“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin” (Galatians 1:11)
One of the things I had wanted to do while in Damascus recently was take the rest of the team to see the house of Judas in Straight Street – the very place where Ananias prayed for St Paul (formerly, Saul, the persecutor of the church) and baptized him!
I’ve ended up at the chapel there – the chapel of St Ananias – just about every time I’ve been to Damascus. It’s right in the middle of the old city. You have to climb down a flight of stairs to get to it – once a small house, converted into a chapel – though interestingly it was apparently once at street level! Over the years, the newer buildings have been built on top of the old, such that every modern building is now one level higher up than those that existed in New Testament times!
There’s a wooden carving behind the Eucharistic table in the chapel, depicting three of Paul’s key moments in Damascus:
- Paul falling off his horse on the road into the city, where he was struck blind!
- Paul being baptized by Ananias in the house where the carving hangs.
- Paul being lowered over the wall of Damascus in a basket after plots on his life forced him to make a hasty exit from the city!
Of course these scenes are all detailed in The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 9 where I assume we’ve all read about them. Even so, I found that some of my Boxers for Peace team had not read about them and so I was keen for them to see the site and learn something of this piece of history. So, after an extensive stint in Damascus’ most famous ice-creamery, I asked our guide to take us to the chapel of St Ananias, as I was convinced that it was only a short walk from where we were.
‘Go to the street named straight’ (Acts 9:11) I barked confidently, and our guide seemed to know exactly what I was talking about, but after walking for about forty minutes, with me thinking that the chapel must be around every corner, I realised that there had been a mix-up and, sure enough, when I was then told ‘here we are’ (at a beautiful Orthodox church) we had to re-orientate ourselves back to the location (one that had been much closer to our starting point than the one we’d reached) and by the time we got there the house was closed to the public.
This was painful, not because I really expected any of our team to have a Damascus Road experience at the house, but simply because that house has to be one of Christianity’s most significant historic sites. Indeed, it could be said that Christianity as a religion started in that house!
That’s a provocative statement, I appreciate, and I’m not denying for a second that the Christian faith as we experience it today is rooted deeply in the person of Jesus. Even so, the communal dimension of our faith, in all it’s multi-ethnic, multi-racial, and multi-coloured complexity, really begins with the church-building work of the Apostle Paul, and Paul, the Apostle, begins in that house in Damascus!
Paul was a fighter. That’s one of the things I love about him. Indeed, whenever you come across him in the New Testament, Paul is almost always fighting with someone or he’s in some sort of desperate trouble!
The three aforementioned scenes of him in Damascus are archetypal in that regard:
- Paul falling off his horse
- Paul groping blindly while Ananias prays for him
- Paul hiding in a basket, fleeing for his life
Paul managed to get just about everyone off-side, one time or another in his career. He remained a proud Jew throughout his life, though it was leaders of the Jewish community that he was fleeing from when he escaped Damascus, from where they continued to pursue him. He was a leader in the Christian community, though he always seemed to be at odds with others in leadership positions, including the Apostle Peter. He was a Roman citizen, but it was the Romans who killed him!
Paul was a man who never seemed to know any peace in his life, beyond that mysterious peace that he spoke of – ‘the peace of God which passes all human understanding’ (Philippians 4:7) – and the issue for Paul was always the same. He believed in a church that was bigger than Judaism – where it didn’t matter if you were Jewish or Greek or Indigenous Australian – all were equal, all were loved. And it was a vision that, to my reckoning, none of his peers every got fully on board with.
Of course we take the equality of all races under God as self-evident now. How could it be otherwise? As I’ve said before, truth tends to come in three stages:
- First, it’s seen to be ridiculous
- Secondly, it’s violently opposed
- Finally, it’s seen to be self-evident
We are privileged to have been born into a generation where that truth is indeed seen to be self-evident, but Paul was always either ridiculed or violently opposed, and in his case, we aren’t using metaphor when we speak of violence!
One question that always comes to mind for me when I think of Paul, and one that I’ve reflected on while sitting in the chapel of St Ananias, is ‘what made Paul so sure that he was right?’
Paul took on everybody from Jews to Romans to his fellow Christians, from the Apostle Peter on down, brandishing his own peculiar understanding of the mission of Jesus to the world, maintaining that it was simply no longer relevant whether you were Jewish or Greek, male or female, rich or poor, weak or powerful, smart or simple. It was all the same to God! What made Paul so sure that he was right?
Behind the polemic we read in Paul’s letter to the church at Galatia is exactly that question, of course. ‘What makes you think you are right, Paul?’ Authoritative-looking brothers and sisters have come up from the church in Jerusalem, telling us that you’ve got it wrong and that we do need to embrace the more Jewish elements of our faith (such as circumcision) if we are to be fully in sync with God. Why shouldn’t we listen to them?
What is Paul’s response?
“But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Galatians 1:8-9)
That’s Paul at his uncompromising best, and those of us who are familiar with the history of ecclesiastical debate within the Western church can all appreciate why polemical Protestants have so regularly taken St Paul as their champion.
I was brought up in a household where we were never explicitly told that all Catholics were going to hell but where it was pretty well understood that if you crossed yourself or said the rosary you were playing with fire! Why? Because Catholics didn’t believe the Bible but believed in their traditions and in the teachings of Popes and prelates. Their faith was in the corrupt institution of the church rather than in Christ, and they gleaned truth from their traditions rather than from the clear waters of Scripture!
St Paul seems to champion this Protestant cause completely!
“If we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! … (Galatians 1:8)
It doesn’t matter what the Pope says! It doesn’t matter what I say! It wouldn’t matter if an angel from Heaven said it to you! If it’s garbage, it’s garbage! Don’t believe it!
As I say, it’s obvious enough why those who are critical of the church as an institution see St Paul as their champion, for he clearly did not believe that the ecclesiastical pedigree of the speaker guaranteed the integrity of the message. Even so, Paul is not exactly an archetypal Protestant either, pointing us instead to a clear word of Scripture – not in this instance, at any rate. In this section of his letter to the Galatians, Paul simply appeals to the spiritual insights of the people, or so it seems, as if they should know instinctively that what he is saying is true!
We have no idea, of course, how Paul’s letter was received, but I envisage any number of people in the church of Galatia feeling quite ambivilent about it all! ‘Why should we believe you, Paul? Why should we assume that you have a monopoly on the truth? What makes you think that you are always right? Shouldn’t we at least listen to what these people from Jerusalem have to say? After all, they are the direct link back to Jesus, whom you never actually met, except in that strange experience you keep telling us about – the one that you had on the road to Damascus?’
This was the heart of the problem for Paul, I believe. Paul wasn’t a good Catholic in the sense that his preaching was just a repetition of what had been taught to him by others more senior in the faith.
Paul wasn’t acting as an emissary from Peter, James or the other Apostles, and so he wasn’t a good Catholic but, on the other hand, he wasn’t a good Protestant either in that he didn’t come to faith in Christ through his study of the Scriptures – not at all! Paul had not stood up after a forty-day period of fasting and contemplation of the Torah to say “My God, I added it all up wrong! Jesus is the Messiah after all!”
Paul didn’t inherit his faith in Christ from Jesus’ first Apostles, nor did he find it through contemplation of the Scriptures. We know exactly how Paul came to confess Jesus as Lord! God threw him off his horse and confronted him about it directly!
That was Paul’s story at any rate, and that was certainly at the core of Paul’s self-understanding. He was a man who had switched tracks mid-career on the basis of a confrontation he’d had with the Almighty that he simply couldn’t get past!
It is indeed the extraordinary thing about St Paul – that he was able to dismiss an entire lifetime of learning, steeped in the traditions of his Jewish forefathers, all on the basis of one extraordinary experience on the road to Damascus!
They say that after the death of Blaise Pascal, the great philosopher, they found sewn into the lining of his jacket an account of his life-changing encounter with God – an account that he always kept with him.
I won’t read it all here as it’s a long account, but it begins:
“The year of grace 1654, Monday, 23 November, feast of Saint Clement, Pope and Martyr, and of others in the Martyrology. Eve of Saint Chrysogonus, Martyr and others. From about half past ten in the evening until half past midnight.
Fire. ‘God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob,’ not of philosophers and scholars. Certainty, certainty, heartfelt, joy, peace”
Pascal, as I say, kept this hand-written account of his intense experience of God next to his heart (literally) till the day he died. I suspect that when he struggled with doubts and uncertainties and wasn’t sure of the way forward, that he put his hand on his heart over where he stored this piece of paper, and so reminded himself of his experience – an experience that strengthened him and gave him the resolve he needed when he most needed it.
St Paul was the same, I think. I don’t know if he kept any account of his Damascus road experience sewn into his clothing but he evidently talked about it all the time. The story turns up three times in the book of Acts and is referred to in numerous letters, reflecting, we can assume, the regularity with which he retold the story.
If Paul had lived till his dotage and ended up in a retirement home, I suspect that he would have been one of those cantankerous old souls who’d come out at least once a day with “did I ever tell you about the time I was on the road to Damascus and …” to which everybody would respond “only around 5000 times, Grandpa!”
It was the experience that defined Paul’s life, and this might make him sound more like someone at the extreme Pentecostal end of the Christian spectrum, rather than a Protestant or a Catholic, though you can’t pigeonhole him there either as he never seems to expect that ecstatic experiences like his were the norm. He doesn’t expect anyone else to have bizarre experiences like the one he had. He seemed to believe that his experience with Christ was as unique as it was transformative.
So unfortunately neither Ange nor any of our team got to visit the chapel of Ananias in Damascus, though I was concerned at the time that the experience, if it had happened, might have been something of an anticlimax.
I say that because I was conscious at the time that I had been talking the place up and, on reflection, I was talking it up to a group that had just visited:
- The tomb of Hafez Al-Assad
- The shrine of Zaynab
- The ruins of Palmyra
In each case the word ‘majestic’ comes to mind. These were each spectacular landmarks of architectural excellence and spiritual beauty. The chapel of Ananias, on the other hand, was just another house on Straight Street, so inconspicuous that it took us forever to find it!
Perhaps, as I say, finding the house earlier would have been something of an anti-climax on account of its relative ordinariness. Even so, I have a feeling that that’s exactly how Paul himself would have liked it – a monument to the great founder of the modern church that remains a very simple place of prayer.
For Paul was not an arrogant man. He was an humble man, he was a lonely man, he was a damaged man, he was a fighter. He was a man who, one day on the road to Damascus, experienced Jesus – an experience that transformed, energised and animated him for the rest of his life!
May God give us grace to tap into that same transformative energy that is Christ.
Sermon given at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill, May 2016