The Man Who Persecuted Believers

Sermon by Burton Cooper

Acts 9; John 21

Saul, (on the road to Damascus) breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord .... fell to the ground
And heard a voice saying to him,
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.”

Saul, the persecutor, Saul, the pharisee, this very Saul is on the verge to becoming Paul the believer, Paul the apostle, Paul the founder of churches throughout the Roman world. And all this stemming from a momentous event on the road to Damascus, where Paul discovers that the one he is destined to be is not the one he thought he was destined to be. And this life changing moment in Paul’s life is inscribed for us in scripture, in the Book of Acts, written by Luke, and, also, perhaps more significantly, in Paul’s own letters. Scripture is about many things, faith is about many things, but surely one of the things it is about is to function for us as it functioned for Paul, as “a road to Damascus,” a way of discovering who we are; what convictions, what values, we choose to live by, and judge ourselves by; what community we choose to identify with; what destiny we are headed towards. For some of us, perhaps the lucky ones, this coming to be who we are is a seamless process, a slow, steady development, so that we feel the person we are, our identity, is what it always has been, so that the saying, “the child is the parent of the adult,” seems true for us. Those of us who are like this, the philosopher, William James, calls “once born,” for example, born into the church, baptized, from our very beginning breathing in the spirit of the community, its traditions, its literature, its values, its commitments, breathing in that spirit like breathing in the air, it feels so natural. Of course, today, there is a fly in this “once born” ointment. Our world now is ever accelerating change, sweeping us all into its dynamic turmoil. We are all journeying into unknown lands. We are not going to live, let alone die, in the same world we were born into. The older we get, the more things will look different. And it is not just that time changes history but that history changes us: our perspectives, our understandings, our notions of what is true and what is not true. Because of this, many of us will experience ourselves as what James calls “twice born,” a sense that we have lost what once seemed so natural to us, so good, so true; a sense that there is a break between the person we are now, and the person we were then, that our understandings, our beliefs, the very way we believe, even the spiritual path we now find ourselves on, is other than what it had once been, that we are now saying things we have not said, thinking things we had not thought. “When I was a child,” Paul says, “I spoke like a child, thought like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.”

These words can have new meaning for us, for us twice born souls. There is so much in our past that we, reluctantly or not, have had to put an end to, or that has come to its end. Willy, nilly, there will be change, in us, in our world. And so we come to the ultimate question, the existential question: are we just formed by, tossed about by,

externalities, by the historical forces of our age, by the spirit of our age, or do we have a say in whom we are, and, --- can I even dare ask this question in our secular, relativistic age --- do we have a chance to live under ultimate truth, by which I mean can our lives participate in and reflect not simply the particularities and spirit of our historical age but participate in and reflect what is ultimate in reality, the eternal ground of our being?

Let us admit at once that we, like Paul, like everyone, are temporal, historical beings, meaning not simply that we will have a beginning and an end, but that we are born into a particular social and historical context, a context that is unchosen, and yet that forms our identity, forms Paul as pharisee and persecutor, forms us in our particularities as twentieth, twenty-first century Americans, and yet, as suggested in the story of Paul on the road to Damascus, there is a wideness in our world that can provide for new possibilities to come into an historical age; or another metaphorical way to think of this, a religious way, is to think of our historical age, any historical age, with all of its assumptions of what’s true and what’s false, (to think of our historical age) as a curtain, a curtain with its shape and form and boundary, and yet with gaps or tears, through which a transcendent reality can break through to us, allowing us at least a partial escape from our social/historical determinants, and opening us to a spirit that reflects ultimate reality, providing us with a ground to judge and reinterpret ourselves and our world, a spirit that re-invigorates us and sets us on our life’s way. In the story of Paul on the road to Damascus, we have such a moment of escape, the decisive moment in which Paul puts an end to his old destiny as persecutor and pharisee, steps out of his old self, so to speak, and becomes a new being, with a new identity, a new self understanding, a new destiny, as an apostle of Christ, a builder of new communities of Christ. And if you are put off by the lights and the voices in this story, with onlookers who in one version of the story hear the voice but do not see the light and in another later version see the light but do not hear the voice, remember that this is Luke writing, years after Paul‘s death, telling the story of Paul’s conversion just as dramatically as he can, while when Paul talks of this momentous event, which he does three times in his letters, he simply says that he has seen the Lord.

I say, “simply,” though the consequences of that “seeing” were enormous, not only for Paul, but for the church and for the world. For Paul was the decisive figure in taking the gospel of Christ not only to the Jewish people, but to the gentiles, that is, to all the peoples of the world. For Paul, Christ lived, died and rose for all, for Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, no exceptions. The new community of Christ is beyond any kind of tribal, ethnic, racial identity; it is universal. But there is one consequence from Paul’s seeing Christ that we must not draw, and that’s the assumption that belief in Christ depends upon experiencing a vision of Christ, a seeing of the Lord, as Paul saw. When Paul talks of his own seeing of the Lord, it is always in the context of establishing his authority as an apostle, as a witness to the resurrection, on a par in authority with the other apostles. Paul never says that visionary experiences are an essential part of the Christian life. He says it is one amongst many gifts of the spirit, and he defines the essential character of Christian life, the one that makes the church the church, as the shared life of faith, hope and love. This shared life of faith, hope and love is the life of the Spirit; it is the presence of Christ, the Spirit of Christ, in our midst. It is not a private possession but a shared reality. And precisely because it is shared, because it is not privately possessed, life in the community of Christ calls us towards humility and unity. Of course, Paul knows, as we know, that churches are full of conflict, abuses, destructive divisions. We can be torn apart by different understandings, misunderstandings, wounded pride, competing ambitions, clashing interests, personal desires of all sorts, but, underneath all those estranging forces, there lies our sense that we, as a community of faith, have our lives under the judgment and love, forgiveness, compassion, mercy of Christ; the sense that we have our lives in the hope of a reconciling humanity, a better humanity yet to be; and it is that shared sense, which is the spirit of Christ in our midst, that not only makes us a church, but makes us new beings, makes us a community of brothers and sisters in Christ; and, finally, though not least, makes us know that we live in truth, for in the deepest part of our being we know, intuitively know, that to love is to be true, to love creatively, to love outgoingly, going out in love just as far as we can go out, is to be true to the being we have been given, and to the very ground of our being. It is not for nothing that when Paul speaks of faith, hope and love, he says that the greatest of these is love.

Praise God, for this great mercy. Praise Christ, love incarnate. Amen.