Our podcast series “The Birth of the Church: Why the loser won” moves into a critical phase in the Birth of the Church – the famous day that Saul travelled on the road to Damascus. Archbishop Mark starts episode three with this key moment.
Episode 3 – The Road to Damascus:
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- Episode 3: The Road to Damascus - Transcript
Episode 3: The Road to Damascus - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
In the last podcast I left you on the Damascus Road. Which still exists, by the way. You go through the Damascus gate, as it’s called in Jerusalem. And then you head north and there it is, the Damascus Road. And I actually lived on the Damascus Road for a time when I was studying at the French school there École Biblique, as it’s called. So here we are on the Damascus Road, Paul thundering off with credentials from the Sanhedrin to persecute those dreadful messianic Jews, so they thought. Who hadn’t been called Christians at this stage, but they were the followers of this extraordinary figure, Jesus of Nazareth.
Now, if we take the account given to us, the first of those three accounts in the Acts of the Apostles. We’re told that Paul was, he had letters to the synagogue at Damascus. So that if he found any belonging to ‘the Way’. Now there Christianity, it was known as ‘the Way’. Perhaps not as early as this time. But certainly when Luke comes to write the Acts of the Apostles, it was known as ‘the Way’ with a capital W. So that’s Christianity, is ‘the Way’, the Way to freedom. Found any belonging to ‘the Way’ men or women he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Obviously, for a trial of some kind.
Here we go. Now, as he journeyed, he approached Damascus. And suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him and he fell to the ground and he heard a voice saying, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
Now, the question is, what’s going on here? Clearly, Jesus has been keeping an eye on him. We’re not told it’s Jesus immediately. We’re just told a voice. And that’s certainly as Paul would have experienced it. But the voice knows Paul. Paul doesn’t know the voice. Saul. Saul. So, there’s something intensely personal about what’s happening. Why do you persecute me?
Now, Paul asks the very predictable question, who are you Lord? And in a sense, that’s the question that is at the heart of Paul’s whole life. Who are you? And then comes the reply from the voice, I am Jesus. So, the voice now has a name for Paul. I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.
Now, Paul at this stage would have been thoroughly entitled to say, but listen, I’m not persecuting you. I’m persecuting them. The Christians, to call them that. Your followers, I’m not persecuting you. I’ve never met you. But I am persecuting your followers. But eventually what Paul will come to see is that Jesus identifies with his followers. Call it his church, if you will. But Jesus identifies with his followers in the most extraordinary way.
So that what the voice, Jesus implies in this moment of encounter. Is that I am them and they are me. Why do you persecute me? Because you persecute them. I am Jesus whom you are persecuting because you persecute them.
And I think here you begin to see the seed of that extraordinary description of the church that Paul comes to so early. We’re used to it because we’ve had it through the centuries. But to call the church ‘the body of Christ’. Was an incredible innovation and insight. But where did that insight come from, if not from a moment like this, this encounter where Jesus says, you persecute them, you persecute me, they are me, I am them, they are my body.
So, it’s a moment of encounter. Often, it’s called the conversion of Saint Paul. Now we need to be quite clear on this point. It’s not really a conversion that we’re talking about. Because conversion applies to the pagans, the Gentiles, the non-Jews. But doesn’t apply ever to Jews. It didn’t then and it doesn’t now. The Jewish people will talk about in coming to the encounter with Christ risen, as Paul does here, they complete their Jewish identity, their faith. They don’t, conversion means you’re going in one direction, and you turn around and you go in the opposite direction. Well, that’s not what Paul does necessarily at all. Completion means you continue on the same journey, but you come to its completion. So, to talk about this moment as a moment of conversion for Paul is at least questionable. It’s much more a completion of his Jewish identity.
And just by the way, if you’d asked Paul just before he’d had his head chopped off. Excuse me, Paul, one last question before you go. Are you a Jew or a Christian? I’m not sure that Paul would have even understood the question. And I think if he had, he would have said, well, I’m both. In other words, Paul doesn’t cease being a Jew when he comes to Christ, when he becomes a Christian. Paul completes his Jewish and even his Pharisaic identity by coming to this moment of encounter. In which God delivers the freedom that Paul had always sought, the fullness of God’s freedom. So, I think we can just set aside respectfully, the language of conversion. And see it more as a completion or even more, I think, as a kind of prophetic commissioning.
If we go to the letter to the Galatians where he talks about this experience, you’ll see what I mean. Galatians 1 again, he says, he speaks about this moment as a revelation of Jesus Christ, well it’s certainly that. And it’s a revelation that knocks him down. And this is crucial to just, by the way. That here is Paul, the powerful one, thundering up the road to Damascus with letters of credential and he’s in charge. He’s the powerful figure of the persecutor. And what Jesus does with exquisite timing is he goes boing and knocks him down.
The painters love painting a great big, beautiful horse from which Paul is knocked off. It’s very unlikely that he would have been riding a horse. Only the rich and the military did that. He might have been on a donkey, they’re not as nice to paint. Or he might have been in a wagon, they’re even worse to paint. And he might have been on foot. Because they were great, great walkers, so who knows. But it was very unlikely that he was on a horse, but he’s knocked down. In other words, the powerful one is stripped of all his power, and lies powerless on the ground. And from now on, Paul’s whole story will be a story of going from depth to depth of powerlessness. Until he ends up a corpse without a head on the ground. Nothing more powerless than that.
So, the whole story of Paul’s apostolic mission is being stripped of what we normally mean by power. Reduced to a kind of powerlessness that becomes utter, like the crucified Christ. But in the midst of all of this, he experiences an extraordinary empowerment. That can only come because he’s stripped of power. So, this moment where he is knocked down, stripped of power is a promise of all that is to come until the moment that he dies.
Now, so he says. But when he who had set me apart before I was born. You see how Paul now is talking about the deep roots of this moment. Even before I was born, this was bound to happen. And the language he uses there, I’ll read it again. But when he who had set me apart before I was born is echoing very clearly what’s said of the Prophet Jeremiah. In the story of his call. Where Jeremiah says, the word of the Lord came to me saying, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you and before you were born, I consecrated you. That’s the language that Paul echoes here in Galatians. In other words, to interpret this experience to himself, and to us. He reaches back into the only Bible he knew, which is what we call the Old Testament. And he finds the figure of the Prophet Jeremiah, who becomes for Paul, an absolutely crucial interpretative resource. Paul interprets his own experience by looking to the figure of the Prophet Jeremiah. Now, why was this important?
Because Jeremiah was thought by many to be a false prophet and was rejected. But eventually, he was recognised as one of the great prophets and certainly one of the true prophets. Not because he was persecuted, but not despite persecution, but because he was persecuted. Because a lot of people said of Jeremiah, you’re a false prophet, because if you were a true prophet of God, you wouldn’t be rejected and persecuted the way you’re being rejected and persecuted. And Jeremiah said, it’s precisely because I’m rejected and persecuted that I am a true prophet. So that whole experience of Jeremiah feeds into Paul’s understanding of his own life, where he too will face rejection and persecution. Almost from the from the start, literally from the start, as we shall see.
So, Paul, interpreting this moment by reference to the Prophet Jeremiah. So, in other words, as it was for Jeremiah, I think it was for Paul too a kind of prophetic commissioning by Christ. And that’s the way it’s told in the Acts of the Apostles as well. In other words, I’ve got a job for you. And to be the Apostle to the nations, Jesus, the Lord said to Ananias who is sent to minister to Paul. He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel. And I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. So, there it is again. So, this is, he’s commissioned in a most extraordinary way. The persecutor not only stripped of power. But commissioned to go out and preach the gospel to all nations, we are told.
So, let’s agree that we’re talking about an extraordinary encounter that may have contained elements of conversion. But that’s misleading language. But we are talking about prophetic commissioning, Jeremiah. Now, in the story that we will follow, one of the things that was constantly said about Saint Paul, it was that he was a false apostle. And one of the reasons for that was that he wasn’t with Jesus from the beginning. And he didn’t meet, encounter the risen Christ.
And that was the key credential for any apostle of Jesus Christ. Now, Paul and Luke both understand this Damascus Road encounter as the same kind of encounter that the apostles, the twelve, Paul wasn’t one of the twelve. But the same kind of encounter that they had with the risen Christ after the resurrection. Because this is the risen Christ who knocks Paul down, comes out of nowhere, just as he did with the twelve after the resurrection. Comes out of nowhere, turns their world on its head and gives them a commission. The elements are the same in this moment of encounter.
So, what is being said here by Paul and by Luke, who was one of Paul’s great supporters and advocates. Is that Paul did encounter the risen Christ every bit as much as the Apostles did after the first Easter. In other words, they’re both, Paul and Luke, are refuting the constant charge that was made against Paul by his opponents, who were Christians by the way. The constant charge that you’re a false apostle. You didn’t encounter the risen Christ.
But this will become crucial in the course of Christian history, of course, because to encounter the risen Christ, it can’t belong only to those who lived back in the first century and did encounter the risen Christ in those days after the resurrection.
I mean, I, as a bishop, for instance, am call also to encounter the risen Christ if I’m to have any credentials at all. I mean, if I haven’t, if that’s not true of me, then whatever other credentials I might have are all as it were, built on sand. The only rock upon which apostolic witness can be built is the rock of this kind of encounter. Even if in the life of someone like myself and others, it may not be as dramatic, but it’s no less real.
Now, eventually Paul rises from the ground. He can’t see. And he can only have his eyes opened and be restored, as it were, to the fullness of life through the ministry of another. In other words, Paul is not self-sufficient. Ananias is the name of the man who is chosen by Christ to go to Paul.
And he’s very nervous because he knows Paul’s a persecutor. So, Ananias we’re told, departed and entered the house and laid his hands on him and said, brother Saul, now those words must have been hard for him to pronounce. This is clearly Ananias as a Christian. Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. And immediately something like scales fell from Paul’s eyes and he regained his sight. And then he rose and was baptised and took food and was strengthened. The reference there seems to be clearly Eucharistic.
So, Paul completes his journey to Damascus. But in a way he couldn’t have even begun to have imagined. His whole world is literally turned on its head as he completes the journey to Damascus. Now he stays in Damascus for quite some time, but not to persecute the Christians. He stays in order to preach Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. Now, you can imagine the reaction to this. Paul the persecutor becomes Paul, the preacher. Preaching the very one he had so passionately rejected.
So, the reactions to him were at least reactions of puzzlement and probably protest. And there was considerable resistance. And not just resistance, but here at the very beginning of his apostolic mission, he is persecuted by his own people.
We’re told again, in Acts when many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him. That’s how serious they are. But the plot becomes known to Saul, and he’s still called Saul at this stage. And they have to lower him down over the wall for him to escape in a basket. So, there you’ve got the great apostle as he will become, suffering the indignity of being lowered down the wall of Damascus in a basket. To escape and make his way back down the Damascus road to Jerusalem.
But again, the spectre of persecution is there from the start. And that’s, again, a crucial point. It will be a constant theme in Paul’s journey. So much so that you have to ask, why did Paul keep going? This is a question we will turn to, not in this podcast, but in a later one. Why didn’t Paul just go home, give it all away as a kind of a bad joke, or at least a painful joke?
So that is a crucial question. What was he a masochist? Was he mad? And the answer to both questions is no. So, what was it that kept him on the road of apostolic mission that did involve a lot of suffering and persecution?
Now, part of the answer to that, but only part, is he never forgot this moment. This moment will stay with him for the rest of his life. The encounter and its commission. He never forgets. And one of the things about again, the Jewish people is that they never forget. The verb ‘to forget’ in the Old Testament is one of the verbs ‘to sin’. Judaism was and is in some ways a religion of remembering. So, Paul never, ever forgets this encounter on the road to Damascus. And will spend the rest of his life unpacking what has happened.
Now, after he escapes from Damascus. The question is, what does he do? Acts tells us that he goes to Jerusalem. But Paul in Galatians, and here again we have to deal with the tension between the two sources. Paul in Galatians says, when he who had set me apart before I was born, had called me through his grace. So, it’s a call we’re dealing with. Was pleased to reveal his Son in me. This is a fascinating phrase, I think, and goes to the heart of Paul. Scholars have read that and have said he can’t have meant was pleased to reveal his son in me. He must have meant to me. But Paul unquestionably dictated, was pleased to reveal his son in me.
In other words, Paul has this sense increasingly, as his life will unfold. He becomes the revelation. It’s not something that just passes through him. That Paul in living the Lord’s death and resurrection, he actually becomes the revelation of Jesus Christ. So, that Jesus is in me. And He will use extraordinary language like, for me to live as Christ. I live no longer I, but Christ lives in me. So that sense of I am Christ. Now, this is dangerous language of course, but he means it. So, God was pleased to reveal his Son in me. And we’ll see more of what that means.
So that I might preach him among the Gentiles. Here we pick up the story. I did not confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem, to those who were apostles before me. He might have gone to Jerusalem, but he didn’t make contact with the church in Jerusalem. But what he does say is I went away into Arabia. Now, when he speaks about Arabia, he doesn’t mean Saudi Arabia. He means the desert country east of the River Jordan. Modern day Jordan, more or less.
So, Paul goes off into the desert. And it seems he stays there not just for a day or two, but for quite some time. I find this fascinating. Why would he go off to the desert for quite some time? My own sense or suspicion is that he needed time to unpack the whole extraordinary experience that had turned his world, including his religious cosmos, on its head.
He just needed the silence and the stillness and the solitude that only the desert can provide. And this is a huge theme in the scriptures that Paul knew. He needed that in order to grapple with the question, what is this? What happened to me? What does it mean? What does it mean in terms of action in my life? What does it ask that I do?
There’s the great text in the first book of Kings. Where the prophet Elijah is hiding in the cave. You probably know the text. And God is passing by on the Holy Mountain. And we’re told that there was a great fire and a great earthquake and a great storm. And God was not in the fire, God was not in the earthquake, God was not in the storm. In none of those dramatic events. But then we’re told there was, there came the voice of a thin silence. That’s what the Hebrew says, the voice of a thin silence. And Elijah then covers his face and goes to the mouth of the cave because he recognises that in the voice of the thin silence, God is passing by. So, Paul goes into the thin silence of the desert. In order to get in touch with the God who has just turned Paul’s life on its head.
So, we’ll leave it there for this time. But we’ll leave Paul in the desert. The question is, when he emerges finally from the thin silence, what does he do? What has he heard out there in the stillness, and the silence, and the solitude? What does he do and where does he go? Because now it’s time not just for silence and stillness and solitude. But for a life that will be tumultuous in the way it’s immersed in the life of individuals and communities and conflicts, and in service of the Great Communion, which Paul would say is ours in Jesus Christ.