"Bald-headed, bow-legged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose, at times he had the face of a man and at times he had the face of an angel." That's how the apostle Paul is described in an early Christian document, the Acts of Paula and Thekla.
"A fool for Christ's sake," is how Paul described himself.
And then this: "St. Paul the persecutor was a cruel and sinful man, Jesus hit him with a blinding light and then his life began."
In this last, theologian Mick Jagger sings the song first recorded by Luke, the one we will hear on Sunday, the song of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus.
In the ranks of conversion stories, there is arguably none more dramatic than this one recorded by Luke in the book of Acts. It is a drama of blinding light, voices from another realm, a healing at the hands of a stranger, the reconciliation of enemies, profound change, and, as Mick Jagger, sings it, new life after death: Paul's life began.
It's a conversion story we might envy for its absolute clarity, we who don't necessarily get stopped in our tracks by bright lights. Paul's drama has the makings of a great Hollywood script, evil to good, plain and simple.
But this is not Hollywood, this is the gospel according to Luke, and there is nothing simple about it. This is a story told, as all bible stories are told, with a purpose. Luke's entire gospel, we know, from the first portion about Jesus' ministry through the second portion we encounter in these weeks after Easter, now called the Acts of the Apostles, was written as an instruction manual for the early church. It was written not so much to record the past as to model the new Way, the Jesus way. In the story of persecuting Saul becoming Saint Paul, Luke is giving the early church a model for the way they are to be the church.
It's a model we inherit too. Look what Luke is showing us here:
First, Paul is stopped by that light so stunning that he drops to the ground. And then that voice calls out his very name, the Hebrew name of his birth, "Saul, Saul" and that question: "Why do you persecute me?"
He can only answer with a question of his own, "who are you, Lord?"
The answer sounds simple: I am Jesus. And Saul begins to hear not only who Jesus is, but who he himself, Saul, really is.
Saul, you have been killing me again and again, when you helped them stone Stephen, when you set out to trap my followers at Damascus, wherever you are colluding with the authorities, wherever you are breathing your murderous threats, wherever you are killing them, you are killing me.
And then, as Luke tells it, Saul is plunged into darkness, darkness that lasts three days-three days like that other three dark days that lasted from that Friday to that Sunday. Saul hears what he has done, he enters his own darkness. Saul dies in this story, and is born again as Paul.
Here's where the story becomes the church's story, and our own. This is not just Saul confronting his demons in a private exchange with the risen Christ. Luke gives us other players. The unnamed travelers take him by the hand and bring him to the city. He is blind, without them he could not make it.
And then we have this great scene with Ananias, who also has a vision, and then a call. He is to rescue blind Saul of Tarsus. But Ananias isn't game. He knows who Saul is, he doesn't want to get near the notorious killer. After a little push and pull, Ananias gives in, and goes and lays hands on Saul, healing hands, confirming hands, ordaining hands. He calls him brother. And with that, Luke says, "something like scales fell" from Paul's eyes. He is welcomed into the community the way all new people were welcomed: he is baptized. He is one of them, and the new road that he walks will be a road where he will share their suffering, not cause it. It takes the gathered community to effect this conversion.
Luke's story is not one of conversion in the usual sense; there is no change of religion here. Saul the Jew does not become Paul the Christian. Paul remains to his death a Jew, a faithful Pharisee. What we call conversion is really vocation, a calling, and a profound change of mission. Saul the Pharisee who persecuted those who did not adhere to the old ways becomes Paul the Apostle for the new way.
As the story of Paul unfolds, through his letters and Luke's stories, we see the one-dimensional persecutor become a complex character: worried that he does not do that which he should, angry when he feels he has not been heard, prideful when he thinks he's got it, humble with his own failings, harsh and unyielding with his scoldings, and yet the author of the great statement to the Corinthian church about the gift of love. And always, zealous and dogged in his commitment to the new way of Jesus, the Jesus he understands to be present in all people for all time, the whole community he calls "the body of Christ."
Paul preaches the resurrection of Jesus not because he believes something that happened in the past to Jesus; he preaches Easter because he has experienced it in his very body, and this experience unites him to the others. From that light on the road to the hands of Ananais, every time he meets the other, he knows Easter. As Martin Buber said it in five words: "All real living is meeting."
Meeting, and then, as Mick Jagger sings it, life begins.
Echoes from the Edge
By Nicole Lamarche, Beatitudes Fellow 2012-13 - April 8th, 2013
"The reversal of what was thought to be absolute." That's what Molly Fumia says of resurrection. Easter stands up to a world that says peace is not possible, that equality is not worth creating, that radical generosity is not realistic. Easter asks us to put everything on the table, to believe beyond what is practical, in a God that is just as much mysterious as ever present. And yet it's hard to recognize resurrection. It's hard to live resurrection in a moment, to move away from our default of thinking small, before the tomb and the stone that was rolled away.
This past Holy Saturday, a group of volunteers gathered at a park in downtown San Jose to set up for what would be the first public event for the newly forming Silicon Valley Progressive Faith Community. It was a day I will never forget. It was the Easter before Easter.
We decided to introduce ourselves to the Silicon Valley with a progressive Easter egg hunt designed around generosity, sharing and equality and it wasn't absolutely clear if anyone would come. As the day approached, the final volunteer list was assembled, most of the eggs were stuffed and the supplies prepared. We were ready for rain. We were ready for grumpy kids, for frustrated parents, for our plan unraveling. We were not ready for Easter before Easter.
We were not ready for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people to show up to an egg hunt that asked the children to give away what they found. If resurrection is the reversal of what was thought to be absolute, then sometimes the process is long and layered and sometimes it just happens, because that is who God is. On the Easter before Easter, hundreds of little reversals happened. I will remember the one that came in the form of a kid who arrived late and got a fistful of candy bars delivered from the hand of a tiny stranger just because she wanted to share.
Finally, the Poet
By Lucille Clifton - April 8th, 2013
won't you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up”¨here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my one hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.