Unlikely Messengers

It some­times strikes me that the Lord some­times picks some might­i­ly unlike­ly mes­sen­gers. We are all flawed in our ways, true, but it’s easy to think there are those flawed more than our­selves. In part this is the whole beam in the eye prob­lem of per­spec­tive we find in Matthew 7. But the para­ble of the Lost Sheep record­ed in Luke 15 sug­gests that some are more lost than others:

What man of you, hav­ing an hun­dred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the nine­ty and nine in the wilder­ness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it? And when he hath found it, he layeth it on his shoul­ders, rejoic­ing. And when he cometh home, he cal­leth togeth­er his friends and neigh­bours, say­ing unto them, Rejoice with me; for I have found my sheep which was lost. I say unto you, that like­wise joy shall be in heav­en over one sin­ner that repen­teth, more than over nine­ty and nine just per­sons, which need no repentance.

One of the best-known exam­ples of the formerly-lost sheep is the apos­tle Paul of Tar­sus. We first learn about him as Saul, a Phar­isee who active­ly per­se­cut­ed the ear­ly church. The sto­ry of the the light of heav­en inter­rupt­ing his jour­ney to Dam­as­cus is real­ly key to under­stand­ing Friends under­stand­ing of the Light as judge and instruc­tor (it’s also the source of one of my favorite line in the John­ny Cash oevre “it’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks”!).

But I always won­der what the oth­er Chris­tians made of the post-conversion Paul. We get a lit­tle of their reac­tion from Ana­nias but I imag­ine there was lots of talk and anger, jeal­ousy and con­fu­sion all swirling with what­ev­er joy they could muster that anoth­er soul was saved. A man who had “slaugh­tered” them was soon to present him­self as a major leader, tak­ing sides in the great debates over how Jew­ish the Chris­t­ian com­mu­ni­ty need­ed to be.

How do we react when God uses an unlike­ly mes­sen­ger to spread the good news? None of my blog read­ers are like­ly to have seen their brethren slaugh­tered but it’s safe to say we’ve all been wronged and mis­treat­ed from time to time. One of the great mys­ter­ies I’ve expe­ri­enced is how God has seem­ing­ly used other’s dis­obe­di­ence to do His work. Know­ing this requires a scale of love that’s hard to imag­ine. Peo­ple do wrong can still be some­how act­ing of God. Peo­ple who have done wrong are some­times espe­cial­ly cho­sen of God. Heav­en rejoic­es more for that one saved sin­ner than all the rest of us try­ing to mud­dle along in faith. Even secret anger is akin to mur­der.

We Friends are right­ly inspired of 17th Cen­tu­ry New Jer­sey Friend John Woolman’s excep­tion­al com­pas­sion and abil­i­ty to see out­side the prej­u­dices of his day, but even this “Quak­er saint” con­sid­ered him­self the unlike­ly mes­sen­ger, the lost sheep of  the Luke sto­ry. He wrote of a dream:“Then the mys­tery was opened, and I per­ceived there was joy in heav­en over a sin­ner who had repent­ed [Luk 15:7] and that that lan­guage John Wool­man is dead meant no more than the death of my own will.”

How do we hold tight to love, even for those we don’t like? When we greet even those who have dis­ap­point­ed us, we need to bear in mind that they might have trav­eled their own road to Dam­as­cus since last we met. They might be one of those God choos­es to teach.

(Thanks to Esther Green­leaf Mürer’s Quak­er Bible Index for the Wool­man connection.)

  • Faith Kel­ley

    Thanks for the post, Mar­tin. It is good to be remem­bered the God often (almost always?) picks the most unlike peo­ple to do his work. They are often unlike­ly not just because of their pre­vi­ous actions against the Church (like Paul), but also because they are so often called from the mar­gins of soci­ety and seen as not being impor­tant or good enough. Just look­ing at the Christ­mas sto­ry you get a unwed teenage moth­er, a podunk car­pen­ter, a home­less child, a smelly riffraff of shep­herds and some for­eign New-Agey stargaz­ers with weird ideas of what makes a good gift for a small child. The only put-together and pow­er­ful char­ac­ter, King Herod, miss­es the move­ment of God completely. 

    It is a good reminder to us, as you state, that God can use us, even with our bag­gage, and we need to be pre­pared for God to use oth­ers, even those we deem beyond his reach.

  • Broschultz

    I think the scrip­ture that is on point is “he that is for­giv­en much, loves much”

  • Steven Davi­son

    I’ve got a spe­cial thing for that guy Ana­nias. This name shows up in two oth­er places in Chris­t­ian scrip­ture and in anoth­er very intrigu­ing source, the pseude­pigrapha The Ascen­sion of Isa­iah, writ­ten prob­a­bly some time in the first cen­tu­ry. The first of the oth­er scrip­tur­al Ana­ni­as­es is the high priest who per­se­cutes Paul (Acts 22:5, 12; 23:2; and 24:1). The sec­ond Ana­nias, along with his wife Sep­phi­ra, is cen­tral to one of the most bizarre sto­ries in all scrip­ture, at least in my eyes. They are both struck dead by God by Peter’s com­mand for fil­ing false finan­cial state­ments in regards to the sup­port of the poor.

    I believe that this sto­ry records the first dis­own­ment or excom­mu­ni­ca­tion from the first com­mu­ni­ty of Jesus’ fol­low­ers. We know that the Essenes excom­mu­ni­cat­ed using a mock bur­ial cer­e­mo­ny, rely­ing on Deuteronomy’s famous for­mu­la for choos­ing life in the covenant, ver­sus death out­side it. Even today, some ortho­dox Jews say that rel­a­tives who mar­ry Chris­tians “are dead to me.” Fur­ther on the Essene theme, we also know that “Dam­as­cus” was their code word for a cen­ter some­where in Tran­sjor­dan or south­ern Syr­ia (though not in the city of Dam­as­cus itself, appar­ent­ly), after the destruc­tion of Qum­ran. So it’s intrigu­ing to me that Paul may have been plan­ning to vis­it this very Ana­nias all along, since he would have been a valu­able infor­mant: some­one who knew the lead­er­ship well and had no rea­son to like them. Why else go so far away to gath­er infor­ma­tion for your pogrom against the saints?

    Then there’s The Ascen­sion of Isa­iah. This is per­haps the very first doc­u­ment show­ing signs of Merk­abah mys­ti­cism, the devo­tion­al study of Ezekiel chap­ter one as mys­ti­cal prac­tice. The move­ment did not gen­er­ate its own lit­er­a­ture until some­time in the third cen­tu­ry, if I remem­ber cor­rect­ly, but The Ascen­sion has all the essen­tial ele­ments, and Paul him­self is some­times cit­ed as the first known proto-Merkabah mys­tic, since his own mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ences fol­low a very sim­i­lar pat­tern. The Ana­nias men­tioned in The Ascen­sion is one of three mas­ters of the ‘tech­niques’ of ascen­sion named in the book. Could it be that Paul was taught by the very first Chris­t­ian heretic, and learned the emerg­ing tech­niques for heav­en­ly ascen­sion that this ear­ly mas­ter was teach­ing, then went on to recon­fig­ure the char­ac­ter of his ‘ascen­sion’ expe­ri­ences in the light of his own expe­ri­ence of Christ in the tru­ly inno­v­a­tive con­text we now know as Pauline Christianity?

  • Peter

    The ques­tion of oth­er Chris­tians’ reac­tion to Paul is quite com­plex. This is part­ly true because what we know as “Chris­t­ian” is real­ly Pauline Chris­tian­i­ty – his inven­tion and promulgation. 

    As we know, Paul didn’t covert until 50 or so years after the death of Christ. All the fol­low­ers of Christ dur­ing Christ’s life and imme­di­ate­ly after were undoubt­ed­ly Chris­tians (inter­est­ing­ly, of course, they were the ear­li­est Chris­tians but yet they didn’t have any of Paul’s writ­ing which seem to be the cen­ter­piece of so many fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tians today). His­to­ry sug­gests that these ear­ly Chris­tians – those clos­est to Christ – did not agree with much of Paul’s teach­ings and on that basis (and not his con­ver­sion which would have been rel­a­tive­ly com­mon in the ear­ly days) reject­ed him.

    Indeed, one need not look to far to see that Paul’s writ­ings diverge sig­nif­i­cant­ly from Christ’s. The love expressed in the ser­mon on the mount is quite dif­fer­ent from the fire and brim­stone Paul used. Of course, the most famous dis­agree­ment was between Paul and Peter was the inci­dent of Anti­och (which Paul describes at Gala­tians 2:11 – 14) and of course Paul’s inter­pre­ta­tion won out in the end, even though Peter was most like­ly cor­rect that Paul’s view was not con­sis­tent with what Jesus’s would be.

    In sum, I think it’s rel­a­tive­ly clear that Pauline Chris­tian­i­ty has “won out” based not on Paul’s true call­ing, but rather his polit­i­cal savvy. Sor­ry for the rant, but I think this is often ignored by Chris­tians. Those expous­ing to be like prim­i­tive ear­ly Chris­tians (like Mary, the moth­er of Jesus, for exam­ple) would do wise to dis­tance them­selves from Paul and his invent­ed ver­sion of Christianity.