05.05.19: It's been a long road...
READINGS: ACTS:9:1 – 18 ; JOHN 21: 1- 19
A Damascus Road conversion – this is a phrase which many people understand as meaning a complete about face, being changed from one point of view to another that is diametrically opposed, a U turn. Even if people don’t know much about St Paul, it is the dramatic turn of events on the Damascus Road that they usually know about. Very little about what went before it, and probably even less about what went on after it. And to be honest, I wonder if some of us are in the same situation – I know that my knowledge of Paul’s life is sadly lacking. I know he went about preaching to a lot of people, and that he was a copious letter writer, and that much of the theology of the Church today is built on his understanding of the revelations of God. But I don’t really know much about him…
Well, it seems that few backgrounds could have better prepared Saul, as he was known before his conversion to Christianity, to be the chief persecutor of the early church. He was born in Tarsus – “no mean city” as he liked to describe it – which was a major Roman city on the coast of Southeast Asia Minor. Tarsus was a centre for the tent making trade and from Acts 18 verse 3 we know that Saul was a tentmaker as well. It says there that he stayed with Aquila and Priscilla, who were tent makers “because he was of the same trade”. Although Saul was well known was a teacher of the Jewish Law, he would have still needed a profession to support himself, as teachers of the Law were not paid for their services; thus he was a tent maker.
However, in Acts 22:3 it tells us that Saul was actually brought up in Jerusalem, studying under Gamaliel, who was the most illustrious and respected rabbis of the day. Perhaps he and his family moved from Tarsus when Paul was young, but his father taught him the rudiments of tent making even then. Whatever it was that brought Saul to Jerusalem, it gave him the opportunity to study Jewish Law under a great teacher. This training prepared Saul to become one of the Pharisees, who were the religious elite of Judaism. He was the kind of pupil every teacher dreams of, zealous, enthusiastic and interested – I bet he always got his homework in on time! So much so that he outstripped his peers in enthusiasm for the traditions and in his zeal for the Law. He had the opportunity to observe the Council and come to know many of its principals and inner workings. He would have been there to watch encounters between the Council and members of the Way, as Christianity was called in its early days, and to be astounded at the blasphemies that were being revealed. And he was there at the stoning of Stephen, which galvanised his commitment to traditional Judaism and set him off on a mission to seek out and destroy as many believers as he could. As Acts 8:3 reports “ As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison”.
He was then devout, energetic, outspoken, enthusiastic, stubborn, and full of fire for what he saw as God’s way. Perfect to rout out the blaspheming Christians and put them to death. Even more perfect for what God had in mind for him…
Because, as we know, God had great things planned for Saul… But first he had to realise and to understand that what he had seen as great blasphemy – that a man, Jesus of Nazareth, is also the Christ, the Messiah, God in human form come to save the world from its sins and to open the way to a new and different relationship with Jehovah, the God of Abraham – this blasphemy was in fact the Truth. And how on earth was God going to do that? It would need something huge and dramatic to convince Saul of Tarsus. So huge and dramatic was what Saul of Tarsus got.
And that is one of the great things about God – because he knows us all so well, he knows what each of us needs to show us the way. We saw this in the Gospel reading. Having betrayed his Lord three times Peter was no doubt feeling despondent and a failure. So Jesus took him to one side and offered him the chance to reaffirm his love for his Risen Lord. And what I like about this story is the way Jesus gently gets Peter to realise that all the way along, through all of the pain of the crucifixion, Jesus had known of Peter’s love and devotion, that his denial had been a lapse, but that his love for his Master had never faltered. For on the third asking “Do you love me?” Peter answers, “Lord, you know all things. You know that I love you!” You have always known; you know what I need and you meet that need… Jesus gave him what he needed. In our modern world there are some, who like to question and debate, and there are Alpha courses where questions are welcomed and debate is continued; Jesus meets them in their questioning, gently providing answers. For others, sadly, they need to hit rock bottom before they will listen to what God is saying and be able to take his hand; for people like me, brought up in a Christian home, there is a gradual realisation of what God has done, and a quiet handing over of ones life to the Lord; and for yet others, stubborn and convinced that they know where they are going, there is the Damascus Road experience. Which is exactly what Saul got. Whichever way we need to finally convince us, everyone has to, at one point or another, submit to the will of God.
Perhaps the chief irony of Paul’s calling (for we must call him Paul now he has changed, and had his life turned round) was that he was called to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” We are told in Acts 9:15 that God tells Ananias that Paul “is a chosen vessel to bear my name before Gentiles, Kings and the children of Israel”. The irony of this, and a demonstration of how, if we’re truly honest, we can see God doesn’t always make things easy for his followers, is that Paul had been a Pharisee, the very title meaning “to separate”. Some Pharisees would not even eat with non-Pharisees for fear of being contaminated by food which was not ritually clean. They kept themselves separated from women, from lepers, from Samaritans and especially from Gentiles. So Paul was being asked to make a U turn from all he had been taught, from all that was ingrained in his upbringing, and to mix with Gentiles.
And let’s make no bones about it – he found it hard. He was being asked to do things that were not natural to him – to mix with foreigners, to treat women in the same equal way as men. It took Paul years to re-evaluate his perspectives and to bring them in line with the heart of God for the world. But his character, which God knew and loved, stood him in good stead – his stubbornness meaning that once he realised what God wanted he would have struggled even with himself and his natural tendencies, with his enthusiasm and zeal for God shoring him up in his darkest times. When we become Christians God asks us to change our perspective, he doesn’t ask us to change our characters; he has made us as we are, and loves us. Whether we are shy, hot headed, stubborn, not particularly clever, outgoing – whatever we are, God can use those parts of our characters to his good and glory as long as we are open to him. Just as he used Saul’s character to make Paul, ambassador to the Gentiles, so he can use us to do his will.
But, as I said, this about face wasn’t easy for Saul, he needed time to think, to re-evaluate all that he had done before. It can’t be easy for someone to suddenly revise the entire theological basis on which he’s been living. No-one – least of all Paul – likes to admit that they’ve been wrong. No wonder he needed to spend a lot of time in prayer. And in order to help Paul face what needed changing God sent two things.
First, he gave Paul “time out” – he was made blind for three days, making it a necessity for him to be still and not to move about. All he could do for those three days was to sit and think, and to talk to people. And I think to it was here that Paul may have had his first lesson in humility and in the need to depend on other people. I get the feeling that the old Saul had never depended on others before; he had everything he needed to forge his way in the world, he was self assured and confident. Imagine how difficult it would be for this know-it-all Saul to have to listen and learn from others, which is what he would have to do, as any young Christian learns from those who are more mature in their faith. So he needed to be brought down a peg or two – I don’t suppose God took any pleasure in it, but he knew the necessity. So, in his blindness, Paul learned to depend on others for his food and for every other need, and he had time to sit and think and learn - about himself, about the Way, and about what it was God required of him. He was given time to be able to talk to others.
And this is the second thing that God gave Paul. He gave him a friend. Because, if you think about it, this new Christian wasn’t necessarily going to be welcomed with open arms into the Christian community. He had been heading to Damascus in order to hunt down, arrest and ultimately to kill the Christians who lived there. And suddenly he was claiming to be one of them. Well, was this a trick? Had he really changed? Who was going to be brave enough to find out?
I really admire Ananias. He had no doubt heard that Saul, the scourge of the early Church, was on his way to Damascus; he would have known Saul’s methods, his eagerness to persecute those who followed the Way, and I am sure that Ananias was scared. Maybe he had already prepared himself to be hunted down, arrested, imprisoned and ultimately put to death for his beliefs. And then, as is his way, God asks Ananias to do something that, on first sight, seems utterly ridiculous.
In a vision, God spoke to Ananias, “Go to the street called Straight and inquire at the house of Judas for one Saul of Tarsus”… And basically, Ananias replied,
“You must be joking…I’ve heard what this man does to people – and you want me to go and speak to him…?”
But God replied, “I have great things planned for this man”. And he might also have added, “and you will be the one to start these off.”
Ananias must surely have been terrified, but he went obediently to lay hands on Saul that he might receive the Holy Spirit and to baptise him. And as a result Ananias witnessed the spiritual birth of one of the early church’s greatest spokesmen. He also saw a dramatic demonstration of the truth that God’s grace can overcome anyone’s background.
But what would have happened if Ananias hadn’t trusted God enough? If he had refused to believe that God was asking him to do such a seemingly stupid thing as go and introduce himself to the persecutor of the followers of Jesus? We will never know, as thankfully Ananias was obedient to God. But perhaps it should cause us to pause and think – who might God want us to approach with his message? Who do we harbour doubts about, believing that they will never change, never enter the faith?
If Ananias had not responded to his call from God, perhaps God calling Paul would have been worthless, for he would not have been able to take the next steps towards growing into a charismatic leader and tireless preacher of God’s word. We should wonder, now that God has called us – in whatever way – how can he use us to bring others, however unlikely we might feel they are, into his love?
I know I have read this short piece recently, but I think it bears repeating, especially as we consider Ananias’s faithfulness to God’s call:
There is an old Christian tradition
That God sends each person into this world
With a special message to deliver
With a special song to sing for others
With a special act of love to bestow.
No-one else can speak my message,
Or sing my song
Or offer my act of love.
These are entrusted only to me.
As Ananias was called on to speak the message to Paul, to sing the song of God’s love and to offer his hand of friendship to a man who had once been his enemy, we ask ourselves
What is God calling us to do? What is our message, our song, our act of love?