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Losing the plot? Or finding it? Damascene conversion

April 20, 2013

Acts 9: 1-20 and John 6: 52-59

Reading the very familiar story of the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus, the question that arose in my mind was ‘why was Paul (or Saul) going to Damascus?’

Damascus is about 130 miles north of Jerusalem, so it’s a bit of a trek. He was going there because, as you’ll remember from the readings earlier in the week, we came across Saint Stephen, the first martyr, in Jerusalem, who had a vision of heaven as he was martyred. When people have visions, something very special and very holy is happening.  Saint Stephen was martyred, and that was the signal for a general persecution of the Christians in Jerusalem. It was a signal for the Church to move out from Jerusalem, to move out from The temple and the synagogues in Jerusalem, and to move out to the wider world. And Christians moved away from Jerusalem to avoid persecution. And some of them went to Damascus.

Saint Paul was a very well-educated Pharisee. And he was determined to root out what he considered to be this heresy of people worshipping Jesus – a man who had been crucified two months earlier. He was determined to stop this cult, which was developing. And he got authority from Caiaphas the high Priest, who, to indicate his authority, also gave Paul a sort of troop of Temple guards who went with him to Damascus. Can you imagine it? Can you imagine the pride and the sort of exhilaration of going off to Damascus to sort out what they considered to be rebels?

And then, as they come into sight of Damascus, something happens. Caravaggio depicts Saint Paul falling off his horse: there’s no mention of a horse, but he might have been on a horse. But he certainly fell down. Now, if you know anything about leading people in circumstance like that – being the person in charge – you’ll know that it doesn’t do to be falling over or becoming ill at a crucial moment, when you’re in sight of what you set out to do. Interestingly, the story says that everyone heard the voice, but only Paul saw the vision – only he saw Jesus speaking to him. And Paul said some interesting things. He fell to the ground and he heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He called him by name. That tends to catch your attention, doesn’t it!

 “Why are you persecuting me?” And his question – from one of the greatest minds in Jerusalem, one of the most highly educated people in Jerusalem:

 “Who are you, Lord?”

 He doesn’t know who it is!

The voice answered, “I am Jesus, and you are persecuting me.” There’s a message there for us too, perhaps a reassuring message: if somebody persecutes the Church they are taking on something special. I mentioned earlier in the week that the Church is a union of us on Earth joined with heaven, and at its head is Jesus. If you persecute the Church you are persecuting Jesus –  and that is not to be recommended!

Jesus tells him to get up and go into the city. A completely different entrance to what he anticipated. He is completely humbled. He has been blinded. He is having to be led by the hand. He is not the great triumphal leader entering Damascus with everybody terrified, with his piece of paper from the Chief Priest saying he can lock anybody up! His intention had been to lock them up and take them back to Jerusalem. What would be their fate? Well we know what happened to Stephen – the mob stoned him to death. They were determined to snuff out Christianity…. and it all backfired and went wrong. to snuff out Christianity….

Paul enters the city as someone who can’t see. And he has another vision. He is in the house of Judas, and people are not quite sure what has happened and what is going to happen. Has he had a stroke? Is he ill? Is he going to die? He has another vision. And he is told, that there is a man named Ananias who is going to come to him and heal him of his blindness, cure him.

Meanwhile Ananias himself is having a vision. Ananias is not a refugee from Jerusalem: it says he lives in Damascus, so he is permanently there. What’s his reaction when all these people arrive and there’s a threat that they are all going to be rounded up? This is all very unsettling. And then he gets a vision saying ha has got to go and see this guy who is making blood-curdling threats against the Christians in Damascus. Interestingly, Ananias on hearing the vision doesn’t say, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ He knows immediately who it is. He has faith. He knows. And he does as he is told (despite saying ‘this is the guy who has come to have us all arrested and taken back to Jerusalem’. ‘Yes, but this man is the man who is going to be converting the gentiles in effect. You have a part to play in that. You go to his house – he has just had a vision of you arriving. Lay your hands on him.’

And that is what he does. Ananias goes, and lays his hands on him and he cures him of his blindness. So Saint Paul, this wonderful, educated, blustering man… suddenly completely humbled. And then humbled again! A ‘nobody’ comes and prays over him and his blindness goes – exactly as he has been told it would happen. The Christian community are very frightened on Paul. They don’t know what this is. Is this a trick? Is this so he can get to our leaders in the synagogues or in our homes where we are meeting?

And Paul goes and stays with them. And within a few days what’s he doing? He’s in the synagogues, preaching the word, teaching. Teaching the doctrine of the Church.

And that just happens to link in with the gospel, when Jesus is teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. And it’s a section in the gospel of John when He is explaining the ‘Real Presence’, that we have present in our churches – the presence of Jesus Christ in the form of bread and wine. It’s a wonderful theological discussion explaining what it means, ‘the Bread of Life’. Jesus was talking about it, and it was something that is really difficult to understand, even for really clever people. Sometimes being really clever and being a theologian can be a problem, because it can blind you, because you over-complicate things. Simple faith is something marvelous – to simply accept that ‘this is the truth’.

I won’t go in to great detail about what Jesus said when He was talking about feeding people on the Bread of Life. But it always strikes me as fascinating that Jesus did NOT explain things as being symbolic. This is a teaching, which is very difficult for some people to accept. Just like Saint Paul, who just could accept it until something really convincing happened to him. But people find it difficult to accept. But Jesus, in the original version of this gospel l version uses a word to describe ‘take and eat’, the verb ‘to eat’, but it carries with it this idea of ‘chewing’. This is real food! Even a hint of ‘crunching’, which is a bit distasteful. And in tomorrow’s gospel, which follows on from today, what happened? People said, ‘This doctrine, this teaching (that’s what ‘doctrine means), this teaching is too much.’ Some of His disciples left Him. Not the Apostles – not of the twelve. But some of the disciples, the people following Him, left Him.

And that is what happens today. People say, ‘We can’t be having this, this is ridiculous.’ What did Jesus do? Well, He did NOT say, ‘Come back, this is a mistake, you’ve misunderstood me…. I was talking symbolically.’ He did NOT do that.

He had given them the teaching, and they had free will, and they chose not to follow it. And they went their own way. That’s a matter for them. Jesus did not go chasing after them.

Some people will listen. Some won’t. We have to pray for those people.




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