John and I built our house to face south. We have a big picture window looking out over a field and a crescent of trees. We’ve pinned a thread back and forth across it, and this is where we hang up our Christmas cards. For longer than you’d think. They’re still there. I take them down the first weekend the green starts to show on the field and distant trees. I take down the cards, wash the windows, and all of a sudden, there are signs of spring sprouting up all over. Now I realize spring has really been hesitating on the fields for weeks already, but I love the feeling, as if everything is transformed in one day.
Last week I heard about a man who was baptised when he was 63 years old. He’d already attended church for many years, so people were curious about why he’d waited so long. He said, “It took me this long to know.”
There are other people who seem to know all in a moment. They might have a vision or feel a presence, and all at once, they believe. We listen in awe as they tell us how they were suddenly transformed, like spring outside our window the day I take down our Christmas cards.
That’s how it seemed two thousand years ago to a man named Paul. Paul grew up in the area we now call Turkey. He attended the university of Tarsus, one of the three best universities of his time. He studied philosophy and spoke Greek like an orator. He thought and wrote like a scholar.
And when he had learned all that his university could teach him, Paul went on to Jerusalem to start all over again in the great temple school. He studied under the famous pharisee Gamaliel. Paul later wrote, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age, so zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.”
It was in Jerusalem that Paul began to debate with the early Christians. He despised everything they said and did. He believed they were a blasphemy, an insult to the ear of God. He wasn’t alone in his hatred. Others began to seek them out and to persecute them. One day they stoned one of them to death. Stoning a man to death was hot and heavy work. They took off their coats and laid them to one side. Paul stood guard over their clothes and watched them kill the first Christian martyr.
Soon Paul was no longer a spectator but an active participant. His convictions and years of training made him a gifted prosecutor. Many of the early Christians began to flee Jerusalem and seek asylum elsewhere.
By this time Paul was about 30 years old. The High Priest of the Temple had heard about Paul’s clean life and conservative leanings. He summoned him and charged him with a new mission. Paul was to search out the Christians wherever they were hiding, bring them back on trial for their life, and sentence for their death.
Paul set out north to Damascus. Word went before him, igniting terror among the refugees like a spark set to dry tinder. Some Temple guards marched beside him. Some donkeys ambled behind, bundled up with provisions and the ropes they’d need to bind their prisoners.
Along the way something happened that changed Paul’s life forever. Paul describes it in his letters to the people of Galatia and Philippi, and Luke recounts it three times in the book of Acts. Suddenly a bolt of light blazed through Paul. A voice from inside the light said, “Paul, Paul, why do you persecute me?” Now, if Paul had been a proud man, and he certainly was, he might have hoped for a vision to bless his mission. But this didn’t sound like approval. He trembled, “Who are you, Lord?” The voice answered, “I am Jesus, the one you are persecuting!”
Paul fell to the ground. It was impossible. Jesus was dead. Even the crazy Christians didn’t deny the crucifixion. If this voice was true . . . he couldn’t deny his own ears . . . he’d been wrong about everything. He whispered, “What should I do, Lord?” The voice answered, “Go to the street that runs straight through Damascus. Wait there.”
Paul groped to his feet. The donkeys had bolted and the guards had stampeded after them. When they returned they found Paul blind from his vision. They set him on one of the donkeys and led him the rest of the way to Damascus. They found him a room, but when they brought him food and drink, he shook his head. He’d fast and pray until the Lord spoke to him again. For three days he ate and drank and saw no more than a man does lying in his own tomb.
In those days there lived an old man in Damascus named Ananias. Ananias was one of the early Christians who had fled the persecution in Jerusalem. He trembled when he heard that Paul had reached his refuge. He believed Paul’s blindness a sign of divine punishment. But he was still afraid. Everyone said Paul knew the law by heart. He wouldn’t need his sight to carry out his deadly mandate.
That night Ananias had his own vision. God told him to go to Paul and heal him. Ananias was aghast. Paul had been blind to their faith. Let him remain blind to his prey. Why make it easier for him to carry out his persecution? But Paul’s life, and Paul’s death, were God’s alone to determine.
Ananias woke troubled. He knew that faith not acted on is faith not lived. He went to the house where Paul knelt, praying. He laid his hands on him and prayed too.
The first thing Paul saw was the faces of those he’d come to prosecute. At first, of course, they didn’t trust him. They ran away when he approached them to join in their prayers. So instead he went to the synagogue and began to preach his conversion with the same passion he’d preached his conservatism. Now he was more Christian than the Christians. He proclaimed Jesus the Son of God, which was more than most of them were claiming at that time. He’d really been transformed. His life was never going to be the same again.
Paul became an important figure in the early Christian faith, second only to Christ himself. His sermons and letters converted thousands and thousands of people, and not just in Syria and Galilee, but throughout the Roman Empire. You and I can worship here together, in part, because of the man blinded on the road to Damascus.
Paul’s story reads like a classic story of sudden conversion, like a bolt of lightning straight out of the blue. But I’ve been thinking about this. It wasn’t really out of the blue at all, was it? Paul had been preparing for this every day of his life. He’d studied for years in Tarsus and years more in Jerusalem. As a prosecutor, he’d wrestled hard with everything the early Christians were claiming to be true. The light that transformed his life didn’t hit him at random, if it had, the guards marching beside him would have been transformed too. They weren’t ready yet; but in every part of his being, he was.
This gives me hope. It tells me how faith reaches out to us. Not rare and random like a bolt of lightening that strikes with no better odds than winning a lottery. Faith comes in a more deliberate way than that. It comes with prayer, reading, and joining in in worship. It comes with pain, doubts, and a shameful need for forgiveness. It comes with struggle, blessing, and a touch of luminous grace. Right now ___ is planting the sparks of faith next door in our children in Sunday School. As a lightning rod draws lightning, these are the things that draw the light to us.
We don’t get to choose whether it takes 63 years, like the man I heard baptised. Or 30 years, like Paul. Wedo get to choose how we ready ourselves, by seeking Christ out, by asking him to open our eyes to his presence, by accepting his grace. And who knows, maybe God is right now taking down his Christmas cards and looking out his south-facing window and saying, “O look! It’s spring! Yes, I can see it. I can see the signs of new faith sprouting up all over my people.”
–– Copyright 2007, Emily Sylvester. Used by permission.