Saul thought he had everything figured out and had all the answers to life’s many questions. He had his faith and religion figured out; he knew who his friends and his enemies were and he dedicated his life to harassing and persecuting his enemies and kowtowing to his friends; he had clarity regarding his vocation, profession, and career; he had social status and importance —he was respected by those whom he wanted to be respected by and he was feared by those whom he wanted to fear him; he had access to political power and social and financial capital. Saul was a made man living comfortably…until Jesus interrupted his delusion of certainty.
Our Scripture lesson for this morning contains a well-known and classic text in the life of Saul of Tarsus (later renamed Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles) and is commonly called Paul’s conversion. Although, in many ways, calling this story Paul’s conversion is not quite accurate. A conversion implies a complete change of life and there is much in Paul’s life that remains the same after his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Before Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ, Paul (at that time still known as Saul) was a devout religious man. His faith was of primary importance to his life. Following Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ he remains a profoundly religious man. His faith remains the most important thing in his life. Second, prior to Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ he was a self-described zealot. Saul brought a certain fervor and passion to the way he lived life. He tended to experience strong and deep emotions and these emotions created dualistic ways of thinking: things were either black or white; people were either with him or against him; there was not much room for nuance, debate or discussion. Saul ran red hot. Similarly, Paul displays equal zealousness in his life and faith following his encounter with the risen Christ. Though his encounter with the risen Christ served to redirect his zeal, Paul retained his characteristic passion after his encounter with Christ. Finally, prior to his encounter with the risen Christ, Saul was a proud Jew. After his encounter with the risen Christ Paul remains and retains his Jewish identity from both a cultural and religious perspective. Paul understood Jesus to be the Christ, the Messiah God promised to Israel (and to all the nations). As such, Paul does not believe he is converting to a new religion, but rather he believes that his Jewish faith is evolving, growing, and expanding as he comes to believe that Jesus is the realization of Israel’s hopes and expectations.
Rather than referring to this story as Paul’s conversion, it is more appropriate to refer to it as Paul’s transformative reorientation. Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ transformed his life by flipping upside down everything Paul thought he knew about God, faith, relationships, and life. Because of his encounter with Christ, Paul views life differently, experiences life differently, thinks about life differently, and acts in life differently. As Richard Rohr says, because of his encounter with the risen Christ, Paul receives an “identity transplant” and it all begins with an interruption.
Both according to Luke, the writer of the Book of Acts, and Paul himself, Paul is an “orthodox Jew, a Pharisee with status in the Sanhedrin (the governmental board of Judea during the Roman occupation),” but also a citizen of the Roman empire. As such, Paul would have had enormous cultural privilege, power, and status. He was viewed as a leader within his own cultural and religious community, but he also had rights and privileges as a Roman citizen. As a result, Paul would have enjoyed an even more heightened status of power as someone who was able to go-between two worlds, but not only was he able to participate in these two cultural expressions of hegemonic power, but he would have served as an ambassador to each. As a Jew, he would have received more privilege and status because of his ability to cross over into the Roman world as an emissary, ambassador, and advocate for his Jewish people. Similarly, as a Roman citizen, he would have been viewed as an important lobbyist to the Jews on behalf of the Roman establishment. Never wavering in his Jewish zeal, Paul would have been one who would have been an integral cog in keeping the delicate balance of peace between the Roman occupiers and the indigenous Jewish population in first century Palestine.
Within the first century, Temple-centric Judaism, Paul had a specific vocation. He was “delegated by the Temple police to go out and squelch this new sect of Judaism called, “The Way.” At this time, those who believed Jesus to be the Christ sought to gather in communities with other individuals who similarly believed in Jesus as the Messiah and sought to live according to the teachings of Jesus. But these followers of Jesus were not thought to be practitioners of another religion. These first century Jewish-followers of Jesus were thought to be heretical Jews who were corrupting the traditional teachings of the Jewish faith and causing other “good Jews” to be led astray as well. This new sect that developed within first-century Judaism was not known as Christianity (again because it was not viewed as a new religion), but as “The Way.”
Paul’s special task was to go around to various synagogues within Jerusalem and in the surrounding provinces to discover places where “The Way” was active and to arrest, bind, and bring the practitioners of “The Way” back to Jerusalem where they would stand before a religious council for trial. As he traveled he carried special letters authorizing his actions on behalf of the Sanhedrin. Acts 6:8-8:1 tells of such a previous instance that ended in a man named Stephen’s death because he was stoned following his examination by the religious council. Acts 8:1 notes that Saul was not only a witness to this death, but “Saul was in full agreement with Stephen’s murder.”
Saul, joined by his armament of guards, journeyed from Jerusalem to Damascus to root out the people of “The Way” and protect the religious tradition of his fathers and mothers. As Paul approached Damascus he was secure in his power, health, and freedom; his life had meaning, certainty, and purpose, that is until “suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard” the voice of Jesus interrupting Paul’s life “asking him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me’” (Acts 9:3-4).
And just like that, in a single moment, Paul’s life was completely undone. Everything Paul thought was certain and everything Paul held dear was in that moment stripped from him. First, Saul’s encounter with the risen Christ strips Saul of his physical health and strength. Where once Saul could see, now he is blind. Where once Saul had the strength of autonomous movement, now Saul is unable to stand, and when this vision is over he will not have the strength or the ability to walk himself into Damascus but he will be dependent upon his traveling companions. Saul has been rendered completely helpless physically and has been stripped of his strength, health, and the freedom and autonomy that comes along with it.
Secondly, Saul is stripped of his religious certainty. Saul thought he knew everything there was to know about God. He was so convinced he knew everything about God, and that he was right in his personal thinking about God, that he dedicated his life to harassing and torturing others whose beliefs about God differed from his. Central to Saul’s religious certainty was that Jesus was not the Christ. But in this moment, when Jesus breaks into Saul’s life with undeniable evidence that he is in fact the Christ, all of Saul’s religious certainty is erased. Just as Saul was stripped of his physical strength and left exposed, dependent, and helpless, he is also stripped of his religious certainty and left equally exposed, dependent, and helpless.
Finally, Saul is stripped of his relational certainty. Saul knew who his friends and his enemies were. He knew with whom he wanted to spend time and whom he liked. He (like all of us) created his own tribe of people whom he associated with and demonized those who were outside his tribe. But after he heals, regaining his sight and his vision, Saul will not only receive a new name, Paul, but will experience a new relational orientation, not only entering into dependent friendships with people of “The Way,” but also becoming the Apostle of the Gentiles, being the first practitioner of “The Way” to open the movement to non-Jewish Gentiles.
Everything Saul thought he knew, believed, and valued changed with a flash of light. Jesus interrupted Saul’s life and he can no longer rely on his own strength, experience, faith, intelligence, experience, community, or friendships. There is a complete undoing of Saul as Jesus has stripped away everything and made Saul completely dependent and helpless.
This is the way Jesus operates. Perhaps it seems cruel, but the Scriptures are clear (as is the witness and experience of the Church throughout history) spiritual transformation begins with Jesus’ life-undoing interruption. It seems as though we have left Jesus no other choice, but to radically break into our lives and undue everything we knew or held dear. We spend our lives convinced we know everything, certain of our beliefs, and sure of our own abilities to provide security and meaning. And as long as we are certain that our lives have the security, meaning, and truth that we have worked so hard to create then we will never be open to receive the life Jesus wants to offer us.
We want certainty, but what Jesus wants for us is doubt. That might sound strange, but Jesus wants us to doubt our own ability to have everything figured out in life. Jesus wants to invite us into a risky life of being brave enough to admit to ourselves and to others that we do not have all the answers and the longer we live the more questions we have and the less sure of things we come to be. Faith means embracing life’s complexity, owning the fact that we do not know everything, can’t know everything. Our spiritual practices invite us not to have every answer figured out and then cling to these ideological certainties, but to let go of our need and desire to control and know everything, and instead to trust Jesus. Faith is turning to Jesus not to use him as a spiritual technology to provide certainty in our lives, but instead turning to Jesus and and inviting Jesus to replace our need for certainty with a desire to both love Jesus and be loved by Jesus. We, like Paul, are invited to awaken to a knew spiritual identity that removes from us our need to know, to embrace the fact that we do not have to know, but to trust that Jesus does and that is sufficient.