Scripture for Today: Acts 8-9
First, a note about chronology: in designing our Bible Study for St. John’s Hingham, the Rev. Noah Van Niel and I decided to begin the New Testament portion with Acts and the Epistles to reflect how the books were written chronologically. We’ll read the Gospels next week.
By beginning with the first recorded writings about Jesus we receive insight into what the earliest followers of Jesus considered his most important qualities and his most valuable implications for our lives. Today, we read the story of Saul’s conversion as a window into what it meant to be on the Way. We can draw out the following four lessons:
One, the name of the earliest followers, the Way, characterizes the identity of their movement. Rather than a religious practice that centered around a temple and a set of stagnant rules, they understood following Jesus to be an ongoing and fluid journey. It was a way of living that enabled people to comprehend and experience the love of God.
Two, Saul was an unlikely character to be called to lead the Way. He was a well known persecutor of people on the Way and held a high position of power in the Jewish community (9:2). But God, ever surprising us, calls Saul to minister to the exact people he was persecuting. This theme of Jesus using unlikely people as instruments appears throughout the New Testament (9:15).
Three, following Jesus requires that we are willing to share in his suffering. It is important that we know that Jesus’ life was so contrary to the governing authorities that the Roman state sought after him. This subversive and challenging aspect of following God was central to the lives of earliest believers. We see this reflected in the text from Isaiah quoted by the Eunuch, and the fact that Saul’s life was threatened soon after his conversion (8:33 and 9:23).
Finally, Jesus changes the entire way we exist in the world. Saul’s conversion is marked by scales falling from his eyes, signifying that he saw the entire world differently. This change in perception is marked by his immediate desire to praise the God he once persecuted. Yes, to Jesus’s earliest followers, he represented a complete shift in the way of being, a message similar to the Hebrew prophets.
In the current context of Christianity in the United States, these aspects of following Jesus feel distant. Following Jesus has often become synonymous with participation in institutions that legitimize the power of unjust structures rather than movements that challenge the very fiber of this world. We assume that those who earned their religious authority through academic degrees are the ones through whom God will speak. And, rather than stand on the side of the oppressed, all too often the church (especially the white church) avoids suffering and stays comfortable in our seat of power.
I do not intend to completely demean the Church as an institution of faith. As someone who is pursuing ordination in The Episcopal Church I deeply understand the need for structures to hold our community and gather our collective power for change. That said, we would do well to examine our current way of being in light of the Way of living modeled by the earliest followers of Jesus — even if this means everything must change.
Prayer: Keep me open to your Way of transformation.
Reflection: What quality of the early church connected most with me today? How might that connect to what’s happening in my life today?
Art: The Conversion of Saul (after Caravaggio) 3 by James V. (Villani) Lee