Harrowing Of Hell
May 14, 2017

The Metamorphosis of Saul

Preacher: The Rev. Kate Wesch

The Metamorphosis of Saul

Easter weekend my family acquired five little caterpillars. They took up residence in a small container in our kitchen where everyone could keep an eye on them as they grew more plump and fuzzy with each passing day. Eventually one, then another, and another, and another spun themselves into a chrysalis. Four of our five fuzzy friends made it this next incredible step and we carefully placed them inside our netted enclosure.

The kids named them: Hiccup, Toothless, Apollo, and Firetruck. But there was one that looked a little different than the rest and I called him Saul. Every morning for weeks now, each member of the family wakes up and goes straight to the kitchen first thing to check on the chrysalides; to monitor any subtle changes in color, placement, shape, or anything that could possibly indicate a butterfly ready to emerge.

This careful monitoring and observation of our caterpillar turned chrysalis friends grounded us in the present this Easter season. It gave us something slow and natural to watch, something from God’s creation, incrementally changing and transforming before our eyes.

It has been akin to watching flowers or vegetables grow from seed, or experiencing pregnancy or the slow, steady growth of a child. These kinds of metamorphoses are God just showing off as we witness the complete change of form, structure, or substance
of a seed into a flower, a tiny fetus into a newborn baby and eventually a walking, talking child, or a fuzzy little caterpillar into a butterfly.

God does this sort of thing all the time – planting seeds for metamorphosis, showing off, whatever you want to call it. That is exactly what happens today inside this sharp and violent story from Acts in which we witness the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen’s death is our introduction to the metamorphosis of Saul and this sermon is all about Saul who will become Paul the Apostle.

Now Stephen, one of the very first Christian missionaries, has been testifying and preaching to the high priest and members of the council and yet his sermon has fallen on deaf ears. (I hope this one doesn’t.) He has gone on at great length, weaving together the stories of their Judaic heritage with the more recent experience of Jesus to discuss where the spirit of God is – inside us. God’s holy spirit fills that space inside us – collapses that emptiness we so desperately seek to fill. And while the sermon has moved the soul of Saul to a deeper place, it has not done so for his listeners. They heard it as dangerous – a threat.

“Look!” Stephen shouts. “I can see heaven opened, and the son of man standing at God’s right hand!” He points at the air in front of him. His gaze cast presumably on the divine image only he could see. It was as if his very words witnessing to God’s kingdom come near hurt them. They had to deny it and destroy it allowing the destructive and evil powers of this world to overcome at least on that day… at least for Stephen.

The members of the council yelled at him at the tops of their voices, blocked their ears,
and made a concerted dash at him. They grabbed Stephen by the arms, legs, even hair, taking turns dragging him out of the city. When they arrived just beyond the city gates,
they threw him to the ground and pelted him with stones.

So much anger, shouting, throwing things. All actions that are generally frowned upon in polite society as ways in which to handle conflict. This crowd certainly wasn’t ready to have any kind of fierce conversation in order to further the relationship.

Instead, they moved swiftly to the violent act of an angry mob which left a man dead.
A tragic story only left to repeat itself ad nauseum throughout our human history. But what I see in the midst of this horror is hope. What shines forth in the ugliness is redemption. What I see are the seeds of metamorphoses being planted right there at the feet of Saul… and possibly others.

Saul, who will become Paul the Apostle first appears in scripture right here. Saul is part of the crowd. He bears witness to this awful crime. But at this point, Saul isn’t even thinking of the holy spirit or the son of man. He is a Judaic scholar, a student of the great Gamaliel, a Pharisee who is actively persecuting followers of Jesus. He even consents to Stephen’s death and antagonizes the church there in Jerusalem thus forcing the missionaries out of the city and into the countryside inadvertently spreading the gospel. How ironic.

But in that moment, when we first meet Saul, he is a young man bearing witness to martyrdom. He is taking in this scene in which Stephen has a vision and in that vision kingdoms are collapsing. The Kingdom of God was right here so near that the heavens opened. That just means that in that moment, for Stephen, the earthly kingdom and God’s kingdom were one and the same. And he was there in that space and he could see Jesus standing there at the right hand of God.

“Look!” Stephen shouted at Saul and the crowds. God’s Kingdom is here, right here, so near. You can touch it.

Saul, a robust young man, stands there bearing witness to Stephen’s divine vision, observer of this violent execution,and recipient to this group of women and men removing their cloaks and lying them at his feet.

Saul is the caterpillar or maybe he’s the chrysalis at this point. But do you know what actually happens inside a chrysalis? Entomologists aren’t certain either. They know that the caterpillar sheds its own skin for a final time and a hard inner layer forms the chrysalis. The caterpillar inside that shell eats itself alive turning into a soup of gooey liquids and proteins. If you were to cut open that hard outer shell at this stage of its development, you would find nothing but goo. Honestly. No discernible caterpillar parts, no antennae, or eyes, just liquidy goo.

For a couple of weeks, from the outside it looks dead. It’s brown and lifeless just hanging there, a sack of goo. Until one day, it turns black and opaque and you can begin to see the bright pattern of the butterfly’s wings through the chrysalis. And then, it finally emerges. Metamorphoses complete. A new creation.

As Jesuit writer Richard Rohr says, “Transformation means to change form, move across, or “shape-shift.” To be transformed is to look out at reality from a genuinely new source and center, seeing things in a larger and more holistic way.”

That’s what was happening to Saul that day. As Saul walked across those coats to return to Jerusalem, his heart got a little mushy and his chrysalis began to form. He might not have known it at the time, but the seeds for transformation were planted in his soul and his metamorphosis had begun.

Each time Saul journeyed from one place to the next, encountering Christians and persecuting them, his heart softened a bit more and the chrysalis of transformation set in – a bit more and a little bit more.

Until one day, you know the story, Saul was on the road to Damascus and he turned to liquidy goo. A flash of light came from heaven and God spoke to him and his heart turned to mush. He was stricken blind and for three days could not see. He didn’t eat. He didn’t drink. On the third day, a Christian named Ananias came to see him. He laid hands on Saul and immediately he was filled with the Holy Spirit. Saul emerged from his chrysalis a butterfly, the scales fell from his eyes and again he could see. Saul, now Paul, had been fully transformed and was ready to fly.

Years later, after his conversion, Paul wrote these words to another community of Christians, “We always thank God…when we pray for you and the love you have for all God’s holy people. You heard about this before in the word of truth, the gospel, as it has been among you, from the day you heard it and came to know the grace of God in truth.” (Col 1:3-6 para)

It has been among you since the days you heard it. That was just as true for the Colossian community to which Paul was writing as it was true for Paul himself. The grace of God has been with Saul all along, his belovedness as a child of God was within him, as he changed form, moved across, had a conversion experience, and one day realized he was able to look out at reality from a genuinely new source and center, seeing things in a larger and more holistic way.

But it started here, as he listened to Stephen tell us of kingdoms collapsing.

Last weekend, over the course of three days, we watched as all four of our butterflies emerged. Hiccup, Toothless, Apollo, and Firetruck became beautiful butterflies. I looked and looked, trying to figure out which one was my Saul, but I couldn’t. Which one of these butterflies had become Paul. But that’s just the thing, now they are all Paul. There are four butterflies named Paul flying around West Seattle.

God is showing off yet again with the way these tiny creatures transformed into something wholly different. And God does the same thing with each of you. When I look out at you, I see lots of butterflies. Some of you might feel like caterpillars, some like chrysalides turning to goo, and others on the precipice just waiting to emerge. But I know so many of you as bright butterflies incarnating God’s spirit in your lives. And you have a story to tell of that transformation.

Sermon Reflection Questions
1) Reflect on something which you have enjoyed watching transform. What was that experience like for you?
2) Can you think of instances in which you cycled through from caterpillar, to chrysalis, liquidy goo, to butterfly? Where are you on that journey now?
3) What in your life is in need of metamorphosis?
4) How does the story of Saul who will become Paul the Apostle give you hope?