Often, when I think of Paul’s early days and introduction into Christian life, I think about his light-from-heaven-flashing, voice-of-our-saviour-calling conversion on the road to Damascus. It’s pretty dramatic, not gonna lie – and in a good way. We’re called to think about the radical change God made in his heart, the grace he offers to us as sinners, and the complete 180-turn Paul’s life took when his eyes and heart were turned towards Jesus. Those are certainly good and true things. Yet, this passage here focuses on Paul and the church. Not the ones that received the letters he later wrote, or the ones that he’s famous for helping plant, but the community he joined when all that they had known of Paul beforehand was that he was a dangerous persecutor of the Christian faith.
It’s pretty unbelievable that that happened – in fact, so unbelievable, that it almost didn’t happen. Verse 26 tells us, “when he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.” When I first read this, I couldn’t shake that in my imagination, if I’d been there, I’d have been one of them. I wasn’t very pleased with this.
With hindsight on how the story turned out, perhaps we’d all wish we’d have been Barnabus instead, who rocks a nickname like the ‘Son of Encouragement’. And for sure, there’s so much to learn from Barnabus. Barnabus, who took the time to go to Saul. Who was able to reiterate Saul’s story of seeing the Lord, hearing the Lord, and preaching in Damascus to the apostles because he’d first listened to it carefully. Who acted like a bridge, welcoming Saul into the community of believers. Maybe one of our challenges here in reading this passage is examining how we can be more like Barnabas. Where are we called to be active in inviting somebody into our community? Are we willing to spend the time and energy that that takes? Do we risk ourselves for it?
But it’s still a struggle reading the responses to Paul’s initial arrival at Jerusalem. We can celebrate Barnabus, ask ourselves those questions, and try to spur ourselves on to emulating that and fostering a more welcoming community, but the thought keeps coming back up: were the disciples’ reaction to be afraid and disbelieving of Saul really so wrong? He wasn’t just any other person. The disciples in Jerusalem didn’t know the hindsight we get now in reading the story, who Saul became and the simple fact that he was telling the truth; at their moment in time, all they had known of Paul was his persecution of Christians beforehand. Perhaps “wrong” isn’t the right word, but “human”. Put in the same position, the disciples’ weren’t being particularly cynical or doubtful – but rather their initial response (whilst definitely good that it later changed) was also understandable.
So what do we do then with that? How do we try to create community? Are we simply called to act like Barnabas, and how does that make sense when so much of the disciples’ reaction also seems to make sense from the human, limited perspective that we still live and share in? There’s more to unpack and more answers that I don’t know, but I think I find comfort in the following: that ultimately whilst this community is ours, it belongs not to us but to God; and it’s not created by us or our strengths, but by God. We’re called to partner and build on the relationships that he has set for us through the Spirit, but not ever from scratch. Paul joining the disciples here is an incredible, unlikely thing; it wasn’t done based on his own actions, the disciples’ or even Barnabas’ – but rather through God’s power to bring radical change not just to his heart, but to also to his relationships. When we remember Paul, we often think about how God renews hearts. This passage reminds us that we can be equally confident that God renews relationships and communities too. The Church and the unity we have through the Spirit given to us, is a part of the gift and pursuit of our risen, ascended, and glorified Christ.
Dear father, thank you that you are glorified just by who you are. Thank you that you are kind and good to us, and that you can bring change and transformation not just to our hearts but also in the relationships we have with others and the communities we live in. We pray that we would give you these things, and you would do what you want with them. We pray for our spirits to be cooperative with yours, for us to act in your will, and that you would make us more like you. Thank you for your grace. In Jesus’ name,