A couple years ago my husband and I set out on a Bible quest. It started with a discussion about call stories, the passages in the Bible in which describe how God called people to do something specific. We were looking at Moses, Gideon, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Jeremiah, as the conversation went on we started to specifically talk about people who were not only called by God to do something specific but the people whose names God had changed as a part of their call. We wanted to look and compare the stories to see the similarities and differences in these stories and the events surrounding them (this is what happens when two people with Masters’ of Divinity marry one another, Bible Geek out sessions). We decided to look at the stories of Abram, Jacob and Saul. We quickly found the passages where God changed Abrams name to Abraham in Genesis chapter 17 and Jacob’s name to Israel in chapter 32 and almost did not even bother to look up the passage where God changed Saul’s name to Paul because we both knew it was Acts chapter 9, but since we wanted to compare these stories and these events carefully we went ahead and looked it up. And as you might or might not have noticed God does this in verse. . . (pause and act as if you are looking for the verse). Yeah, its not there. Being completely and wholly convinced that Saul’s name change passage existed somewhere in the Bible, after all Mike and I were both certain we had memories of reading this passage before, we did a careful read of the book of Acts only to find this passage does NOT exist. Never, not once in all of scripture does God actually say, “Saul your name is now Paul.” Actually our careful exploration of the book of Acts only turns up a small side note in chapter 13 which simply says, “But Saul, also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit. . .” and from that point on he is called Paul.
Sometimes when we come to scripture we have conception, preconceptions if you like, about what the scripture says. Mike and I both firmly believed that there was a “name change” passage for Saul in the Bible. We were so convinced of this truth, that we set out on an evenings quest, which involved not only scouring our Bibles, but talking to other people as well as looking at Bible search engines on the internet. We thought we knew what the Bible said. We thought we knew how the passage went but the passage did not even exist. We had dreamt it up in our heads. I have to say, if did not know better, I would still call foul on God, believing it to be some kind of cosmic joke where God had the passage in the Bible but took it out just to have a laugh; just to confuse and befuddle me. But of course that is not what God did. Of course the passage does not exist and never did.
Acts gives up a short introduction to Saul. Saul is the young man, who stood by and held everyone’s coats when the great Saint of the church Stephen was stoned to death and then he reappears here in chapter nine where he is seen as one of the great enemies of the early church, who is so bent on bringing about the destruction of the church that he is willing to travel to another town, Damascus, in order to stop the church by rounding up all its adherents there and bring them back to Jerusalem so that they might be brought before the chief priest.
Saul was a force to be reckoned with in the early church. Saul is nothing short of a frightening figure who embodied the worst of all those who opposed the church and her teachings about Jesus Christ.
Saul was everything the church feared. He was a man on a mission. A mission which he believed to be right and just. Saul admits in his letters that he was doing what he believed to be right in the eyes of God. He was a Jew’s Jew. He obeyed the Law in every aspect. He lived the letter of the Law in all he did and all he said. He held himself to a very strict observance of the Law and he expected everyone else to also hold to these standards. He saw this new form of Judaism which believed Jesus to be the messiah to be a threat to the Law, to his belief in God and to everything he stood for, which is why he whole heartedly and emphatically stood against it and everything it stood for.
Saul was feverishly trying to do what he believed to be right. He wanted to live the way God called him to live and he wanted to protect the faith in which he believed, which is why it took nothing less than the voice of God to turn this man around. Only one person could change his mind about Jesus being a threat to God and that was God. God stopped him on the road that day and asked Saul why was he persecuting Jesus and those who followed him and it is at this point that Jesus revels himself to Saul as the one true God of the universe. The very one who Saul believed himself to be protecting was the one whom he was persecuting by persecuting those who called themselves by Jesus name.
God stops Saul in his tracts and shows him that, although he was fervent and although he was well intentioned his actions were hurting the very thing he sought to protect. He was actually working against the very thing which he wanted to up hold.
We want to see Saul’s conversion as the conversion of an enemy of the church to the church’s greatest proponent in its first century but what we have here is someone who truly wants what is best for God being shown the truth about who God is. Once Saul sees the truth he acts as whole heartedly and fervently as he did when he was persecuting the Church, because what Saul always wanted was for the truth of the one and only God of the universe to be upheld at all costs. God takes Saul’s conceptions of who God is and what it means to work on God’s behalf and turns them on their head showing Saul that he has been going about things all wrong. If Saul truly wants to follow God and work for God on this earth he will work to further the work of those who follow Jesus Christ, becoming a follower himself instead of seeking to destroy them.
But the transformative power of God does not stop there. We like to focus on Saul and what God does for Saul, but Saul is only half the story. If Saul is the sole beneficiary of the power of the resurrected Savior to transform hearts and lives, then on must ask oneself then why involve Ananias at all. Saul could have been wholly and completely changed there on the road , why have him go blind and wait three days for Ananias to come find him, heal him and send him on his way? God is working in more than just Saul’s life here in this passage.
God is working in the life of Ananias as well. God transforms Saul’s understanding of who God is. And then God goes on to transform Ananias’ idea of who God can change and use. God comes to Ananias in a dream and tells him he needs to go find Saul of Tarsus and Ananias, basically tells God that he does not think God knows who this Saul guy is, this is the man who only wants evil for those who follow Jesus Christ, surely God you are mistaken, THIS is not the man you want me to go to. But God assures Ananias that indeed Saul, the man who was speaking and doing nothing but evil for God’s church, will now be now be a great and might force of the church taking the truth of the resurrection not only to the Gentiles but before kings and all the people of Israel. In short this man will speak the truth of Jesus Christ boldly and without fail to everyone and anyone he encounters. God says, “I will use this man.”
And God transforms Ananias’ preconceived ideas of who God can and will use and Ananias listens to the voice of God and goes to Saul, heals him and sends Saul on his way.
But the story does not end with merely these two transformations for the price of one, God has something bigger and better in mind than simply changing two men and their preconceptions about how God works. God is going to change not only Saul, not only Ananias but God is also going to change the entirety Church, where it is going, what it thinks its mission is, and its preconceived notions of who God is and how God works.
As soon as Saul was healed he went out and proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues and the people and the disciples in
God’s power to transform is extended to Saul and through Saul to the Gentiles, something which as of yet had only been done half heartedly and in a very limited fashion. God transforms Saul’s idea of who God is, God transforms Ananias’ idea of who God chooses to use and then through that God works to transform the very nature of the Church. Who the church is today, the fact that you and I, well all those of us who are not Jewish by heritage, begins with the conversion of Saul and the transformation God began to make in the church through his conversion and subsequent ministry.
It seems to me that God is generally in the business of changing our perceptions whether they be mistaken preconceptions like those of Paul, the limited preconceptions like those of Ananias or preconceptions which are wrapped up in the entire way we think about the Church, and the preaching of the gospel as God did for the Church through the conversion, life and ministry of Saul.
God’s power to transform, the transformative power of the gospel of the resurrected Christ begins by changing what we think we know; what we “know” to be true but simply is not true. Mike and I firmly believed that there was a passage in the Bible where God explicitly changed Saul’s name to Paul. We knew it was there and in our preliminary conversation we were making assumptions about God and how God worked based on a false understanding. Our preconceptions about God, although much more benign, are not all that different than the preconceptions which Saul had. Saul believed something firmly and whole heartedly about God, God’s work and what it meant to be a follower of the one true God of the universe and he acted and worked and lived his life believing something which was absolutely and utterly false. Thankfully, God stepped into Saul’s life and reveled the truth of who Jesus is to him and thus completely changed the direction of Saul’s life and transformed his life from one who which was bent on destroying the church into one which almost single handedly brought the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the whole of the known world at that time.
Too often we know that what we know is true. We act and live and fight for what we believe to be true and what we believe to be right but sometimes we are wrong. Sometimes we are fighting for the wrong things. Sometimes we may even believe we are fighting the good fight on behalf of God but in fact we are fighting against God. We believe we are right but we could not be more wrong.
We have preconceptions which we hold fast to and we need to let go we need to open ourselves, our beliefs and the very things which we are fighting so passionately for or against, up to God. We need to allow ourselves to be wrong. We need to allow God to transform us, as he transformed Saul. When we are wrong, when we are fighting for or fighting against the wrong things, God will come to us and we have to listen. You see Saul could have chosen to NOT listen to God that day, he could have held firm to his mistaken belief that he was doing the right thing. He could have walked away still believing that the right way to honor God was to continue to persecute the church but he did not. Saul listened to God when God confronted him. He humbly let go of his wrong beliefs, he allowed God to change his preconceptions and because he did, God used him in new, amazing and truly powerful ways to move the church forward and to bring people into relationship with the God whom he loved and revered.
But God’s transformative power does not stop there. It is bigger and vaster than that. God seeks to transform our preconceptions about whom God chooses to use and whom God “can” bring into relationship with Jesus Christ.
Now, I want you to hear me on this one. I do not think any of us would look at a specific person and say to ourselves, much less others, “God CAN NOT change, transform or use that person.” But I do think that we have notions in our head about what types of people can be transformed or changed. I don’t think we would look at a drug dealer, prostitute, or any other “horrible evil” sinners in the world and say God CAN NOT, bring THAT person into a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ but I do believe we have our doubts about some kinds of people. We look at the world around us and we see people so lost in their lives, so lost in their ways of thinking, so lost in “secular” society that we find it hard to believe that they “can” actually be reached, or if they can be reach we don’t see how on earth it will ever happen. When we think like this we are Ananias, we know God is calling for us to reach out to our world to go to them on Straight Street and bring the healing power of the Gospel to them but we are saying to God, “Do you KNOW who those people are? They don’t want to have anything to do with you. They can’t be reached; they don’t want to be reached. I can’t go.” But we need to go, God wants to use US, just as God used Ananias, to help change, transform and bring people into powerful radical relationships with God. God wants to use us the change this world by reaching out to the unchangeable, the untransformable people all around us.
Amazing things can be done in us, in the lives of others in the life of the Church, if only we will go out there and reach out and touch the people of our world, who not only do not want to have anything to do with God but are downright hostile to our God and the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Last but not least God wants to transform the church. The church before Saul’s conversion was doing just fine. People were being added to their numbers daily. They were bold. They were speaking the truth of the gospel in their world. They were standing up to the religious authorities of their day. They were reaching out to the poor, the widow and the orphan, providing food, shelter and clothing to the needy. People were being healed, lives were being transformed, and miracles were being done among them. They thought things were going just fine the way they were.
As far as they could tell the Church did not need anything new. It did not need to do anything different, but they were wrong. God wanted to do something new, something completely different. God’s vision for the Church was bigger and more amazing than the Church’s vision for the Church. God had a new direction in store for the Church, God wanted to completely transform where the Church was going and boy was it a transformation! It was a transformation about what is meant to Be the Church, it was a transformation of WHO could be a part of the church and it was a transformation of the scope and presentation of the Gospel. It was transformation which would not be easy for the Church but it was God’s transformation.
I believe God wants to transform this Church. I believe God wants to do amazing things with this Church. I believe God wants this church to be a force for the Gospel here in Cambridge but we can not be the force God wants us to be in our current state, simply doing what we are doing right now. God is calling for us to be transformed. God is calling for our preconceived notions about what it means to be the Church to be changed. We might look around our church and say, “things are going pretty well, we like the way things are. They seem to be working. I like this church. I am comfortable here. I am comfortable with the way we do things right now. “
I bet if you asked Peter or John or Matthew or James they would have told you the same thing, things were going pretty well for them. Church was working for them, but God had something better, something amazing in store for the fist century church.
We might like the way things are here, right now, but I am sure we can not disillusion ourselves into believing that things are going anywhere as well here at Cambridge First Church as thing were going for the first century church of Jerusalem. So the fact of the matter is, God wanted to change that Church back then, where people were being added to their number daily; where they were ministering to poor and the needy in the community around them, where amazing ministry and proclamation of the Gospel was going on daily, so it would be foolish for us to believe that we, here at Cambridge First, have things “all together” and that there is no way God would want or even need to transform the “good thing” we have going here.
God is calling for us to transform, to change to become the Church which only God can call us to be. God is calling for us to reach out and share the good news of the gospel, the love of Jesus Christ in a new way, in a way which we have never done before. God wants to not merely do a new thing in us, and through us but God wants to transform us in much the same way that God transformed the early Church.
We need to begin by allowing God to strip us of all our preconceptions; strip us of our preconceptions about who God is and what it means to follow, worship, obey and honor God; strip us of our preconceptions about the world around us, and truly come to the realization there is no one, no society, no caricature in the world around us whom God can not reach or transform and realize that God needs us to go to them where they are so that they might be change; and God wants to strip us, the church of the “status quo” and transform us and our understanding of ourselves, what is means to Be the Church and how it is that we reach our world for Jesus Christ. God wants to completely, wholly and miraculously, change us, change this church so that together we can be an unstoppable force in our world, just as through Saul, Ananias the transformation which was made in the early Church at this time created an unstoppable force in their world at there time.