Commentary on Acts 9:1-19
God orchestrated a meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch on the Gaza road west of Jerusalem (8:26), and Jesus met Saul outside of Jerusalem as he approached Damascus (9:3).
Neither Saul nor the Ethiopian Eunuch met or was introduced to Jesus in Jerusalem or in the Temple precincts. God meets, calls, and transforms people wherever God chooses. God meets, calls, and transforms people in and beyond religious institutions. Jesus revealed himself to Saul and called him, while he was on a mission to murder those who believed that Jesus was God’s Messiah. The preacher might preach that God doesn’t limit God’s self-revelation to Christians; God reveals God’s self to whomever God chooses and when God chooses.
Saul had condoned the murder of Stephen (8:1-3); he made it his calling to exterminate all those belonging to “the way” (9:2). For this mission, Saul obtained the official consent of the elite religious authorities, the Chief Priests, representing the Temple and its cult, the center of Judaism. In the first century, Rome ruled and controlled the world, including the Temple, its services to a degree, and its leaders and officiates.
Paul himself was a well-connected and highly educated Jewish man, a second-generation Pharisee, and a Roman citizen (16:37; 23:6; Galatians 1:13-16; Philippians 3:5) — all of which God would eventually use in the service of the good news. As a well-connected insider, Saul had marginalized those who joined the Jewish sect centered around Jesus (28:22), those called Christian, by others, in Antioch first (11:26). The preacher might consider that sometimes we use faulty barometers to determine whether or not an organization is of God; we decided based on the power and connections that the leader or the organization enjoys, by the membership numbers and by the size and magnificence of the building, but these are superficial criteria.
When Saul becomes a follower of Jesus the Messiah, he does not turn his back on his Jewish brothers and sisters or on Judaism. God did not change Saul’s name to Paul any more than God changed Cornelius’s name (13:9). Saul has a Jewish name and a Roman name prior to his calling, and he has a Jewish and Roman name afterwards. A lot has been preached about Saul/Paul and his call. But Ananias is also called to do and to be something that takes him out of his comfort zone and that requires blind faith. Intertwined with Saul’s call is the Lord’s calling of Ananias to be present for and to lay hands on Saul.
How shall we preach this? Just as the angel of the Lord instructed Philip to “Get up and go,” the Lord told Ananias to “Get up and go.” Sometimes we respond to a call without knowing exactly what we are walking into or what the consequences of our call will be, but we just know we must get up and go. To lay hands on a person who has blood on his hands, to follow despite the negative you know and the good you have yet to see, requires a blind faith.
The glorified Jesus called Saul’s name twice, like when Yhwh called Samuel (I Samuel 3:4). God only calls Ananias’s name once, but Ananias answers like Samuel did, “Here I am Lord” (9:10). Jesus called Saul by his Hebrew name, brother to brother — within his Jewish context. Despite Paul’s past, he declares that God called him from his mother’s womb (Galatians 1:15). Before he met Jesus on the Damascus Road, Saul believed he was doing God’s will. But his persecution of the believers was tantamount to violence against God. The preacher might consider that if our sense of a calling permits us to inflict violence against others who do not believe as we believe, then that call is not from God; that in committing violence against others in defense of our own religion is not a part of the calling and justice of God. We are not doing God a favor, but by harming others, we wound God.
Saul’s call begins with God disrupting Saul’s journey with a vision in which he is embraced by a flashing light from heaven (9:3). Some of us may stand in need of a disruption because we may be on a mission in the service of an institution and not in the service of God. God embraced Saul before God rebuked him. This too might preach. In response to the luminous divine embrace, Paul fell to the ground. The divine presence, divine love is humbling. It is while Paul is lying on the ground that he hears God’s voice (verse 4). Saul’s response shows that he knows somebody — not just something — has embraced and confronted him, someone to whom respect is due, for he answers “Who are you, Lord?” (verse 5). Jesus speaks to Saul as one in solidarity with those whom he persecuted: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (9:6, NRSV).
The double imperatives connected by the conjunction and, “Get up (anistami) and go,” constitute a pattern we find in Acts. Saul, who has been blinded by God’s revelatory disruption of his journey, is told to continue on into Damascus where he will be given further instructions. This begins a faith walk for Saul. He will go blind, being led by his companions, into a city where he is known as and is expected to arrive as the persecutor of “the way,” as the enemy of Jesus, the Christ. The tables are turned; Saul will now be risking his own life for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Lord also appeared to Ananias in a vision, instructing him too to “get up and go” and lay his hands upon Saul of Tarsus (9:10-12). Ananias is also walking by blind faith, believing that his vision is truly from God, that Saul has indeed been transformed into a friend of the Way. God informs Ananias that Saul will expect him because he has foreseen, in a vision, Ananias coming to him and laying hands on him.
In this pericope, God directs through visions. As in Acts 10-11 where Peter and Cornelius receive visions and at Acts 16 where Paul and Silas receive a vision, both Saul and Ananias receive a vision orchestrating their otherwise unlikely rendezvous. Unfortunately in Acts, only men receive visions, as the Joel quotation promises (2:17). But this narrative and theological bias should not be used to teach that God does not give visions and dreams to females, because God will not be restricted in terms of whom, when, and how God calls.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God who calls us into service,
Transform us as you transformed Paul. Shape us into children who rejoice in knowing and proclaiming you to the world. Amen.
Unexpected and mysterious ELW 258
All are welcome ELW 641
The Call, Ralph Vaughan Williams
May 4, 2014