Rector's Blog

Easter II

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ Acts 9:1-6

Paul is an important figure in the story of how Christianity spread across the Mediterranean world.  And most of us know of the phrase “Road to Damascus” referring to the experience that Saul, as he was originally called, when a bright light shone, blinding Saul and a voice called out to him “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 

Impressive as a bearer of the Good News Paul might be but I, like many people, find Paul/Saul a complicated character.  Not very attractive to be honest.  He was happy to watch St Stephen’s martyrdom.  He  issued threats of murder against Jesus’ followers.   He clearly sees his role to rescue those who are following what was then called “the Way” – the early Jewish followers of Christ – to rescue them from the errors of their beliefs.  He seeks permission to go into synagogues in Damascus to investigate those who might be involved in what he sees as a dangerous new sect. 

But how does Saul sees himself?   He believes he is in the right, trying to protect the faith. He wants to stamp out heresy.    He sees his role as a correcting those who have gone astray.  Anything he does is for people’s own good.

Saul is the classic example of someone who is so sure they are right and so convinced of the terrible consequences for those who don’t think like him that they cannot see any problems with how they behave or how their actions might have consequences.

So when Saul is struck down and hears that voice say, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” I imagine that he is thinking  “Who me? A persecutor?” Because that is not how he sees himself at all.  He is on the side of the angels.  Surely he is doing what God wants.

But the voice he hears clearly asks “Why are you persecuting me?”  The voice, which we know is the voice of Christ,  is standing with the  victims of Saul’s violence and also asking Saul to recognise Jesus in those he meets – in Jesus’ followers, members of the Way.  The voice tells Saul that by  persecuting the followers of the Way  he was persecuting Jesus himself.  

The voice from heaven challenges Saul to see those he was persecuting  through new eyes as people whose views and beliefs should be respected. 

The experience on the road to Damascus shows   Saul a new way of relating  to others. What stands out for me in this  story is the profound ways in which people can be transformed when they acknowledge the pain and damage of forcing others to see the world as they do.   After all Paul went on to proclaim the Gospel to the Greeks as well as the Jews across the Mediterranean.  

This is a message  to all of humanity.  It is when we fail to see the divine in each other, however different from ourselves that the world goes so quickly down the road of hatred and violence.  We saw it in apartheid South Africa, we see it sadly in our Holy Lands,  we saw it in the time of the Troubles in Norther Ireland.  But what all these conflicts tell us is that in the end there has to be talking, there has to be an understanding of two very opposing views finding some common ground. This is not to suggest that any view, however extreme it might be, should be accepted or condoned,.  We have a situation in Europe at this very moment where it is hard to see how war and violence can be avoided or stopped at this particular point but that should never prevent us from recognising that our enemies are our fellow humans and that we need to try to unsee them as enemies, letting our scales fall off and seeing them as fellow humans.  For as in South Africa, as in Northern Ireland things can only move on at the time we are willing to recognise the things that bind us and find ways as in South Africa with the truth and reconciliation commission to move on even after much pain and suffering. 

It is also  a message for the Church. Our own history here in these islands is one of the Church being bound up with the Empire as missionaries went out to countries and societies they knew nothing about believing they were on the side of the angels and often did as much harm as good.  Some of that still needs to be put right.

It is a message for us here and now.   We may feel we cannot solve the conflicts of the world but Saul’s encounter should point us to how we treat people who we might have differences, be they theological or political, cultural or simply personal.  We need always to be listening for what that voice might be saying to us. How are we treating Jesus by the way we treat others? Rev’d Andrea Jones