Outside of the story of Christ’s Nativity; the entirety of St. John’s Gospel; the accounts of the institution of the Lord’s Supper, the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ; outside of those, the story of the conversion of St. Paul from Acts is the very best of all the stories of Scripture. Consider Saul – the name Paul went by before it all happened – consider Saul. Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord in the Name of God whose conversion consists of Saul himself being rather rudely and inconveniently knocked upside the head by God. And consider too the other main character in this story, Ananias. Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, ordered (the Lord does not say, pretty please, does not make a polite request – the Lord orders – and please remember that in the first creation story in Genesis, it was by the “said” order of God that all creation came forth from chaos – the orders of God cannot be resisted) – Ananias was ordered: “Get up and go and look for a man of Tarsus named Saul.” Ananias of course wants no part of this and protests, doubtless whining: “Listen 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.” The Lord answers, the Lord does not plead, the Lord does not cajole, the Lord answers with a one-word imperative: “Go!!” And then God clarifies the command just in case Ananias doesn’t know who’s in charge here: “For Saul is (and will keep on being) an instrument whom I have chosen.”
Now some of you here know quite well that my tolerance has some severe limits – and one thing I am particularly intolerant of is the notion that somehow we choose by our own free will to make some sort of decision to accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. Now this is why I love the story of St. Paul’s conversion. Here’s this murderous little thug named Saul conducting a vicious campaign of self-righteous, religious cleansing and persecution against the followers of Jesus, the so-called Messiah. Here’s this hate-filled little thug foaming at the mouth in his loathing of Jesus and the followers of the Way, riding, riding, riding on his mission of murder when suddenly, a flash of light brighter than all the stars of the universe combined, perhaps that same sort of light flash that brought a universe forth from a speck of dust – at any rate an intense flash of light – and Saul is thrown to the ground and the Lord Jesus speaks (though I’m thinking it sounds like the loudest thunder you ever heard) – the Lord Jesus speaks to him: “Get up and you will be told what to do!” Hmm. Not very polite this Jesus. And so Saul, with a dawning understanding that the Voice is not to be trifled with, does get up and he does go where he’s been told to go – though everything now in Saul’s world made dark by the light – as dark as a tomb – and for three days (wonder why three days) – for three days Saul remains in the tomb of blindness and neither eats nor drinks – as good as a corpse. After three days, Ananias shows up – as ordered – and Ananias lays his hands on Saul and says, “Brother Saul,” and Ananias doubtless choking on the word ‘brother’ says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Now, did anyone in this place hear anything about Saul choosing anything?? If you did, you’re hearing strange voices. And if you’re busy leafing through your Bibles trying to find something, forget it. You’ll not find Saul choosing a thing. And at the words of Ananias and the laying on of hands, something like scales (I wonder why scales??) something like scales fell from his eyes, and Saul’s sight was restored, he gets up, and was baptized (passive voice, dear people, no action or decision of Saul’s part here either) – then Saul takes some food and regains his strength. And as we heard from Paul’s letter to the Churches in Galatia – Paul – no longer Saul and him having had a change of name and heart – Paul, now an apostle says to the Galatians. “I was sent [passive voice again dear people] neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” Again, where’s Paul’s decision? And if Paul didn’t make a decision – what about human free will? Yes, well, what about it? Did I freely will to be born? Did I choose to be born into a well-educated family? Did I choose to grow up where the public prep school I went to was rated among the top-ten best prep schools in the nation – public or private? Did I choose the color of my skin – a color that afforded me an obscene degree of completely unearned privilege? Oh – and did I choose to be baptized as a 24-day-old infant? Did I choose to be dragged to church by my parents, come hell, high-water, or a raging hangover? I most certainly did not! No. Free will, forget about it. Oh sure – we have a limited degree of free will – in those things where reason applies. But in the face of God? (And this bondage of the will is a basic component of the Augsburg Confession, according to which this church is sworn to teach, preach, and worship – so if you don’t like the notion of limited free will, better go somewhere else that’s into unfettered free will. Oh, and you sir, paging wildly through your Bible – look for where it is written that one must choose, decide, to accept Jesus Christ as your own personal Lord and Savior. I’ll give you a hint – you’ll not find it in Scripture. Nowhere. No how.)
The one thing in the Small Catechism I’d like everyone to commit to memory is this from the explanation to the Third Article, the third part of the Baptismal Creed: “I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Christ Jesus my Lord or come to him.” Sure, I can choose, I can decide to brush my teeth twice a day and floss – but I swear to you, I did not choose, I did not decide to accept Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior – in fact I’ve tried my damndest to run as far and fast away as I possibly could – but look where that got me. People ask me all the time why I decided to become a preacher, a priest. Let me tell you: I didn’t decide a thing. Indeed Bishop Herbert Chilstrom’s advice to me was to try with all my might to find something else to do with my life. And I did try. It did me no good, no good whatsoever. And listen, my seminary class-mates voted me the least likely to be ordained – yet there I was only a week after graduation kneeling before two bishops from Minnesota, the archbishop of Norway, and my Ordination Father receiving the Holy Spirit with the laying on of hands and prayer. And yes, like Jonah, I’ve tried to run now and again – and well . . . so much for that idea.
Oh, Paul baby. How I love your witness to Jesus. You KNOW – you know first hand that Jesus Christ, true God from true God, of One Being with the Father, Jesus Christ is the hound of heaven who will pursue us all – even you Saul-Paul – even these people here Saul-Paul. Yes, my dear people, Jesus Christ in blinding hot pursuit will dog you all until he has you bound to His love everlasting. Christ, hound and hunter of heaven, relentless, implacable, insistent, following hard upon your trail, closing in with grace unswerving, Love’s assailant, who will stalk you along with the least, the last, the lost – until all are made Love’s captive and we with all who have ever lived and died, are gathered at the table, truly free at last to share Love’s unending feast.