“May the words from my lips and the meditations of our hearts always be pleasing to you O Lord”
Our story today from the Book of Acts is a very familiar and dramatic one. Saul, the exceptionally good persecutor of people of “the Way” has a new mission. He is off to Damascus to hunt down followers of the way and bring them back to Jerusalem to face religious inquisition.
Damascus was an important Syrian city about 135 miles north of Jerusalem. It was a leading commercial centre of the Roman empire. The city was known to have a large population of Jews.
So why was Paul headed north? It seems that disciples of Jesus were now in the Synagogues and in the Jewish neighbourhoods and were threatening the faith. So Paul sets out on his journey.
The author of the Book of Acts shares the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion. The Book was written after Paul’s death. Paul does refer to his change of heart in letters to the Corinthians, Galatians and in Philomen. But its not the way the Book of Acts tells it. The author of Acts sets the stage for Paul’s role in spreading the word to the gentile world.
We remember this version. Saul on the road to Damascus plotting against the followers of the way. Suddenly a light surrounds him and a voice is heard. Saul is having a close encounter. Saul is converted to a faith in Jesus because of his experience. He finds himself unable to see and is now dependent upon the care of strangers.
Perhaps we should consider Saul’s experience as more of a reorientation or redirection since he is largely the same afterward. He is zealous, passionate, bold, scriptural and confident. Its just that now he has a new centre of orientation - Jesus.
Interestingly Saul does not become Paul immediately. It was likely a secondary name that proved useful in Gentile territories.
After Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus he is forgiven for his previous actions, is called to a new mission by God, is baptized to be a follower of Jesus. In the early Church baptism was referred to as “enlightenment” because now all believers can now see. It is interesting that when we hear this story Saul is blinded in his encounter but is then healed by a believer. Saul recovers his sight both physically and in a religious sense because with his baptism he now sees what other believers see.
The author of the Book of Acts does not tell us how Paul becomes the theologian that he becomes. Did he spend some time having a crash course in the way? Did he study under the disciples? This part of the story is left to our imagination.
Does it matter to you if this story “really” happened the way that Luke relates it? Would it matter if it was “made up”?
Has anyone ever asked you if you have had a “Road to Damascus” experience?
I have been asked that question! On the path to ordination I was asked what my Road to Damascus story was. And I did not have a very good answer. Probably most of us do not. Yes, dramatic conversion stories do happen - but just not to the majority of us. For many of us we were born into faith or just muddled along. We grew in age and stature and hopefully we grew in our faith. But for many of us the Road to Damascus makes for a good story - but its not our reality.
It is important for us to remember that what happened to Saul was noteworthy because it was not typical of the way most people become converts. Most people become converts because of relationships. They hear the stories of Jesus from someone they know and trust.
Who is the main character in this story? Is it Saul? Is it Jesus? Or could it be God? God is in the business of changing lives. The story is perhaps a little less about Saul and more about the way God works.
Saul’s dramatic experience was not his doing - he did not make this happen. God did. God needed a witness to take the Gospel to the gentiles and to the powerful people of Israel.
Do you think change is possible? We are often skeptical of people’s desire or ability to change. This story of Saul’s conversion - a very dramatic conversion shows us that change is possible. A theme we see over and over again in our Bible is that if God is the agent of change, anything is possible.
It happened to Saul. He went from a zealous prosecutor of people of the way to a zealous witness to the resurrection and teachings of Jesus. What happened to Saul had a significant impact on the Church.
Its a great story. A memorable one. But it may not be our story. And thats ok. There are many many ways we learn about God, begin to follow the way, grow in our knowledge and love of God. There is no right or wrong or one size religious experience.
We do not have to be blinded like Saul or a zealous witness. We do have to be open to what God is doing, what the Holy Spirit is doing in us and around us. And our faith is not a private thing. We too are called to be witnesses to the risen Christ. To share the Good News. To not just talk about Christ or God or the Bible. We are called to an active faith that demonstrates love above all.