Sunday 1 May 2022

Giving thanks for Saul/Paul


Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 1st May 2022, the 3rd Sunday of Easter

Imagine for a moment that you are Saul, who we heard about in the 1st Reading (Acts 9:1-20).

You are approaching Damascus, one of the great cities of the Roman Empire. You are on important business. You carry letters from the High Priest himself, which give you the authority to round up the subversives who follow what they call the Way, both men and women, followers of that notorious criminal Jesus of Nazareth who was justly executed for inciting rebellion against lawful authority.

Suddenly, a light flashes around you. You collapse in a heap on the ground. You hear a voice saying ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Where is this voice coming from? ‘Who are you?’ you say. ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’ the reply comes. ‘But get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.’ Then you realise that you can see absolutely nothing, even with open eyes.

What a terrifying realisation – you have been struck blind, completely blind. Your travelling companions lead you by the hand into the city, and there you stay in a room for three days, sightless, neither eating nor drinking. Your mind races, returning again and again to the agonising question, ‘Why me? I am a good Jew, a Pharisee, punctilious in keeping the Law. Surely I don’t deserve this fate?’

Then at last a man called Ananias comes into your room. He is a Jew like you, living in Damascus, but he is also one of those subversive followers of the Way, against whom you have been breathing threats and murder. He simply touches you with his hands and says softly, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit’. And suddenly you can see again – it is as if something like a blindfold fell off your eyes.

What a surge of relief you feel! And as your strength returns you find that everything – the whole course of your life – is changed.

This is the bones of the story told us by Luke, the author of Acts. But let’s look a little closer at this man called Saul in Hebrew or Paul in Greek. He is worth studying because he - more than any other of the first generation of Christians - has profoundly shaped our Christian faith through his missionary activities and writings.

Saul was a cosmopolitan Jew of the diaspora.

He was born in Tarsus, a major Mediterranean trading port in what is now South East Turkey, to a devout family - in his own words (Phil 3:5) he was circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee’. The family must have been quite well to do for him to inherit Roman citizenship.

He could read and write fluently in Greek, the common language of the Eastern Empire, as well as Aramaic and Hebrew no doubt, and he was sent to Jerusalem to complete his education in the famous rabbinical school of Gamaliel. He said of himself that though he was not an impressive speaker he wrote words of wisdom.

He had learned the trade of tent making, by which he proudly supported himself during his later missionary journeys. But he may have been trained for ownership or management. He knew how to use a secretary and dictate letters, and he displayed the managerial skills to plan, monitor and control missionary teams in the growing network of churches he founded.

It is clear from his letters that Paul was a disputatious personality. He was quite prepared to challenge the authority of Peter and James, the leaders of the growing Christian community in Jerusalem, when he thought they were wrong, for instance when he insisted that his gentile converts should not have to adopt the whole of the Jewish law. And he must have been a prickly individual, always certain that he was right, who was known to fall out with his co-workers.

Saul was also a zealot – he would throw himself body and soul into whatever project he believed to be right. This led him to prominence in a pogrom against Jesus’s followers in Jerusalem, after he watched the stoning to death of Stephen, the first martyr. And hunting those who fled the pogrom brought him to travel on the road to Damascus.

Saul’s religious experience on the road to Damascus changed his life utterly.

Religious experience is a strange thing. God seems to choose to reveal important things suddenly to some people. Not just to Jews like Saul, or to Christians – many claim the experience of being ‘born again’ even today - but to individuals of other faiths – for instance the Buddha Gautama’s awakening under a Bo tree. But most of us discover religious truth and faith in a much gentler, gradual way, as I have, absorbed as if by osmosis in a process which takes a lifetime.

What exactly Saul experienced is uncertain. Acts says that he saw a bright light and heard a voice. Was it an epileptic fit or a kind of migraine perhaps? In his own letters he says only that ‘God revealed his Son to me’, and claimed he had seen the Risen Lord, which is why this reading is set for the Easter season. He used it to justify his claim to be the equal of the original apostles. And he believed he had been called not just to serve Christ but to accomplish a special task – to convert the gentiles. This is what he dedicated the rest of his life to.

And the Christ who chose to appear to Saul chose well. Saul was the right man in the right place at the right time. His personality and his skills made him outstandingly successful at the task of converting the gentiles. The book of Acts tells the dramatic story of his missionary trips throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. At some point he ceased to use the name Saul, so that in the latter part of Acts and in his letters only his Greek name Paul is used.

Paul founded vibrant congregations, and nurtured them by writing letters to encourage and sometimes chastise them. He developed a Christology and a theology of salvation which continues to inspire and perplex us. And he bravely endured many hardships and punishments over some 30 years of work, culminating in two years of house arrest in Rome. There, according to tradition, he was beheaded as a martyr in the reign of Emperor Nero – he who allegedly fiddled while Rome burned.

In 70 AD, just a few years after Paul’s death, the Jews of Judea rebelled against Rome.

Jerusalem and its Temple were destroyed – just as Jesus had predicted, according to St Matthew, though he may have been writing in hindsight. All the inhabitants of Jerusalem were dispersed as refugees. The fate of the Jewish Christians is uncertain, but most probably they merged into the Greek speaking gentile churches created by Paul. Without Paul’s churches the small, vulnerable Christian minority might well have been wiped out – and we would not be here today.

So let us give thanks to God for Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, for his mission to the gentiles which has led us to Christ, and for the inspiring and challenging words he has left us.

I will finish in prayer in the words of the collect for the Conversion of St Paul:

Almighty God, who caused the light of the gospel

to shine throughout the world

through the preaching of your servant St Paul:

Grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion

may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;

through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen