Easter 3 • 10 Apr 2016

Acts 9:1-6
Revelation 5:11-14
John 21:1-19

Rev. Chris Udy

Paul was always been one of those people
who lived at the centre of a storm.
Some of that thunder and lightning
happened around him -
and he did live
in a time of amazing turbulence and change -
but most of the sound and light around Paul
came directly from him.
He was a man of torrential energy;
almost foolish courage; a brilliant intellect;
obviously an prodigiously gifted speaker and writer,
and an powerful catalyst:
someone who couldn’t help but generate change.
His letters are the oldest documents
of the Christian tradition.
It’s Paul who takes us back closest to Jesus -
but Paul never met Jesus face to face.
Paul’s probably the person who did most
to turn Christian faith into a world religion -
he pushed open the door
for Greek and Roman
and African and European Christians -
including all of us -
but it’s also his words that are used by some
to keep the door closed to women in ministry,
and to people with a different sexuality.
Paul translated the life and stories of Jesus
into a theology -
he wrote it down in Greek,
and he tied it in to the Greek philosophy of his day.
He planted and strengthened Christian communities
wherever he went:
in Antioch, where disciples of Jesus
were first called “‘Christians’,
in Tarsus, where Paul was born,
through Cyprus,
into the towns and villages
of what is now Turkey and Greece,
Ephesus, Patmos, Philippi, Iconium, Laodicea, Colossae,
Athens, Corinth, Crete, Malta,
and finally Rome itself.
Paul was responsible for the constitution
of the very first council of the Church -
the Council of Jerusalem in AD 49 -
and it was in that Council
that the Apostles decided
Gentiles didn’t have to become Jewish -
so they didn’t have to be circumcised
and they didn’t need to observe
the rituals and feasts of Jewish law -
before they could be baptised as Christians -
and it was that decision, in that first council
that opened that door to the world
for the Christian Gospel - the good news of Jesus Christ.

And all of that began,
as we read today,
on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus,
with a blinding light and a terrifying question.

Luke writes that Paul was on his way north,
with letters in his pocket from authorities in the Temple,
and with a small force of guards or soldiers,
to arrest and transport any Christians he could find
back to Jerusalem for trial and punishment.
He was already well known
as a fiercely aggressive opponent
to the disciples of Jesus -
who at that time called themselves ‘the way’.
He was a Pharisee, and the son of a Pharisee,
who was born and grew up in Tarsus -
a city on the shores of the Mediterranean sea
in what is now south-east Turkey.
His name then was ‘Saul’,
which means ‘asked for’ or ‘prayed for’,
and he would have been
maybe 10 years younger than Jesus.
Unlike Jesus and most of the disciples, though,
Paul was also a Roman citizen.
We don’t know exactly how that happened:
often people bought citizenship
for themselves and for their children,
so maybe Paul’s father sorted that out
while they were still up in Tarsus -
but the papers it gave him
made travel much easier and safer for Paul
than it would have been for many others.
When he was quite young
Paul also joined the school of Gamaliel -
one of the greatest teachers of Jewish law in Jerusalem -
and that early education
gave him the knowledge and skills
he used throughout his life
to teach and persuade and argue in the synagogue.
Paul also had a trade - he was a tentmaker -
and that was work he could have found
wherever he wanted to go.
So Paul was well qualified to be an apostle -
which means ‘someone who is sent’ -
even though he had never been one of the 12 disciples.

So, according to our reading from Acts,
the first time Paul was sent,
was not by Jesus, but by the Temple,
to Damascus, where people of ‘the way’
had been disturbing synagogue worship.
Paul had proved himself an effective enforcer.
Earlier in Acts Luke describes him
holding the cloaks of the mob
who stoned to death the first Christian martyr - Stephen.
That was just two years after Jesus had been killed,
and now, a year later, Paul had been given power
to purify and restore the synagogues of Damascus.
We should note here that this story in Acts
is Luke’s account of Paul’s history -
and it doesn’t fit exactly with Paul’s version,
but the end result is the same.
Paul was on his way to sort out heretics
when he was turned into one of them.

Paul never writes down the details himself,
but Luke tells his story three times
in the book of Acts.
Every time he says that a blinding light
flashed from the sky with such intensity
that Paul was forced from his feet.
Paul then heard a voice, that said
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Paul replied from the ground,
and the voice said
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
But get up and enter the city,
and you will be told what to do.”
When Paul stood,
he and his companions found
that he could no longer see.
Luke says those who were with him
had also seen the light, and heard a voice,
but couldn’t understand the words. (Acts 26)
But they took him by the hand
and led him into the city of Damascus,
where, in an echo of Easter,
he remained blind and alone for three days,
until Ananias was sent to restore his sight
and also to baptise him.

Paul insisted, for the rest of his life,
that in that moment on the road
he had encountered Jesus.
He insisted that he was an apostle,
and that his authority came,
not from Peter, or John, or James
or any of the other apostles,
but in that light and through that voice.
In one of his letters
to the Christians in Corinth (2 Corinthians 12)
he describes being “caught up to the third heaven”,
having an experience of paradise
and being taught and told things
he could not repeat.
He says he doesn’t know
whether he was in the body or out of the body,
and he dates that experience back 14 years
from the time when he was writing -
which would put it very close
to the time of his conversion -
but exactly what happened,
and how and why it happened -
exactly what triggered his experience -
we really don’t know.
Twenty years ago an article by Dr D Landsborough
was published in the Journal of Neurology,
Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry,
suggesting that Paul’s conversion experience
could have been caused by ‘Temporal Lobe Epilepsy’ -
and that idea also featured
in a play staged in Sydney a few years ago,
but the truth will always remain a mystery,
and Paul went back to that third heaven – whatever it is -
too long ago for us to come to a sure conclusion.

All that we can confidently say
is that the way he encountered Jesus,
and the meaning he discovered in that encounter
turned him around completely.
Where before he’d been an implacable opponent
to the movement Jesus started,
now he became its most ardent advocate.
He spent the next 14 years
travelling, teaching, preaching and planting churches,
and almost everywhere he went
he became an agent of change - and also of conflict.

He travelled widely,
and the first thing he did in a new city
was go to the Synagogue and tell his story.
If there were other Christians there
he worked alongside them,
and if there were none,
he told the Jewish people
that Jesus was the leader they’d been promised;
that Jesus was their messiah,
that he had fulfilled and satisfied the Law
and that Jesus and his grace,
and not the Law,
was the way to their salvation.
For people who had been taught
that knowing the Law,
and keeping the Law,
was all that kept them connected,
not only with God, but also with their people -
that the Law was their identity; their refuge -
this was strange and difficult news.
So wherever Paul went
he found himself in conflict with Jewish leaders.
He was attacked, beaten,
driven out of towns and cities,
arrested and thrown into prison at least three times -
usually after accusations from other Jews
that Paul was one who led others to break the law -
that he was dangerous to civil order -
a kind of anarchist.
But they weren’t the only ones Paul offended.

Very early Paul discovered
that although he began
by teaching and preaching to Jews,
it was Gentiles who responded most enthusiastically.
Soon they were joining synagogues
and coming to the homes where Paul was speaking,
asking to be baptised
and wanting to be part of Christian communities.
For fairly obvious reasons,
when they were told
that they needed to be Jewish first,
with all that that entailed,
and only then could they be baptised
and welcomed into communion,
there was some resistance – especially from the men -
and that’s why Paul travelled back to Jerusalem,
taking with him relief funds -
a sizable collection raised mostly from gentile Christians
because Judea and Jerusalem
had been badly affected by a famine -
travelled back to Jerusalem
to argue at that first council of the Church
for a different understanding
of what it means to be Christian.
Paul argued strongly that gentile Christians
didn’t need to be circumcised,
and didn’t need to learn and obey
all the Jewish ritual laws,
and, finally, the Jerusalem leaders agreed -
but the way Paul confronted Peter, both then and later,
and his absolute insistence
that he was as much an apostle
as those who had been disciples of Jesus,
left him without many friends in Jerusalem.
Ten years later,
when Paul returned to Jerusalem for the last time,
Luke says it was James - the brother of Jesus
and the leader of the Church in Jerusalem -
who proposed a plan that led to Paul’s arrest.

Paul found himself often at odds:
with Jewish leaders;
with Peter and James
and the Church in Jerusalem;
with Barnabas -
his first colleague and travelling companion;
with gentile leaders in cities like Philippi
and Ephesus and Athens;
with the Roman authorities
who actually tried to protect him
when he was arrested -
but didn’t get much help from Paul,
and ultimately even with the community in Rome,
when he arrived there in AD 60.
The last few verses of Acts
describe a bitter division among Jewish people there,
a division that history suggests
was also behind
the first imperial persecution of Christians
when the Emperor Nero went looking for scapegoats
after Rome burned in AD 64.
Tradition says that’s when Paul’s life ended,
beheaded under the Emperor’s orders,
and buried outside the walls.

Paul has always been an agent of change.
He’s always been confronting,
partly because he was, himself,
a complicated person,
trying to build a bridge
between two very different cultures -
but also because he was,
as he described himself,
someone who was encountered by the risen Jesus;
someone who discovered for himself
that Jesus wasn’t dead and locked up in a tomb,
but was actively engaging people,
reaching out to people,
drawing people to himself
and sending them out
with a message of grace and hope.
Over and over again, Paul’s letters –
especially his letter to the Christians in Rome -
have changed the Church’s direction -
turned orthodox people into heretics:
people like Augustine, Anselm, and Francis,
Martin Luther, John Wesley, Karl Barth …
the list continues.
We may not always agree with Paul -
there are verses we might wish he’d never written -
but, through Paul, God has opened up a door
that none of us who are not Jewish
could have unlocked for ourselves.
It’s Paul who shone a spotlight
on the freedom of God’s grace;
it’s Paul who told us we all have a call and a gift,
and that we all need to use our gift in service;
and it’s Paul who says that all of us,
Jew or Greek, male and female, slave or free,
(Gal 3:28)
all of us are one in Christ Jesus.