“And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.” Acts 9:26
Every time I read the story of Paul’s conversion, I’m shocked. Literally two chapters before (Approximately 2-3 years earlier), Saul was overseeing the murder of Stephen and the imprisonment of many of the Christians in Jerusalem. On his way to Damascus, Jesus appears to him and completely transforms his life.
Since the narrative of Acts is fairly terse and spanning a number of years in a relatively short book, the drama of the book can easily be lost. Imagine one of the most loved and respected people in your current church was murdered publicly for what he believed. His wife lost a husband, his children lost a father, and even worse, the murderer was not brought to justice but rather applauded for his actions. He was your friend, maybe your mentor, and nothing will bring him back. Now imagine that murderer, two years later, sending you a letter asking permission to not only attend your church, but be supported and sent out by your church. This would be a nearly impossible situation to deal with.
But this is exactly what happens with Paul and the church of Jerusalem. Stephen was one of the most loved and respected men of the Jerusalem church. He was chosen as one of seven men to take charge of the care of orphans and widows and was unflinchingly bold when it came to declaring the gospel. And then he was murdered. And Paul was in charge of murdering him.
Paul’s return to Jerusalem after being trained and ministering in Damascus takes up such a short space in Acts, so the emotive complications of the situation is easily glossed over. The man who murdered Stephen and put friends and family members in jail was wanting to come and partake in communion with them. Paul wanted to break bread with Stephen’s family and friends, and they would have to pass the wine to the murderer and terror of the Jerusalem church.
I can’t imagine being in that situation.
But this story shows both the challenge and the awesome power of God’s grace. Becoming a Christian means sitting at the table with enemies, sharing resources with those who at one time harmed us. God’s grace does not discriminate because of worthiness. God in his providence chose to end Stephen’s ministry early and call the man who ended it to bring his Gospel to the Gentiles. That is how grace works.
The truth of the matter is, what Paul was to the Jerusalem church, we have all been to God. Paul later writes in Romans, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 ESV) As hard as it is, we don’t get to choose who we allow to the table. We’re all at the table by grace.
Lord Jesus, You are the Mighty God who shows grace to the undeserving and mercy on the unrighteous. Please give us the grace to show others the same!