches out in love and says, ‘Follow me.” Of course, if we follow him then – just as Saul’s life changed from Saul the persecutor of Christians to Paul the proclaimer of Christianity, so our lives change. We set the old life behind, whatever it may contain, and embark on a new future. What might it mean for each of us? There are never any certainties with Jesus except one – eternal life. All we can do is be open to the possibilities of service and of ministry that God might have for us, and embrace a future in Jesus’ service with humility, but also willingly – with the same kind of commitment and devotion that Paul and Peter showed as they embraced their futures as apostles of Jesus Christ..