Monday, 25 January 2016

Inclusion within the Divine Identity: Observations on the Conversion of Saul

You’ll forgive me for not being the most studious of Bible scholars, but I thought I’d post a couple of observations I made today when reading Acts 9:1-22 – today’s reading for the festival that is the Conversion of Paul. And here’s Acts 9:1-9, from which my observations have come:

Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”
Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”
Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.

First, there’s the commonplace observation that by persecuting the believers, Saul is persecuting Jesus himself. But a parallel passage flashed through my mind: Matthew 25:31-46, the so-called parable of the sheep and goats. I subscribe to the view that ‘the least of these’ in Matthew here is a reference to the Church, so that the sheep and the goats within the parable are those who adopt different stances to the suffering people of Jesus. My first observation, then, about the Acts 9 passage is nothing too profound – it’s a simple recognition that the Church is included within the divine identity in some way, and that there is a consistency of thought between Matthew 25 and Acts 9.

My second observation might be obvious to some and strained for others, but I couldn’t help but think of Jesus’s own death and resurrection when the text states that Saul was blind for three days and consumed nothing. If this reading isn’t too absurd or forced, then surely it’s possible to say that Saul’s own experience mirrored Jesus’s Easter Saturday emptiness in some way until he is ‘resurrected’ to new life as Paul the Apostle. Here, Saul himself is included within the divine identity, within Jesus’s own sufferings – and so the Church’s, too.


  1. Going slightly off-topic (but when has that stopped me?), I believe the parable of the sheep and the goats is about more than just the suffering church. In the same way that Jesus was not just the Messiah for the Jews, and in the same way that Jesus continually made a point of favouring the disfavoured and marginalised, the 'least of these', I believe, means all humans. My take on it is that we are all made in the image of God and that those of us who call Him Saviour have a divine commission to share this good news with all people, which begins with addressing humanity's ailments (for want of a better word), and sharing the love that He first shared with us. Having said that, it is a blessing and an honour to support the suffering church and as a family we donate more to Open Doors and Stephen's Children than to all other charities put together... so maybe I'm just inconsistent.

    1. If 'the least of these' means all humans, then who are the sheep and the goats within the parable?

    2. I think the sheep are the followers of Christ (and as such showed compassion to others) and the goats are those who chose to reject Him.

    3. I'm not sure I'm following your train of thought, Sandy. If 'the least of these' is all humans, then I'm not sure how the sheep can be followers of Christ and the goats those who reject Christ. Aren't there three groups of people in this passage: 'the least' (identified with Jesus), and the sheep and the goats who act positively or negatively towards 'the least'?

    4. No, I think that's the point: the sick or in prison, etc., can be any one of us, which is why we must show mercy and compassion to all. The 'least of these' aren't a separate group, they're all representations of the human condition. At least, that's my tuppence worth :$

  2. Also, how mind-blowing is the idea summarised in your title! I believe that is what awaits us on the other side of the 'veil'.

  3. I'm with Sandy on this one... :) I was going to make exactly the same point but she beat me squarely to it.

    I do see the argument for 'the least of these my brothers' referring to the church, and there are other passages that would seem to back that up, but I'm not convinced that it *has* to mean that.

    And perhaps I'm just not so sure that the boundaries between church and not-church or Christian and not-Christian are quite as impermeable as we sometimes assume. I'm such a damn liberal ;)

    For me, the message is that Jesus identifies with all humanity, and so anyone of any faith or none could count as 'the least of these my brothers'. And crucially we are (in this story) judged primarily according to how we've treated fellow human beings, rather than whether we've believed particular doctrines or practised particular spiritual disciplines.

    This seems to me more 'right' somehow than that non-Christians are judged on how they've treated Christians. But I may well be wrong of course...

    (PS I'm experimenting with commenting via my Google account rather than my Wordpress one - looks like that way I do get notified of follow-up comments!)

    1. And perhaps I'm just not so sure that the boundaries between church and not-church or Christian and not-Christian are quite as impermeable as we sometimes assume. I'm such a damn liberal ;)

      Or perhaps the boundaries between church and not-church or Christian and not-Christian are more rigid than we suppose! And Matthew 25 doesn't mention anything about believing particular doctrines or whatever - it's about how people who do not self-identify as Christians (for want of a better way of putting it) feeding, clothing, or visiting Christians, who, through persecution, are hungry, poor, naked, etc.

      For what it's worth, the idea isn't new to me. I first came across it in the noughties in David Kupp's Matthew's Emmanuel. And the best blog post I've come across is one here:

      (I see Ian makes the connection between Matthew 25 and Paul's conversion, too. I must have taken the connection on board when I first read the post many moons ago.)

    2. Well, I did get an email notification but I've only just remembered to check gmail 13 days later...

      I know Matt 25 doesn't mention believing particular doctrines - that's partly the point I was making, that according to this narrative, people's doctrinal or creedal beliefs don't appear to be deciding factors in their salvation. It's their response to the needs of others (I think all others, you think just Christians) that counts.

      I don't see any evidence here that the boundaries between church/not-church are more rigid than we suppose, unless you're invoking divine election of course!

      But I do see a strong hint that they may be less rigid, whichever interpretation you take. In your version, non-Christians get included as 'church' because of their kindness to Christians. In my version, Christians and non-Christians alike may be included or excluded based on their actions (and presumably attitudes), regardless of their faith.

      Personally I wouldn't want to base a whole watertight doctrine on this single provocative passage. What I like about it is that it throws a bit of a spanner in the neat works of who's in and who's out.

      And I'll have a look at that link you sent now.

    3. What I like about it is that it throws a bit of a spanner in the neat works of who's in and who's out.

      Yes, this is true.

      I'll be interested to hear what you think about the link to the Psephizo post.

  4. I actually thought it was a really good article.

    I take his point about Jesus' use of the word 'brothers' only ever referring to his direct followers. But I'm not sure we can conclusively, er, conclude from that that is all he ever means by it - I don't think we have enough examples to base a solid case on. And the evidence for Jesus's beyond-expectations inclusivity seems fairly strong to me.

    Nonetheless I thought Ian Paul made some pretty good points!