This coming Sunday is the Sunday before Thanksgiving Day. So this is going to be a Thanksgiving service, with a twist.
Last Sunday, we considered the story of Saul’s conversion (to Paul) in the 9th chapter of Acts. Saul’s conversion was so important to the spread of the Way into the Roman Empire that this story is repeated twice more in Acts, the second two times when Paul is repeating the story.
We Christians believe that no one person in history was or is truly indispensable — other than Jesus himself. We believe that if one individual, no matter how critical was his or her impact and contribution, had been lost or misdirected for whatever reason, God would have raised up another to fulfill that mission. But having said this, Paul was as close to indispensable as any person other than Jesus could have been. The sheer improbability of his conversion, from violent persecutor of the Way to persecuted guide on the Way, makes his story all the more gripping and dramatic. But not only did he find it within himself to admit how violently and cruelly wrong he had been, and then to turn and go in the completely opposite direction. Not only did he persevere in his mission to spread the Way to the major cities of the Empire — through so many lonely, painful, discouraging years. Not only did he best the bitter opposition of some in the early Way who would have required all Christians to observe Torah. Not only did his vision of hope and yearning keep him moving forward through so many crises and set-backs and punishments and imprisonments. But our faith would be so very different without the letters Paul wrote to the churches he had founded, and to the one in Rome he was about to visit for the first time — letters of such great and enduring value that they were circulated and preserved until they comprise more than one third of our New Testament. Paul was a brilliant, irascible, articulate, driven, some would say fanatical man of immense courage, intoxicated and even obsessed with the Spirit of the risen Lord. It has become fashionable to say that Paul turned the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus. But I believe that this is a very unfair and misguided judgment. I believe that Paul “knew” Jesus intimately. As he wrote to the house churches of Galatia, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” We have good reason to credit that the risen Jesus did indeed say to Ananias, “[Paul] is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
The third account of Paul’s conversion is found in Acts of the Apostles, chapter 26. I copy it below. Verse 16 is particularly appropriate to our thanksgiving Sunday:
12”With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles — to whom I am sending you 18to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
“…to testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.”
During this season of thanksgiving, consider and witness with Paul — in what things have you seen Jesus? In what things and people has he appeared to you? In what “things” do you hope to see him?
I don’t want to be a buzz-kill. But I do not think this verse refers so much to those people and things and events about which all people are called to give thanks — the “good” things of creation with which all humans are blessed — love, family, friendship, fruitful work, the beauty of nature, for instances. Let’s give thanks for those Sunday — loud and long! But this verse refers to the things in which Jesus appears to us particularly. What does Paul, and Jesus, tell us about those, about where he appears to us?
I’ll be thankful to see you Sunday.