Texts: Acts 9 1-20 (Saul/Paul on the Road to Damascus); Luke 24 36-53 (the Risen Christ)
With today's Gospel reading, we end what we began during Holy Week -- a complete reading of the last three chapters of Luke. The readings began on Holy Thursday, continued on Good Friday and have now carried us through the first three Sundays of the season of Easter. Luke's final chapters tell of the betrayal, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus.
Today's reading focuses on Easter Sunday evening. After the discovery at dawn that Jesus' tomb was empty and his appearance later in the day to two disciples as they walk to the village of Emmaus, Jesus finally appears to all of his disciples in Jerusalem. As he had done earlier with the two with whom he walked, Jesus now opens all of their minds to how the Hebrew Scriptures relate to his death and resurrection. He also wishes his disciples peace, and assures them in word and deed that he is not a ghost.
One might assume from today's reading that Jesus also ascends to heaven on that same evening. But in his later book, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke writes that the ascension occurs "40 days" after Easter Sunday and 10 days before Pentecost.
Following the ascension, no one sees Jesus in the flesh again. Some people, however, have visions of Jesus; and the most famous of those visions is told in our first reading today from Acts: the conversion of Saul of Tarsus on the Road to Damascus. Saul, who later changes his name to Paul, and whose letters make up half of the New Testament, is blinded by a vision of Jesus.
Both of today's readings tell of an encounter with the Risen Christ -- one in the flesh on Easter Sunday, the second in a vision some months later. Both of these encounters help Jesus' first followers turn their lives around. Saul changes his name to Paul and becomes an apostle of Christ instead of a violent opponent. The disciples in Jerusalem move from defeat and despair to wonder and joy, and they too obey Jesus' command to travel to all the corners of the Roman Empire and preach the good news of God's salvation through Christ.
We, like these first Christians, have moments in which we could benefit from an encounter with the Risen Christ -- either in the flesh or in a blinding vision. Unfortunately, only the first apostles have the privilege of seeing the Risen Christ in the flesh. Unfortunately, few of us are like Saul and have a blinding vision of Jesus.
Personally, I have never had a vision of Jesus nor heard direct instruction from heaven. When I have come to a dead end in my life, I have had to try and turn things around and follow God without the kind of spectacular help that Saul gets. I wonder, is this fair? Should I perhaps be jealous of Saul?
On hearing again the account of Saul's conversion on the Road to Damascus, I am struck by how little content the story has. Yes, it has the drama of a sudden appearance, three days of blindness, and the arrival of the prophet Ananias, who heals, instructs and baptizes Saul as Jesus had promised. It is a very famous story; even people who never come to church probably have associations with the phrase a "Road to Damascus conversion."
But given that most of never have spectacular visions of Jesus, what good is it to us to know this story?
We often hear that people with tough problems need to hit rock bottom before they can turn things around. Sometimes in crises like divorce, medical diagnoses, or job loss, people abandon old ambitions and put their trust in God. And I believe there is a lot of truth in this notion.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son, which we looked at in Lent, shows us this pattern more clearly than does the story of Saul/Paul on the Road to Damascus. The Prodigal Son does not have a blinding vision of Jesus. Instead, he has the pain of poverty, hunger, and humiliation; and in this dark place, he remembers the generosity of his Father, and decides to return home.
Saul may also be experiencing a dark night. Perhaps he feels guilty about the violence he uses in his self-righteous defence of religious law. The Book of Acts does not say that Saul is a murderer. But it shows that he is an accomplice in the murder of the first martyred disciple, Simon. And our reading today says he is breathing murderous threats against Christians as he heads to Damascus.
In Saul's letters -- which he writes under his later name Paul -- we don't get a first-person account of his "Road to Damascus" conversion. But in his letter to the church in Phillipi, he talks about the costs as well as the gains of his conversion.
Paul writes: "I was born a Jew . . . as far as keeping the Law is concerned, I was a Pharisee; and you can judge my enthusiasm for the faith by my active persecution of the Church. As far as the Law’s righteousness is concerned, I don’t think anyone could have found fault with me. Yet every advantage that I had gained I considered lost for Christ’s sake . . . for his sake I did in actual fact suffer the loss of everything, but I now consider those things useless rubbish compared with being able to win Christ [and even to] share Christ's sufferings and to die as he died, so that I may perhaps attain as he did, the resurrection from the dead."
Paul realizes that his conversion comes with loss and pain. But the gains are of vastly greater value. Paul doesn't write about a blinding vision, but he does write about the joy of new life in Christ, which is available to us all.
People turn away from sin and towards God all the time without the benefit of seeing the Risen Christ in the flesh, as the first disciples did, or without a blinding vision of Jesus like that experienced by Saul.
People like us who have never seen Jesus in a vision or heard a voice from heaven nevertheless follow the way of Jesus and accept its costly grace. This path comes with loss, but as with Paul, the gains are incalculable.
The first disciples lost their hopes for military victory over the Romans and for political glory. But their encounter with the Risen Christ showed them there was something more important -- a Love that survives all of our worldly ambitions.
Paul lost his hopes for the salvation that comes from following the strict letter of the Law in the way Pharisees like him had interpreted the Hebrew Scriptures. But his vision of the Risen Christ helped him see that there was something more important -- a Love that trumps all religious laws.
In today's Gospel reading, Jesus teaches that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Before his conversion, Paul thought that he was following the Law of Moses. But after his conversion he came to see it differently.
What he learned, I believe, is that God is often found through death and defeat. It was only after the Babylonians burned God's Temple to the ground 600 years before Jesus that the Hebrew Scriptures were compiled. In Exile in Babylon, Jewish leaders discovered that God survives the defeat of the hopes of the nation. All national ambitions are eventually dashed by the grinding of the wheels of history, and each life moves inevitably to the grave. But God's Love lives on within, between and all around us.
The Christian path is not about achievement. It is about abandoning personal or national ambitions and relying upon God. As Paul will later teach, "life has three great lasting qualities -- faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love."
In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that even though we cannot see him in the flesh, we encounter the Risen Christ in everyone we meet. In the people we love serve and nourish, we meet Jesus.
Unlike the disciples, we are not privileged to see the Risen Christ in the flesh. Unlike Saul on the Road to Damascus, we are not usually privileged to have a blinding vision of Jesus to help us turn our life around.
What we do have are family members and neighbours whom we love. We have fellow pilgrims on the road to the cross. We have a tradition that values Grace over Law, Love over victory, and life despite death. We have a path of service that takes us out of ourselves and that puts us in touch with Christ in our neighbours. We have faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these is love.
This is Easter. This is new life in Christ. This is our beautiful vision on the Road to Damascus, both now and always.
Thanks be to God.