Imagine this. You are driving in your car, minding your own business, when all of a sudden you see in your rear view mirror the flashing colored lights of a police car. You’re getting pulled over! A glance at the speedometer shows that you’ve been doing fifteen miles over the limit. You didn’t notice, but the officer did.
The sinking feeling you experience on this occasion is bad enough, but it’s nothing compared to what Paul feels in his gut on the occasion we somewhat blandly refer to as his conversion. A better name would be the Most Frightening Experience of His Life.
Paul is traveling down the road as well, minding his own business. Only in his case, business means the systematic persecution and extinction of the bizarre and disgraceful followers of a certain Jesus from Nazareth. Here’s how Paul himself later describes this period of his life: “I persecuted the assembly of God, and ravaged it” [Galatians 1:13].
By the time he appears on the road to Damascus, Paul has already made a career for himself imprisoning Christians and urging their execution. What takes him to Damascus is that he has gained the franchise for such work there, and wants to pursue it with all his might. Moreover, by doing so, he believes he is advancing a good and holy cause. On the highway leading him into Damascus, Paul sees his version of the flashing colored lights of a police car.
It’s not a sight in a rear view mirror that stops him in his tracks. Paul and his traveling companions are surrounded by a light more brilliant than the sun on the brightest summer day. They fall to the ground, awestruck and afraid, frightened about what may happen next.
A voice then addresses Paul, using his Hebrew name. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
The voice recognizes him, but he does not recognize the voice. Paul is no doubt shaken. These things don’t happen to him every day. “Who are you, Lord?” he asks.
That word “Lord” need not be understood as meaning anything more here than our word “Sir.” Paul figures that respect shown to this awesome voice might prove helpful, since the voice claims, remarkably, to be suffering at his hands. The voice then reveals himself. “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.”
You or I, pulled over for speeding, might get a ticket and a fine, some points perhaps on our driving record. Paul has been pulled over too. Once the voice identifies himself, Paul expects more than a citation; he fears his execution.
He’s taken it as his business to put followers of Jesus to death. Now Jesus appears before him in blinding brilliance, making it clear as day that mmistreatment of his followers he takes as mistreatment done to him. Paul finds himself in the Most Frightening Experience of His Life. It may turn out to be the Last Experience of His Life.
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What Jesus says to identify himself amounts to a death sentence for Paul. What immediately follows brings about his resurrection. “But get up and stand on your feet,” says Jesus, who goes on to commission Paul, this persecutor of Christ, to become an outstanding advocate for the cause of Christ.
Paul is converted, turned around, spun like a top, and sent packing in a different direction, that from him and out of his experience the world may hear the gospel announced with grace and power. Twenty centuries later, and he still speaks.
The first shock for Paul is Jesus alive, not only in eternal light, but in his maligned and persecuted followers.
The other shock for Paul, of no less force, is that there is for him no condemnation, but a commission, a place for him with Jesus.
There takes up residence in Paul’s life the truth that Jesus and his disciples are one. The disciples cannot be understood outside Jesus, and Jesus cannot be understood outside the disciples. When this bursts upon Paul’s awareness with the force of utter novelty, it strikes him with the deepest horror, yet a moment later, it leads to immense relief and consolation, his old life lost for a new one gained.
Paul’s realization is framed by his experience as a persecutor. Others realize this same truth that Jesus and his disciples are one according to their particular circumstances.
Our validity as a congregation depends on the extent to which we let people experience this truth through us. As a congregation, we are to allow people to meet Jesus and to meet him through us. They are to reach the same realization that overtook Paul with such force: Jesus is alive; he and his disciples are one.
It happens to people in diverse ways, due to their different circumstances. Few, perhaps, will come as Paul did, official agents of persecution. Some will come out of their pain, their confusion, their curiosity, their spiritual hunger, their exhausted cynicism, their innocent hope, their sin sickness, or from other states of soul. What matters is that they recognize Jesus is alive, and he and his followers are one.
People respond to this recognition in manifold ways. Some answer readily, others slowly. Some loudly, others quietly. There are those who turn away or who are not yet ready for commitment.
We cannot determine anyone’s response. All we must do is to manifest Christ, the One not ashamed to die for us, the One not ashamed to identify himself, forever alive, with the likes of us.
Congregational vitality can be assessed according to many standards, some of which have little to do with the Gospel.
If asked about a standard, St. Paul might well point back to his conversion, what for a moment felt like the Most Frightening Experience of His Life. As a result of that time on the Damascus highway, there took up residence within him the truth that Jesus and his disciples are one.
Paul’s hope for any congregation might be that people would encounter this startling truth through the life of the congregation. Whether or not this realization felt, at least for a moment, like their last experience of life, his hope would be that for many it would seem like their first.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2006, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.