The Community of an Untidy Calling
I once read a very helpful parenting book that suggested you identify your particular weakness, your problem that could trip you up as a parent of a preschooler. As I read through the various descriptions, I recognized right away that my key weakness was: the need to be right.
It has always been part of me – I can’t stand people thinking something is true which clearly isn’t, I have a compulsion to correct misinformation when I overhear it in someone else’s conversation and bad grammar when it’s in my own conversations, my husband taunts me by purposely (or accidentally??) singing lyrics wrong, and the worst thing for me is when someone thinks something about me, my motives or my actions, which is not true.
As a parent this means I can get into some ridiculous arguments and battles of will because I wont just let something hang out there that is, in my opinion, wrong. And I can be a little defensive, and a little quick to lecture, a little too prone to “I told you so.” It also means I am passionate, and care about justice, and don’t punish unfairly, just so you know the whole picture and don’t get me wrong, here.
But I learned that my preschooler could trigger me easily by insisting that I was wrong about something, or complaining that I didn’t care about him, or announcing that I wasn’t telling the truth.
I think Saul was a little like me. He needed to be right. He probably could quote both the Torah and the local traffic laws, he ate kosher perfectly, kept his elbows off the table and reported to the neighborhood watch any suspicious activity right away. But even more than needing to be right, he cared deeply what was right and hated passionately what was wrong. In fact, he was fanatical and relentless about upholding right and stamping out wrong, this famous and feared heretic-hunter. He was invested, dedicated. And involved- he held the coats and watched a few chapters back while they stoned Jesus-follower Stephen to death. He was pleased to see this thing unfold that would keep their religion faithful to God and teach a lesson to these offshoot imposter-followers. Probably prayed this prayer on his way to Damascus: Help me get these people who’ve got it wrong, who are so warping your truth and leading people away from you. His life had one mission: to stand up for what was right and get those who were wrong. And it’s just that simple.
I watched the presidential debate the other night – an hour and a half of each candidate claiming they were right and the other was wrong, over and over again. And during it, I thought of a friend of mine whom I deeply hurt during the last election by a side comment, meant to be funny, that highlighted our differences of opinion, that made her feel belittled or dismissed, and which has made things between us awkward ever sense.
A few weeks ago I sat with the session of a church that has discerned that to be faithful to their calling and their understanding of God’s word, they need to leave our denomination. And they were filled with anger, hurt, pain, sadness, and frustration as they sought to do what they felt was right.
And this week I feel fresh sadness about a relationship in my family where, while we don’t ever speak about it to each other, I have heard and know that in the eyes of this person I love deeply I am wrong in my faith, so very wrong that God will judge me harshly one day for being a teacher of wrong faith. And this person is so sure they are right that there is no way to even broach the subject without confirming their beliefs in my utter wrongness. And this situation between us feels dismal and unfixable.
This paradigm of one side being right and the other side being wrong is pervasive and pernicious. This story of Saul’s journey to Damascus, the driven and purpose-filled journey to stamp out the wrong in the name of the right, brings right to the surface this burning wondering I have, What happens when we get so far removed from our own humanity, from who God called us to be as children of God, that we stop seeing each other? That we stop meeting each other? That the other becomes to me just a commodity, an object that either stands in my way, or that gives me the agreement I am looking for? What happens when we make everyone two- dimensional? When we are so convinced that we are right – and I mean deeply convinced about the deep wrong of the opposite position and the true right of our own – that the people who hold these opinions become enemies? That their opinion can be boiled down into label, an inaccurate punch line that summarizes them so that we can dismiss them:
They’re judgmental and closed, and don’t care for their neighbor.
They no longer believe in Jesus Christ as Lord.
They hate gay people.
They don’t believe the bible is the word of God.
They are warping the faith of the one true God.
He is a dangerous militant whom we should fear and shun.
And so the story of Saul’s journey to Damascus raises the unsettling question, What if the place God calls you to is the heart of the people whom you despise? The ones you’ve already dismissed as irrelevant? Or dangerous? Or useless? What if the community God wants to build is with these very people whom you cannot embrace? Saul was about to find this out. But so was the community of believers in his path.
The Jesus-followers among the Damascus Jews had every reason to turn Saul away. They had every right to dismiss him or flee. But that is not what happened. Instead, we witness the astounding hospitality, the strange and inexplicable grace, of God.
Saul came to them not in reason or argument, not even in mutuality; he came in utter vulnerability, in need and confusion.
In the blinding light and voice from heaven he had heard the prophet’s call – just like those of old – God had summoned him and this devout and faithful Jew responded from the deep story of his ancestors of Yahweh who seeks out prophets in just this way. That part felt right.
But then God sends him to church. To the followers of “The Way.” To those he was opposing in God’s name. No other explanation from the divine - Saul manages to get Jesus’ name out of this Yahweh encounter, an introduction which had to be enough to throw him into true cognitive dissonance - but he doesn’t get to properly meet Jesus just yet. That is coming up.
So Saul the invincible, now sightless and helpless and led by the hand into the city, unable to eat or drink, lives for three days darkness and confusion, in blindness and fear. Then Yahweh/Jesus calls again. This time God tells Ananias, one of the community of Jesus-followers, to go to Saul, his persecutor, and pray for him, that God has chosen Saul for a purpose and Ananias is going to be part of this story. And Ananias talks back. God, maybe you haven’t heard who this guys is, but he is against us, just so you know. He’s not one of us, he’s wrong, and he’s out to get us, so… want to give a different instruction? Cuz I’ll totally do what you ask me to do, as long as it sounds right.
But God insists this is what God is asking for, and so Ananias obeys.
And then the two of them, Saul and Ananias, come together as human beings – shattering the boundary between oppressor and victim, dropping the importance of right and wrong, setting aside what they believed and what they thought they knew, and swallowing enough fear to put one foot in front of the other in humility and obedience to God’s call. And when they encounter one another, they encounter Jesus. And then Saul finds himself welcomed into the community of believers, aka, trusters of Jesus, that just a few days earlier he had intended to destroy.
Instead of revenge or retaliation for the death of Stephen, instead of fear and shunning and self-protection, they share with him healing, nurture, blessing and identity. They give him a bed and meals and friendship and tell him the resurrection stories and talk about their own stories. And now he has truly met Christ. In the Body of Christ, he experiences the risen Messiah; the voice who called out to him from the blinding light is given hands and faces, and names, flesh and foibles and families.
And we find out a few verses later that Saul’s name is changed to Paul – which means, “Humility”, and all of his own passion and personhood is taken up into the mission of God and given a new start in this community of care as his life heads in a radically different direction. And I love the conversion story – especially as someone who grew up in the church without a dramatic conversion story - but that’s its own whole other sermon, and today I am really interested in what happens between them and in this community. When that little band of believers find themselves the unwitting welcomers of Christ in the face of an enemy. When the God-follower is stripped of his mantle to stamp out the wrong and uphold the right and instead meet God anew and in person.
What is it to be church? What does it mean to be followers of Jesus, the offspring of this story and those who live it?
Being Church means we are formed by resurrection and not by being right.
It means we are people of a crucified and risen Lord, not a particular political party or brand of Christianity.
It means that in this world where we are constantly encouraged at every turn to label ourselves and everyone else, we don’t define ourselves, God defines us -as beloved children, precious in the heart of God and given the mandate to see and hold all we meet as precious as well.
Ultimately, Saul of right and wrong was not converted or convinced, he was called and he was cared for. The church is the place where broken people are made whole -in the love of God through the arms and hands and feet and love of human beings. And God’s Spirit does not discriminate by our politics. Or make sure our theology is all airtight before descending into our midst. God’s Spirit blows where it will, and the love of God is felt both where we are comfortable and also in the embrace of people we might never, never, never agree with.
Thank God for not being constricted by our human understanding.
Thank God that my faithfulness and yours don’t have to cancel each other out.
Thank God that we live in this world, and in this church, together with people we don’t get to choose. Because most likely we’d choose the ones we agree with. It’s just easier that way. We often don’t even need to like them or want to hang out, we just want to know they are on the right side of the issue, whatever our particular issue might be at the moment.
But being right can’t hold a candle to being real. And that’s what this messy collection of lives that makes up the Body of Christ consists of. Beautiful, broken, sometimes right and oftentimes wrong - a holy and profane hodgepodge of faithful sinners. In real relationships with real people.
For the grace of God that holds us fast in our brokenness and our hurt, I am so very thankful.
For the forgiveness of God that heals where I have contributed to brokenness and hurt to my brothers and sisters in the body of Christ, I am humbly grateful.
And I pray, God of all grace, please, may I let go of the need to be right, and see the face of Christ, however, whenever, Christ might come to me.
That I might be changed.
That the world might be changed.