Blogging toward Sunday

April 15, 2007

In this new series, authors offer reflections on the Sunday
lectionary texts. Feel free to join the discussion by adding your
thoughts.

It is easy to be jaded about Paul’s “Damascus Road experience” because
we know it so well. The narrative report of that confrontation is so
pivotal that it is referred to two more times in the Book of Acts and
must have been known and celebrated across the church (Acts 26:6-16;
26:12-17).

It would be possible, of
course, to come at this text generically and generalize from Paul’s
narrative to make it a defining narrative for “every person”: in a
generic way, the narrative attests to the inexplicable force of God’s
epiphany (theophany), to the power of God crashing in upon us in
life-changing ways. Or it is about how a conversion leads to vocation,
since we are all, along with Paul, recruited for a new world.

My
own inclination, against such a generic approach, is to focus on the
particularity of Paul. It is his narrative. A sermon might reflect a
long while on Paul before moving to any generalization. It is important
to attend to how Paul is narrated both before and after—before
as a resister to God’s newness, clinging to old, settled patterns of
certitude and authority; after as one who had his sight restored and
his strength regained for a different life (vv. 18-19).

My
attention is drawn, however, not only to the change in Paul but also to
the change in faith enacted by the spirit through Paul. Indeed the
church is always running, even yet, to catch up with Paul in his
radical, daring newness in the gospel. A sermon focus might be, not on
the psychology of transformation and vocation, but on Paul’s
transformed articulation of the gospel. My focus would be on the
remarkable intent of the gospel indicated in verse 15:

—The name of Jesus is to be brought before gentiles,
those who are radically other, unlike us, impure and without “our”
disciplines or inheritance. This is at the center of Paul’s
articulation of the gospel. Paul is so familiar to us that we easily
miss the dangerous point of his conversion. The radicality of grace in
Paul’s thinking and proclamation shatters all of our attempts to limit,
tone down and domesticate, a shattering attested to in the “reptile
dream” of Acts 10:10-16.

—The name of Jesus is to be brought before kings;
perhaps this is a reference to underling kings who had submitted to
Rome. But eventually even the theological claims of Rome will be
addressed by the church. The narratives that follow in the Book of Acts
show the apostles frequently in court before the authorities. The
gospel via Paul is profoundly public, everywhere challenging settled
authority with the new authority of the “Easter king.”

—The name of Jesus is to be brought before the people of Israel.
As is well known, Paul never finishes with what became the issue of
“Jews and Christians.” A rich and complex mix of wonderments gathers
around the rubric, but the issue cannot be avoided. In Paul’s horizon,
Jews, like gentiles, are invited to be alongside the early Christians.
There is immense irony in the fact that the story concerns a Jew who
persecuted Christians; in the long history of the West, it is
Christians who have persecuted Jews. This entire process, with its deep
irony, requires reconsideration.

The move of the name of Jesus
to these three publics is breathtaking. Whenever Paul is dated, it will
be “after Easter.” But the narrative indicates that Easter is not a
one-time-only event. It is rather an ongoing counternarrative that
challenges “things as they are.” It is because of this risky challenge
that the Gospel of John concludes with an allusion to crucifixion, to
being taken “where you do not want to go” (John 21:18-19).

Neither
Paul nor anyone around him expected the newness of the world under the
God of life to be easily received amid systems of death. But it is
precisely such an “impossibility” that Easter enacts, an impossibility
beyond all our “possibilities” (see Mark 10:27). Karl Barth notices
that Paul’s experience was not in a vacuum, but was only completed in
the church; that is, with Ananias. Beyond the church, however, it is
the Easter power of new life that broke the world open. Easter is not
done yet! They ran to the tomb (John: 20:4). We run after
Paul. The Easter church has much “catching up” to do with the truth
given us through Paul.