Acts 9: 20-27
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall,lowering him in a basket.
When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus.
In one of my practical assignments from seminary, I met a man in one of the churches which I will leave unnamed. This man was a full-fledged businessman with deals in real estate and construction. He also had a drinking problem. All this accumulated in a big way and with a huge thud this man’s life came crashing down one fine day. He was arrested by the police for a fraud case in land deals. Once out on bail he had to get grip with his drinking problem. But little by little he started to pick up his life. His huge void in his life was filled by knowing Christ intimately through reading the bible and composing songs. He started prison ministries. He became very active in church which he called his ‘second innings’. He said “I always believe that church is not a museum of righteous people but a hospital for broken and shattered people like me. But all I saw in the church was that people talking about my past and references like ‘Jail Mathai or Kallukudiyan Mathai’ were a community joke. So the place that should have supported me and been a solace for me, held me captive of my past. It is disgusting.” Let me quote Philip Yancey here to give us perspective. In his classic book “What’s So Amazing About Grace” Yancey says men like these ran towards Jesus, not away from him. The worse a person felt about herself/himself, the more likely they saw Jesus as their refuge. Has the church lost the gift? Evidently the down and out, who flocked to Jesus when he lived on earth, no longer feel welcome among his followers. What has happened?”
That is the question we need to ask. What has happened? In the portion that we just read shows the situation of the Post- Conversion scenario of Saul. Once he started to proclaim Jesus boldly as the ‘Son of God’ the expected reply came from near quarters like this “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” (Acts 9: 21) As we know that this very Saul was witness to the martyrdom of Stephen. His zealous attitude had made him a name that sent shiver down the spine. So people definitely had their doubts and held him captive to his past. They were not convinced that a man with such notorious background could change that easily. At Nazareth where Jesus made bold declarations he too got a similar treatment. Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? 56 And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” 57 And they took offense at him. (Matthew 13: 55-57a)
Psychologists say that knowing a vulnerable past of a person makes him or her very manageable. This past becomes the yardstick to show the person their place. The label of the past will choke them no matter how hard they will try to be liberated from it. When we read verse 26 we find that this man came down from Damascus, the point of his transformation, to Jerusalem, to join the disciples. The disciples too doubted him and were afraid of him. They kept from him, a safe one hand distance. They were like Nathaniel who asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth? (John 1: 46) In my interactions in one of the Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, one of the participants shared this insight “I have had a sober life for last 8 years. But I am still vulnerable for a relapse into addiction. The greatest trouble or frustration that I have is how people look at us. They keep condemning us. Sometimes I feel it is better to be an alcoholic. At least you are suffering for what you do. By abstaining and trying very hard to lead a normal life, people still hold us captive for not what we are, but what we used to be.”
Let me end this meditation with a real life story of Henry Covington. I read about him in the marvelous book called ‘Have a Little Faith’ by Mitch Albom. Henry has a very terrible childhood with violent neighbourhood, guns, street fights and broken family to deal with. He slept every day fearing rats. Slowly but surely his steps led him to murky life realities. He started to be a drug dealer. Made quick money. He felt guilty, quit it, married his girlfriend. But when he saw his brother earn big bucks he entered again into the world of crime. He went to jail, had bouts of severe addiction related problems. But time and again he encountered Christ that was his rock and comfort. Finally he gave his life to Jesus and turned into a pastor. With his terrible background, there was not much hope. But he started to target those who had a terrible past like him. He wanted a church for those where these so called scum bags would feel at home. He therefore started a ministry called “I am my brother’s keeper” Ministry. He distributed food for the homeless and gave them clothes to wear and when all other pastors shamed the people on streets for their drug addiction, Henry Covington like the ‘Wounded Healer’ would share his struggles to people like Cass and Joe who had similar problems. He opened up his church for the homeless. His congregation was people from the streets. And this is how he preached to them. “Brothers we are all captives of our past. They just look at our past. Even we too get stuck there. Therefore we miss seeing the miracle God has done. What he can do. There are people who know my past. There are people who tell me ‘We know you, you can only cheat people’. I say to them ‘You knew me. You know that person back then. But you are not seeing the person God is making me, who I am trying to become.’ My dear brothers, God is bigger than your past. You are not your past. God is making a way in the desert, and streams by the wayside.”
In Saul’s case there was Barnabas who dared to look beyond the past of Saul and was ready to embrace the new creation that God was unfolding. Let us take a moment to thank people who stood by us in our period of crisis. When people wrote us off, there were Barnabases in our lives who were able to see the people we were struggling to become. I have many such Barnabases to thank. They had every right to judge me and hold me captive to my past, but out of grace and divine love they were ready to give me a chance to become a person that God intended. I am a product of such small graces in life. I am sure it is in midst of deep pain of loneliness that Paul realized the love of Jesus and he declared “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” 2 Corinthians 5: 17. My dear friends the new creation is just waiting to happen. Embrace it.
Rev Merin Mathew
Bethel Mar Thoma Church
Kolar Road, Bhopal