|Brian "Doc" Reed, "The Road to Damascus". Used by permission. |
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Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time/22nd August 2010
This was the turning point in Paul’s life. We could say Paul’s experience was the turning point in the history of the Church. Without his titanic shift in perspective followers of Jesus would have been only a movement within Judaism.
I'll admit at the outset that Paul is a challenge. He just is. It seems that either you love him or you don’t. Paul’s writings can be difficult to read. He has a terrible habit of writing, long, run on sentences. Personally, I love Paul—always have. My admiration for him continues to grow. After Jesus, Paul is the most pivotal figure in the New Testament primarily because he was compelled to proclaim God’s good news about Jesus beyond Judaism to the nations, to the Gentiles, a Hebrew word that means, from a Jewish perspective, “everyone else.” But for Paul, most of as Gentiles, assuming most of us here are Gentiles, would not be part of the church.
Here, I want to focus on Paul’s experience upon the Damascus Road and the change of perspective that occurred from that encounter.
In our postmodern, post-Christian, secular age we assume that miracles, visions, religious experiences like Paul’s are mythical or from another time. Many assume that what happened to Paul only happened back then, not now. Claiming to be wise, we assume that God doesn’t work that way any more. Perhaps. But what if God hasn’t changed? What if we have?
In our age many have lost the capacity to see the world sacramentally or mystically. We have lost our openness to the God-reality that imposes itself upon us all the time and surrounds us and in which we exist. Because we do not expect to meet God along the road, many fail to find God and are left disappointed. With expectations low, many carry on nevertheless, saying they believe in God without really expecting to experience or encounter the Holy. They still use God-language, consider themselves religious or “spiritual” (whatever that is), they follow the rituals of the faith, they still stand in worship to confess the creed. Yet they live as if everything, including their salvation hinges upon their efforts and actions and decisions. They say “In God We Trust,” they say they believe in “God.” What God? For many, “God” has become a hollow, empty sign, a cipher for something else, a synonym for the ego. When we don’t expect to encounter God, religion and the religious life are quickly diminished to miserable moralisms. This is what happens when folks reduce the Christian life as a synonym for simply being ethical: following the rules, observing the Ten Commandments (often translated as learning right from wrong), being “nice” to one another, teaching our youth to behave like good little boys and girls, culturally conditioning them to conform to the dominant values of society. Ethics are important—but is that why Christ went to the cross, to get us to behave? God didn’t send the Son to help us conform to the expectations of culture. God sent the Son to transform us. God sent the Son to transform the world.
Forgetting this distinction, I believe, is one of the reasons the Church, indeed Christianity, is in trouble these days and has become completely irrelevant for many. Something’s missing. What’s missing is the energy, the vitality, the passion associated with an experience of God’s power—God’s redemptive power—the kind of experience Paul had that gave him a radically new perspective of God, himself, and the world around him.
Sometimes I wonder if Paul would even recognize the Church today. David Buttrick, professor at Vanderbilt Divinity School, asks, “When church is reduced to church management and the soul is scaled down to psychological promptings, who can speak of resurrection or spot surprising signs of redemptive power among us? No burned martyrs light our skies; ministers burn out instead. No Christians are persecuted; they merely perish from boredom.” We prefer Jesus-lite, religion without the inconvenience (or the cross). But “where there is no cross, how can resurrection have meaning?” We prefer a decaffeinated Christianity without the kick—we don’t want anything to disturb our sleep. But we need to wake up! For Paul, the gospel was powerful and real, full of caffeine, with extra shots of espresso.
I often wonder what Jesus thinks about the contemporary Church—yes, there are signs of life and vitality, and I’m grateful that Catonsville Presbyterian is a thriving, healthy community of faith—but we need to know that there are many churches these days that are broken and hurting, consisting of people that are petty, fearful, shortsighted, cruel, and divisive, “stumbling along,” Buttrick says, “at the brink of apostasy and selling out Jesus for a good deal less than thirty pieces of silver any day.” It’s enough, Anne Lamott imagines, to make Jesus drink gin from the cat dish!
Few can claim the kind of religious experience that Paul had. It’s true. But it happens and it is happening. We might not get thrown from a horse in blinding light. It could happen. However, something like such experiences can and do occur today. Despite our resistance the Risen Christ still encounters people today in overt or subtle ways; the Risen Christ still meets people along the road and changes them. This still can happen. It is happening. In fact, the Risen Christ wants to meet us along the road of our lives. He wants to blind us with truth and love and then open our eyes. He wants us to see. He wants to awaken life within us and make something beautiful of our lives.
This is God’s desire for us. But do not underestimate the enormous forces deep within our souls that resist this holy work in us. Look at Paul, locked in the confining perspective of his worldview, determined to be a roadblock to the people of the Way, hell-bent on the destruction of God’s people, willfully bucking against the new thing God was doing in the world. Surrounded by a blast of light, he’s convicted by these words, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Why do you kick against what I’m doing in the world? Why do you resist? Paul doesn’t even recognize his victim.
We might not experience the Risen Christ exactly this same way, but the dynamics and the patterns of the resistance are very familiar to us. And we have to be careful talking about what happened to Paul as a conversion. It was not a religious conversion from Judaism to Christianity. He became a follower of Jesus within Judaism. It was a conversion of another kind. Paul was locked in one perspective—it wasn’t Judaism per se—it was simply his own. He thought he knew all there was to know about his God, his world, and himself. He thought he knew how God acted in the past and, therefore, would most definitely act in the future. He thought he knew about this Jesus the criminal and his band of blasphemers. He thought he knew the truth, had all the facts, understood what was going on. That is until one day it was all—shattered!—in the encounter with the Resurrected One and he was given a new perspective, a new outlook, a new view of himself, of the world, and more importantly, a new understanding of the radical grace of Yahweh. He discovered that truth is stranger and more wonderful than fiction, he realized the facts are not what they seem, that he completely misunderstood what was before his very eyes. The text says, “Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; …” (Acts 9:8). In seeing he could not see. He was blind to what was happening in front of him. Paul needed new eyes to see reality in a new way.
So how do we get new eyes? Albert Einstein (1879-1955) once said, “There’s nothing more practical than a good theory.” In order for us to see reality we have to get our theories straight, because your theory will shape the way you view the world. Theory, from the Greek, means “to contemplate” or “to see.” The Greek theorein means, literally, “to contemplate the divine.” We often assume that facts build reality, that if we have all the facts we’ll be able to determine what is true or not true. Many live in a Joe Friday world. Sargent Joe Friday on the television series Dragnet, back in the 1950s, would say when investigating a crime scene, “Just give me the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.” But, facts are not enough.
We’ve actually inherited this attitude regarding facts from the European Enlightenment. The philosophers of the Enlightenment were obsessed with facts, with raw data. Contemporary philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre points out, “Straightforward facts” do not exist. They were “like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen . . . a seventeenth century invention.” Facts tell us very little about reality; facts need to be interpreted and this requires a theory, an interpretive framework or perspective. That’s why there’s nothing more practical than a good theory. The theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) taught us that facts are malleable in their meaning; facts can mean one thing in one situation and then mean something else in another, depending upon one’s perspective, one’s theory. That’s why good theories actually help us understand the facts better; they provide insight into the way the world really is.
When Einstein was a child he imagined what the world would look like sitting on the tip of a rocket travelling at the speed of light. That experience later became the basis for his Theory of General Relativity (1915). As a result, Einstein’s new perspective offered a more accurate understanding of reality, a better description of the physical world, requiring us to set aside the theories of Newtonian physics.
Your theory, your perspective shapes the way you view the facts. This is why there’s nothing more practical than a good theory. Good theory will lead you to the truth, lead you into truth, and the facts will fit better. Bad theory will lead you to untruth where the facts don’t easily fit. We saw this play out tragically several years ago when former vice president Dick Cheney kept asking the C.I.A., in the build up to the war in Iraq, “Why doesn’t your intelligence support what we know is out there?” It’s the theory, the perspective that determines what you see.
Sometimes there are things we don’t want to see, can’t see, won’t see. We are so caught up in our tiny worlds, trapped in what Swiss theologian Emil Brunner (1889-1966) called “I-castles,” our inner fortresses built up to keep everyone out (including God), imprisoned in our self-security from which we are unable to extricate ourselves, let down the drawbridge, cross the moat and live in freedom beyond the castle keep. In those moments we need someone to come and break down our defenses and pull us out of ourselves—we cannot do this on our own, no one can. We need someone who gives us courage to reach beyond sight, to step out with carefree abandon into life itself.
That’s what Jesus offers when we follow him—a titanic shift in perspective, a new outlook, a new lens through which we look out upon the world with new energy to live life unconstrained. That’s why I affirm that the heart of the Christian experience is transformation.
When we encounter the Risen Christ—or, better, when he encounters us—everything changes and we are never the same. Our eyes are open and we begin to see things to which before we were blind. And that’s why it’s often a shattering experience—a graceful shattering—because that’s what it takes to change us. It’s shattering, but it’s full of grace because it’s offered in love—always offered in love. It’s an experience that removes falsehood and allows us to move deeper into the truth, deeper into reality, offering us the truth that sets us free. Old ways are cast aside; new life is given. You can’t go back to the former way—you don’t want to! You can’t continue believing in the old way—you just can’t. Your values change—because they must. Your perspectives change. You might even say you’re “born again” (John 3:3). In love, Jesus breaks open our walls of isolation, pierces our defensive armor, relaxes our fearful egos, and frees us to turn around, to change, to repent (as in metanoia, which means to change our minds, our thinking). In Jesus Christ we are given a glimpse of God’s perspective and from that vantage point everything changes.
This is what happens when we encounter the Risen Christ or Christ encounters us. What Paul experienced in that moment was shattering and graceful, but it was shattering and graceful because he encountered the presence of the Risen Christ, a personal presence, who came to him in love. This is critically important to grasp here because Jesus is not an idea to ponder or a fact from the distant past that we verify, and what the Lord requires from his followers is more than our belief and behavior. Jesus wants more than your belief in him, he wants more than your ideas about him. He wants people who know his significance is greater than his teachings. His teachings only have authority because of the person who stands behind them. He wants more than your ethical behavior and your “Christian” niceties, as impressive as they might be. Jesus wants you, your life—all of it—so that you can come more alive as a person in him, to discover what it means to be human. God sent the Son, flesh and blood, divine and truly human, a person, to meet us as persons along the road of our lives. Jesus is a person we encounter, God with a face, not a thing, not an idea, but a personal presence who speaks to us, as the old hymn put it, “who talks with us and walks with and tells us that we are his own.” He connects with us face-to-face, with a language that convicts even as it redeems. In the conversation an exchange takes place and in that exchange, through the relationship, that interaction, we are transformed—person to person. It’s our ongoing relationship with God that matters most to God, not our belief and behavior. When we walk with him our lives will change as we take on his traits, his love, his grace, his mercy, and his joy. In this divine-human encounter we become more human, which is the whole point of the gospel!
 David Buttrick, The Mystery and the Passion: A Homiletic Reading of the Gospel Traditions (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 25.
 Buttrick, 25.
 Buttrick’s, 26.
 Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).
 See Acts 9:2, the name given to the early followers of Jesus.
 This quote is attributed to Einstein, but also to the physicist James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), who had a profound influence upon Einstein’s work, as well as social psychologist, Kurt Lewin (1890-1947).
 Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Duckworth, 1988), 357.
 Trevor Hart writes: “Facts, then, are not the pre-theoretical, value-free, pure units of given ‘public’ experience that popular mythology would have us believe. . . . Real facts are already theory-laden, quarried from the mass of our experience via a complex process of interpretation, in reliance upon tools to which we entrust ourselves and through the exercise of skills upon the performance of which the success of our quest for knowledge depends.” Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (London: SPCK, 1995), 56.
 Bryan Burrough, Evgenia Peretz, David Rose, and David Wise, “The Path to War,” Vanity Fair (May 2004), 232.
 "Man stays concealed in his secure hiding place, secreted behind the walls of his I-castle; and nothing can really entice him out until one meets him who overcomes all the mistrust and anxiety about his very existence which drives him into self-security and there imprisons him. Man remains imprisoned within himself until the one meets him who can free him, who can break down his system of defenses, so that he can surrender himself, and in this surrender of self receive what he needs to enable him to abandon his securities; that is to say, until that one comes who gives man the life for which he was created." Emil Brunner, The Divine-Human Encounter (London: SCM Press, 1944), 51.
About the image: I'm grateful to Brian "Doc" Reed for his rendering of Acts 9, "The Road to Damascus." And I'm grateful to Jim LePage of the Old and New Project for permission to use this image. "The Old and New Project provides a platform for contemporary graphic artists to exhibit works themed on Biblical stories and passages. It also aims to introduce a new online audience to Biblical art, attempting to replace popular, yet sometimes low-quality, contemporary Biblical art work with the kind of accessible and honorable work that has historically been associated with the Bible."