Lesson 3: On the Road to Damascus

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and 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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ (Acts 9: 1-6)

We have finally got to Paul. Now the fun begins! Saul dedicates himself to wiping out the heretical Jewish sect, men and women. (The Grand Inquisitor of the First Century) As he is traveling throughout Palestine on his mission to purify God’s People, Jesus meets him on the road. Repentance, belief, and baptism follow. Paul now devotes the rest of his life to spreading the sect’s Gospel, and he travels the world doing it.

This call is one of the most important in the Bible. It illustrates Paul’s belief that salvation is a gift given while we are helpless, sinners, and even enemies of God. (Romans 5: 6-11) Meeting Jesus on the road turns his life upside down. It is such a radical change that nobody is ready to trust him. He spends the rest of his life escaping murder plots from both former colleagues and new comrades.

We have two versions of this life-changing event. Remember it happened somewhere between 32 and 34 A.D., only a few years after Jesus’ death. Paul, himself, writes of it in Galatians 1:11- 2:10 about 30 years later. The writer of Luke-Acts offers a second version 30 years after that. Actually Acts has 3 reports with only slight variations (Acts 9: 1-31, Acts 22: 1-21, Acts 26: 2-23). .

Both versions agree this event is the basis of Paul’s Christian life. It forces him to repent or rethink
his basic assumptions. Lutherans believe that repentance has to continue each day, that each of us and our churches must be constantly engaged in reformation. It seems to me Matt and Anne are echoing that in their discussion under Lesson 1. I hear them yearning for a reformation, because the modern institutional church has become so stagnant. And I hear Sue’s question in the Lesson 2 comments in the same vein, “Where are the Pauls in our day when we need them?” Do all of us see this need for reformation?

I imagine we shall be answering that question throughout the class. Let me make some observations about the two versions of the Paul’s call that might be relevant. Let’s take the earliest account first. Paul cites the call to justify his claim to be an apostle. In his letters he is always defending himself against those who refuse to give him the authority of that office. He maintains he deserves it, because his call was a resurrection appearance in which Jesus himself conferred the office.

In order to resolve such controversies, the church began to define the office. Acts 1: 21, 22 seems to do that with “one of the men who have accompanied us throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us to his resurrection”. Paul obviously does not satisfy these requirements. He was not a disciple during Jesus’ earthly ministry. His rather independent adding of his name to the official list of resurrection witnesses in I Corinthians 15: 5-8 is somewhat suspect, as his call occurs after the Ascension. So even though the writer of Acts endorses Paul’s version of the Gospel, he has a hard time labeling him “apostle”. He does it only once in Acts 14:14. He cites the call simply to support his assertion that Paul is God’s chosen instrument for spreading the Gospel to the Gentiles.

It seems to me we are observing some of that progress and regression, creativity and stagnation to which Matt and Anne are referring. I think it also appears in the different content given to the call in Galatians and Acts. Paul, himself, says the call included revelation of all sorts of information. No one could question his version of the Gospel, because it was given supernaturally by Jesus himself. To bolster that claim, he reports he went straight to Arabia afterwards, never even visiting Jerusalem until 3 years later. Then he only spoke with James and Cephas (Peter). He makes a point of saying he did not need their support, even though they offered it. Then he doesn’t return to the Holy City for another 14 years, when he goes to defend his already formed Gospel.

The writer of Acts reports a much more normal process. The vision tells him to visit Ananias, who will tell him “what to do”. He immediately thereafter visits Jerusalem to confer with all the apostles. (Acts 9: 16- 31) This account provides Paul a more natural way to learn the Gospel.

I think the two versions again reflect the difference in the time periods. The earliest Christianity was based much more on direct communication with God, i.e. ecstasy, visions, tongue speaking, and prophesy. Paul says he engages in these, even though he encourages the Church to give prominence to more sustainable and orderly practices that benefit and edify the community. By the time you get to Acts 30 years later, much of this transition has been made. Luke-Acts sets out to write “an orderly account” (Luke 1:3). The more free wielding, creative early stage is giving way to the demands for an ongoing institutional community.

Some of that is good, and some of that is bad. There is no doubt ecstasy has its problems, especially in the ease of faking it. But we also can lose some creative energy when we lose the charisma. For instance, by the end of the first century prophesy has dwindled to a few traveling practitioners. The Didache, an early catechism, counsels respect for traveling prophets, but also expects that they will move on in three days. If they refuse to do that, the catechism assures they are false prophets. Community standards are now being set by creed, canon, clergy, and cult.

At first glance, these contrasts might seem irrelevant for our modern situation. But a second one sees we have returned to that very first century problem after 2,000 years. The new Pentecostal churches claim they are returning to the charismas and offices that were lost in the first century, asserting all tradition since then has been corrupted. Because of this radical affirmation, they speak of themselves as restorative rather than reformation churches. In their eyes the mainline traditional churches are stagnant, because we long ago lost the charismas of the early church. As much as we, too, lament the stagnation of the Church, we can also see the abuses of charisma. Richard Roberts can claim a “word of knowledge” (first century prophecy), in which God declares people should give $100s as seed money on a particular night. Or worse yet, Oral Roberts says God assured him he would die, if his followers did not raise 2 million dollars.

We are still setting the stage for discussing Paul’s theology, noting first the call which served as the basis of it all and second the fluidity of the Church he served. Read Acts 12-19 before next Tuesday when I’ll offer a lesson focused on Acts 15, the first church- wide meeting to settle conflict.

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  1. Fritz Foltz says:

    The first unwritten response to Lesson 3 was “What was the Church like when Paul wrote in the 50s.?” That’s hard to say, although his letters give us some clues. Congregations had to be small as they met in members’ homes around a covered-dish like meal. Paul says the rather informal meetings included hymns, lessons, revelations, tongues or interpretations. (I Corinthians 14: 26) He reports the same formula we use for Communion (I Corinthians 11: 23-26) and a simple baptismal creed, “Jesus is Lord”. Some Aramaic words seem to go back Jesus and the earliest church. Prayer used “Abba” or “Father” in addressing God. The Communion service seemed to include “maranatha” or “Come, Lord Jesus”. I Corinthians 15: 3-7 is obviously a formula describing Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection to which is attached an official list of people receiving resurrection appearances. The pattern of faith, hope, and love also seemed to precede him. Although there are no formal offices yet, Paul speaks of missionary teams that operated in pairs, often husbands and wives. He even mentions a woman apostle.

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