Saturday, January 23, 2016

Remembering the Damascus Road

Feast: The Conversion of St Paul

Readings: Galatians 1:11-16; Matthew 19: 27-30

The expression ‘a Damascus Road experience’ is part of the currency of our language.  Whether you are a believer or an unbeliever, the dramatic story of Paul’s conversion is so embedded in our cultural inheritance that the phrase lends itself to anyone who might speak of how someone has abruptly changed their mind on some important issue.

The story is told most fully in Acts (where it appears 3 times, with some slight variations of detail) and is alluded to by Paul in key epistles (1Cor.15:3-8; Galatians 1:11-16;) especially in that passage from Galatians  set as a reading for this feast.  The experience is something Paul keeps returning to and my suggestion this morning is that this tells us something about Paul and, quite likely, something about ourselves and our experience of faith.

One of the things that struck me about the lectionary readings for the feast is that (at first glance) the gospel has nothing to do with Paul or the story of his conversion – but of course Paul is not one of the inner circle of the Twelve and his part in the story is outside the gospels.  

Matthew’s account of Peter’s question “We have left everything … what will we have?” is a literal question about the place and privilege of the apostles – and Paul is not one of them, unless we speculate outrageously and dare to question whether the saying “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first’ might extend to him, however obliquely.  Is he, though the last, really the first?  (That may sound bizarre but reversals occur through the gospels and, remember, Paul’s authority in the church was not immediately obvious and had to be won.)

Paul repeatedly claims that he is an apostle and, to justify that claim, constantly goes back to that experience on the Damascus road where (as Luke tells it in Acts) he saw the Lord Jesus.  We can only speculate at the reasons for Paul’s persistence and even anxiety on this matter.  He comes into the church as an ‘outsider’: as a notorious persecutor of the Church and as one who had no claim to have known the Lord in his lifetime.  

Despite all this, Paul energetically presses his claim to place, privilege and authority by his encounter on the Damascus Road. “I want you to know, brothers and sisters that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

One can feel for Paul: he is protesting and arguing on his own behalf and using his own personal experience as evidence for his claims.  That is the sort of case that would be problematic for any advocate.  Nonetheless he won his case!  The early church accepted the story of the Damascus Road and recognised the special apostleship of Paul.  Tensions there certainly were, but Paul the outsider, persecutor turned evangelist, became the leader for the expansion of the gospel.

What did Paul make possible? I immediately think of the way he helped the church evolve beyond its Jewish origins to embrace the gentile world.  One might also note that the inclusion of Paul among the Apostles might have opened the way for an enhanced understanding of church leadership – if he could be included, why not others?  For instance, the account of Jeremiah’s calling has its echoes in Paul’s story and in the lives of countless faithful who have responded to God’s call on their lives:
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
I appointed you a prophet to the nations.’
… for you shall go to all to whom I send you,
and you shall speak whatever I command you.” 

I think Paul’s story also tells us something about ourselves and the journey of faith.  Paul looked back to the experience on the Damascus Road as the great theophany, the revelation that transformed him.  But however much Paul might look back to that defining experience, it was not the end of the journey and we see Paul’s thinking and faith developing.

Looking back on our faith journey can be helpful, but we are ill advised to keep looking back at some point where our faith seemed so fresh and strong by comparison with whatever our present may seem like.  We may have had our equivalent of a Damascus Road experience, our experience of conversion or the gift of the Holy Spirit, but the way is forward and not some nostalgia for that moment.  In the Narnia story, ‘The Last Battle’, the lion Aslan declares to the children that they are to keep moving ‘further up and further in’ – go deeper and further and so arrive in Aslan’s (Christ’s) country.

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