When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
“Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.
Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Meanwhile 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.”
Greetings to you and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Abiding Holy Spirit.
Our reading from Acts relays the first time we meet Saul, the man who would later go by Paul, spread the the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles, and write the letters to the Corinthians, Thessalonians, Philippians, Galatians, and more, which make up a good portion of our New Testament. In the reading, we are given a look into two moments that would change the course of Saul’s life. Two moments in which Saul would examine the world he lived in and decide who he was going to be in it.
The first pivotal moment, Saul is around 30 years old. He is a young Pharisee, who cared deeply about God and his heritage. He is a witness to the escalating tension between the traditional Jews and the radical Jews who followed the Way of Jesus Christ. He was an immediate witness when that tension came to a head and a follower of the Way named Stephen was stoned to death by traditional Jewish leaders. Saul watched as Stephen was stoned, and he approved of what was happening because the law said to stone the people who tried to lead you astray. To lead you away from God. Saul worshiped the one true God and, as a member of the Jewish people, he was meant to be a light to the nations, and this man was threatening that.
So Saul dedicated his life to finding these radicalized and corrupted Jews who followed the Way and bring them to justice.
After some time, Saul was on his way to Damascus to continue on his mission to purify Jewish synagogues, Jesus comes to him in a bright light and asks him “Why are you persecuting me?” Then Jesus gives him instructions to indeed go to Damascus and there he would receive further instruction. The light faded and Saul realized that he was blind, but he continued to Damascus as he was told. Saul waited and prayed and thought for three days before a follower of the Way named Ananias came, healed Saul’s eyes, and filled him with the Holy Spirit. Saul was baptized and learned that Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s promises that the Jews had been waiting for. Jesus was the Messiah.
So Saul dedicated his life to spreading the good news that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah God had promised to bring all the nations new life.
I have really struggled to pinpoint something that makes Saul’s conversion and dedication to Christ the right choice. I think it is unfair to simply paint this story as Saul dedicated his life to Christ and that was obviously the right choice, the good thing, because, you know, Jesus. Even though I believe that to be true, I think it does a disservice to this story to simplify it like that. It does a disservice to how complex living life can be both in Saul’s time and in ours. Judaism is still a robust and life-giving religion. God did not abandon them after Jesus. Saul choosing to preserve his Jewish heritage and faith is not a bad decision. His means is a whole different conversation. At the time, Judaism was being squeezed by the Romans on the outside, and now threatened by these radical Jews on the inside. Saul had reason to be concerned. His very identity was being threatened. When Saul converts to the Way, what is different from the traditional Jews? As far as I can see in the story, not much. Both had supportive communities to help those discerning truth, both prayed to God, and both were concerned with showing the truth about God to the rest of the world. What was it about Jesus that made Saul change his mind and his life?
Not simplifying sacred stories, but instead struggling with them is an important ability because we are then able to struggle with the not simple things happening around us. And seeing Jesus there. As a campus pastor, I wonder how many young adults are standing witness to the escalating tensions going on all around us and what decisions they are making about what they are going to dedicate their life to. After the stabbing happened in Crossroads Mall, I wondered how many SCSU students were there that night, what had they seen or experienced, and what sense were they making out of it. This winter, I stumbled across a video of a bus of St John’s students chanting “Build that wall. Build that wall.” Again I wondered what those students were witnessing about building and crossing boundaries and what they were going to dedicate their lives to. How many young adults are holding our coats and standing witness right now? How does Jesus break into these moments?
Unfortunately, the story doesn’t give us those details. What was it that Saul thought about for three days? What did Ananias and the other followers of the Way tell Saul exactly?
Even though we don’t know what caused Saul to repent, what phrase or feeling, we do know what got everything started. Jesus came and asked Saul “Why?” which really is a weird thing for Jesus to ask. Why would Jesus the son of God need to come down and ask why? Shouldn’t he already know? Shouldn’t he just get in Saul’s face and tell him to knock it off? Aren’t we the ones who should be asking God why? Jesus is the son of God, and Jesus is the son of a Jewish woman, and as a Jew, Jesus knew that faithfulness and truth and love emerge from asking good questions. Jesus met Saul with a question instead of a command. That question changed Saul’s life, and the life of our faith.
My challenge to you is to bear Jesus’ "why?" with you in this time of confusion and escalation. Why are things this way? Why is this happening? Why am I doing this? Bring Jesus’ "why?" with you wherever you go. Bring it to your co-workers, to your children, to our leaders, and to our young adults. When Jesus asks “why,” light shines and lives are changed. Amen.