“Meanwhile Saul,” says the book of Acts. And that’s the point. The rest of the sentence is more exciting, to be sure. ‘Breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord’ has understandably gotten more attention – especially from disciples. But ‘meanwhile, Saul’ means that Saul is not the beginning. In the beginning was not Saul. In the beginning was the Lord, who has been converting what seems to be the entire Greco-Roman world in Acts. Saul isn’t even the only traveler. Philip has just been converting an Ethiopian eunuch on the way south from Jerusalem whereupon he is whisked away to Caesarea, west of Jerusalem. Transported in an instant! ‘Meanwhile, Saul,’ indeed. What can possibly compare with instantaneous teleportation?
“Meanwhile, Saul,” is very good news. It means that we ourselves are meanwhile. We are interrupting, erupting into God’s plan for the salvation of the world. We are not that plan itself. But we can be included in it. Meanwhile Ben, meanwhile, Noel, meanwhile Aron. One of my professors said this week that the thing about these readings is that they’re hard to believe, that it seems difficult for us to accept that nothing is too good for God. And when I heard that I laughed, because that’s the point – they’re impossible! They are too much to believe! And so we can’t believe them. But of course, says Acts, they happen anyway. We are not the whole picture. Our individual faiths and doubts, our own threats and murders are not the whole great stage.
Meanwhile, Saul. Meanwhile, God. The story of Saul on the road to Damascus is not about a great villain coming to great faith anymore than the story from John is about a breakfast by the sea. These all are stories about the goodness of God, which is too good to be believed. You’ve heard about the gospel of prosperity, and I’ve thought sometimes about something that might be called the gospel of poverty. But I’m here to tell you about the gospel of surprise. And I like to be surprised. Some people, who are surprised badly, think it is not very good to be surprised. And I understand that. But we have to be surprised. Without surprise, we can never step outside ourselves. Without surprise, we never get anything better than the good we do believe – which is nothing particularly much. Without surprise, we don’t get a God worth having. We don’t even really get a God at all.
“Saul 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, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Now this was actually a strange thing for him to do. Neither the Temple nor Rome was actively persecuting Christians at this time. But Saul asked to go just in case there were Christians there, he didn’t even know that there were. So it’s like, “Ummm, okay, Saul, sure.” He’s just looking for a fight. So I think we can understand Flannery O’Connor, who writes, “God knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that man was to knock him off his ass.”
Which is of course exactly what occurs. “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?” Please understand, Saul the Pharisee knows about appearances of God. Saul even knows what to do: you see God, you fall to the ground, like Ezekiel. That is part of the surprise, because Saul probably expects the Lord to tell him where the Lord’s enemies are, because they must be dealt with. So it’s not that he has the vision. It’s what the vision is. It’s the Lord naming himself as Jesus and equating himself with the very people Saul was looking to kill. No wonder the man went blind.
And that is something we have to think about. We Protestants talk about ‘road to Damascus moments.’ We look for God, we seek God, we want to experience God and all of that is good. But there is no good moment on the way to Damascus. Saul’s moment with Jesus leaves him blinded and silent and doubtlessly bewildered, and at any rate still travelling with the same men he’d set out to persecute the Christians with. I mean, do we know anyone else in the New Testament who’s in the dark and doesn’t eat or drink for three whole days? Saul is dead, symbolically. Saul met Jesus and it outright killed him – died of surprise. God is so good we don’t even want to believe it. Not much of a conversion, really.
But of course, this is why we have stories, instead of moments. Meanwhile Saul, meanwhile God, meanwhile Ananias. To follow the Lord is to live a life perpetually interrupted. ‘Here I am, Lord!’ It’s always the middle of the night, isn’t it? We’re always doing something we expect to keep right on doing. God always drags us right on out of bed, because the good that we expect is so dull it puts us right to sleep. But the God who finds us is the God worth getting up for, now. ‘Let me tell you about Saul,’ says Jesus. ‘I know!’ says Ananias. ‘He’s come to arrest us all, probably trial in Jerusalem or led away to Rome.’ ‘No, really,’ says Jesus, ‘I want you to help him out. The man might be a tool, but he’s my tool now.”
Nobody saw that one coming! The great mission of Ananias is to go across town. The future of Christianity depends on a simple baptismal service and a laying on of hands. ‘Meanwhile, Ananias’. What we get to do, is participate. This is it, right? Straight street, prepare ye the way of the Lord. The road to Damascus was Saul’s road to Jesus. He finally gets the God of loving kindness that he’s read so much about. But the street across Damascus was Jesus’ road to Saul. ‘Here comes my body, whom you were persecuting,’ says Jesus to Saul. ‘Let me touch you. Let the scales fall right off your eyes. Let me pour out my water over you. Take, and eat and be filled with my Spirit. Then I will show you.’
And this time, we’d all best be prepared to be surprised.
“You don’t run down the present,” writes Annie Dillard. “You wait for it, empty-handed, and you are filled. You’ll have fish left over.” The story of the astounding goodness of God is the story of Saul is the story of the disciples fishing by the sea. It is the greatest story ever told only if you’re telling it later. To actually live through it is another thing altogether. The disciples weren’t fishing in celebration. They were fishing in confusion. They were fishing because they had given up their livelihoods for this charismatic guy and done all these great things and gone up to Jerusalem in triumph and apprehension and seen the whole thing fall apart and their leader killed and then later the women said they had seen something but no one knows what’s really going on and – “I’m going fishing,” says Peter. I’m going fishing. Back to the drawing board. And back out into the boat where they caught nothing, and it was night.
Surprises can be terrible, and they can be astounding. What they never are is particularly comforting. To encounter God is to meet the death of our own expectations. That is the gospel of surprise. And it is the only way we can meet something incredibly new. But we meet it nonetheless, and get what we could not possibly imagine. We fill our nets just by trying out the other side of the boat. As if that would ever work. It is indeed too much to believe. One hundred and fifty three is the number of astonishment. It is the number of God’s grace because it is a number none of us could possibly expect.
Fortunately, we are none of us alone. Saul’s conversion does not rely on Saul alone. Peter’s restoration does not rely on Peter alone. “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’” In other words, ‘meanwhile, John,’. That’s what gets Peter jumping out the boat, which is another thing to do whenever you see God. You get out and try to walk on water. What else would you do? What else is even worth trying? But the disciple who first recognizes Jesus doesn’t do anything. No one person gets it right. One doesn’t see but jumps, the other sees but doesn’t leap. It’s together that they get breakfast by the sea. Meanwhile Saul, meanwhile Peter, meanwhile John. Meanwhile you, meanwhile me, meanwhile Gethsemane.
Now I don’t think there is a particular imperative here. I don’t read a specific command of God in any of these passages. How could there be? How could we be surprised if we were told ahead of time exactly what we were going to have to do? How could we receive the incomprehensible goodness of God if we were told in simple human terms what that good would be? We couldn’t.
But I will say this: God is an earthquake. God is goodness shaking the earth. God is the interruption too enormous and too kind to be believed. “You can't conceive, nor can I, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God," writes Graham Greene. So if you want to find God, you want to seek God, you can’t just look within yourself. You can’t look for a moment in your life. The difficulty with discerning the work of God isn’t that it is so small. It is that the work of God is so incomprehensibly big. You want to find the focus of an earthquake, you need three points. You need Saul, you need the Lord, you need Ananias. To find the center from which goodness overflows, you need Jesus, you need John, you need your Simon Peter. You want to find out what God’s doing, you need to actually ask each other. We need to ask each other. To be people of the earthquake, to be the people of the Lord, we need to have that conversation, and to live lives centered in Jesus Christ we cannot stop – not until the ground stops shaking.
And yes, be prepared to be surprised. If we ask, if we look for the goodness of God, I can guarantee we will be.