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From Saul to Paul

The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

Scripture: Acts 9:1-20

The second testament of our scriptures, what is often called the New Testament, is dominated by the writings of a man called Paul. And some writings from people claiming to be Paul, but that’s a different sermon. Besides the four gospel writers—and let’s remember that it was the gospel writer Luke who also wrote the Acts of the Apostles—the bishops at the Synod of Hippo in the year 393 decided that Paul would be the first and foremost theologian of the Christian Church when they officially canonized the Bible.

There’s a lot to be said about the process that brought us the scriptures we read today—how so many of the decisions of what to include and what not to include had to do with what powerful bishops at the time wanted people to believe—or not believe.

There’s a lot to be said. But for now, I’m going to trust that the Holy Spirit guided those decisions. I’m going to trust that whatever small-mindedness those bishops brought to that process, the Holy Spirit took and transformed, so that we—16 centuries later—could also be transformed.

I’m going to trust, despite some misgivings, that the Spirit wanted Paul to be the first and foremost theologian of our faith. I mean, today in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear God’s call for Paul: God says to the disciple Ananias, “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”

But what’s funny—well, not funny at all really—is that when we first meet Saul—who would later become Paul—in chapter seven of the Acts, he is overseeing the brutal lynching of a follower of Jesus. He is watching his community stone Stephen to death for preaching the good news of Christ. And while Saul doesn’t participate in the actual lynching, we are told explicitly that he bears witness to and approves of the murder.

You see, Saul is something of a leader amongst his people. He’s passionate, firey—zealous, some might say. He’s compelling. People want to listen to him. People want to follow him. It’s a gift, really, his charisma. And after using his gift to sanction the lynching of Stephen, he goes on a rampage. We’re told that he “ravages the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, throwing them in prison.” His goal was to cleanse Jerusalem of anyone who claimed to be a follower of Jesus. And he was effective.

But then we hear today’s reading. Saul on the road to Damascus. He’s thrown to the ground when a light from heaven flashes around him. Then Jesus appears to him. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He is suddenly blinded, and he stays that way for three days until God convinces Ananias to lay hands on him. Then, we’re told, the scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and he can see. And he now sees things differently. He is baptized and begins proclaiming Jesus wherever he goes.

It’s quite the change. Quite the conversation. Quite the transformation. Well, kind of. The fact is, when Saul becomes Paul, when he becomes a follower of Jesus, his personality doesn’t change. Paul doesn’t lose his passion, his fire, his zeal. Because that’s how God made him, and that’s why God called him to be a leader in God’s church. He’d just been misusing those gifts God gave him that whole time.

I think that’s something Paul really took to heart when he experienced his own resurrection through Jesus. I think it’s something that defined his theology of the Body of Christ: “To each is given a manifestation of the Spirit for the common good,” he wrote in his first letter to the Corinthians. God gives each of us unique gifts to bring good into this world.

But, like Saul, we don’t always use those gifts for the common good.

There’s no lack of Christian leaders with an enormous gift of charisma who have used those gifts to hurt people in their community. Jim Bakker and Rick Warren who made themselves wealthy off the tithes of their flock. Catholic bishops who have harmed children. Cult leaders like Jim Jones who brought death on his followers and devastation of their communities.

There’s no lack of political leaders who have used their gift of charisma to enrich themselves and systematically oppress and harm people who they’ve deemed undeserving of dignity and thriving. I don’t think I need to name any names.

But it’s not just charisma. There are skilled coders out there who use their gift to hack into people’s lives and steal money and information. Skilled accountants who use their gift to shuffle money where it’s not supposed to go.

These are, of course, extreme cases. Most of us are not using our gifts in such nefarious ways. Most of us are not actively harming those around us.

But I would venture to say that a lot of us don’t have the common good at the front of our minds when it comes to using our gifts. We think about ourselves and probably our families first, but does it extend further than that? How are you sharing your gifts? Where are you giving them? How far do your gifts reach?

Are you using your gifts for the common good?

Flannery O’Connor wrote of Paul: “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”

I think Paul was actually pretty lucky to get knocked off his proverbial horse. Not all of us get a flash of light and the voice of Jesus to tell us that something needs to change, to call us to better use of our gifts. And to be fair, Saul was pretty terrible and needed a good, strong kick in the pants.

But I do think Jesus is trying to wake us up, to move us from our inner Saul to our life-giving Paul.

The other day, I heard a series of loud shouts outside of my open window, a voice yelling a word I won’t say during worship over and over again in long, agonized howls. It was haunting, disturbing, and it went on for minutes. So I went to my window to find the source of the sound, and I saw a man with very matted hair in disheveled clothes and no shoes, whose face was contorted with some kind of pain. He was clearly altered, perhaps with substances, perhaps in acute mental distress. I didn’t know.

My first inclination was to shut the window, drown out the sound of that man’s pain because it was making me very uncomfortable. But I’d been working on this sermon and thinking about how Jesus knocked Paul down with his presence, and I wondered if Jesus was trying to do the same for me through this man.

Now I worked as a street chaplain long enough to know when to intervene and when to keep my distance, and I knew this man wouldn’t be able to engage with me in that moment. But I kept the window open, I kept listening to his shouting, and I wondered, am I using my gifts for his thriving?

I gotta give it to Paul. When he shifted, when he decided to follow Jesus, he took all the passion and zeal and charisma he had used to harm people he disagreed with, and he wielded those same gifts to preach the gospel, to teach Jesus’ love, to call people to step into their own gifts of the Spirit for the common good.

He was once Saul, someone who we would call evil. But then he became Paul, and his words written so many centuries ago continue to call us to step into our gifts of the Spirit for the common good. That’s a resurrection story, and it’s a story that’s waiting to be born in each of us every moment.

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