The Road to Damascus

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I remember waking up in the middle of the night thinking I have got it! I finally understand.
I was teaching at the time. This eureka moment centred around understanding angular velocity, a concept I had never got through my GCSEs or A-levels despite having applied the formulas countless times. There I was in the middle of the night understanding it for the first time ever. Admittedly I had no use for it in the early hours of the morning nor might I add ever since, but I got it.
The vividness of that memory possibly says more about the nature of the discovery than it does about how interesting the subject matter of OMEGA (lower case) being the angle of rotation over reciprocal time will ever be.
You will be pleased to hear that today’s reflection is not about basic physics but does concern someone else who had a dramatic enlightenment completely out of the blue.
That person is of course Paul. If there is one event that someone knows about in Paul’s life it is his dramatic 180 degree turn around on the road to Damascus (excuse the rotational physics pun)
The reading is taken from Acts 26:12-16 and is the account of Paul’s defence before King Agrippa.
Acts 26:12–16 NIV
12 “On one of these journeys I was going to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. 13 About noon, King Agrippa, as I was on the road, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, blazing around me and my companions. 14 We all fell to the ground, and I heard a voice saying to me in Aramaic, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ 15 “Then I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ “ ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’ the Lord replied. 16 ‘Now get up and stand on your feet. I have appeared to you to appoint you as a servant and as a witness of what you have seen and will see of me.
This event is recorded in a number of places within the new testament and it has become synonymous with a rapid, dramatic and ‘complete’ conversion.
We talk of people having a Damascus Road experience when the realise something profound or they suddenly change their minds over something.

Don’t incorrectly link dramatic with important

We sometimes incorrectly link the rapidity or how dramatic a change is with how important or profound it is. This can be a real problem in our discipleship journeys. Many people struggle to identify a single seminal moment that brought them to faith. Consequently they can feel that their testimony, the point their story and God’s story intersects is in some way less powerful than the reformed drug addict, saved by grace or the atheist that wakes up having tried to disprove God only to realise her need for a saviour.
For many of us the journey to faith and the resulting journey of discipleship seems more gradual and in reality it was for Paul too. Paul’s conversion on his trip to Damascus may have been a sudden start but the road to completion was a somewhat longer event.
It is unjust and unhelpful to suggest that everything happened in a blinding flash of light on the road to Damascus.  Something dramatic certainly happened.  It was enough to stop St Paul carrying out his mission of persecution.  It seems to have been enough to put St Paul into a state of confusion, which began the his longer journey of conversion and discovery.
Paul was a Pharisee.  He was fully trained and a very aggressive advocate for his faith.  It seems that he hated this new Christian “sect”.  He was prepared to persecute those who had become Christians and, according to the Acts of the Apostles, was on his way to Damascus to arrest the Christian community there.
Acts 22:3–5 NIV
3 “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
Whatever happened on the Damascus Road was enough to cause him to change his mind about his immediate intentions. But this could only have been the beginning of his own conversion to Christ.
We are given two different accounts of the aftermath of St Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.  In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that he began to preach after only a few days with the disciples in Damascus (Acts 9: 20).  It then suggests that he went quite quickly to Jerusalem where “he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him: they could not believe he was really a disciple” (Acts 9: 26).  - Can you blame them.
Having spent only a short time with them, and because of arguments with the Hellenists, he went to Caesarea and then to Tarsus (Acts 9: 30).
We belittle his struggle with finding his ‘faith’ if we assume that it all happened in that blinding flash which threw him to the ground!  Paul had a more gradual, coming to faith too as many of us do, one born of enquiry, experience, success, failure and service. A path may of us will be more familiar with that a blinding flash of light experience.
In his letter to the Galatians, St Paul gives a rather different version of his conversion and its aftermath, one which better explains the length and significance of his journey:
Galatians 1:15–2:1 The Message
15 Even then God had designs on me. Why, when I was still in my mother’s womb he chose and called me out of sheer generosity! 16 Now he has intervened and revealed his Son to me so that I might joyfully tell non-Jews about him. Immediately after my calling—without consulting anyone around me 17 and without going up to Jerusalem to confer with those who were apostles long before I was—I got away to Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus, 18 but it was three years before I went up to Jerusalem to compare stories with Peter. I was there only fifteen days—but what days they were! 19 Except for our Master’s brother James, I saw no other apostles. 20 (I’m telling you the absolute truth in this.) 21 Then I began my ministry in the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 After all that time and activity I was still unknown by face among the Christian churches in Judea. 23 There was only this report: “That man who once persecuted us is now preaching the very message he used to try to destroy.” 24 Their response was to recognize and worship God because of me! 1 Fourteen years after that first visit, Barnabas and I went up to Jerusalem and took Titus with us.
It seems then that the period after the Damascus Road lasted for possibly up to 17 years.  During this time Paul took himself off into the desert in Arabia where his “experience” had to mature as he found out more about Jesus Christ, and his faith began to grow.  The “Damascus Road Experience” did not suddenly turn him into the “Apostle to the Gentiles”.  It merely began a process of which prepared Paul for his mission. 
While not as dramatic as the initial events on the Damascus road this account I feel is more helpful. The pattern of a Damascus road experience followed by the work required to fully live in that ‘post experience’ life I believe is one common to many followers of Jesus.
Almost every change has a decision point, a Damascus Road experience. It may not be dramatic like Paul’s but that is not to say it is less important. The first time you stop watching that ‘programme’ on TV because you can’t reconcile its images with your beliefs is a Damascus road event or the point you sign the direct debit to sponsor a Compassion child because seeing their pain removed and meeting their need is more important than your daily Starbucks or understanding for the first time that ten minutes less in bed to spend time meditating on the verse of the day and the Holy spirt reveals something you had never seen before or the time you stop referring to followers of Jesus as ‘them’ and say ‘we’. are all Damascus Road experiences. They form the chapter starts in our stories and as God’s story intersects with ours we grow through those chapters.
The assumption that becoming a christian and a disciple is a single flash bang event is unhelpful for some it will be, for others it may be the gradual culmination of events along a journey to faith - which ever it is for you, I can guarantee it opens a road to a journey like no other.
Let us Pray.
Gracious God, thank you for the ways you have brought us to faith in you, whether dramatic or gradual. Please help us to walk alongside others who are on the same journey of faith. - Amen
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