Emmanuel, Champaign—Acts 9:1-19a
During these Sundays after Easter, the first reading is always from the Acts of the Apostles, taking the place of the Old Testament reading that usually goes in that spot. Last week, we encountered the incredible thick-headedness of Peter and the other apostles. They were thrown in jail for talking about Jesus and healing people in the name of Jesus and generally insisting that Jesus was risen from the dead and now ascended back into Heaven, from whence he had come. But in the middle of the night, the angel of the Lord let them out of jail. And what did they do then? They went right back to talking about Jesus—this time, right in the Temple, right under the noses of the authorities. And we saw in their behavior a model for a mission-driven church: A mission-driven church takes the battle right into the adversary’s home turf. A mission-driven church doesn’t react; it acts.
Today, we have an equally dramatic and rich narrative from Acts to delve into. It’s the familiar story of a devout Jew named Saul. Saul is a Pharisee, a member of a privileged sector of Jewish society. He is zealous for the honor and integrity of Jewish religion. He would have been among those who supported the demands of the authorities that the apostles get over their obsession with Jesus, and go back to Galilee and take up fishing again. He was present when Stephen was stoned to death, holding the coats of those who were tossing the rocks. We find Saul today, in the ninth chapter of Acts, on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus—the same ancient city that is the capital of Syria today. He’s on a mission. The purpose of his trip is to round up as many Christians as he can find and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial and punishment.
But, as we know, a funny thing happened to Saul on his way to Damascus. The risen Jesus appeared to him in the midst of a blinding light and a voice from the sky. Jesus simply informed Saul—didn’t invite, didn’t ask permission, just informed—Jesus informed Saul that he was going to start playing for the other team, and, in fact, become one of the key movers and shakers in the spread of Christianity.
When I discovered major league baseball in the summer of 1962, just before my eleventh birthday, I developed a particular attachment to the particular players who played for my team, the Chicago Cubs. I can still tell you the names in the starting lineup and the pitching staff of that team. So it was difficult for me to wrap my mind around the concept that teams would sometimes trade players, one for another. (Mercifully, this was long before the days of free agency, which still makes me cringe.) I mean, how can you be giving it your all for the Yankees one day, learn you’ve been traded, and be giving it your all for the Red Sox the next day? There are actually stories of players being traded between games of a double header. It didn’t seem quite right to me. But, believe me, that’s nothing compared to what Saul went through. He was an avid persecutor of the church one day, and being baptized the next. And soon thereafter, using the Greco-Latin version of his name—Paul—he was well on his way toward becoming the single most influential Christian there has ever been.
But it was never an easy journey for Paul, was it? He would go on to suffer misunderstanding from his fellow Jews, disputes with his Christian colleagues, beatings, imprisonment, shipwrecks, and finally execution at the hands of the Roman government. But I doubt that any of this came as a surprise to Paul. At least it didn’t to the first Christian who ever ministered to him, the one who was his “handler,” so to speak, in the process of his defection, a man named Ananias. Ananias required some convincing before he agreed to take on such a role. Saul’s reputation had preceded him to Damascus, and Ananias didn’t fancy being hauled back to Jerusalem in handcuffs. So the Lord spoke to Ananias in a vision and said, “Go, for [Saul] is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” In others words, “It’s OK. He’s been traded. He’s on the same team with you now.” And then he added this little bit, which almost seems like an afterthought, except that when we stop to ponder it, it sheds a whole different light on the entire situation: “For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Apparently, God had never heard the expression, “Accentuate the positive; eliminate the negative.” God didn’t know the first thing about spin control. “For I will show him how much he must suffer for sake of my name.” Saul wasn’t being recruited; he was being drafted! He was effectively being dragooned, impressed into service, by God. There was a war going on: A war against the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God, a war against the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God, a war against a whole range of sinful desires that draw men and women and children away from the love of God. God wanted to deploy the most talented and capable leadership into the battlefields of that war. Of course, war is risky business. There are casualties. People get wounded and killed. So it’s appropriate that, at some point, God get realistic with Saul about what to expect. But, as he explains the situation to Ananias, the Lord never says “Saul might suffer” or even “Saul will suffer.” It’s not merely a possibility, nor is it simply a certainty. It’s a necessity. “For I will show him how much he must suffer for sake of my name.”
Suffering, it appears, is not merely incidental to the pursuit of Christian mission. It’s not just a by-product of faithfulness to the gospel call to follow and obey Christ. It’s counter-intuitive, I realize, and difficult to wrap our minds around, but somehow suffering is an instrumental component of effective mission. Any war produces casualties, but casualties are considered tragic nonetheless, and every effort is made to minimize them. That’s why, ever since the invention of the spear, the evolution of military technology is a series of attempts to inflict damage on the enemy at a distance, so as to not put one’s own personnel at risk. But in the war that we are engaged in on behalf of the Kingdom of God, casualties are not just a necessary evil. They are the very links in that chain that leads to victory.
In the early 1990s, I served a small mission congregation in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We had in that congregation a fifteen-year old boy named Jamey. Jamey and his mother and his two siblings were stalwarts in the parish; all three of the kids served regularly as acolytes. Early one evening, Jamey was riding his bicycle while running an errand for his younger sister. He was hit by a car, suffered a massive closed head injury, and a couple of days later became a multiple organ donor. It was a horrible tragedy. But in the wake of that tragedy, Jamey’s father, who was an alcoholic very much not in recovery, who had nothing to do with the church or with any practice of Christian faith, and was not much of a presence to his family—Jamey’s father turned his life around, by the grace of God. He got sober, and came to a living faith in Christ, and he is still a faithful Christian disciple 25 years later. And in the parish I served in California for 13 years, there was a woman whose experience of the illness and death of a brother was the occasion for a spiritual rebirth that has yielded abundant fruit over a period of several years. We could probably spend the rest of the day telling and cataloging such stories. They are the very building blocks of the church’s life and witness. Does God send or cause these tragedies in order to save those who are left behind? Heavens, no. But the God whom we serve is a master at exploiting the awful things that happen to us and turning them to good.
“For I will show him how much he must suffer for sake of my name.” Today we’re doing some baptizing and confirming. After I lay hands on each of the candidates and pray over them, I will then symbolically slap each of them on the cheek. It won’t be enough to knock them over or leave any marks, so there will be no actual violence done! But it’s a tradition that is meant to be a reminder that to take the vows of a Christian disciple—which is exactly what we do when we’re baptized or confirmed—to take the vows of a Christian disciple is to lay oneself open to a kind of suffering that is not otherwise necessary. It is to express a certain degree of solidarity with Saul on the road to Damascus, to allow ourselves to be blinded and overcome by the light of the presence of the risen Christ in our lives, to hear his voice conscripting us into service, and to show ourselves ready to learn how much we must suffer for the sake of his name.
Alleluia and Amen.