Better Recall Saul

Scripture: Galatians 1

Here’s a question for you. What if you could invite any six people from throughout all of human history to a dinner party at your home? Who would you choose?

For these purposes, we’ll assume that everyone at the table will be able to speak the same language. And we’ll assume that no one has any dietary restrictions. So, if we want to invite John the Baptist, we won’t need to lay in extra locusts.

Like any good host, we’ll have to pay attention to the seating arrangements. Moses and Pharoah are both fascinating historical figures, but putting them next to each other could make for a very tense evening.  I can imagine Moses turning to Pharoah and saying, over and over again: “I told youto let my people go.”

The possibilities for fascinating conversations seem endless. Imagine dining with Shakespeare, Catherine the Great, Socrates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Frederick Douglass, Jane Austen, Johann Sebastian Bach, Virginia Woolf, Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Ernest Hemingway, Rosa Parks, or Leonardo da Vinci. 

Reasonable people can disagree, but personally I wouldn’t invite to my party any of the great villains of history, like Vlad the Impaler, Joseph Stalin, the emperor Nero, or Mr. Maloney, who gave me a C in my high school biology class.   

Over the years, I’ve asked many friends who they would invite to dinner and I’ve gotten some very interesting answers. One evening, I posed the question to a group of people I knew from church. Our pastor, perhaps predictably, offered a list that consisted entirely of figures from the Bible or religious history.

One of the other attendees pointed out that the minister had conspicuously omitted from his choices no less a figure than Paul of Tarsus. The pastor shrugged and said: “That’s because I don’t know who I will get. Don’t forget that Paul started life as Saul.”

I saw his point. 

I have my disagreements with Paul, but he would make a fascinating dinner companion. I’d like him to clarify some of those opaque verses in Romans of which I can make neither head nor tail. I’d like to know why he had such a grumpy tone in his missive to the Galatians. And, as to a few of the things he wrote about women and about slavery, well, I think he has some explaining to do.

But who would want to invite Saul? 

Saul, who did not just violently persecute Christians but who “made a havoc of the church” and who tried single-handedly to destroy the faith. Saul, who broke into people’s homes and dragged men and women off to prison. Saul, who consented to the martyrdom of saints and watched passively as the grim sentences were executed. Saul, the Roman citizen, the person of privilege, and the merciless oppressor of a religious minority.  

Besides, who could we sit next to him, except perhaps Jesus himself? I can imagine Saul raging and ranting over dinner about the pesky religious cult that he was struggling to annihilate. And I can imagine Jesus listening and smiling gently and then saying, in that wry rabbinic way of his: “Watch and listen. You’ll be hearing more from me.”

In church, we talk a lot about Paul, but much less about Saul. It’s as if we find Saul an embarrassment who we’d prefer to forget. And that’s interesting, because the one thing that Paul himself never did is forget about Saul. To the contrary, repeatedly and throughout his letters, Paul acknowledges how awful a person he was before that fateful moment on the road to Damascus, when the risen Christ knocked him to the ground, blinded him with light, and called him by his name.

Now, if you’re someone who gives sermons, friends will occasionally suggest themes, subjects, or titles to you. It goes with the territory. It’s a little like fronting a band that plays at weddings and bar mitzvahs and takes requests from the floor. Except that no one asks you to preach about Mustang Sally.

So, I wasn’t completely surprised when a few months ago my friend Steve Misenheimer leaned over to me in church right before the service started and said: “You should do a sermon titled ‘Better Call Saul.’”

The reference to a television show about a seedy and flamboyant lawyer seemed funny, but—in all candor—I didn’t know what Steve had in mind. It’s possible Steve didn’t know, either. But Steve’s a smart guy, so I took his suggestion seriously and let the idea swirl around in the vast empty spaces of my brain for a few weeks.

At long last, something occurred to me, and it seemed very important. One of the central themes of our faith, I thought, is not to callSaul, but to recall Saul, to rememberSaul, to keep Saul in our sights—just as Paul did. And I think that holds true even if we still don’t want to invite Saul to dinner.

To get at why I believe this is so, I want to take a phrase we hear a lot these days and turn it upside down, stand it on its head. The phrase is: “Remember who you are.” When we say this, we typically mean that we shouldn’t lose sight of the basic principles and values that matter to us. In this sense, “remember who you are” commands us to reflect on and listen to the better angels of our nature.

A friend of mine who has solid credentials as a theologian, philosopher, and novelist once told me that when his teenage children left the house the only instruction he gave them was: “Remember who you are.” This guy obviously had no shortage of words at his disposal. But he found that this simple directive had a better chance of success than a long list of dos and don’ts.

The phrase even has biblical resonance. Think back on that decisive moment at which the prodigal son of the parable decides to abandon his wasteful life and return to his father. In some translations, that instant is described as one where the young man came to himself and remembered who he was.

This morning, though, I want to suggest that the story of Saul reveals another, completely different, even opposing, but equally significant meaning to the phrase. After all, remembering who we are also entails remembering our failings. Our mistakes. Our thoughtlessness. Our cruelty. The pain we’ve caused. The injury we’ve done. The things we shouldn’t have said. The silences we should have broken. The wake of wreckage, great and small, that trails behind every human life. Remembering who we are also involves remembering the Saul that we all carry within us.

Late last fall, violent winds swept through the little patch of woods that we have near our farmhouse in Lake Leelanau. It toppled a bunch of cedars, tearing them up by the roots. The bigger trees fell into the smaller trees, knocking them over like dominoes. It was hard to look at.

When our friend Bethann Marchionna saw all these trees collapsed on each other she said to me: “It’s a lot like when we fall as human beings. So often, we take others down with us.” She’s right, of course, and that human damage can be hard to look at, too. 

Then Bethann added: “You should do a sermon on that.” And here we are. 

It might at first seem like I’m suggesting something inconsistent with the foundational articles of our faith. Our belief that we become new people through Christ. Our conviction that God’s capacity to redeem us has no limits or boundaries. Our trust in a saving and amazing grace that finds us when we are lost and that works a deep change in our heart.

But I don’t think that remembering our past is at all inconsistent with those beliefs. To the contrary, it’s important that we don’t confuse the idea that our past is forgiven—which is true—with the idea that our past is irrelevant—which is false. And no one makes a better case for the continuing relevance of the past than does Paul, who talked about Saul almost every chance he got.

As Paul understood, remembering who we are—in the sense of remembering our faults and failures—plays an important role in our life of faith. It helps keep us humble. And it gives us a long inventory of reasons not to judge other people because of their shortcomings. When Jesus says, to the men who have brought before him the woman taken in adultery, “Let he who is without sin among you cast the first stone,” he is calling them to such a place of remembrance.

Remembering who we are in this sense also helps us understand the magnitude of God’s love and compassion. I have a friend who winces at singing the word “wretch” in Amazing Grace, because describing ourselves that way seems unforgiving of our own lapses. Maybe you wince, too.

But when John Newton, the former commercial trader of enslaved human beings, wrote those words about himself he meant what he said. And it would drain this great hymn of its power, and miss the theological point entirely, if he had instead written: “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a person who does his best but occasionally comes up short, like me.” 

Again, it’s important not to mix up two different ideas. We shouldn’t confuse honest self-assessment—which is a good and productive activity—with crippling guilt and self-loathing—which is a bad and useless activity. Indeed, self-loathing is inconsistent with Jesus’s central command that we love others as we love ourselves—a charge we can’t possibly honor if we get mired in the quicksand of self-hatred. Let me say this as plainly as I know how: Jesus absolutely does not want you to love everything you’ve ever done; but Jesus absolutely does want you to love yourself. And he wants it because, without that, there just ain’t no lovin’ nobody else.

As theologian Richard Rohr puts it: “If you do not transform your pain, you will transmit it. Most of us live in the past, carrying our hurts, guilts, and fears. We have to face [what] we carry, [so we don’t] spend the rest of our lives running away from it—or letting it run us.”

Remembering who we are in this sense can also help us remain vigilant in our quest to be better servants of the kingdom. Casting our past errors from our thoughts and memories seems like a sure-fire way to guarantee that we will repeat them. And, let’s be honest, even those of us who have experienced the most profound changes of heart and habit sometimes struggle to remain changed. Paul understood that, as well.

That Paul experienced a fundamental transformation on the road to Damascus is clear. But it’s also clear that the experience didn’t vaporize Saul and scatter him to the wind. Paul continued to struggle with the Saul inside him, as he makes clear in that wonderful passage in the seventh chapter of Romans, where he says: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.” If Paul and I ever get together for dinner, we’ll find in that idea a subject for lots of shared conversation and confession.

There’s some irony in the fact that artists over the centuries have so often portrayed Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus as a signal moment in which everything changed for him. If we read his letters carefully, we see it didn’t quite work out that way. Paul needed to recall Saul. And sometimes Saul made his presence known to Paul, uninvited. Let anyone among us who is without their own personal Saul cast the first stone.

In my view, however, the most important reason to remember the errors of our past is that it offers assurance that God loves us as we actually are—not the photoshopped, edited, and sanitized version of ourselves that we like to present to the world. Paul found the idea that God loved him, even with his dreadful history as Saul, to be a source of endless hope, promise, and consolation. It empowered him to say, as he does in the eighth chapter of Romans, that he was convinced that nothing—nothing—nothing—can separate us from the love of God. Not even who we were. Not even who we are.

Recalling the Saul within us can put us in a hard and uncomfortable place. But the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that we are loved even there, maybe especially there. I once asked my theologian-philosopher-novelist friend what the fundamental message of the New Testament was. He again showed himself to be a man of few words when he said: “Everything will be alright.” The answer reminded me of those comforting words from the forty-first chapter of Isaiah: “For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand. It is I who say to you: Do not fear; I will help you.”

Recalling Saul has an important role in our faith. Many days we’ll manage to stay ahead of Saul, in part because we’re keeping our eye on him in the rearview mirror. But, some days, Saul will creep up and overtake us. As we all know, objects in the rearview mirror are closer than they look. 

Like pretty much everything else in a life of faith, that’s a cause for prayer—but not despair. The carpenter’s son from Nazareth will find us wherever we are, and whoever we are. And, as I imagined him saying to Saul at the dinner table, he says also to us: “Watch and listen. You’ll be hearing more from me.”

Praise God that it is so.

And the people said: Amen.

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