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Saulus – Paulus

Tirsdag i 3. uke av påsketiden

Acts 7.51-8.1: Saul approved entirely of the killing of Stephen. 

There is a scene towards the end of the film The Kite Runner, based on Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, in which a woman is brought into an Afghan football stadium while a game is going on. She is in the back of a truck. Fully veiled, she is held by armed men who lug her out into the centre of the stadium as if she were a sack. The game stops, the crowd keeps silence, a man gives a speech. This woman, he proclaims, has broken God’s law; not only does she not deserve to live; her extermination is a service to society. One of his companions throws the first stone. Then there is a hail of stones. 

We see a close-up of a man looking on with satisfaction. He is clearly thinking: ‘Good riddance’. The whole scene is abhorrent: ugly, cruel, bigoted. The look on that man’s face as he witnesses another human being’s violent death is especially ghastly. 

So it is troubling, deeply troubling, to have to recognise Saul, the future Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles, in a corresponding role during the public execution of Stephen. 

Paul, in his letters, refers emphatically, repentantly to his past as a persecutor of Christians. The account read to us today reminds us that his antagonism was not restricted to demagoguery and the odd angry column in newspapers. Saul was part of the crowd that made ‘a concerted rush’ at Stephen, shouting in rage as they stopped their ears. When afterwards he fell from his high horse, it was while on a journey to Damascus, where he purposed ‘to arrest and take to Jerusalem any followers of the Way’, likely to submit them to a trial like Stephen’s.

Seen from afar, Saul’s caravan of zealots, bound for Damascus, is not so unlike that truck in the Afghan football stadium. 

The power of the risen Jesus seized him there, in that state of mind, turning his reality upside-down, inverting Saul’s concept of righteousness. Paul knew what he was talking of when, later, he would constantly insist that for God nothing is impossible.  

It is an extraordinary feature of the Bible that it shows, in both testaments, the non-linearity of people’s lives, the contradictions that condition human hearts, human minds. Yet no betrayal, no fall is irreparable.

A life pierced by repentance may become an even more effective vehicle of grace than one that has never known what it is to fall and to be raised up again. If only we acknowledge and surrender the violence, mendacity, and self-righteousness that lurk in the still-not-evangelised depths of our being, they may be turned into good zeal, pressing us on, as the mature Paul was pressed, ‘toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 3.14).

So be it. Amen. 

Ahmad Khan Mahmoodzada as Hassan in The Kite Runner. It is in pursuit of Hassan’s abducted son that Amir, the story’s main character, witnesses the stoning in the Afghan stadium. He is trying to be faithful to the strong call received from an old friend: ‘Come home! It is a very bad time. But there is a way to be good again, Amir.’