The Conversion of St Paul: On the Road to Damascus (26/1/2020)
I don’t know about you, but I love a good conversion story! For a few years I attended and was very involved at Holy Trinity Brompton in London. It was my sending parish for ordination; I am deeply grateful for the time that I spent there and all that I learned.
One of my favourite things was when, after an Alpha Course had finished, Nicky Gumbel would interview people who’d just taken the course, during a church service. I heard some fantastic, some shocking stories about the lives of quite ordinary people. Nicky would inevitably ask each person, ‘What difference has Jesus made to your life?’
It was at this point that their voices would begin to shake, eyes would well up, the insides of the mouth would be sucked in. The most common answers were ‘I know that I am loved’, ‘I am a more peaceful person’, ‘My perspective on life has changed’. For many people, they had had an experience of Jesus and life was now different. Some of these stories were extreme: addictions being broken in an instant, physical healings were witnessed, relationships long thought broken were restored.
Some people prayed the ‘God if you are real, show me’ prayer and immediately received a confirmation that He is indeed real and very much present with them.
I have also heard very similar stories from the most violent of men and women. People in the prison system encountering Jesus and having very dramatic encounters with the Holy Spirit and being totally changed and turned around. Many of whom have gone on to do amazing things with their lives only by the grace and power of God.
It is so reassuring to know that Jesus is not only for the quite ordinary ‘good people’ but also the violent offenders. Many of whom are so broken and damaged. It should give us hope!
Paul, then-known-as-Saul would fall into the latter category – he was not a good man. His religiousness did not make him good. Saul and his other religious friends were attempting to eliminate the newly established church. Which they didn’t manage to do but they were successful in dispersing it. The dispersion meant that the gospel was spread far beyond Jerusalem and this is why he was travelling to Damascus that particular day. The Christian presence was growing in Damascus and Saul was going to make sure he stopped it.
Read from ‘On the Road to Damascus’ (p. 150)
Religion and faith are not the same thing! Sometimes it helps to clarify that in our thinking, certainly I need to. People can be very hostile to religion and in some cases, quite rightly so.
I recently spent some time with some young people and was asked to talk about Christianity. I really tried to focus on the relational aspect of the Christian faith. The love of God & Jesus, His creation of us – rather than the rules and facts. I sat down after and thought of all the things I could have or should have said.
A couple of the students also gave short talks about their faiths. What I noticed is that they spoke in a language of religion. ‘My religion believes this or that, these are the rules/expectations.’ Nothing about love or relationship or knowing God.
This is where I struggle with other religions if I’m honest. The lack of personal relationship. Worshipping something or someone that I don’t know or am not even encouraged to understand, doesn’t do much for me. Nor does following a set of rules or trying to live to some expectation without knowing who is behind it or what it leads to.
This is the kind of religion that Paul was living out. Following rules rather than relationship. Rules without relationship makes us hard, unloving, unkind and inconsiderate. In the extremes it leads to violence and murder as in the case of Saul. This might not have been the original intent – certainly not of the Jewish faith. But if left to human devices this is where is can end up. I think that God is horrified and deeply saddened by what has been done in his name. I know that I have contributed to that in my sin and shortcomings.
Saul didn’t like Jesus. Not at all. But he also didn’t know Jesus! He had never met him. But he soon would! The most amazing, unbelievably confounding thing is that God still wants to know us and wants for us to know him. He loves us. Loves me, you, the most violent of offenders, the most ordinary of people.
Read from ‘On the Road to Damascus’
‘Saul, why don’t you like me?’
What a haunting question! I have read the ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’ as read this morning many times. But ‘Saul, why don’t you like me?’ gives this a whole different feel doesn’t it? Maybe it comes from my desire to be liked? Anyone else like to be liked?
Think about a person that you don’t like for a moment. What is it about them that you don’t like? What if they came up to you and said ‘Hey, why don’t you like me?’
Could you answer them? Would you? This is definitely a situation I would want to avoid!
How can you avoid it? Love. If we can love people, it doesn’t matter if we like them or not because love is greater than like. Liking someone certainly makes loving easier. But Christian love is not always easy. Paul knew this and expressed it so beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13.
Do you always like Jesus? Sometimes it is hard when we don’t understand why things happen they way they do. Paul didn’t like Jesus; very actively didn’t like Jesus.
But Paul didn’t know Jesus.
That is about to be rectified!
Read – On the Road to Damascus (p. 151)
As God so often does, he uses other people to help fulfil his purposes. Ananias was that person for Saul. Ananias was one of the growing number of Christians in Damascus who receives a vision in which Saul is identified and located. Ananias is asked to take care of Saul.
What a difficult ask that must have been!
Have you ever been an Ananias to someone?
There will be times in our Christian journeys when we will be asked to do difficult if not impossible things. Or seem impossible at the time. We have a choice to make – we can say yes or no. I think that if we know Jesus – then we are more likely to say yes. It is our obedience that is required – not our ability to predict the future and risk assess.
We can trust and take courage in that He will be with us. Right beside us, to lead and guide us. We can take courage that when Jesus asks something of us, he will be with us. What is asked might be difficult or beyond what we think we are capable of. That’s okay!
Paul went on the live an extraordinary life. The church was reminded of this in last week’s Week of Prayer for Christianity Unity which was written by the churches in Malta. We followed Acts 27 & 28 – the story of Paul’s shipwreck on Malta and the unusual kindness that was shown to Paul and his shipmates. Throughout the week we reflected on and prayed for: reconciliation, seeking and showing Christ’s light, keeping up our courage, trusting and not being afraid, keeping up our strength, hospitality, transformation and giving and receiving generosity. Paul demonstrated and experienced all of these things throughout his ministry. These are a few of the ways that Jesus made a difference in his life.
What difference has Jesus made in your life? That is the question for today. Whether your conversion was big (like Saul’s) or a more low-key affair (like many of us), Jesus meets with us in the way we need him to – he is very good at getting our attention! Whether we know it or not. Jesus should make a difference! He did for Saul now Paul.
Think again about why you might not like Jesus. Do I really know him? The Christian journey is very much about learning to know and love God. To recognize Him in the people we meet and the circumstances we find ourselves in. He is there!
Sometimes we will be asked to do difficult things by God. But he is with us. Jesus was with Ananias as he went to find Saul and restore his vision despite knowing the awful things he had done to Christians. Ananias probably had no idea of what was to come for Saul-now-Paul and yet demonstrates obedience despite unknowing.
As we celebrate the conversion of Paul today, let’s celebrate our conversions too and the difference that Jesus makes.
Read – On the Road to Damascus