An online conversation with my friend Mike and a face-to-face conversation with my friend Mark have both got me thinking about Paul this week. The timing is appropriate enough: Tuesday 25 January was the Feast of the Conversion of Paul, and Wednesday 26 January was the festival of Timothy and Titus, Paul’s travelling companions.
Mark set me reflecting on Paul’s conversion, which we read about in Acts 9, and from which the phrase ‘Damascus Road experience’ has come into the English language to describe an epiphany, a moment of revelation, which causes someone to exchange one passionately held view for another. In fact this epiphany – like all epiphanies – is both event and process: in this case a literally blinding revelation of the risen-and-ascended Jesus, followed by a process of several days culminating in the Lord asking his church, represented by Ananias, to both welcome Saul as one of their number and commission him for a particular purpose.
The Lord describes this purpose as being his chosen [word we will discuss] to carry his name to the Gentiles and their kings, and to the people of Israel (Acts 9:15).
The King James Version (which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year) says chosen vessel. That is a valid translation of the word in question, which is often associated, in various ways, with ships, and here in particular would describe the carrying of a cargo (Jesus’ name). The word carries a range of meanings: most broadly, thing; but commonly, both baggage and container for baggage (as my wife put it, “God’s chosen handbag”); and even, the clothes an actor puts on to portray a character. The word also sounds close enough to the word for tabernacle – the tent God inhabited in the midst of his ancient people; the term John makes use of in his Gospel to describe Jesus taking on human form to live among us – to allow word-play: Jesus taking on the form of Saul (who was a tent-maker by profession); Jesus whose revelation to Saul on the road to Damascus was ‘I have taken on the form of my church: they are my body.’
My chosen baggage.
My chosen handbag in which to carry my name – my identity – to a particular place: in this case, when I visit the courts of foreign kings.
One would have to say, it is a brave choice of handbag: who else would think to pick out an ultra-orthodox Jew to go to Gentile parties?
But Jesus says, Paul’s baggage – his history; the relationships and events that have shaped him; the things he is proud of and the things he is ashamed of – is now my baggage. I have claimed it for my purposes. I’m not going to throw Paul out and possess his body like a zombie spirit. This baggage – however unlikely – is the baggage I am going to use in these particular contexts.
We, too, are welcomed into the church and commissioned for a particular purpose – though the process by which that purpose is revealed may take days or years.
And we too come with baggage. Indeed, with baggage in a culture that tells us, you need to let go of your baggage; your baggage is what holds you back from fulfilling your potential. Perhaps even in church, shaped by the wider culture in which we find ourselves, we are told that God wants us to let go of our baggage so we can be the person he wants us to be. But that is not what Jesus says to Ananias: Jesus says, I don’t want to empty out the baggage; I want to redeem it, to use it for my purposes.
For what occasion am I Jesus’ handbag?
Or, if the handbag image is too much for you, what purpose am I chosen for? (Because who I am is just the right shape to fit in among a particular group of people; or – like Paul – because I am such an unlikely choice in this particular context it must be God...)
In what ways does my own baggage, now claimed by Jesus and redeemed for his purposes, speak of God’s character?