Saul of Tarsus was called. “Saul, I need you. Come here.” Of course, it was couched in other words initially: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9)
My mother loved to work in her back yard, pulling weeds, planting flowers, puttering around. She didn’t want to come into the house with dirty hands and feet just because she was thirsty, so she would call me. “Bette, I need you. Come here.”
And I came, often to be sent back indoors for a tall glass of water or a “milk shake.” Mama’s version consisted of milk with sugar and vanilla flavoring added, ice cubes but no ice cream. Once I put it into her hands, I could return to my book, homework or television, whatever I was doing before.
That’s not the kind of call Saul of Tarsus got. When he heard that voice, what it didn’t say was understood just as clearly as what it did say.
“Saul, I want another apostle. You’re it.”
“You meet my criteria: genealogy, authority in the Sanhedrin, Roman citizenship, self-supporting occupation, knowledge and zeal for the law. Come here.”
It wasn’t just an invitation, it was a draft notice. To make sure he paid attention, Jesus brought this invitation in person, in quite a dramatic fashion. Saul paid attention; he obeyed the instructions to the letter. He became an apostle.
Fast forward twenty plus years. Saul’s name is now Paul and he’s planning a trip to Rome, where many Gentiles and Jews have become followers of Jesus. He writes them a letter, informing them of his plans.
This letter to the Romans begins with an explanation of who the writer is, for a good reason. Though they had never met him, he had a widespread reputation; they knew who he was. Still, he was about to give them some orders. Why should they listen? Who is he, to them?
And so he begins, “Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle and set apart for the gospel of God… apostleship to call people from among all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith. And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ.”
He is identifying himself to them, and with them.
A servant? He was born into a prominent family, had achieved prestige and position, and he probably had servants himself. Now he’s a servant instead, as many of them were.
Called? Like they were? They knew what it meant to be called. Recruited, drafted, not because it was their own idea, but because it was someone else’s idea. They had accepted calls from owners or employers or government officials in the past, and now had accepted the call of Christ. This man says he was called, too, something else they had in common.
But Paul had not just been invited to be part of this group who believed Jesus to be God’s son, as they did. He says he was called to be an apostle, somebody sent out on assignment, traveling from place to place with God’s message for his people.
Paul’s zeal had gotten him into trouble soon after his confrontation with Jesus and he’d had to be sent home to Tarsus. Where once he’d been a respected, honored and feared member of the Jewish authority structure, he had become an outcast. A criminal, like those he’d pursued and arrested. The time back home was put to good use, I’m sure. Studying, meditating, communicating with God, learning, unlearning, relearning.
He was learning everything he could about the gospel of God, who Jesus was and how he fulfilled the promises, the prophecies. About God’s power. Grace. Faith. He was preparing to be an apostle, to share with the world at large what the Holy Spirit was teaching him. We know the rest of Paul’s story, that he did indeed become an apostle.
As I meditated on just what “called” means, I came across the Greek word for church. Ekklesia: the called ones. The invited ones. The drafted ones. And I began looking for other instances of this word, called.
Jesus told a parable about a wedding for a king’s son in Matthew 22. The king had invited (called) the proposed guests beforehand, then when everything was ready he sent his servant to say, “It’s time.” But they were too busy, they weren’t prepared. They refused.
So the king had other guests invited. The servants brought in everyone they could find – they filled the banquet hall, but the king wasn’t pleased with one of these new guests. He was invited, he had come, but he wasn’t prepared. He wasn’t wearing proper clothing for a wedding. He was thrown out.
He was called, but because he wasn’t prepared, he wasn’t chosen. Jesus ended this parable with, “For many are called, but few are chosen.” You get the picture.
The call isn’t the only thing necessary. Saul of Tarsus was stopped on that road in such a way it left no room for argument. He acknowledged Jesus’ identity and he accepted the assignment, but that wasn’t enough. He had to be prepared, clothed with something he couldn’t provide for himself.
And he was. In Acts 9 Ananias told Saul, “The Lord… has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” The results, in his own words: “I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I had said and done – by the power of signs and miracles, through the power of the Spirit.” (Romans 15:18-19)
“The things that mark an apostle – signs, wonders and miracles – were done among you with great perseverance.” (2 Cor. 12: 12) When I think about all that happened to Paul in his lifetime (2 Cor. 11), I realize he could not have survived without that essential preparation; that clothing of the Holy Spirit.
Called, prepared and chosen. Clothed. That’s what and who we need to be.