A Sermon preached at St Luke's on the Feast of the Conversion of St Paul, 25th January 2008, during a united service to mark the end of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.
I have not had a Damascus Road experience. I have not seen a blinding light. I have not heard the voice of Jesus. I have not had a sudden ‘conversion experience’.
I grew up in a Christian home. I cannot remember a time when I did not believe. There have been moments when my faith has become more real, moments when my faith has become really mine. There have been moments when my understanding of God has changed. I continue to sense I am on the way.
But I have not had a Damascus Road experience.
So the account of what happened to Saul of Tarsus on the Road to Damascus is of interest historically, but it doesn’t have much to do with me.
Or does it?
One book I have just finished and one historic event this week prompted me to think differently.
Look more closely at Acts 9. It is not the story of a conversion of an unbelieving atheist to one who believes in God. Before his experience on the Damascus Road Saul believed in the LORD God. After that experience he still believed in the same LORD God.
It is not the story of a conversion from one religion to another. Jesus and indeed at this time practically all his followers were fully Jewish.
At this time there were very different ways of being Jewish. Judea and Galilee were on the Eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. The Herodians were quite happy to collaborate with the Roman power – Herod the Great and the dynasty that followed him thought nothing of playing Rome off against Judaism. The High Priests in Jerusalem had to work in collaboration with the Roman power. Drawn from the elite, ruling classes their power base was supported by the Sadducees who had not time for the radical writings of the prophets and considered only the first five books of the Bible as truly the Bible.
The Pharisees considered strict adherence to the Law and to the Prophets and all the Hebrew Scriptures was key – but even among those there were different schools of thought. The school of Hillel was inclined towards a generous open hearted reading of the Law, while the school of Shammei was very much more exclusive, hard line and extreme.
There were then the militant tendency who wanted to take the sword against Rome – revolutionaries who wanted to rise up against the might of Rome.
There were those who said a plague on all your houses we will retreat into a monastic life in the Judaean wilderness and down to the Dead Sea – the Qumran community whose ancient scrolls were discovered just sixty years ago.
And then into this mix came John the Baptist, an Elijah lookalike who seemed like one of the prophets of old holding the powers that be, not least Herod the Great’s son, Herod Antipas to account. It was Herod who had him beheaded. He had come to prepare a way for the Lord through the wilderness. And then Jesus had come with a powerful prophetic message of love for God, love for neighbour and love for enemy too. He was the way. Perceiving him to be a threat to the power base they had built up it was the High Priests in collaboration with the Romans who had him arrested and executed. But his followers were convinced. He had risen from the dead. And they followed him. John had prepared the Way. Jesus was the Way. And his followers came to be know as the Way.
Saul tells us later in his letters that he was a strict Pharisee. He studied under Gamaliel a generous hearted Pharisee but had strict tendencies himself as well. When he first comes on the scene he is supportive of the Sanhedrin, the Council in Jerusalem and here he is working under the High Priest and therefore with those who are ready to work in collaboration with Rome. It is within his understanding of God that those who pose a threat to the power base of the Council, the High Priests and the Romans in Jerusalem should be hunted down, threatened and if needs be executed. Those who had studied under John and even more so under Jesus posed such a threat.
So it was that Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Two things then happen. On the road to Damascus he encounters the risen Christ. And,
he is on the receiving end of the, albeit reluctant, healing ministry of Ananias one of those very disciples in Damascus.
The change that results in Saul keeps him in the synagogues of Damascus, but now he has moved to Jesus’s way of seeing God and so he proclaims Jesus in the synagogues, saying “He is the Son of God”. The text tells us that he proceeded to argue a very strong case that Jesus was indeed Son of God, the anointed one of God, the Messiah and that God’s rule had broken into the world through him.
It is telling that from that point on … Paul as he came to be known no longer has any room for vengeance, threatening language for less for execution within his understanding of God. He echoes the teaching of Jesus in the sermon on the mount and follows the Way opened up by Jesus
Let love be genuine; bless those who persecute you, bless and do not curse. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Do not be overcome by evil. But overcome evil with good.
What happened to Saul on that Road to Damascus and in Damascus was NOT a conversion from atheism to faith.
What happened to Saul on the Road to Damascus and in Damascus was NOT a conversion from one religion to another.
What happened to Saul on the Road to Damascus and in Damascus was more a TRANSFORMATION not only of his whole knowledge and understanding of God but in the Way that one God would have him live his life. And that transformation came about in an encounter with Jesus and through the healing ministry of one of Jesus’ followers on The Way.
What of us? This story is not just for those who have had or who hanker after a conversion experience. It is for all of us. We all need our whole understanding and knowledge of God, our whole relationship with God, to be transformed by the Jesus who taught the love of God, the love of neighbour, the love of enemy too. We need our picture of God to be transformed by the Jesus who brought healing into a hurting world, the Jesus who died and is risen and is alive.
At the same time we need to be open to the ministry of an Ananias who seeks to open our eyes to the realities of the God we believe in.
And that brings me to the novel and to the historic event of this week and two ‘Ananiases’ who have opened my eyes this last week.
‘Have you read The Shack?’ Howard Bartlett asked me on our New Year’s Day Walk. ‘No, I hadn’t.’ I have now. And it is a wonderful, thought-provoking read. Mack’s life has fallen apart in unimaginable tragedy. He has a clear enough picture of God. And the God he believes in has totally let him down. And then something happens. And he finds himself in the Shack in the company of a wonderfully loving threesome who turn out to be in a way I won’t spoil for you God. As the story unfolds you are drawn in a way I won’t spoil for you if you get hold of the book to the sheer love of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Suffice it to say, there’s a lot of love, a lot of joy, a lot of fun, and wonderful depths of feeling in Jesus and the other two Mack meets in The Shack.
But that love is too much for Mack. When ‘Papa’ – maybe not quite as you instinctively may imagine, says “I love the ones I am angry with just as much as those I’m not.” It is too much for Mack.
“What about your wrath? It seems to me that if you’re going to pretend to be God Almighty, you need to be a lot angrier.
“… if you are God, aren’t you the one spilling out great bowls of wrath and throwing people into a burning lake of fire?”
At that, Papa stopped preparations for the meal and turned toward Mack. Mack could see a deep sadness in those eyes.
“I am not who you think I am, Mackenzie. I don’t need to punish people for sin. Sin is its own punishment, devouring you from the inside. It’s not my purpose to punish it; it’s my joy to cure it.”
[See Wm Paul Young, The Shack – where tragedy confronts eternity (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) 119f See http://www.theshackbook.com/
Speaking as it were for all three Papa says ‘with an intensity that caused [Mack] to listen very carefully, “we want to share with you the love and joy and freedom and light that we already know within ourself. We created you, the human, to be in face-to-face relationship, with us, to join our circle of love.”
[The Shack 124]
If there is any vestige of a sense of a God who would have space the kind of vengeance that includes threats and murder, a wrathful God, consider the Jesus Paul met with on this occasion, hear his voice, sense his light in the darkness of the world, discover the love of that community he brought into being, and discover a God who is very different, and a Way of life that can transform even the deepest darkness.
We need to have our eyes opened by a latter day Ananias in the form of William Paul Young. Try getting hold of the Shack and be surprised by the sheer love of God.
And another Ananias opened my eyes this last week. Her name was Sharon. And that takes me to the historic events of this last week.
The Inauguration Ceremony began with prayer. It ended with prayer. The ensuing lunch began with prayer. And as if that was not enough on his first day in office, President Obama, sat in church at The National Prayer Service and listened to the Rev Dr Sharon E.Watkins preach on a text from Isaiah 58:6-12
[Rev Dr Sharon E.Watkins, Harmonies of Liberty a sermon preached in the presence of President Obama at the National Prayer Service on 21st January 2009, with readings from Isaiah 58:6-12 and Matthew 22:6-40. Read the full text of the sermon at http://oikoumene.org/fileadmin/wcc-usa/files/2009/Obama_NPS_sermon_Watkins.pdf ]
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? 7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house;
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, 10if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
This is what she shared with the new President on Wednesday morning.
In times, such as these, we the people need you, the leaders of this nation, to be guided by the counsel that Isaiah gave so long ago, to work for the common good, for the public happiness, the wellbeing of the nation and the world, knowing that our individual wellbeing depends upon a world in which liberty and justice prevail.
This is the biblical way
This is the Way Paul discovered in that Damascus experience.
It was a transformation in his understanding and knowledge of the very nature of God. It was a transformation in his relationship with God. Where once there was space to breathe threats and execution, vengeance and wrath, now love is The Way. It is the Way that demands that evil be not overcome by evil but overcome only by good.
Whether or not we ever have a Damascus Road experience, our understanding of God needs the transformation Paul experienced. It will come about as we meet with this Jesus and those who have discovered the wonderful Way he has opened up for us to follow.
Sharon Watkins told a story attributed to Cherokee wisdom.
One evening a grandfather was teaching his young grandson about the internal battle that each person faces.
"There are two wolves struggling inside each of us," the old man said.
"One wolf is vengefulness, anger, resentment, self‐pity, fear . . .
"The other wolf is compassion, faithfulness, hope, truth, love . . ."
The grandson sat, thinking, then asked: "Which wolf wins, Grandfather?"
His grandfather replied, "The one you feed."
She looked at the new President of the USA and said this …
There are crises banging on the door right now, pawing at us, trying to draw us off our ethical center – crises that tempt us to feed the wolf of vengefulness and fear.
We need you, Mr. President, to hold your ground. We need you, leaders of this nation, to stay centered on the values that have guided us in the past; values that empowered to move us through the perils of earlier times and can guide us now into a future of renewed promise.
We need you to feed the good wolf within you, to listen to the better angels of your nature, and by your example encourage us to do the same.
Do that and we shall be well on the Way to that transformation Paul experienced not only on the Road to Damascus in his encounter with Jesus but in Damascus as he received from Ananaias.
For further reading ...
Wm Paul Young, The Shack – where tragedy confronts eternity(Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) 119f See http://www.theshackbook.com/
Rev Dr Sharon E.Watkins, Harmonies of Liberty a sermon preached in the presence of President Obama at the National Prayer Service on 21st January 2009, with readings from Isaiah 58:6-12 and Matthew 22:6-40. Read the full text of the sermon at http://oikoumene.org/fileadmin/wcc-usa/files/2009/Obama_NPS_sermon_Watkins.pdf