April 29, 2022 • Life for Leaders
Scripture – Acts 9:1-6 (NRSV)
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
Read all of Acts 9 here.
If, like me, you do not have a dramatic darkness-to-light name-changing tale, but merely a life nurtured in Christian community and claiming more and more faith for your own as Jesus kept revealing himself to you, you can still take heart from Paul’s story.
Happy Easter! Christ is risen!
It is still the Easter season until the day of Pentecost (June 5 this year), and during the Easter season my denomination reads from Acts every Sunday so that we can hear about how the early church spread the message of the Resurrected Christ. That is why, as we prepare for the third Sunday of Easter tomorrow, we join up here in Acts 9 with the Apostle Paul at his life’s transformative moment.
Paul, of course, began life as an educated Jewish scholar and Roman citizen named Saul. He helped persecute the early church, and was even present at the stoning of Stephen, which I wrote about two Easters ago. Yet, as he rode to Damascus ready to continue his zealous persecution, he met the risen Lord—dramatically and definitively.
As the Lord directed him, Saul, who had been struck blind by the encounter, went into the city of Damascus where the Lord sent a follower of Jesus named Ananias to him. Despite Ananias’s fear of his former persecutor, he came and prayed that Saul would regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Once healed and restored, Saul joined the disciples in Damascus, began preaching the gospel of Jesus in the synagogues, survived a plot on his life, and eventually joined up with other disciples in Jerusalem—they took a little convincing by Barnabas, but they accepted him. (Read the whole story in Acts 9:10-30.) Saul remained a scholar of Jewish law and history and a citizen of the Roman Empire, but now he used his training, gifts, and position of prestige to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ. In Acts 13:9, as Saul begins his first missionary journey, the author of Acts refers to him as “Saul, also known as Paul.” He is called Paul from then on.
I grew up believing that if you followed Jesus you had to have a story—preferably one with lots of changes from darkness to light; preferably one where you could discuss all the things you had done wrong, all the ways your background hadn’t prepared you to be a “real Christian,” until the moment when there was a flash of blinding light, and you were struck dumb and blind, and afterward you were never the same. Afterwards, you went out and preached to the masses. Afterwards, you went out and shared your joy. Afterward, you went out and conquered the world. It was important to have Paul’s story.
Yet what strikes me this time as I come back to this passage is how much continuity there is in Paul’s story. (I am guided by this in part by an excellent recent book on Paul by N. T. Wright, which I highly recommend.) Yes, Jesus dramatically converted Saul to Paul. But Jesus did not dramatically change Paul’s personality. Saul seems to have been arrogant, driven, and well-organized before he got converted. Following Jesus transformed and sanctified those things, but in Paul’s letters you can still see them shining through. Jesus also used the training, the background, and the abilities that Paul already had. Even the name change which we identify with this dramatic conversion seems not to actually have happened until some undetermined amount of time later.
If, like me, you do not have a dramatic darkness-to-light name-changing tale, but merely a life nurtured in Christian community and claiming more and more faith for your own as Jesus kept revealing himself to you, you can still take heart from Paul’s story. Dramatic and life-altering as it was, his encounter with Jesus was not over in a single moment. Jesus used what Saul brought to the encounter. Jesus slowly turned Saul into Paul. Jesus journeyed with him all the way.
Everybody has a story to tell. And it says: God never gives up on us. Not at the beginning. Not in the middle. Not at the end.
How does your story look like Paul’s story?
How does your story not look like Paul’s story?
Where is Jesus in your story?
One of my very favorite hymns is “All the Way My Savior Leads Me” by Fanny Crosby, and my favorite arrangement of it is by Rich Mullins. There’s a lovely recording of it on Mullins’ album The World as Best as I Remember It Vol. 2, but I am also very moved by this live performance he gave in Holland in 1994. Pick one, listen, and meditate on how Jesus has led you. (The lyrics are here.)
Jesus, lead me all the way. Amen.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Work and Christian Identity (Acts 8-12)
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Jennifer Woodruff Tait (PhD, Duke University) is the editor of and frequent contributor to Life for Leaders. She is also the managing editor of Christian History magazine and web editor for the Theology of Work Project, and a priest in the Episcopal Church. She has written a book of poetry, Histories of Us. Jennifer lives in Berea, Kentucky, with her husband, Edwin, and their two daughters.
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