Expect to Be Stretched

tai chi 11.4.09If you’ve had physical therapy, you know PT stands for pain and torture. PT inevitably involves a lot of stretching. After surgery or injury, muscles and ligaments tighten up (or have been tightened up) and stretching is required to get everything strong and moving again. I’ve spent years in physical therapy and I can tell you that the physical therapist does not listen to you when you tell him you can’t stretch anymore. His goal is to get you stretched as much as humanly possible for you. It is painful, but absolutely essential in regaining strength and use of your limbs.

Stretching is also a cornerstone of faith. Scripture is full of stretching stories, stories of people finding themselves in situations where they are challenged to stretch in ways unimaginable to themselves. What we also see in the stories of scripture is there are also people who are not up for the stretch challenge and continue to go along as they always have. Of course, we see that they end up missing out on some pretty incredible blessings, but that is their choice and God honors their choice.

Saul, who later was called Paul, is one individual who found himself in a very unimaginable position. Not only was Saul called to stretch, but everyone he came into contact after his experience on the road to Damascus was also called to stretch in otherwise unfathomable ways.

Saul was a young man when Jesus was crucified. He was educated and both a Roman citizen and devout Jew. Momentum was building in this new movement after Jesus’ death and political and religious leaders were jealous and threatened by what they were seeing among Jesus’ followers.

Saul, ever the Type A personality, saw an opportunity to make a name for himself and began purging Jerusalem from followers of The Way:

But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison (Acts 8:3).

Soon he sought permission to travel to surrounding areas to round up followers of The Way, imprison them, and bring them back to Jerusalem to be murdered. Followers of Jesus lived in perpetual fear, terrified that they or their loved ones would be snatched up, never to be heard from again. It wasn’t much different than what Jews, gays, and gypsies experienced in Nazi Germany or what many law abiding citizens living under oppressive political regimes experience today.

Something extraordinary happend to Saul, and those who were with him, on the road to Damascus.

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?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank (Acts 9:3-9).

A couple of things really stand out for me in this passage. Saul is not by himself. He’s with his mercenary team. The message is to Saul, but they all hear this voice. I can’t even imagine how confusing and bizarre that must have been for them! I can see them going into tactical mode, trying to assess the threat and factoring in this new intelligence.

In the meantime, a disciple in Damascus who was no doubt in hiding himself, has a vision.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision* a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ (Acts 9:10-17).

Every believing follower of Jesus has, by now, heard about Saul and his reign of terror. Their intelligence has probably alerted them that Saul is on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus. They’re probably barricaded in, hoping no one betrays their location. And then this vision comes?!? And Ananias is wondering if he’s really supposed to put himself in the mouth of the lion?!? Seriously, God?!?

Ananias is also not by himself. I’m certain he mentioned this bizarre vision to his family and friends and a lively discussion most certainly ensued. It’s like having a gut feeling you’re supposed to follow through on something and nothing about the situation makes any sense. Confusing, complicated, and extremely risky.

There’s a South African word ubuntu. Roughly translated, it means I am because we are. That is the essence of what this story is all about: callings connect us to communities. Jesus encounters Saul in the midst of his own community bent on destroying Christians. Saul finds community and care in the household of one Christian, and then gains the opportunity to share his testimony among many more. Saul is no solitary hero. He’s a man whose social networks have been changed and then radically widened by Jesus and the people he has called “church.”

The interventions by God were radical. Saul’s response was dramatic, but gradual, one step at a time over a period of time. Even Ananias hesitated. This the calling of Jesus to all whom he encountered: Saul, his companions, Ananias, and the Christian community there. All were changed in the encounter with the risen Lord. And all experienced unique callings from Jesus. Evangelism is sharing your personal story of God’s calling in your life.

Evangelism is always personal. And persons are always individuals in community. Evangelism announces God’s intent to open up and lead us to participate in the new community that lives by and bears witness to God’s kingdom. And God’s kingdom is all about how we connect to one another, how we live as communities that bring life, love and justice into the world, and, by God’s power, set people free from sin, death, and oppression in every form.

Evangelism, then, isn’t about convincing others to agree with us. It is about making it possible for them to find new life in Christ with us. What is remarkable about Saul’s conversion is not the drama of his blindness or even his healing from that blindness, but rather the power of the spiritual life that was born in him and nurtured to maturity by the committed Christian community that came to surround him.

Saul is stretched, first by the blinding vision of Jesus that dramatically reverses his course from persecuting Christians to being cared for by them. Saul’s companions are stretched by the call to take Saul to be cared for by a Christian. Ananias is stretched first by the call to receive a man with papers authorizing him to persecute Christians into his home, and then by the need to help this man find acceptance in the local Christian community. And the community is stretched to receive Saul, now Paul, and not only receive him, but help endorse him to others as one of their own.

Those whom Christ truly calls, Christ truly stretches to live and serve beyond their comfort zones or expectations. Painful? Yes. Torturous? No.

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