For what it’s worth, the message I am taking to 9:30 tomorrow:
Acts 9:15; John 21:1-19
I often feel as if the lectionary readings we follow skip through the Easter story a bit fast, especially if you miss a week you can suddenly find yourself, as we do today, at the conversion of Paul wondering what happened and how the Church got established.
It really is an incredible history up to this point. After Jesus’ death the movement of what became known as Christianity spread rapidly through the ancient world. It starts with the apostles, they start to speak and teach in the temple and in the synagogues. They preach to their communities and the myriad of peoples and creeds that visit Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. They quite literally speak to thousands of people in those first few years of the faith.
They had been told by Jesus to go into the world and make disciples, to tell people of the Good News, the freedom bought by Him on the cross and through the resurrection of Easter day. He gave them the Holy Spirit to enable them to this and this ragbag of uneducated fishermen, tax collectors and never-do-wells became the Church. They became this eloquent communicators of the gospel. And it is through them that the movement of the Church spread first among Jews then to gentiles and quite literally the world.
Within a few short years of Jesus’ ascension the Church is seen as such a threat to the established Jewish faith that Paul, with the full support of the Sanhedrin and Jewish leaders is one of the leading lights in the persecution of these new radicals of the gospel. Paul is present at the death of Stephen In AD35 just 2 short years after the events of that first Easter. In 24months the faith of the Christian Jews had become a threat to the establishment.
It is at this time that the events of Paul’s conversion occur:
The story of how Saul, the devout Jew and zealous persecutor of the church, became Paul, a passionate preacher of the faith, begins along the road going northward from Jerusalem to Damascus.
As Saul approached Damascus with plans to arrest those who “belonged to the Way,” he had a vision that totally changed the direction of his life.
Luke describes the conversion three times in Acts here in Acts 9: as well as in Acts 22 and 26 and Paul alludes to it in his letters to the churches in Galatia and Corinth.
After the martyrdom of Stephen Paul went to the Jewish high priest for permission to arrest any followers of “the Way” in the synagogues of Damascus, where the Gospel was attracting converts.
The 150-mile journey from Jerusalem to Damascus can now be completed in one day, thanks to excellent modern roads.
When Saul set out from Jerusalem with his escort, he had the choice of two routes: One went east down through the canyon called Wadi Qelt to Jericho, then turned north through the Jordan River valley. It crossed the river at Scythopolis (modern-day Beit Shean). This route would have taken Saul around the southern shores of the Sea of Galilee and up to the mountain roads linking the Decapolis with Damascus. In summer time it is hot and uncomfortable, lying far below sea-level until the area east of the Sea of Galilee is reached.
The more frequented route moved through the hills of Samaria (the northern part of the West Bank/Palestine today), across the Jezreel Valley, then skirted the west shore of the Sea of Galilee, passing very near Capernaum, the base for Jesus’ three-year ministry.
It’s most likely that second, slightly longer route that Paul took.
Paul is a man with a vision, a purpose. He sees it as his role to put down what he sees as this dangerous teachings being spread through the synagogues. He sees it as a threat, as something that needs stamping out.
Not unlike the leading lights of the new rationalists and atheists of our modern era, Dawkins and Hitchens et al – Paul sees not grace, and peace and freedom but something sinister and destructive that needs to be eradicated. It becomes his mission in life, the passion that fires him.
AND then he has this encounter with the risen Jesus.
For Paul it is nothing short of completely life changing. He has a super-natural experience that opens his eyes to the reality of what God is doing in the world. He has a complete shift of vision.
What I love is that the core of who Paul is doesn’t actually change. Yes he has a complete turn around – unlike the late Lady Thatcher Paul did U-turn (and for the better) – yet he remained determinedly ‘Paul-like’ in his manner, his outlook and his zeal for the job at hand.
He simply starts putting his boundless energy into promoting the gospel instead of pursuing the faithful. He remains just as determined, just as assured of his own views and just as zealous as before. We see in later chapters how his zeal causes him to lock horns with the apostles especially Peter, how he falls out with his friend and confident over matters of how to best proceed in situations.
Paul was not an easy man to know before his conversion and he remains this angular figure after his redemption. God simply redirects all his Paulness into a righteous cause.
DL Moody famously said:
The world has yet to see what God can do with a man fully consecrated to him.
Actually In Paul I think we get a glimpse of what God could achieve through one wholly available to Him.
I wonder how our world would change today if we saw the same world change in some of those leading figures of new atheism I mentioned earlier. They are people of vision and zeal, albeit misdirected vision and zeal.
In Paul’s life it was the vision, the mission that drove him. And it changed the world.
It’s why vision is so important to what we are doing here as the Church in our community. It’s why we are spending so much time seeking God and defining where we are going. It’s why we’ve been asking the questions we are asking. It has been a real privilege to start to read through your responses to our question cards.
As we work through your (those) responses as we seek God together as a community we are seeking to change and respond to his call. It’s why we will keep talking about vision and mission – our vision and mission as a Church – so we too, as it was with the apostles, the early Church and St Paul, can put our zeal and energy into God’s call for us as a Church. Because The Local Church truly is – as Bill Hybels says “The Hope of the World”.
Let’s pray together.