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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

April 10, 2016

 At the Corner of Damascus and Tyne

Psalm 30; Acts 9:1-20

            William Muehl was a lawyer who taught homiletics, or preaching, for many years at Yale Divinity School.  Muehl suggested once that this morning’s story has been used and taught by the church in such a way as to leave most Christians with what he calls “a faith inferiority complex.”  That is, we assume that Paul’s dramatic Damascus Road experience is the gold-standard for Christians, and any who fall short of this astounding transformational moment somehow are lesser Christians.  I want to suggest that this is exactly the opposite aim that Luke had in mind when he shared his account of Saul’s, or Paul’s, Damascus Road encounter with the Risen Jesus not once, not twice, but three times in the Book of Acts (Acts 9, 22 and 26).  In fact, Luke shares this encounter in such a way that we know that this is not typical of the way most people come to faith in Jesus Christ.  Remember Peter’s first ever sermon on Pentecost?  We quote it each time we baptize an infant based upon the faith commitments of the child’s parents: “For the promise is unto you, and to your children, to as many as are far off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.”

            It is the call of God that makes people Christians, that gives them faith, and I remember Billy Graham, of all people, saying frankly that most people come to faith in Jesus Christ because of the faith of their Christian parents.

            Will Willimon even questions whether Paul’s Damascus Road experience is rightly called a conversion experience.  It is not as if Paul did not believe in God, after all.  Paul was so sure of God that he became a religious zealot for the God of Israel.  In Acts 7 Paul stands by approvingly as they stone Stephen to death for his Christian faith.  Paul sees Jesus and His followers as enemies of God, and he becomes a kind of religious terrorist.  He is on his way to Syria by way of the Damascus Road in order to round up followers of Jesus as enemies of the God of Israel, so he can place them in prison.

            Paul’s conversion is not from being a nonbeliever to becoming a believer.  Rather, it is more of a “Hank Williams experience” – Saul sees the light – and what his experience tells him is that he has been wrong about God.  In fact, he learns in this encounter that the God of Israel is one and the same God as the Risen Jesus who calls Saul while he is traveling the Damascus Road.

            Willimon says that this is maybe more like a call story than a story of conversion, though who can doubt that Saul was changed by what happened to him on the Damascus Road?  William says it is more like a call story because the Risen Christ calls Saul by name, repeating his name: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Remember when Yahweh appears to Moses in the burning bush?  “Moses, Moses!” called Yahweh.  And remember when God called the boy Samuel deep into the night?  “Samuel, Samuel!” said the Lord.  Saul’s call on the Damascus Road sounds exactly like Moses’ and Samuel’s calls!  What Luke clearly and crucially wants his readers to understand is that the Risen Christ who called Saul of Tarsus along the Damascus Road is one and the same with the Lord God of Israel.  Saul is not converted so much by this encounter as he is corrected, and literally, enlightened.  Saul has been “breathing threats and murder” against the early church on behalf of the God of Israel and in this encounter he discovers he has been dead wrong about his notion of who the God of Israel really is.  He who had been violent would become a man of peace.  He who had persecuted would become himself persecuted.  And he who worked to divide and exclude people, would become the world’s great champion of reconciliation and grace.

            But the center of this encounter is not Saul, or Paul, as he will afterwards be known.  No – the real power in this story belongs to God, who is the main character in every conversion story in the Bible.  It is not Saul who brings about the change.  It is God alone who changes lives.

            It is the Risen Christ who appears suddenly along the Damascus Road in a flash of light that came from heaven.  “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  All Saul does is ask, “Who are you, Lord?”  God does all the rest!  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.”

            So this is a call story, but it is also an Easter story.  It is the Risen Jesus who appears to Saul in a blinding flash, the Risen Jesus who appears to a man in Damascus, a disciple named Ananias, and tells him to “go to a street called Straight,” and lay his hands upon Saul to restore his sight.  Ananias can hardly believe his ears!  All Ananias knows about Saul is how evil and violent he has been to the saints.  But remember, this is a call story first and foremost.  So the Risen Lord says to Ananias, “Go, for he is the instrument I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel….”  It is God who does everything that needs to be done – His power is the power that drives this Damascus Road experience.  All Saul does is get knocked from his mount, have his sight restored three days later (speaking of Easter!), and then emerge from it all to be baptized and to proclaim that “Jesus is the Son of God.”

            Flannery O’Connor once said of Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”  Flannery O’Connor guides us in the right direction.  It is God who calls, God who converts, and God who changes lives.  And God comes to each of us in ways that are right for only us.  For Flannery O’Connor, God came to her through sickness and suffering.  God comes to us in as many ways as there are people and the needs they possess.  William Muehl, who did not believe anyone should suffer from “a faith inferiority complex,” wrote that, “The roads to Christian faith are as varied as the people who profess it.”

            One of my great privileges is to get to read every prospective Deacon and Elder’s story of faith as they prepare to serve our church in those roles.  I marvel at the variety of ways that God has worked in their lives to bring them to faith.  I have learned over the years that God comes to people in Damascus Road encounters.  I think of Joe Taber, who almost drank himself and his young family to total ruin.  One day in a drunken hangover, after spending too much of his meager paycheck that night, he came to himself, returned home to his trailer, and knelt before a hat rack and mirror, turning it into an altar.  He promised, “God, I’ll serve you for the rest of my life if you give me back my family, and I’ll never take a drink again.”  Joe kept that promise, and God saved Joe and his family, blessing them in all kinds of wonderful ways.

            But I have also known hundreds and thousands of fine Christian men and women who never had to come to such a moment, because God came to them through loving parents, vital churches and good friends.  H. Richard Niebuhr said that conversion “is a new way of seeing.”

            So let us all pray one thing: That God will open our eyes to the life that is to be found in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Like Paul, let us commit our lives to spreading the Good News of God’s love and light to the whole world, beginning right where we are today.  That is what it means to live at the corner of Damascus and Tyne!

                                                                                    Amen.

 

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