In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is one.
Chapter 9 in the book of Acts and Chapter 1 in the book of Galatians set out how the Jew Saul was guided by Christ to become the Christian Paul. It is a story with which we are familiar—how Saul was struck down on the road to Damascus and then placed his zeal for God, his learning and his energy at the service of Christ. I want to put to you tonight a single idea: what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus can happen to each of us in our own journeys of life, if we are open to receive Christ’s guidance. Let us try to understand how Saul responded when he was called by Christ.
Saul was a very competent Pharisee, a very committed Jewish scholar and activist. Reflecting on his life before he knew Christ, Saul wrote: “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my countrymen, being more extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions.” Furthermore, in Chapter 8, Verse 58 of the book of Acts, St Luke has pointed out that Saul was heavily involved in the stoning of the deacon, St Stephen, because those who stoned St Stephen “laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” A note of Biblical exegesis points out that this might have meant that Paul was actually in charge of the stoning of St Stephen, the first martyr for the Christian faith. What is clear is that Paul had headed to Damascus with letters from the High Priest in Jerusalem to arrest anyone who was committed to “the Way”—the sect within Judaism, worshipping in the synagogues, that believed that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.
The first striking fact about the conversion of Saul to Christ is that Saul himself did not initiate any action whatsoever. As St Luke tells us, Saul was approaching Damascus when he was blinded, as “suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and [Saul] fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’” Not only was Saul now blind, but he did not know why he had been blinded. In his own mind, Saul naturally wanted to know who had blinded him, so he asked: “Who are You, Lord?” That is a powerful response to becoming blind. Rather than complaining or crying out in anguish, Saul accepts that someone of great authority has intervened in his life.
All of us are travelling today on the road to Damascus. We have the best of intentions, as did Saul, but we do not yet fully understand what Christ is asking of us. In due course, Christ will tell us. He will call each of us to His work; and it is right that we should wait for that calling and then accept it. The timing of the calling belongs to Christ, but the response belongs to each of us. Furthermore, a calling from Christ is not a logical, linear thing that happens only once. A calling from Christ is a dynamic, awesome experience that continues throughout the whole of our lives, with different actions to be performed by each of us in different seasons of our lives.
You will recall that the blind Saul was sent by Christ to a house on Straight Street in Damascus. Then Christ told Ananias, a Jewish resident of the city, to go to that house and inquire “for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.” Now Ananias knew of Saul’s determination to find and imprison followers of The Way; and Ananias had no wish to have any dealings whatsoever with Saul. However, Christ revealed to Ananias that Saul was “a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel.” Ananias overcame his fear of Saul and went to him, saying: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Notice that this time Saul is in action. He is praying. Saul is responding to the command of Christ: “Get up and enter the city [of Damascus], and it will be told you what you must do.” Then after Ananias lays hands on him, and Saul has regained his sight and been “filled with the Holy Spirit,” Saul made a decision. He chose to be “baptised and he took food and was strengthened.” Perhaps in a sense that is where we join Saul, having been baptised, filled with the Holy Spirit from our baptism, and then strengthened with food, both natural food and spiritual food. Like Saul, we are now ready to receive instructions from our Lord about how we are to live in this present moment.
Notice that Saul then begins to exercise his new three-fold ministry of proclaiming Christ to Jews and Gentiles (that is, non-Jews) and kings, exactly where he has been called. For the next three years Paul, as he is now known, preaches to the Jews in Damascus and prays in the surrounding Arabian Desert. That is a good model for us—to exercise what we perceive as our ministry from Christ exactly where we are, to pray and to wait for further instructions from our Lord.
Christ did not hurry Saul into the fullness of his calling, nor will He hurry us. In the timeline of Saul’s life, it is clear that Saul was called to Christ in 35 A.D., the same year as the martyrdom of St Stephen, when Saul was about 30 years old. However, it was not until eight years later in 43 A.D. that Saul arrived in Antioch. Then the first missionary journey set out in Acts 13 and 14 did not begin until 46 A.D., some eleven years after Saul’s conversion; and Saul began to write his letters in A.D. 48 or 49, thirteen or fourteen years after his conversion. Saul was to live for a further twenty years until he was executed in Rome at the age of approximately 65 in A. D. 68. Thus, although Saul was called to Christ at the age of 30, the fullness of his ministry was not evident until he was approximately 43 years old; and it was in the last 22 years of his life that Saul lived out the fullness of his conversion.
In 2 Peter, Chapter 3, Verse 16 St Peter says of the letters of St Paul that there are “some things hard to understand.” That is true, but there is nothing hard to understand about the conversion of Saul and how his conversion is a model for each of us. Saul did not initiate his conversion experience, nor should we. When Saul recognised that he had been called, he prayed, and he remained in the city to which he had been called. Then Saul waited; he worked but he also waited for the fullness of his calling to become evident. Even on his first missionary journey, some eleven years after his conversion, Acts 13, Verse 9 refers to “Saul who was also Paul.” It is the same for each of us: we retain our personalities after our conversions, but we also fulfil those personalities in Christ.
In the book of Acts, Chapter 17, Verses 22 to 34 St Luke tells us that when St Paul preached in Athens during his second missionary journey in A. D. 50 to 52. he came across an altar with the inscription “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.” St Paul proclaimed to those who gathered around him on Mars Hill that it was possible for them to “seek God . . .[to] grope for Him and find Him, [as] He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist. . . for we are … His children.” However, St Paul also emphasised in that sermon on Mars Hill that “God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent;” and in Acts, Chapter 20, Verse 21 in his closing words to the elders of the Church in Ephesus St Paul reminded them of how he had been “solemnly testifying to both Jews and Greeks of repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The repentance that St Paul sought from both Jews and Greeks was, as he phrased in Second Corinthians, Chapter 7, Verse 9, “a repentance without regret, leading to salvation.” Such a sorrow was grounded in “the will of God,” not the “sorrow of the world” described in a Biblical note on that verse as a “self-centred sorrow over the painful consequences of sin,” rather than a “God-centred sorrow over the wickedness of sin.” Throughout his letters, St Paul writes very little indeed of any personal “self-centred sorrow” about the consequences of his own past sins; however, he grieves deeply with a “God-centred sorrow” on the failure of many Jews and Gentiles to come with faith to Christ. That approach to repentance, focusing on the wickedness of sin itself, rather than its personal consequences, is an important antidote to the individualistic approach to religion of many people today.
The call for repentance that St Paul gave in Athens to “all people everywhere” still cries out to each of us as our own understanding deepens of the work of the Holy Trinity in our lives. In closing, let us pray with St Paul, in words based upon Chapter 1, Verses 9 to 12, of his Letter to the Colossians: “We ask God to fill you with the knowledge of His will for your life, with all the wisdom and understanding that His spirit gives, so you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, in order to attain all steadfastness and patience, joyously giving thanks to the Father, who has made it possible for us to share in the inheritance of the saints in Light.”
The Light that we inherit now with the saints is the same Light of Christ that struck down Saul on the road to Damascus.
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power and praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit always now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Father Deacon Emmanuel Kahn