Saul was angry. He was really angry. He was a good and faithful Jew, a member of the group called Pharisees who worked really hard to follow God’s laws and be holy. His faith really mattered to him. And when people said and did things that disrespected the faith, that made him angry.
So when a rabble who followed a man who had been tortured to death for being a disturber of the peace started claiming that he had risen from the dead, and they were going round stirring things up, Saul became really angry. They had stoned one of them to death, Stephen. Saul had been with there, minding everyone’s cloaks while they threw stones at him. You would have thought that would put an end to it, and they would go home and keep quiet, but no, the movement grew even faster and spread more widely.
Why do people get radicalised? Because they care. Because they think they can make a difference. Because they think that problems can be solved by eliminating the people you disagree with, the people who are different.
This was Saul’s moment as a radical Jew. He believed that if they wiped out the people who would end up being called Christians, that would enable him and people like him to follow God in purity and holiness.
There’s no problem with being radical – the problem comes with what you do with it. And at this moment, Saul’s radicalisation was taking him along the path of hate and violence.
So he obtained the authority of the High Priest, no less, to go to Damascus in order to arrest whoever he found who was following the Way. That was a journey of 135 miles, going to another country altogether – we call it Syria now. Yes, Syria. So here was a young man following what he thought was a religious calling to go and wipe out Christians in Syria. Things haven’t changed much.
But on the way, something strange happens. Saul has been walking for several days, and things happen on long walks, spiritual things. You start to get changed from the inside.
The end of the journey was in sight, they were getting close to Damascus, when Saul had an experience that would change him for ever. It was a bit of a weird experience. They happen sometimes, they just do.
There was a great light and a voice from heaven. You could say that the Light of the World was made visible and become apparent. It was terrifying. Saul fell to the ground – his instinctive reaction – maybe to hide from the light, maybe to protect himself from some unknown danger. And the voice from heaven asked Saul why he was persecuting him. Saul had the presence of mind to ask who he was, the voice. And the voice said he was Jesus, and gave Saul instructions about going in to Damascus and waiting there for instructions. No “please” or “by your leave”. As far as Jesus the Voice was concerned, Saul was going to be his from now on. No question about it. No “do you think you might like to follow me now instead? Just try it out for a while and see how you go.” No, Jesus had claimed Saul and he didn’t get a lot of choice about it. Jesus took Saul’s radical nature and turned it round, away from hate to love, away from violence to proclaiming the Gospel.
Saul’s companions get him to Damascus. He is in a pretty poor state. He is blind – probably blinded by the light, and he is so disturbed by the incident that he can’t take food and water. This is a big thing for him to get his head round.
In the meantime, God is instructing a Jesus-follower called Ananias, telling him to go to Saul, and pray for him so that he can get his sight back. Ananias is horrified, because this is like being told to make a social call on Osama bin Laden (when he was alive, obviously). But Ananias does, because when God tells you to do something, you go ahead and do it unless you’ve got a very good reason. So Ananias prays for Saul, and he gets his sight back and then he gets baptised and has something to eat. And he felt a lot better.
The next problem is gaining credibility with the rest of the Christian community, because they just cannot believe that Saul, whom everyone knew was coming to persecute them and arrest them, is now one of them. But Saul now starts telling the good news about Jesus to the Jews, and is able to prove to them that Jesus is the Messiah that everyone is waiting for.
Saul goes on to concentrate on telling the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles, that is, the non-Jews. Peter and the other disciples were preaching to the Jewish congregations, but Saul is convinced that the message needs to go wider, that it needs to go global. Somewhere along the line, Saul changes his name to Paul, a name the Gentile world would be more comfortable with. He established church communities all over the middle-east and Greece and Turkey and into Rome. He wrote letters to encourage them, and those letters are now part of our scripture.
For him, it all began with something weird happening on the road to Damascus. Sometimes, Jesus just comes at us directly like that. With Paul, that’s the way it needed to happen. Mostly it happens in more subtle ways – people who influence us and encourage us to open our hearts and minds to Jesus.
I know people who would love to have a direct vision of Jesus. And I know people who would be utterly terrified to encounter Jesus in that way. I know people who long to do something glorious for Jesus. And I know people who are terrified of being asked to do more than turn up at church on Sunday.
What I do know is that if you search for Jesus, he will let you find him. If you open the door to him, he will enter. If you are willing to serve him, he will give you things to do. And sometimes when you don’t want him, he’s there anyway; and sometimes when you are trying to keep well clear, he is giving you something to do whether you like it or not. But if you haven’t had some mind-blowing experience, and if he hasn’t actually knocked on your door yet, that doesn’t let you off. You need to keep faithful, keep praying and keep serving.
Our God is amazing! And sometimes, things just happen.