“And immediately, something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.”
To his contemporaries, Saul must have seemed the least likely person to convert to Christianity. His social background, religious scholarship, and rigorous righteousness set him deeply at odds with the followers of the Way. He was also a Roman citizen, a respectable figure in an empire where fledgling Christianity was very much on the margins.
Although Jesus himself came from within the Jewish faith tradition, his message about the Kingdom of God and his followers’ belief in him as ‘The Messiah’ didn’t fit with the Pharisaic way of thinking that Saul was steeped in, but it may well have planted a seed of doubt in his mind, a little piece of grit around which the pearl of great price, faith in Jesus, began to form.
We cannot know, but it is possible that as Saul reflected up what he knew of Jesus and the movement that had sprung up since his resurrection, these thoughts and ideas were incubated within him, and almost unknowingly prepared him for that fateful encounter on the road. As the song from the ‘Sound of Music’ makes clear:
‘Nothing comes from nothing. Nothing ever can’
Whatever the case may be, Saul’s miraculous encounter on the Damascus Road changed everything.
Over two thousand years later, what can we take from this story in very different times? In our modern world, visions such as the one Saul experienced are not common, or indeed expected. An event as described in our reading, is more likely to be filed in the myths and legends folder! Even so, there are things we can take from this passage for these times.
The most obvious is that this story has given us a term which describes a radical change of mind, or different way of seeing things - ‘A Damascus Road Experience’. His experience and change of heart certainly was the reason for the rapid spread of Christianity, for it was Saul, soon to become Paul, who took the Christian message to the Gentile world and without him, things might have been rather different. Saul, now Paul, also bequeathed to the church his thinking about the faith in his letters, which make up a significant amount of our New Testament. His letters have shaped and moulded the theology of church down the ages, perhaps most profoundly in his description of the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist. His words are familiar to all Christians, echoed in the Communion Service. It is a formidable legacy left to the church, but is there something that we can take from the Damascus Road experience into our everyday world, caught up as we are in the COVID pandemic - perhaps.
For nearly 11 months the pandemic has had us in its grip and perhaps unexpectedly, it has brought into the foreground many inconvenient truths, about modern Britain. Many in employment are on zero hours contracts and can’t afford to stay off work even if they are ill; there are over a million children who rely on Free School Meals to sustain them; those in poor, overcrowded housing - often black and Asian families - have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic; there are inequalities of opportunity in the education system; young people’s futures are very uncertain some would say ‘bleak’; many are lonely with no social support network; we have an under resourced NHS, whose staff are battling heroically against the relentless tide of seriously ill people; there are many with mental health problems, especially those suffering from depression; there is a lack of properly funded, or affordable care for the elderly; there is the much talked about north/south divide, which denies many an opportunity to find meaningful employment; so much disadvantage and such a long list of problems.
We cannot assume or pretend that these problems will necessarily be solved when we get back to something approaching our previous ‘normal’. It is the prevailing economic and political models, which have been followed dogmatically, that have in part created our problems. We have political, economic, and social systems which in the view of many, are ‘not fit for purpose’.
Our society, our world stands on a corner, or at a crossroads – which way to turn, which direction to take, is the question? What the international community needs, what our society needs is that ‘Damascus Road Experience’ enabling us to see with eyes refreshed, the turn we should make, the direction in which we should travel. We need our world, our country to be less Saul, following the old ways and more Paul, following the new better ways.