“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)
It’s the question the risen Jesus asked of Saul (better known to us as ‘Paul’) on that fateful day on that fateful journey on the road to Damascus.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus asks. “Who are you, Lord”, Paul replies. “I am Jesus who you are persecuting” the voice replies and Paul, it seems, asked no more questions.
It’s a dramatic story of a dramatic encounter, made all the more dramatic for me personally because in two and a half weeks’ time I am scheduled to be making exactly the same journey on that same road to Damascus myself, and I do so likewise with an expectation of encountering Jesus (though in a less dramatic fashion I hope).
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” This is the point at which Saul becomes Paul! This is the point at which a transformation begins, wherein the man who had been the arch-enemy of the church up to that point – a man who had been arresting and imprisoning the early Christians – turns and becomes the church’s most articulate spokesman!
It is a dramatic story and it’s an account of what may be the most significant religious experience in the entirety of human history!
Is that an exaggeration?
Of the 27 books in our New Testament, just under half – thirteen in fact – are attributed to St Paul! Some still suggest that Paul wrote the “Letter to the Hebrews” too, which would mean that more than half of the books of the New Testament can be attributed to Paul!
Clearly he was the single most significant thinker in the early church, and his writings have been at the centre of every pivotal movement in Christian history since. He was the leading influence on both St Augustine and Martin Luther, who in turn was the key figure influencing the Protestant Reformation.
Some people see the church as being the creation of St Paul rather than Jesus! At the very least it is clear that it was Paul who pushed the Christian message beyond the geographical boundaries of Israel – becoming the “Apostle to the Gentiles”.
Certainly no figure apart from Christ Himself has so influenced the growth and development of the church in history as has St Paul, and his influence continues to be felt around the world today and will no doubt continue until the church is no more, and it all begins here – on the road to Damascus, where Paul encounters Jesus!
The problem, I believe, is that we regularly misunderstand St Paul, and many of the problems we face today in the church have arisen, I believe, due to misunderstandings of St Paul. I sincerely believe that if we are going to fix the church we are going to need to get St Paul right, and the key to understanding Paul, I believe, is grasping what really happened to him on the road to Damascus.
Of course in order to understand the Damascus road experience we also need to understand how Paul got there, but there’s no great mystery about that. Paul gives us plenty of autobiographical material about himself in his letters and so we know full well what his life was like prior to meeting Jesus.
“You have heard of my former life in Judaism, how thoroughly I ravaged the church of God and tried to destroy it; and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my kinsmen, being exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” (Galatians 1:13-14)
St Paul was a ‘zealot’ – that’s how he described himself – and those who are familiar with New Testament history will know that the term ‘zealot’ is normally reserved for militant revolutionaries – Jews who were intent on bringing an end to the Roman occupation of Israel and setting up an independent religious state. As I understand it, the early Paul was exactly that kind of zealot.
Now I know that Paul describes himself as having been trained as a scholar and a theologian rather than as a warrior. Even so, the division between church and state – between the theological and the political – is a rather artificial creation of the 20th century and certainly not one that St Paul would have made any sense of.
Paul was a Jew, and he was a strict Jew – “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (Philippians 3:5). – and as a strict Jew – a Hebrew of Hebrews – he shared in the great Jewish hope for the coming of the Kingdom of God as he understood that.
The writings of Pauls’ religious contemporaries make it quite clear what constituted that hope. It was a hope for God’s own people worshipping the one true God in God’s own way in their own God-given land!
That’s not to say that it was an essentially political hope as against a religious hope. The division would not have made sense to the early Paul. You couldn’t divide the people of Israel from the land of Israel any more than you could divide the individual worshipper from the rest of the worshipping community.
The hope of the individual Jew was the hope of the whole Jewish community and the vision of true worship of God could not be divorced from the temple in which that worship took place, just as the temple could not be extracted from the city of Jerusalem or the city of Jerusalem from the land of Israel!
It was a holistic hope of God’s own people worshipping in God’s own temple in God’s own land according to God’s own law, and Saul of Tarsus was zealous for that hope! And make no mistake about it – the early Paul’s zeal was not something that expressed itself only in prayer. It expressed itself just as readily with a sword!
You can see plenty of modern-day Saul’s in the land of Israel today. They are the characters building ‘settlements’ and gobbling up whatever land has been left to the Palestinians. They carry the Torah in one hand and a machine-gun in the other!
These people have their counterparts in militant Muslims who also believe that they are God’s own people trying to regain God’s own land that was promised to them!
And just to complete the picture we should not forget the militant Christians who are, by and large, funding the militant Jews against the militant Muslims.
In my view this sort of religious fundamentalism is basically all the same, whether it is Jewish, Muslim or Christian. It’s basically the same mindless group-think, characterised both by militancy and by an unyielding belief in the fact that we are the ‘chosen people’ and everybody else is not. In other words it is ‘tribalism’. It’s all about my tribe getting what rightfully belongs to us, and bugger everybody else!
This was the religion of the early Paul – the Pharisee of Pharisees – and it was this tribalism of Paul’s that led him to persecute the early church.
We need to understand this if we are to understand the persecution of the early church at all. People like Paul didn’t start persecuting the church simply because they were heretics who believed in the wrong ‘Messiah’.
In first century Judaism there were lots of beliefs about ‘the Messiah’ circulating and there was a fair degree of flexibility within the religious establishment when it came to who or what you thought ‘the Messiah’ was. Different Jewish sects had different beliefs about the Messiah, and that in itself did not exclude any of them from membership of the broader religious community.
What upset the establishment about the followers of Jesus was that from day one they started welcoming non-Jews into their midst, just as Jesus had done before them, and they consequently started watering down the requirements of the religious community such as circumcision, by which a Jewish man marked himself as a person of faith, and it was this ant-tribal multiculturalism that was the beginning of the great divorce between synagogue and church!
This is why the early Paul hated the church – because they were diluting the true faith by welcoming non-Jews into their houses – and he hated them vehemently! If there’s one group that a Pharisee like Saul hated more than the Romans it was his fellow Jews who diluted the faith to the point where threatened the entire tribe!
Nothing has changed in that regard. I remember my dear friend, Sheikh Mansour, assuring me that if we ever bumped into Osama Bin Laden (who was still alive at the time) and he only had one bullet in his gun, he would shoot the Sheikh ahead of me. I might be public enemy number two but the weaker brother who dilutes the faith is always enemy number one!
And so Saul travels to Damascus. He’s on a mission to purify the tribe, to preserve the faith, and to arrest and imprison those who would dilute the racial and religious integrity of his religion. And he encounters Jesus! And his entire world is turned upside-down!
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?”
Who could have guessed at that point that within a few years this same Saul of Tarsus – the great defender of Jewish tribalism – would be penning these words: “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:26-28)?
The tribe has gone. The new creation has come! We are all one in Christ Jesus! There is no distinction!
This story of Paul’s conversion turns up three times in the Book of Acts and Paul tells it all over again in his letter to the Galatians (chapter 1:11-24). Evidently it was a story he retold a lot of times, presumably because the experience not only transformed him but also stayed with him for the rest of his life!
I come from a religious tradition that warns us all against getting too carried away with our emotions and counsels good thinking and common sense as the hallmarks of good religion. Not so for St Paul! All his good thinking and common sense left him a militant religious fundamentalist until Jesus got hold of him, threw him to the ground and shook the truth into him!
Hopefully most of us don’t require the same level of aggression from the Lord before we get the message, and as I say, I’m trusting that my Damascus road experience, while significant, will be significantly less dramatic.
Even so, I am convinced that God will do whatever God needs to do in order to get his message through to us – that there are no good guys and bad guys, no insiders and outsiders, no Jew and Greeks, no slaves and free, no male and female, no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – but that Christ is all and in all, and that all are one as Christ is one!
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, brother? Who are you, sister? Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus!”
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on April 14, 2013.
- To watch or share the video version of the sermon click here.
- To hear the audio or download version of the sermon click here.