A sermon for St Mark's Church, Derby Road, Portsmouth - 25th January 2009.
This story - of the conversion of St Paul - is a bit of a puzzler, isn't it? It makes us wonder why Jesus doesn't call everyone with a bright light, and a voice from heaven. I mean - when you first began to accept the notion that Jesus was worth following, were you struck down by a bright light in the middle of North End? While you were doing your shopping? No...neither was I.
What you may not realise is that there are in fact three accounts of this story - all within the book of Acts. And on each occasion, the facts of the story are reported slightly differently. The first time we hear it, Luke tells the story. Then the next two times, Luke records Paul's own version of events - but each version is slightly different. (If you want to check out the different stories for yourself, then read chapters 9, 22 and 26 of Acts).
Why so many different version of the same story? I suggest that it is because we are not meant to take the story absolutely literally. Who exactly heard it the voice? What exactly did it say? Did the light flash, or shine? It is difficult to get exact answers from the three accounts. This has the feeling of a story which has changed since the original event...one that has been embellished along with the telling, over the years.
You know what it's like. It's like a fisherman's tale of the one that got away. Some poor fisherman catches a fish. It's an enormous one...perhaps about two feet long. But, after a short struggle, the line snaps, and the fish swims away. Later, in the bar, as the fisherman tells his friends about the event...suddenly the fish was not two feet long...it was massive! It was three, or four, or five feet long. It doesn't really matter now...no-one else saw the fish...and this is making a great story. And it wasn't a short struggle followed by a snapped line...it was a mammoth, titanic struggle for hours and hours - the matching of wits and strength between man and fish.
The fisherman isn't telling a lie, as such. There really was a big fish. There really was a struggle. But by embellishing the story, the fisherman makes it memorable...it becomes a story that a whole community can enter into with their imaginations.
I tend to think that the story of Saul's conversion is a bit like that. I might be entirely wrong. You are entirely at liberty to believe that there really was a light, and there really was a voice from the sky. It doesn't make you or me any better a follower of Jesus - whatever we choose to believe. Though I would love you to tell me how the different versions of the story in Acts can all be true...
I rather prefer a more human-scale version of the story. Saul's conversion happened while he was in the middle of a journey. He had just finished persecuting Christians in Jerusalem. He had just been standing in the crowd, holding the coats of those who were stoning the first martyr, Stephen. Now he was on his way to Damascus to persecute more followers of the Way. Saul was a highly religious man, a teacher who knew his Hebrew Scriptures back to front and inside out.
So there he is...walking the 120 miles from Jerusalem to Damascus. He has got a lot of time for thinking - and for musing on the horror of what he has just witnessed. Watching a man being stoned to death - just for believing something different - it must have been a sobering, thought-provoking thing to have seen. As the miles ticked by, at walking pace, perhaps Paul found himself revisiting all the Hebrew Scriptures in his mind. Perhaps he was searching for proof that this Jesus that the 'followers of the Way' were on about could not possibly be the Messiah, the Christ. But the more he thinks about it - the more he realises what the character of God is like...as described in the Hebrew Scriptures...the more he comes to see that Jesus was exactly that...the Messiah, the Christ.
It is as if a light is switched on in Paul's mind. The light is not on the road - flashing or shining. The light comes on in Paul's head. Now he sees himself very differently...as someone who has just participated in the stoning of an innocent man. He begins to ask himself..."why did I persecute that man? What was I doing? The scriptures actually do point to a Messiah who will be humble, riding on a donkey - one who would be 'wounded for our transgressions'. So why am I persecuting Jesus and his followers. I've been such a fool!"
Later, when Paul tells people about his dramatic change of mind...he dresses it up a bit. He's a preacher...a communicator. He knows how to spin a good yarn. You can imagine him saying "It was amazing! It was like this light came on...this blinding light...and it was like Jesus himself was saying to me 'Saul, why are you persecuting me'"
A few more tellings...a few years later...by a few more people...and no longer is this a story about what it was like...but now its a story of lights actually coming on...super-trooper spot-lights from heaven. No longer is it a story of Jesus speaking to Saul through his imagination...no, its a more dramatic story of Jesus actually speaking real words.
Why am I telling you this? Why am I taking the trouble to break down the dramatic story of Saul's conversion that we all love - deconstructing it to something more ordinary...more life-like?
Quite simply because I want you to see that Saul's story can be our story too. I don't know anyone who has experienced the kind of dramatic conversion - the full-blown theophany of lights and sound and action - that the story of Saul suggests. Perhaps such people exist. Perhaps God does act in that way, from time to time, for some people. I don't discount the possibility...God can do whatever God wants.
But for most of us, God works in a much gentler way. Most of us come to a realisation, at some point on life's journey, that the essential underlying truth of God is worth persuing. For some of us that realisation is gradual...week by week, month by month, we find ourselves caught up in the dance of God. For others its a more dramatic moment - like a light being switched on - when all that we've heard about God suddenly, somehow, makes sense.
And it is healthy, I believe, for us to think in these terms - and for us to talk in these terms to our families, friends and neighbours. Too many Followers of the Way go around promising their friends that if they become Christians they will see dramatic, miraculous intervention in their lives by God. I believe that God does indeed intervene...through the miracles of love, compassion, charity, hope, friendship, family, community, healing, wholeness and purpose. But he doesn't very often shine bright lights out of the sky, nor talk with an audible voice.
I suggest that the story of Saul's conversion is just that...a story - rooted in a real event - a life-transforming, paradigm-changing encounter with Truth, and with God. The exciting thing is to realise that this story, and this life-transforming event is available to all of us...every single one of us is invited to embrace the Truth, and to have our lives totally transformed by that knowledge.
May you know the power of Truth in your life. May you encounter God again and again along the road of your own life's journey. And may you, like Saul, become transformed by that knowledge - and like Paul, find yourself led into the fullness of life that Jesus offers to all who follow his Way.
Rest assured, this message is not to criticise or challenge - simply a question.
Whilst i hold no particular view on the validity or truthfulness of Paul's conversion stories, I wondered where you draw the line on Bible interpretation? If this is just a story, who's to say that the life of Jesus of Nazareth too wasn't just blown out of all recognition? When can we safely say that what is written in the Bible, was/is factual and when should we try to read between the lines? Perhaps this is a question for the Q&A next month.