From the Abstract Lord to the Concrete Jesus

Acts 9:1-19a

Jeremy Richards 

For the last 4 Sundays we’ve been talking about journeys. We’ve been talking about how we’re on a faith journey, as individuals and as a church, and we’ve been looking at stories in Scripture about people who travel from one place to another.  From these stories we hope to learn something about ourselves and where God is leading us.

So far this theme seems to resonate with all of us, it’s easy to see ourselves on a journey. We all believe we’re going somewhere, spiritually speaking. We’re travelling from one place to another. But today’s reading asks: what happens when we are, indeed, on a journey, but we’re going the wrong way? What happens when we get the message wrong, when we’re zealous, but our zeal is misplaced. What happens when our faith isn’t healing but is hurting, isn’t helping but hindering?

We all want to be good. We all want to live morally upright lives. As people of faith, we believe this is tied to who God is and who we are as God’s good creation. We look to God to give us guidance and direction. More than that, we actually ask God to work in us, to make us better.

Many people today would probably say something similar. Most people want to be good. They might believe in a different God, but whatever God they believe in, they would probably see obeying that God and living rightly as the same thing. Others may not believe in any God but they still want to live a good life. We all hope that when future generations look back at our day and age in their history books, we will have stood on the right side of history.

The same is true of Saul of Tarsus, who we read about today. Saul, better known to us as Paul (Saul is simply the Hebrew version of his name, and Paul the Roman version), was a zealous Pharisee – a Jewish teacher of the law. Saul was the cream of the crop, as far as Pharisees go. In his letter to the Philippians, Paul gives a brief biographical sketch: “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4-6). He was trained by Gamaliel, a famous Pharisee, and was extremely well educated in both the Hebrew Scriptures and Hellenistic philosophy.

Outside of Jesus himself, no one person has been more influential on the Christian faith and theology than Paul. He established churches all around the known world. 13 of the 21 New Testament letters are attributed to Paul (though they probably weren’t all actually written by him).

But Paul wasn’t one of the original disciples. He never met Jesus prior to the story we heard today. Quite the opposite. The first time we meet Saul – I’m going to call him Saul from here on out, since that’s how he’s named in our reading today – is at the murder of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, which Saul approves of. As Stephen is being stoned to death in Acts 7, the crowd lays their coats “at the feet of a young man named Saul” (v. 58). A few verses later we hear about Saul again: “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:3). When we first meet Saul, he’s on the wrong side of history. When we first meet this great missionary of the church, who established churches all around the Mediterranean, he isn’t building the Church up, he’s doing his best to knock it down.

Pre-conversion Saul believed whole-heartedly that he was doing the right thing. He believed in Yahweh, the God of Israel, and had committed his life to following God. For Saul, following God meant following the law handed down to Moses on Mt. Sinai – we should note that Jesus also believed this, though he interpreted the law very differently than Saul (Matt. 5:17-18). We often think of “the law” as something negative – ironically enough, this is largely based on Saul’s later letters – but that’s a misunderstanding of the law. The law was considered by Israel to be a wonderful gift from God. It told the people of God how to live in harmony with God and one another. Psalm 119, the longest psalm in the book of Psalms, is titled, “The Glories of God’s Law.” Just listen to this section: Read Psalm 119:97-105.

To Saul, and the Israelites, and even Jesus himself, the law was this beautiful gift, keeping them on the right path. If they saw themselves on a journey, as we do, the laws were the signposts along the road, guiding them in the way of God.

So when this new sect arises, what was originally called the Way, what we now call Christianity, Saul sees it as a dangerous divergence from the law God established. God had shown the Jews how to live in harmony with the God, one another, the earth, and now this new teaching has emerged that seems to contradict much of what Saul’s been taught. As this new ideology emerges, he commits himself to stopping it, to bringing the people back to God, back to true religion, not because he’s just an angry, violent person, but because he wants God’s shalom – God’s peace – to reign, and he firmly believes that that shalom is in danger.

Maybe you can relate? Have you, today, seen dangerous ideologies that you disagree with emerge? Have you been filled with anger? Maybe you haven’t gone so far as stoning anyone or throwing anyone in jail, but have you thought violent thoughts? Have you said violent words – to those who are on the other side or about them? Have you, in the name of love, began to hate others. Have you, in the name of peace, dreamt of violence?

It’s so easy isn’t it? There’s so much hate and division and dehumanization in the world right now. One of the scariest things about it, though, is the way that, in reacting to it, we so often participate in it.

We see people and politicians and religious leaders so full of hate and anger that we are filled with anger, and we hate them.

We see people and politicians and religious leaders breeding division, using “us vs. them” language, and we can’t believe the people who continue to support them and so we say, “I give up on them.” And so we contribute to the divide. We identify our own “us” and “them.”

We see people and politicians and religious leaders dehumanize our fellow human beings, and we’re sickened by it, so what do we call those people and politicians and religoius leaders? Monsters, animals, or worse. We dehumanize them.

In Saul’s own words, from one of his most famous letters, Romans, we do the very thing we hate (7:15).

It’s so easy to be like young Saul – so zealous for the good that we’re willing to think, speak, and possibly even do great evil. It’s the story of every major empire. It’s the story of Rome and the story of the United States. In order to bring about peace, we’ll do unspeakable acts of violence. This story isn’t unique to Saul, it’s the story of humanity. It’s our shared story. We are sure that our way of life is right, and the whole world would be at peace if people only believed what we believe, acted how we act, valued what we value. But they don’t, and they are obviously wrong, not us, and so, in order to bring about peace, we kill, imprison, or at the very least humiliate them – showing that they are stupid, ignorant, and misguided.

But there is someone whose story is different. There is someone who somehow broke free of this circular pattern of becoming the very thing we stand against, and he is the one who appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus: Jesus Christ.

The risen Christ meets Saul, his enemy, in the midst of his misguided journey, and instead of meeting his violence with violence, his hate with hate, Jesus asks a question startling in it’s vulnerability. Our Bibles translate it, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” But it could better be translated, “Saul, Saul, why are you hurting me?”[i]

This question shows the radical nature of God in Christ. God in Christ becomes vulnerable to the point of death, God takes on skin able to be pierced by nails and spears, God takes on a body frail enough to succumb to death. Christ in the church continues this vulnerability, so that he actually feels our hurt. Jesus tells Saul that by hurting the disciples of Jesus, Jesus is hurt. “Saul, why are you hurting me?” Jesus asks. Saul, in his later letters to the churches, will consistently use the phrase “in Christ” – we are “in Christ.” In this story we see that this isn’t simply metaphorical language. We are in Christ, so much so that Christ feels our hurts as his very own.

God isn’t a gray-haired old man in the sky, moving out lives about like puzzle pieces, arbitrarily choosing to help us or not help us. God is present in everyday people, every day elements, everyday bread and wine. That’s what we celebrate at Communion – not that God can be reduced to those things, but that God has chosen to enter into our lives fully, even into everyday food and drink, even into our smallest joys and successes, and even into our pain and trauma. God feels what we feel. That’s what Jesus says on the road to Damascus. “Saul, why are you hurting me?”

This is, in some ways, comforting, but it’s also upsetting, because it means God rarely, if ever, saves us in the way we want God to be saved. Like the psalmist, we often pray that God would crush our enemies. We want them to pay – to be shamed and humiliated, to feel our pain. We want them to suffer. But that’s not how Jesus saves us. Instead, Jesus saves through relationship, through conversation, through vulnerability. Jesus saves through love. That’s the way to transform the world: love.

It’s not that we don’t stand up to injustice and exploitation and abuse. It’s that we break free of the cyclical pattern of violence begetting violence. We do want to change the world, we want those people spewing hate and anger and division on our TVs and our Facebook pages to be transformed, but we create change not by reciprocating that hate and anger and division, but through love.

Jesus’ response to his greatest opponent is to make him into his greatest apostle. In Jesus’ interaction with Saul on the road to Damascus, Jesus obeys the most radical of his own teachings, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.”

On Saul’s journey, he meets a God who doesn’t create change the way he thinks God does – through violence and fear. Instead, he finds out he’s been on the wrong path. He’s misunderstood Yahweh. On the road to Damascus, Jesus corrects Saul’s missteps and points him toward radical love as the only means to peace, to shalom. In the words of the wonderful theologian Willie Jennings, on the road to Damascus Saul “turns from the abstract Lord to the concrete Jesus,” from “an abstract obedience to a concrete one, from the Lord he aims to please to the One who will direct him according to divine pleasure.”[ii]

So long as God is abstract, God becomes an idol. Whether we mean to or not, we’ll make God in our own image. God will be one who thinks like us, acts like us, has values like us. God’s enemies will conveniently be our enemies, God’s friends our friends.

(God’s team will be our team this afternoon at 3:30 PM)

But in Jesus, we are constantly confronted by the God we would never make up if it was left to us. This is, perhaps, the most solid proof that Jesus is God: we would never invent a God like Jesus. We would invent a God who not only thinks like us, but who also rises victorious above God’s enemies (who, of course, are our enemies). Not a God who appears with a flash of light only to ask, with pain in his voice, “Saul, why are you hurting me?” not a God who’s identified first and foremost by the marks of nails in his hands and his feet.

We are all in danger, all the time, of making God into our own image, and allowing that God to justify our anger, our prejudice, our judgements, our greed, our selfishness. And what’s worse, we’re in danger of creating a God who lets enemies stay enemies, who sees some people as too far gone, as unredeemable. I know we all feel that way sometimes. I feel that way quite often. We see people on television who, understandably, make us sick, and we think there’s no hope for them. Ananias thought there was no hope for Saul of Tarsus, who was “breathing out threats and murder” (sound like anyone you know), and yet, when God appeared to him and told him to lay his hands on Saul so that Saul could regain his sight and begin his ministry, how does Ananias greet this great enemy of the church, the one who has broken up families and terrorized the innocent? “Brother Saul,” he says.

We would never think to call our enemies brother, sister, sibling. We would never think to lay gentle hands on them and pray for them. We would never think, let alone desire, to love like that.

That’s why Jesus is so vital to our journey as Christians. As a church, the one confession Grant Park requires for baptism is “Jesus is Lord.” We’ve committed to follow, worship, and serve – to model our lives after – the vulnerable God, the crucified God, the one who makes enemies into friends. Our Lord is the one who is oppressed and persecuted, but refuses to give up on the oppressor.

Jesus doesn’t appear to many of us the way he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus – with a flash of light – but he does confront us in much the same way throughout our lives. As we walk this journey of faith – as individuals and as a church – we’re constantly in danger of forsaking the concrete Jesus for the abstract God of our own making. But Jesus, sometimes gently and sometimes rather abruptly, confronts us along the way, and calls us back to the abundant life – the life of vulnerability, relationship, and radical love.

This is the most obvious and also the most radical takeaway we’ll get in this series on journeying together: that we should be a people and a church who follow Jesus. It’s a claim that’s easy to make, and one that’s almost impossible to follow.

Praise be to God that Jesus appears among us along the way, guiding us toward love, guiding us in the way of peace.

Amen.


[i] Willie James Jennings, Acts, 91.

[ii] Ibid 92