A New Name: Saul --> Paul
Have you ever known someone who started going by a different name? They were always called one thing, but they started going by another name? Or maybe you have changed what you are called, over time. Sometimes this is something that just seems to happen, and other times it’s a deliberate choice. Some of you met one of my three brothers, Tim, on Christmas Eve. Tim is Timothy Jon, and so most of his childhood, we called him Tj. But at some point, he started going by Tim instead. It was a hard change to get used to, after referring to him as Tj for so long. Over the years, Tim has become comfortable switching back and forth – Tim or Tj – especially for family. But if he introduces himself, I’m betting he’ll tell you he’s “Tim.”
Or, there’s my older brother Jim. He’s married to Jennifer, and when they got married, Jim decided to take Jennifer’s last name. Jim is Jim Thompson, not Jim Quick. There were a few reasons for this choice. For one, Jennifer’s family is very small – she doesn’t have a lot of aunt and uncles and cousins and siblings. So continuing to be a Thompson meant something to Jennifer. On the other hand, it was important to Jim to shed a name that tied him to my father, with whom Jim was not close, and to embrace the chance to demonstrate that changing names should be a choice, not an expectation based on your gender. My brother Todd and I have our own name stories too. I went through a “Liz” phase, in fact. But you get the idea.
Today, in our series on New Names, we turn our focus to Saul. Our passage opens telling us that Saul has been “breathing threats and murder” against the followers of the way of Jesus. He seeks out more authority from the high priests, seeking the ability to have the followers of the way arrested and brought to trial for punishment, if he meets any on his journey to Damascus. Instead, his journey turns out very differently than planned. As he’s travelling, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and he hears a voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” Paul wonders. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” the voice responds. Saul follows Jesus’ instructions to head to the city to wait for someone to tell him what to do. He’s been temporarily blinded by his encounter with Jesus.
Once in Damascus, Saul meets a man named Ananias. Jesus appeared to Ananias to send him to help Saul. But Ananias is skeptical. We read, “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 Jesus responds, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles.” And we read, “So Ananias went.” He trusted Jesus’ voice! Ananias lays hands on Saul, telling him that Jesus sent Ananias so that Saul could regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul’s sight is immediately restored, and he gets up and is baptized. Over the next days, he spends time with the very disciples he was intent on persecuting, and begins preaching: “Jesus is the Son of God.”
There are a couple of unique things about our text this week. First, this is the only name change in our series that isn’t a change given by God. We don’t read about Paul’s change in name in our text today – the passage refers to him only as Saul. And we don’t read about God telling him to go by Paul because God never says that. And in fact, this name change is unique because there’s never a time where the scriptures tell us clearly when and why the name change happens. Some chapters after the text we read today, Saul’s conversion story, Luke, the author of Acts, is describing some of the works of the apostles, and he says, “Saul, also known as Paul,” and from then on, Paul is always called Paul. The only time we hear the name Saul again is when Paul is telling the story of his conversion to a follower of Jesus. Paul seems to be a name that Saul chooses to start using after his conversion. Why would he do this?
Well, Saul and Paul are really the same name, just in different languages. Saul is Hebrew, and Paul is Greek. Hebrew or Aramaic would have been the language spoken by Jesus and the twelve and those in Galilee and the surrounding areas. But Greek was the language of the Roman Empire and the larger community. Paul intentionally sheds his local Jewish name, and goes for the language of the non-Jewish community. Why would he do this? Well, Paul, once considered among the most righteous and correct and proper of the Pharisees, adherent to the law – Paul finds that the ministry God has called him to is ministry with Gentiles, those who were not Jewish. Paul's life work is travelling around to Gentile communities and sharing the gospel with them. And so he is known to them by a name that would have meaning to them. Paul, not Saul.
Paul, who was known to be one to uphold the law in every minute detail, has been bowled over by the freedom of the grace offered to him through his encounter with Jesus. And he wants everyone – everyone – to be able to experience what he’s experienced. And so he goes by the name that will put those he meets – the Gentiles he spends his life in ministry to – most at ease. See, most of Jesus’ disciples didn’t see, at first, that the mission and message of Jesus was meant for those who were not Jewish. Or at least, they believed that those who wanted to follow Jesus should become Jews, follow the commandments, become part of the covenant, Jews who happened to be disciples of Jesus. This isn’t surprising, really. Jesus talked about fulfilling, not abolishing the law that ordered Jewish life. But Paul just has a different vision for how that takes place. So when he goes out to preach and teach and form churches among Gentiles, he goes as Paul, the Greek, not Saul, the Hebrew. In fact, Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, says this: “I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I may share in its blessings.” All things to all people. So if Saul needs to become Paul for the sake of the gospel, Saul becomes Paul.
As I read this story, I’m compelled by the journeys of both Paul and Ananias. Not many of us have conversion experiences that are like Paul’s. Some of us do, and that’s a wonderful blessing. But for many of us, if we’ve grown up in the church, the moment our faith became our own and we decide to be Christ-followers is really a series of events and smaller moments, experiences and learning taking place over time. But whether the changes in our relationship with God are more like going from a caterpillar to a butterfly, or more like growing from a seedling into a great pine tree, life with God surely changes us – if we let it, if we continually seek after following Jesus. Is your faith life the same as when you were 5? Or 13? Or 22?
Can we change? Today is February 1st. Did you make any resolutions one month ago? Have you had resolutions you’ve kept? Sometimes, seeking change in our lives seems like a lost cause, as we get stuck in our same, destructive patterns. And so when we set out to change our lives or change the world it seems hopeless before we even begin. Can we change? The scriptures all full of this promise: God is making all things new. In Christ, we are new creations. But you’ll notice something: the change comes from God. After all, Saul didn’t exactly seek out change in his life. God just changed him. But rather than despairing that I haven’t experienced a conversion as dramatic as Paul’s, it gives me hope. Think of this: if Paul, who didn’t ask to be or desire to become a follower of Jesus, and did the opposite in fact, persecuting followers of the way – if this Paul, in fact, could be changed by God into one who would be thrown in jail and put to death for proclaiming the good news? How much simpler might it be for God to transform those of us who already say we desire to be transformed! Especially if we really mean it. Especially if we actively pray for God to transform our lives. Especially if we participate actively in handing over to God our lives in order to be changed!
Then, of course, there’s Ananias. I wonder: Can we let other people change? It isn’t as easy as it sounds. I’m bowled over by Ananias. Ananias, a Jesus-follower, know that Saul has been overseeing the brutal death sentences of Jesus-followers, and now suddenly he claims to be one himself? Not only that, he’s going to be a leader, spreading the message to Gentiles? And Ananias has to help him? Tend to him? It’s a miracle Ananias didn’t just laugh. But instead, he went and did exactly what was commanded. I can’t imagine that incredible forgiveness and reconciliation that must have had to take place in the heart of Ananias to let all of this happen. Only his trust in God’s plans and his deep understanding of the free gift of grace must have made him able to do that. Can we let people change? During the season of Lent, which is fast approaching, we’ll be talking in depth about forgiveness and reconciliation. But for now, I want us to consider how often people in our lives are trying to change, trying to go a new direction, God’s direction, but we are unable to offer forgiveness, to believe that God offers grace and new life, even to our enemies. I don’t mean that in blind forgiveness, we should put ourselves in harmful, abusive situations. But I wonder, can we let people change? Do we want them to? Is it ok if Tj grows up and becomes Tim? Is it ok if that one person we knew as a bossy know-it-all grew into a strong leader? Can we allow for the addict to become a counselor? The bully to become a teacher? The lost to become found? One of the reasons why I love and stick with something as time-consuming and ad-laden as facebook is because it has allowed me to see people change. I’m “facebook friends” with people I absolutely did not like in high school. And at first I resented a friend request, thinking, don’t they remember how awful they were to me in seventh grade? But then I realized that I got to experience the transformation of lives, in a small way, through the power of facebook!
This week I asked you all to research name or word meanings and to choose a name that captured where you hope to go in your relationship with God, where God is leading you. Did any of you do that? Saul became Paul because God changed him, and Paul wanted to celebrate! And he wanted to celebrate by drawing others into the story. He wanted to invite them to experience this God who makes us new creations. And he’d do anything, even be known by a different name, to help accomplish his mission. Maybe it isn’t as easy for all of us to see how God is changing us, growing us, shaping us. Sometimes we need help from others, or study, or reflection, or prayer, to see how God is at work in us. Sometimes it means we need to be more active in asking God to transform us, opening our spirits to God at work. But God does offer new life to you. And when you know that, claim that, trust that, stake your life on that: we celebrate and share the good news, like Saul, who was Paul, for the sake of the gospel.
Who will you be?