There is a hymn that continually makes a reappearance in my head called, “God is Working His Purpose Out”. The music is forceful, and underscores what is the determination of the message in the lyrics:
“God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year;
God is working his purpose out and the time is drawing near;
Nearer and nearer draws the time, the time that shall surely be
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God
And the waters cover the sea.”
And believe me: woe unto anyone who tries to argue with that sentiment. In my own experience of God, I would have to say God is one persistent and determined force to be reckoned with. You can try to run away from him as Jonah did, but, in the end, God is like the Canadian Mounties: he always gets his man…or woman!
Perhaps this is one of the reasons why I am so taken with the story of the apostle Paul’s conversion from the man who stood by as Stephen was stoned to death…to the man who became “the chosen one” of the Christian church to have his letters, his writings about the love of God as expressed through Jesus, become the centerpiece of the New Testament. As the story goes in the Book of Acts, Saul (who would become Paul) was on his way to Damascus, determined to find more believers in “the Way” and bring them bound back to Jerusalem for persecution. That’s when there was a “Godly intervention”:
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.
The next part of the story is another moment of “Godly intervention”. Here’s the blind, and likely confused, Saul in Damascus, praying and not eating or drinking. We don’t know what his prayers are, but we can imagine that he’s in a bit of state having been blinded and asked “Why do you persecute me”? In the meantime, God is working his purpose out by calling on Ananias:
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.’
Ananias has the initial reaction of, “You have GOT to be kidding!” He was aware of who Saul was, and what Saul was about when it came to people such as himself. But God assured him that he must go do this because he had some big plans for this Saul. So Ananias, in spite of his misgivings about this task, met Saul of Tarsus:
He laid his hands on Saul* and said, ‘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.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
We don’t know from the text what Ananias thought of all of this, and it hardly matters. But what immediately struck me in this story is how God took two foes and put them together. How God made the strong (Saul) weak…and took Ananias from a place of fear and weakness and gave him the strength and courage to face his enemy and bring him into the fold. All of it to work out God’s purpose: to turn a zealot of anti-Christianity into one of the most outspoken messengers of Jesus.
The story of Paul’s conversion is a powerful one of personal transformation. There are many stories like it throughout the gospels, but Paul’s is of particular interest to me because it speaks to what I think is possible, with God, in breaking down the fears of “others” in our own lives.
As a gay person of faith, I know through this story that with God it is always possible that the zealot who would condemn me today can one day have the scales fall from his or her eyes, and see me as I am: a fellow child of God and, in my case, a member of the body of Christ. Likewise, I can see the zealot as part of this human family, and I can face such a person with the strength and courage that comes from knowing that Jesus has promised to be with me “to the end of the age”. I do it every time I enter church. I never know who is there with me, who may or may not believe that gay people have a right to participate fully in all the sacraments of the Episcopal Church. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am present, I am showing up, and I am paying attention to God. And God will do the work of making anyone blinded by their prejudices to see who I am.
In the conversion of Paul, God so turned this man around that he channeled all of that energy expended on persecuting others to reaching out and bringing the Good News to more and more people. I look to God to continue this work and to keep calling on people who have the potential to bring a message of hope, of light and of love to a world that desperately needs to find its way out of darkness.