Sunday, 1 September 2013

Acts 9 - Meeting Christ on the road to Damascus - then and now

Our stay in Jerusalem was coming to an end and we visited the Garden Tomb.  In the bookshop I spotted a book we had been recommended.  I purchased it and before the day was out got people in our party to sign it including people who were working at reception and in the office at the Tantur Institute.  Two of the signatures were Issa – and when I enquired I found it was the Arabic version of Jesus.

Not inappropriate as the book was a book that worked in a number of ways – Peter Walker’s In the Steps of Jesus is in one way a commentary on Luke’s Gospel.  Taking Luke’s Gospel as the framework it takes you on a journey in the steps of Jesus.

An opening section in each chapter tells the story of Jesus in that location and a final section looks at that site as a visitor might encounter it today – and in between the two sections is a list of key dates or a table of key information.

It’s a wonderful memento of our visits to the Holy Land, a wonderful commentary on Luke’s Gospel, filled with wonderful insights into the world of Jesus’s day.

A year or so later I found that Felicity’s mum had acquired a copy of the book and its sequel.  Having done such a book on Jesus based on Luke’s Gospel, Peter Walker turned to the second volume of Luke’s work Acts and did a sequel – In the Steps of Saint Paul.

It works as a wonderful commentary on Acts from chapter 9 onwards as a memento for one wonderful holiday I had as a student travelling in the steps of St Paul and is filled with insights into the world of Paul’s day.

It has the same structure.  Each chapter has an opening section telling the story of St Paul in a particular location and a final section ‘looking at that site as a visitor might encounter it today; … an din between a list of key dates which gives the reader an overview of all the significant events associated with that place – both before and since the time of Paul.

As we reach chapter 9 of Acts today I took Peter  Walker’s book down from the shelves and turned to the first chapter.  It is simply entitled ‘Damascus’.

The final section of the chapter describes ‘what a visitor might encounter today.

Damascus can lay claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world … the city still works its magic.  On a clear spring day the snows of Mount Hermon are clearly visible.  And the Old City is truly impressive with its spice bazaars, its narrow streets, its places of historic worship and its ancient walls (complete with eight gates).”

Little did I imagine that I would be reading these words on the day when Damascus is in the news for such very different reasons.

The atrocities committed so it would seem by the Assad regime do not bear thinking about: horrific as they are in the extreme.  The complexities of the political situation defy understanding.

The civil war that rages seems the worst kind imaginable and worse still. The scale of the suffering, the exodus of refugees unimaginable.

And yet one analogy comes so firmly to my mind.

One of the most frightening kinds of fires is a chip pan fire -  God forbid it should happen.   How easy to imagine you have got to do something about it and you fill a bucket with water and throw it over the blazing chip pan.  Horrific as the chip pan fire is the resulting conflagration is so much worse.

The decision seemingly inevitable as I write, maybe already carried out by the time I preach these words, to bombard targets in Syria, maybe here in this most ancient of cities as well is to my mind like pouring a bucket of water on a chip pan fire.   [I had been writing on Saturday 31st August before hearing the news that President Obama would seek the support of Congress before taking any military action]

Totally the wrong reaction to take.  To my mind an inspiration that our parliament should decide so decisively to reject the proposal to take military action – the first time my sons, the elder of whom is now 30, had seen a Government defeated in such a crucial vote.

It may be that things we have done in the past make us the least appropriate people to imagine that we can ‘do something’ today.  Not only in Iraq, but also in Afghanistan, in our complicity with the use of Drones, and further back in our involvement as papers released 60 years on in the States have demonstrated recently in the overthrow of an elected Government in Iran and the imposition of a non-democratic government, in our support of Sadaam Hussain during the Iran – Iraq war when chemical weapons were used, our involvement in the days of the British Mandate in Palestine and what became Israel from 1917 to 1948 and beyond.  Maybe we have a hard lesson to learn as a country that we may not be the ones to ‘do something’ always.

 It maybe there are other very significant things we can do perhaps to do with diplomacy, perhaps to do with the non-sale of arms, perhaps to do with humanitarian response to the refugee crisis, perhaps to do with working towards dialogue and political solutions.

But maybe there are other things that need to be going on in us at such a time as this.  And maybe for us we can come to this chapter that takes us to Damascus and make connections with the way we are thinking, the responses we are making, how we influence our decision makers, the attitude we have.

As chapter 9 opens we are left in no doubt of the atmosphere of persecution that surrounds the followers of Jesus as they have had to flee Jerusalem and their faith has spreads out to the south towards north Africa and Ethiopia and towards the north to Damascus … what I am drawn to for the first point of connection, the first point of reflection is the title those followers of Jesus are given …

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

The first followers of Jesus are described as people who ‘belonged to the Way’.   That’s a wonderful description of Jesus from these very earliest days of the church.  It is also a wonderful insight into what is at the heart of our understanding of who we are as followers of Jesus.

Jesus did not come to form a new religion – he invited people to follow him.  And they did.  Maybe we should think of ourselves not as people who belong to a religion, but as people who are following a  Way.

Jesus opened up a way, a later writer calls it a new and living way into the very presence of God.  AT the same time Jesus mapped out a way of life to follow.

Our priority each of us individually is to follow the way into the presence of God and to follow the way mapped out for us by Christ.  That’s at the heart of our service today – as we break bread and share a cup, as we join together in fellowship and in prayer as we look once more to Jesus let’s follow that new and living way into the very presence of God and sense even in this turbulent world with all that is going on on a big scale and maybe in our own lives there is a very real presence of God with us.

But then it is that we should take seriously the way Jesus has mapped out for us to follow.  That boils down to love for God, love for neighbours … and by extension Jesus suggests love for enemy too.  One senses the first followers of Jesus came to be known as those who belonged to The Way because they took seriously that way of life and followed it.  Later this very Saul once he was known as Paul took these words of Jesus from the sermon on the mount very seriously when he said that following the way Jesus maps out means that we must love be genuine, we must hate what is evil and hold fast to what is good – it involves blessing those who persecute you – and most important of all it means Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Let’s take our stand on this Way – and take that seriously.

How can following such a way be sustained?  How can it be real.

I want to read on in the story.  The Road to Damascus has come into our language as a phrase – and it means a sudden conversion – the blinding light and we see things so differently.  You can have a Damascus Road experience in all sorts of different contexts and anyone who experiences an about change is said to have a Damascus road experience.  Then we have all sorts of discussions – is that the only way conversion can happen, is it sudden or a process.

But let’s look again at what’s happening here.

It is not the conversion that Luke focuses on.

It is a meeting.  An encounter.  A meeting, an encounter with the risen Christ.

A key moment at the end of Luke’s Gospel happens on the Road to Emmaus when the two filled with fear meet with the risen Christ and failed to recognise him at first.

It’s a wonderful encounter …

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.

I am Jesus – it is a moment of meeting.  As far as Paul was concerned much later he recalled the moment not as a ‘conversion experience’ but as an appearance to him, as to one untimely born, of the risen Christ.

It is the risen Christ who meets with us that is so real.  That risen Christ we can seek, but he is the one who finds us – and he comes to meet us at all sorts of unexpected moments – and in those moments he brings nothing less than the very presence of God, the God who said let light shine out of darkness has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Be prepared to meet with the risen Christ, for the risen Christ to meet with us.  It is here around the table of the Lord as we meet together in his name that we can once more meet with the risen Christ as the two on the Road to Emmaus did, as Paul did on this road to Damascus.  And it is that presence that then makes all the difference.

Maybe too we meet Christ in the needs of those we encounter who are in need.  The voice of Jesus says, Saul, Saul why are you persecuting me … but Saul has never met Jesus.  It is all he does to the followers of Jesus that makes Jesus say he has been persecuting him. There are echoes here of Matthew 25 when Jesus says inasmuch as you do it to the least of these my brothers and sisters you do it to me.   Maybe it is this experience that leads Paul later to speak of those followers of the Way, those who make up the church as ‘the Body of Christ’.

Then Jesus says the unexpected …

It is easy to gloss over it … but it seems important for us as well.

But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’

You have to get back into the world -  you have to go into the middle of things.  Return to that world.

The story switches to Ananias – who is told in a vision to seek out Saul and cannot believe his ears – the reputation Saul has means he is the last person he should meet.  But no, he is to go to the street called Straight.

And in that old city the street is still there.  Damascus had been rebuilt by the Romans to the classic plan which Peter Walker describes as the Hippodamian plan – through the centre of the city is a long, colonnaded street – you can see it in Roman Jerusalem, you can see it in Roman Tiberias and you can see it in Roman Damascus – and Damascus then was a big city with a main Straight Street 27 metres wide running for more than a kilometre.  This is the main thoroughfare.

And somewhere along it is the house of Judas and that’s where Saul is.  In the middle of the city.  The summons of Jesus is to go back into the middle of the city.  We can come aside from those things that weigh us down, find again the presence of Christ, but then we have to go back into the middle of things.

It is telling that the voice of the Lord to Ananias shapes the preaching of the Gospel that Saul is to go on to share in:  “God, for he is an instrument [remember the Prayer of St Francis, make me an ‘instrument’ of your peace] whom I have chosen to bring my name before  Gentiles and kings and before the People of Israel’.  Sometimes people claim Paul’s message is a spiritual message of personal salvation and not to do with politics.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  At the outset he is charged by the voice of God to speak to the Roman world – to gentiles and kings – and to the Jewish world, the People of Israel.  His message is nothing less than the good news of the Kingdom Jesus had come to proclaim.  And he is true to that calling to the last as Acts 28:31 makes clear which leaves Paul in Rome ‘preaching the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ’.

He is found by Ananias, receives his sight, tells of the Good News of Jesus and faces opposition such that he has to flee over the wall of the city in a basket.  He makes his way to Jerusalem faces severe opposition from the Hellenistic Jews, is hounded out of the city … and the church meanwhile throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria has peace and was built up.

In a sense I want to finish with that last summing up verse 31 as we think of that house on Straight street.  Think of those people. For today the complexity of that horrific situation in Syria is the presence among the opposition that the military strikes are designed to support fighters who are bent on destroying the way in Syria different faiths have lived side by side.  And so this day of all days as we arrive in Damascus how good it is in our communion collection that we are supporting an organisation that seeks to support those who are facing persecution in the Middle East – in practical ways, in supporting legal cases that come and in particular in prayer.  Just a small gesture – but one of those small things that can make a difference.

And that brings me to that last sentence in verse 31.

Living in the fear of the Lord, in the worship of God, and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

I guess the longing for those Christian people we have a particular concern for is the longing that through their worship of God they may sense the comfort the strengthening, that presence alongside of the Holy Spirit in the middle of all that is going on.

And for each of us facing times of darkness we too need building up, we need the strengthening of the Spirit.

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