April 10 2016

3rd Sunday of Easter
‘GOD’S UNLIKELY CHOICE’

BIBLE READINGS
Acts 9:1-20

John 21:15-19

REFLECTION

When we hear the story about Saul’s conversion this morning, some of you probably think that the story is just another story of conversion in the Bible. After all, Saul was not the only person in the Bible who got converted via a miraculous event. But we need to remember that by the time the book of Acts was written, Saul, then Paul, had become one the most influential leaders in the Church. He was arguably the most important leader of the Gentile Church if not the whole Church itself. But here, in Acts, he was still a man who did not only disagree with the Christian movement; he also hated it. And not only that: he actively persecuted the Christians!

When we are first introduced to Saul, he was a witness to the stoning of Stephen, one of the leaders of the young Church (Acts 7:54-60). Paul was looking after the cloaks of the people who murdered Stephen in a brutal fashion (Acts 7:58). We may think that since he was not involved directly in the stoning, he must have been innocent. But Luke clearly told us that he was not innocent: he approved of the killing (Acts 8:1).

Yes, Saul was a devout Jew, a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5), and he must have seen the Christian movement as a threat to his Jewish heritage and religion. It’s no wonder that he tried to eradicate this ‘dangerous’ movement forever.

Yet his life was transformed by an irony. At the time, Christians were known not as Christians, but as the Followers of the Way. And as Paul tried to eradicate those who followed the Way, his life was dramatically transformed when the risen Jesus met him on the way to Damascus.

We must not, however, make a mistake by thinking that the story was all about Saul. Yes, it is the story about Saul’s conversion and it was such an important story that Luke repeated it three times in the book of Acts (see chapter 22 and 26). But Saul was not the main character in the story; the main character was the risen Jesus himself who chose Saul to be his messenger.

Indeed the story is not only a story of a transformation of a man from a persecutor of the Church to a persecuted messenger of Christ. No: the story is the story about the risen Jesus who chose the most unlikely person to be his messenger. Out of many other ‘more suitable’ candidates with ‘clean’ track records, the risen Jesus chose Saul to be his messenger. Yes, the story indeed is a story about God who, in His unbound mercy, chooses a person regardless of the person’s wrongdoings or failures in the past.

Indeed, Saul was like the prodigal son, in Jesus’ famous parable, who returned to his father’s house after leaving behind his dark past. The risen Jesus was like the father who accepted his son back regardless of what he had done in the past to hurt him.

Yet, there was always an antagonist who opposed God’s unbound love. Ananias was like the older brother who questioned his father’s love for and mercy upon his younger brother. When the risen Jesus asked Ananias to go and pray for Saul, he protested, reminding Jesus that Saul was an evil man who had been persecuting the church.

Indeed Ananias acted like many of the Pharisees who often questioned Jesus’ choice to socialize with questionable characters. But he was not being silly. Saul was an evil man. There is no doubt about it. Yet the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel of redemption that can transform even the most callous man. It is the Gospel that proclaims that God uses even the most ‘undesirable’ person to do God’s work.

After the WWII, the State of Israel created a list of non-Jewish people who heroically risked their lives to save the lives of the Jews under NAZI occupation. These people are known as Righteous Amongst The Nations. No doubt, the title was inspired by the many non-Jewish characters in the Bible who had helped the people of God, Israel, on their journey as a nation.

One person that was included into the list was an enigmatic man named Oskar Schindler. He was German, a member of the NAZI party, and once worked with the intelligence service of NAZI Germany. He was also depicted in a movie as a womanizer who loved luxurious lifestyle.

In 1939, Schindler obtained a factory in Poland and employed around 1000 Jews as slave labours. His main interest was to take advantage of the opportunity that the war created to make money through his business. But, as the war progressed and he witnessed the cruelty against the Jews around him, his heart somehow was changed.

He began protecting his Jewish workers from being summarily executed by the NAZIs. He did this by using his own wealth to bribe the officials. He often gave them luxurious items, which he obtained from the black market, so that they would spare the lives of the Jews in his factory. By the time the war ended, he had spent his fortune on bribery and on purchasing goods and food from the black market for his Jewish workers.

Schindler saved more than 1000 Jews during the war. A writer, Herbert Steinhouse, who interviewed him after the war, described him as a “repentant opportunist” who “saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him.” Oskar Schindler died in 1974 and was buried on Mount Zion in Israel, the only member of NAZI party who was ever honoured in this way. I wonder whether the light that changed him was the same light that transformed the murderous Saul into a man of God. [1]

Friends, I believe that the power to do good comes from God. Schindler may not be a good role model in his private life. But if this man was good enough to do God’s work to save that many lives of innocent men, women, and children, anyone is good enough.

It was the same with Peter in our reading from John’s Gospel today. We may wonder why Jesus asked Peter almost the same question three times. Well, many of you would remember what he did when Jesus was on trial: he denied any association with Jesus not only once, but three times (John 18:15-18, 25-27)! Perhaps Jesus asked him three times to match his denials. Perhaps each question was a way of saying to Peter that each of his denials had been forgiven. Perhaps each question was meant to remind Peter that he was always good enough to be Jesus’ messenger, no matter what he had done in the past.

Friends, we are reminded today never to disqualify anyone, including ourselves, from being chosen by God to do God’s work. If God had used the most unlikely people to do God’s work, God can choose anyone, including us. Our Job is to have the heart of Ananias: to be open to what God is doing among us and to accept God’s call to whomever, however unlikely that person is. God never waits for someone to be holy before God can use him/her for His works; God makes the person holy by asking him/her do His works.

So don’t be discouraged or disheartened and never discourage or dishearten another person. If God calls you or someone else to do God’s work, don’t try to ignore or belittle that call. Like Ananias, we may have reservation. But also like Ananias, we must learn to put that reservation aside and open our heart to what God is doing amongst us.

God is doing remarkable things through unlikely people. Let us never become a stumbling block to God’s work in the world today.

Amen.

[1] An article about Oskar Schindler on https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oskar_Schindl