Last week, we stood with Peter as he faced his accusers in court. This week, we stand next to Paul as he seeks to root out the weed called “The Way” and the followers of this upstart from Galilee named Jesus; then he receives his invitation to join this movement that will change the world, even as it changes him.
“But wait,” you’re saying, “this isn’t Paul; this is Saul; this is before the name change, right?” Well, maybe we should hold on there on that one. There are plenty of stories where the character receives a change in name to signify a change in essence or something significant about his/her life. We think of Jacob who was renamed Israel because he wrestled with God. We think of Abram and Sarai who become Abraham and Sarah to signal their parenting a new people. We think of Simon, who was renamed Peter, the Rock, so that Jesus could build a church on him. And we preachers love a redemption story so much we talk about Saul who became Paul because he gave up his former life of oppression in favor of a new walk with this Jesus. But the name wasn’t changed. Paul/Saul lived in multiple worlds before he encountered Christ and continued to do so afterward. The first time the new name is referenced is Acts 13, verse 9, where it simply says “Saul, who was also called Paul.” He was both and remained both. Some might say that he was Saul in a Hebrew context and Paul in a Gentile or Roman context. But he was both.
That is not to say that there wasn’t a change or a redirection in the trajectory of his life. There certainly was; he refers to it many times in the letters he writes to the churches he helped to launch or wanted to help shepherd. Here are the bare bones of that encounter without Paul’s interpretation. Whether you take the shorter text assigned for this week or add in the full twenty verse description, it is a powerful story, and it is centered on identity.
Who is this Saul and what motivates him? It isn’t really all that clear from the thin outline that we are provided here. More will be revealed as the story unfolds, but here there isn’t much. Back up to the end of chapter 7 and the beginning of chapter 8, and you’ll get more about Saul. His bloodthirsty nature and his zeal to purify the faith are in plain view. Our text today begins with Saul “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” The image is one of a mad bull, snorting after the cape-wielding adversary, a rabid animal panting after its prey. It’s not a flattering picture, to say the least.
You can’t help but bring to mind the fervor in the faces and voices of those caught by cell phone video attempting to rid their neighborhoods of “unsavory characters” of a different race or religion, the self-proclaimed Christians threatening to take down a “demonic” school board who would dare impose a mask mandate on their children.
It’s enough to make you hope for a flash of light from heaven and the voice that asks, “Just who are you persecuting?” I know, that isn’t what it says. But that’s what is behind it. We think the identity issue in this text is who is Paul/Saul. But he knows the identity issue is, “Who is this Lord?” That’s his question when the light and voice come and knock him down. “Who are you, Lord?” He knows it isn’t about his identity, at least in that moment, there is someone more powerful, more present than he has been, even in his search for meaning and purpose and the purity of his faith. Don’t read too much into the “Lord” in his question. Read it as sir or something polite but not necessarily a statement of allegiance. That will come later. For now, he needs to listen.
Notice, in the extended text that Saul is now blind. He who was so driven, he who was so sure, he who made distinctions, he who sized up the enemy at a glance, now has to be guided, now he has to listen to a voice other than his own. Darryl Stephens says that despite what we might think, being a witness doesn’t always mean speaking; that in fact, the moral witness of the church begins with listening. “To bear witness is to unburden our neighbors from the agony of an untold story. We are called to be present and attentive, to hear one another’s stories. And then, to care for that story as if it were our own.” (Dr. Darryl Stephens in Bearing Witness in the Kin-dom: Living into the Church’s Moral Witness through Radical Discipleship, United Methodist Women, 2021, 35.)
What voices do we need to hear the voice of Christ today? What voices have been silenced in our certainty? What stories have been ignored in an age of shouting and anger? Do we know the Lord we seek to follow, the one whose name we take and whose path we follow? “Who are you, Lord?” is a question we need to ask as fervently as did the blinded, frightened Saul lying on the side of the road to Damascus.
He needed to listen to others who would help him know his own story or the new story that he was writing with his life even now. He was to be a witness to the one who called him, but he needed to learn that he finds that one by listening to many others. Those who will help him find his way on the journey begin with a question: “Who are you, Lord?”