9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
When it comes to resurrection appearances, not all are the same. In John 21,
Jesus appears to the disciples at the lakeside where they’ve gone fishing (though until Jesus showed up the fish weren’t biting). In Luke 24,
Jesus appears alongside the road to a couple of travelers, but they don’t recognize him until he breaks bread. Then he disappears. While I affirm the bodily resurrection of Jesus, with Paul I do understand that whatever form the resurrected body takes, it is a spiritual body. Apparently, it has properties that we can imagine but not understand. I share all of this to get us to the story of Paul’s “Damascus Road” experience. There is a resurrection appearance here, but not a bodily one, at least not in the same way as the ones described elsewhere.
Saul (Paul) was a zealous man. He took his faith seriously. He even was willing to enforce it with violence, if necessary. He first appears in the biblical story in Acts 7-8, where he oversees the execution of Stephen, whose preaching was upsetting the religious establishment.
Luke says that a “severe persecution began that against the church (Acts 8:1
). The church was scattered throughout Judea and Samaria (see Acts 1:8
for background on the missional trajectory of the church’s life). While the church buried Stephen, “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison” (Acts 8:2-3
). Among those scattered was Philip who preaches in Samaria and baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch before heading off to Azotus and Caesarea (Acts 8:4-40
). It appears that Saul’s actions had unintended consequences—it moves the church out of its home base and off to the intended mission field.
All of this leads us to the ninth chapter of Acts, where another resurrection appearance will set the table for the next act in the story.
When we turn to Acts 9, Paul is still “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” He’s been given an assignment by the high priest to go to the synagogues in Damascus to see if there are any trouble-makers there, so he could extradite them back to Jerusalem for trial. As we saw with the story in Acts 5
, where the religious authorities tried to suppress the Apostles, there is, according to Luke, an effort to extinguish this disruptive group before it gets out of hand. As we see here, things don’t go as planned. To borrow from an old play, “A funny thing happened on the way to Damascus.
The reading from Acts 9,
which forms the first reading as assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary, focuses on the first six verses, though we’re encouraged to continue reading the entire story (7-20).
Paul is on his way to Damascus when a light from heaven “suddenly blazed around him” (J.B. Phillips). With the light comes a voice from heaven: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Blinded by the light, Paul falls to the ground. In most pictures of this event, Paul is riding a horse, so he has a ways to fall. Now, lying on the ground, blinded by the light, Paul cries out: “Who are you, Lord?” Paul understands that this is no ordinary event, but he’s unsure of its source, or maybe he does, but he wants to make sure. After all, he was persecuting the followers of Jesus.
The response that comes from the light is this: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” By attacking the church, which Paul will in his letters describe in terms of the body of Christ, he is attacking Jesus. You have to wonder whether Paul understood this to be true even before this encounter. Was he there “when they crucified my Lord?” He was there for the execution of Stephen, but what about Jesus? Did have any encounters with Jesus before Good Friday and Easter? Paul never says anything about this in his letters, but you have to wonder. Regarding the nature of this resurrection appearance—Jesus doesn’t appear to Paul in bodily form. It is an appearance in the form of light. It’s just as real, but it’s different. Whatever its nature, it was transformative. Jesus tells Saul to get up and go into Damascus where he will receive further instructions.
As the story continues, Saul’s companions hear the voice but see nothing. Knowing the Saul is now blind they lead him into Damascus, where he waits for three days. While this is happening, a disciple living in Damascus by the name of Ananias has a vision, in which he is directed to go to Saul and guide him to the truth. You can imagine that Ananias, having heard of Saul’s previous activities, would be hesitant to make that visit. Here is your enemy, the one who is being sent to haul you back to Jerusalem to face imprisonment or worse. Now, you’re supposed to go and speak with him. Despite his concerns, he follows these instructions. He goes to where Saul is staying. He speaks with him. Prays with him. Restores his sight. He delivers to Saul a new set of orders. The word given to Ananias to share with the one who will be known as Paul is this: “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16). By now the missional plan is beginning to take shape. The word is preached first in Jerusalem by the Apostles, led by Peter. Then, Stephen gets into the act. All of this takes place in Jerusalem. Then, after the death of Stephen, and Saul’s efforts to eradicate the church, the community fans out into other parts of Judea and Samaria. Now, we see the foundation for the next step of the Spirit’s work as outlined in Acts 1:8. Saul, the persecutor of the church, has been given a new assignment. That assignment involves, taking the message of Jesus to the Gentile world. But this new trajectory won’t be an easy one, because Saul will suffer for the sake of the name of Jesus.
As we ponder this text, with its call of Saul to move from persecutor to proclaimer, might we consider the ways in which the church, the body of Christ, has to its shame, been the persecutor rather than the proclaimer of good news. Might we consider how the message of Good Friday became the rallying point for anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish acts of violence? Might we consider the ways in which the Bible has been used to enslave and dehumanize? Might we be blinded by the light of God so we can hear the voice of Jesus calling out to us, we who see ourselves as followers of Jesus, saying: “why are you persecuting me?”
As we ponder this encounter of Saul with the risen Christ, which takes the form of light from heaven together with a voice, what might Jesus be saying to us? As you ponder these questions, I offer these comments by Cathy Caldwell Hoop:
God redeemed Saul, gave him a new name, and placed him on a new path. This same mercy is accessible to each of us, and to our corporate communities. The Easter miracle proves that God loves and forgives friends, betrayers, doubters, skeptics…even God’s own enemies. The God, who is Love, has no need to be defended by violent means. Love grabs Saul’s fist in midpunch and unbalances him, saving him from a life of hatred and violence. What if we could do this for one another? May Easter miracles abound! [Joel B. Green, et al, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Location 7010-7013).]
In other words, this is not just a story about Saul’s conversion and his transformation into Paul, the witness to Jesus to the Gentiles. It is that, but it is more. It can serve, as we see here as an invitation to allow the Spirit of God transform our own lives so we might express through this love of God we experience in Jesus to the world. May our encounters with the Risen Christ, though they might not be as dramatic as the one described here, empower us to bear witness to God’s reconciling grace so the world might experience the peace of God.