Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) – Saul’s light from heaven. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Psalm 30 – For his anger is but for a moment; his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may linger for the night, but joy comes with the morning.

Revelation 5:11-14 – Angels at the throne: “Worthy is the Lamb…”

John 21:1-19 – Breakfast with Jesus. Jesus forgives Peter. ‘Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?’ He said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Feed my lambs.’

The Turnaround Life

Reset: Do you know someone who has made a complete turnaround in their life?

It may not come to you right away. You may have to go on a long walk and think about it before it occurs to you. It’s not everyone’s story, but unless you’re young, you probably know someone like that. Maybe you are someone like that.

I know people that have gotten caught up into some really bad stuff. Some ended up in jail. Jesus calls us to visit them. “When I was in prison you visited me.”

Some were victims of abuse or tragedy. Others fell into the dark hole of addiction and couldn’t get out. Some are victims of poverty. Doing what they have to do to survive leaves them in a bad place. Others get caught up in the evil of the times. I think of so many who participated in the Nazi movement in one way or another. And here we must be honest. Many, maybe most, aren’t able to turn around.

But some do.

Today’s story is about a turnaround life. Saul’s turnaround is so life changing; he even changed his name to mark his rebirth. Saul the murderer became Paul the apostle. Thirteen of the books of the New Testament are attributed to him.

The story comes from Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book of the New Testament. Acts is volume 2 of Luke’s gospel. It’s all about what happened to the disciples after the resurrection.

These disciples had lived with Jesus and travelled with Jesus, taking part in his healing and preaching ministry. They had travelled through Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. They had seen leper colonies and crowds of thousands. And then their leader was brutally executed, hung naked from a cross. When it all went down, they scattered like roaches. It was the women at the cross, and the women at the tomb.

These were brave women. Although women were less likely to be crucified then men, we know women were crucified. And, Herodotus recounts (4.202.1 and 9.120.4) the female relations/spouses of crucified victims being killed before them in their sight, as part of the punishment.

The men eventually reassemble in the upper room. In John 20 it says, on Easter evening the disciples were gathered with the doors locked because they were afraid.

So what made them turnaround guys? What shocked them out of their timidity? It’s almost as if they saw a ghost. If not an encounter with the resurrected Christ, what on earth moved them from being frightened disciples of a failed leader, cowering in the upper room with the doors locked, into globetrotting apostles who were willing to die for their faith?

And die they did. When they were stoned to death, the stoners laid their coats at the feet of Saul. Stoning is exhausting work. You work up a sweat. The leader watches the coats.

Saul was making his mark on the world persecuting Christians. Breathing threats and murder against the disciples – threats and murder.

He was zealous to snuff out the cancer that was growing in the Jewish community. Acts 4 tells us there were already 5,000 “believers,” just in Jerusalem. These believers were lax about the law, critical of the temple, accepting of Gentiles at their table, exalting of a crucified criminal, putting Israel at risk from Roman persecution for supporting a false Messiah, and blasphemous for proclaiming a human being as “Lord.” (Michael Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord) Whether authorized on or on his own, Paul sets out to Damascus to deal the church a death blow. He was in for a surprise.

He looked for people belonging to The Way. Christianity was not a doctrine or a theology. It was a way of life. It was a graceful way of being in the world that involved eating with outcasts, becoming involved in a healing ministry, and proclaiming God’s love to the world.

What turned Saul around?

One thing I have learned from the people I have known who turned their lives around: there’s usually a turning point, a tipping point, or a bottom. People usually don’t change until they hit rock bottom. Some of you have been there. Sometimes things have to get worse before they can get better.

You do-goodies out there: if you keep protecting people from the consequences of their behavior, you may be keeping them from reaching their turning point.

Thing is, you have to die before you can be born again. The only prerequisite for resurrection is you have to be dead. Being born again means dying to your old self. The old Adam, as Luther called it.

Too often we want Easter without Good Friday. We think we can have the resurrection without the crucifixion, Christianity without the cross. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

We don’t know what Saul’s bottom was. Maybe he looked down and saw how much blood was on his hands. Maybe he saw Jesus crucified. He was in the Temple Guard at the time. Or maybe he heard about it. There’s something about seeing innocent victims, that miscarriage of justice, that changes us inside.

Have you ever woken up and realized you were on the wrong side? Have you ever had a crisis of conscience and switched sides? Have you ever experienced what St. John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul”?

Paul was on the road to Damascus, and he saw light flashing around him. He fell to the ground and this is what he heard. “Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

For days he could not see. Then a man came to see him at the house where he was staying, on Straight Street. He was going to get his life straight on Straight Street. He laid hands on him in prayer, was filled with the Spirit, and something like scales fell from his eyes. He was baptized. Just like that Saul became Paul. He became a follower of Christ and lover of people.

Now who is telling this story? Luke. Remember? Actually Paul’s story is told three times in Acts, if you’re interested.

  1. Acts 9:1-20
  2. Acts 22:6-16
  3. Acts 26:12-18

Does Paul ever tell the story? As a matter of fact he does, but quite differently, and in the third person. Here it is, 2 Corinthians 12:2-10:

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows — was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. 

Can I share a harebrained idea with you? I think Paul had a retinal detachment. Galatians 4:13-15

You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What has become of the goodwill you felt? For I testify that, had it been possible, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me. 

So he’s got an eye problem. I’ve never had a retinal detachment, but I hear floaters and flashes are a sign. Remember at his conversion Paul saw “a flash of light.”

A retinal detachment, by the way, doesn’t make it any less miraculous. If God wanted to give someone a flash of light, a retinal detachment is as good a way to do it as anything. God does everything in our life for a purpose. A man, who was persecuting others, became one of them in that moment.

So what does it take for a turn around life?

  1. They have to be ready. You can’t make someone else have a turnaround.
  1. They have to hit bottom. Everyone has a different bottom.  Wait, that doesn’t sound right.
  1. You have to die to yourself. Can’t rise again if you aren’t dead.
  1. It takes a community. Ananias came and baptized Paul. He became part of a community. My friends who had turnarounds had community. One friend had a church that pushed him into a recovery program.
  1. You have to have hope, something to live for. One friend told me he was in love. Another had tremendous support from his parents.
  1. God shows up. Jesus showed up in the locked room for the disciples. God showed up for Paul. God often surprises us.
  1. Unconditional love. Grace. One person told me, I couldn’t have made it if I didn’t know how much I was loved. The law never works. It may kick us in the butt, but it has no power to transform. Only grace can do that.

You may not be able to make turnaround happen, but you can create an atmosphere where it’s more likely to happen. Get ready. Embrace the crisis. Die to yourself. Find a community. Find hope. Acknowledge your higher power.

No one is beyond God’s grace. No one. Not you, not me, not them out there. We have a God who raises the dead. Who transformed Saul the murderer into Paul the missionary and author of most of the New Testament? Imagine what God can do in your life.

Further thoughts…

Based on the names of the public figures in Acts and other historical markers in Paul’s letters, we know there is a narrow window of time here. If we hypothetically place the crucifixion at 33 A.D. and Paul’s execution between 62 and 64 A.D. (Nero?), we have a span of thirty years in which to place Paul’s three missionary journeys, four if you include his final trip to Rome. Of course, we have no account of Paul’s demise. It is a historical curiosity that one does not exist. Why does Luke leave us hanging? If Paul was tried and executed in Rome (the most likely scenario) then why doesn’t Luke tell us? (Clement seems to think Paul was martyred in Rome.) If Paul escaped execution and successfully launched his hoped-for mission to Spain, living to a ripe old age, sipping sangria on a beach in Barcelona, why doesn’t Luke tell us? We must assume he simply doesn’t know. If we presume Luke is writing in 90 A.D. the events in question have already taken place. It is possible that Paul got swept up in Nero’s persecution of Christians following his burning of Rome, which he blamed on them. Perhaps Paul ended up at one of Nero’s human party torches. More likely, scholars say, he was tried and executed in 62 A.D. before Rome burned.

All this is to say the conversion had to have happened pretty soon after the crucifixion and resurrection. Some have even suggested 34 A.D.

But is this a conversion? James Dunn (The Theology of Paul the Apostle) questions if we can call this a conversion at all. Has Paul left Judaism behind for a new religion, or does he understand himself as still a Jew? After all, Paul’s “conversion” doesn’t change his belief about God. The God who is revealed in Jesus is the same Creator God of Genesis, the same God of the Covenants. As a devout Jew, Paul said the Shema twice a day. I doubt that changed.

His conversion, however, is central to his theology. The gospel came to him “through revelation… when God chose to reveal his Son to me…” (Galatians 1:12, 16). For Paul, the hidden wisdom of God is revealed through the Spirit. A. N. Wilson (Paul: The Mind of the Apostle) reminds us that Paul was a mystic. He had had life-changing encounter with the risen Christ. Paul’s own description of his conversion in 2 Corinthians 12 reads much like an out-of-body experience. Paul admits he’s not sure himself.

There is also a significant shift in his attitude toward the law. Prior to his conversion Paul describes himself as being zealous for the law. One cannot read Paul’s letters without gaining a clear sense that Paul has a decisively negative attitude toward the law. The law increases sin. The law reigns in death. The power of sin is the law. “What shall we say? That the law is sin?” He concludes it is not, but you can tell he’s struggling with the idea. By the law shall no flesh be justified before God. It may not be sin, but it is impotent. We have been released from the law, having died to it. As a Pharisee, Paul was “set apart” for the law. Now he tells his churches, he is “set apart” for the gospel. Christ is the end of the law (Romans 10:4). The law is a ministry of death (2 Corinthians 3:6-9). Paul has died to the law in order that he might live to God. This is clearly a conversion of sorts. In fact this law/gospel dialectic may be the only way to understand Paul’s conversion.

Michael Gorman (Apostle of the Crucified Lord) says that Paul was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, and died a Jew. He was simply a Jew who encountered the once-crucified Jesus. Dunn concludes that this is not a conversion to a new religion, but a conversion to a new sect. It is not like a Hindu becoming a Buddhist. It is more like a Baptist fundamentalist becoming a Roman Catholic or vice-versa. Paul remains a Jew, but he moves from being a Pharisee to a Nazarene.

With Paul’s conversion comes a very clear sense of call. God revealed “his Son to me in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.” (Galatians 1:15-16)

Perhaps this is a good time for the preacher to tell his or her call story. Few of us can claim to have had such a dramatic conversion experience, but we too have been called to what we are doing. How did that happen? In what ways has the risen Christ “shown up” in your life that drove you inexorably to the place where you now serve? Our people cannot begin to see the hand of God moving in their life, if we cannot articulate the ways in which God is moving in ours. Some homiletics professors shunned personal sermons. Granted, if every sermon is about me, something is wrong, but if Luke could tell Paul’s call story three times, and if Paul could mention it numerous times, comparing it to the call of Isaiah and the call of Jeremiah, certainly we can tell our story once in a while to show how God works in the lives of ordinary, flawed human beings.

When did you first sense God’s call to ministry? To what is God calling you today? How can you tell? In what ways is Jesus standing before you, calling you to feed his sheep?