Hear Me Now?
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon
When we wrote our
future story a couple of years ago, set in the future (as a
future story should be) in year 2015, looking back at what kind
of church we want to be when we grow up, we came up with a
1-line slogan that kind of summarizes the idea of what type of
church we went to be:
Transforming Lives, Christianity,
and our World
And it's a rather bold
claim. But then, how can it not be? For to proclaim the
crucified and risen Christ as Lord and Savior of the world is
itself a very bold claim. So who are we to be timid? And I would
suggest to you this morning that the Apostle Paul is for us a
poster-child of that transformation, of that that boldness.
Depicted here by the Renaissance artist Caravaggio:
of course, was accused of many things, but being timid was not
one of them. Everything Paul does, before his conversion
experience as well as afterward was bold. So let me share with
you the text of that conversion experience, as told by the Acts
of the Apostles in chapter 9, where we read:
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. 3Now 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.
6But get up and enter the city, and
you will be told what you are to
do.’ 7The men who were travelling
with him stood speechless because
they heard the voice but saw no one.
8Saul got up from the ground, and
though his eyes were open, he could
see nothing; so they led him by the
hand and brought him into Damascus.
9For three days he was without
sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Talk about a transformed life. Paul goes
from being a persecutor, the number-one persecutor of the
Church, to being the number one promoter. Transformed
Christianity? Many claim that there wouldn't be a Christianity
today without Paul, or at least it would be a much different
Christianity, perhaps nothing more than a small sect within
Judaism. And as for transformation of the world, without Paul,
likely we could not speak of Christianity as a world religion.
So when it comes to transformation, there is no better example
than Paul himself. Hence the conversion of Paul, on that road to
Damascus, is perhaps in its importance to Christianity second
only to the Easter experience.
Blinded, knocked to the ground, the Lord has a way of getting
Paul's attention, doesn't He? Can you hear me now, Paul?
And led by the hand into Damascus, he is like a child entering
this new kingdom of God. That transformation that began with
that experience, that conversion, however, will not be complete
until it also transforms us. Our lives, our faith, our world. I
want to begin by suggesting that that transformation also
includes the way that we understand and read Paul.
And to understand what I mean, I need to
take you back to a birth. But not the birth of Paul, not the
birth of Jesus, but rather to the birth of the Roman empire. And
the place where one can best get a glimpse of where that birth
occurs is on the western side of central Greece. A small humble
village, and there above the village on the hillside is a
monument to Augustus:
And it really isn't much of
a place at all in terms of archaeological sites. Not a whole lot
there to see, pretty uninteresting, a lot of stones in the
But the significance of it,
and why I took my family there two years ago on my sabbatical,
and why I'm taking you there today, is because when you look out
from the hillside there, to the west, you can see the bay where
the battle of Actium was fought in September of the year 31,
before the birth of Jesus:
It was there that the
forces of Octavian defeated the forces of Cleopatra and Anthony.
And we all remember little bits of that story, that tragic love
story and of course Cleopatra and Anthony were able to escape in
fast ships after losing that battle. They went back to Egypt
where they committed suicide.
And so it was there, here in this place, that the Civil War that
had torn apart the Mediterranean world ever since the
assassination of Julius Caesar (some 13 or 14 years before) that
civil war came to an end. And Octavian rode into Rome as the
victor and acquired the title of Caesar Augustus. And we
remember that name, of course, from the story of Luke, as Luke
mentions it is under the reign of Caesar Augustus that Jesus is
Well, to commemorate his victory, Augustus erected a monument to
the gods that we have to imagine. It's portrayed there in
a very poorly kept plaque, but you can get a sense of that
In the front of the monument are 36 battle
rams that you see at the base of the brick there. Battle rams
taken off the ships from Cleopatra and Anthony as a symbol of
that victory of the sea battle. And along the front wall
was an inscription, which survives now only in fragments, and
you can see some of the words in the stones that remain.
But we know the inscription
from other writings, and it said:
"Emperor Caesar, son of the Divine Julius, following the
victory in the war which he waged on behalf of the Republic
in this region, after peace had been secured on land and
sea, consecrated to Mars and Neptune the camp from which he
set forth to attack the enemy now ornamented with Naval
John Dominic Crossan says it's hard to
imagine a more succinct summary of Roman imperial theology which
came to dominate the Mediterranean world than this statement
here. And in it, we see that theology developed in four
Beginning first of all with religion. And we know that
Caesar was a very devout, religious man. Built many
religious temples. And he dedicated the war when he went
to defend his great uncle Julius, he dedicated the war to Mars,
the God of war, built a temple to Mars in Rome. Then here
at this battle, he also then calls upon not only Mars, but
Neptune, who of course is the God of the sea. And so to
show his devout faith, he builds this temple in honor of those
two Gods, for whom he attributes his victory. So first
Then comes the war, that was fought for that decade against
Cleopatra and Anthony. Followed by the victory, and then
finally the peace. And you see, each of those moves in
this one statement.
The Latin phrase that would come to define this trajectory from
religion to war to victory to peace is of course "Pax Romana",
the peace of Rome. Or we might say simply: peace through
Now, you may be asking 'what the heck does this have to do with
this story in Acts? What does Augustus have to do with
Paul? What does Actium have to do with Damascus?'.
And students of history will know that those two are actually
separated by nearly a century, and perhaps about 1000 miles.
And you can read biblical commentaries from now until Jesus
comes back, or the Ducks find a basketball coach (whichever
comes first, and it may be that they'll be the same event :),
and you will never find Actium and Paul mentioned within a
hundred pages of each other. So why do I bring it up here?
Well, here's the thing. If you go to Ephesus, a city
Paul's certainly knew well, and Paul would have walked under
this very Gate of Masius (existed during his lifetime):
And there in the inscription above, you will read that this
monument, this gate, is dedicated to the emperor Caesar, the
divine son of God:
If you go to Corinth, where the temple of Apollo has stood for
27 years, you will find there inscriptions in stone: "dedicated
to the emperor, the God, Caesar":
If you go to the Thessaloniki, you will find there in the
National Archaeological Museum a plaque that is dedicated "In
honor of the emperor, son of a God", that was found in front of
the the city council chambers, that is still standing there in
If you go to Rome, you will find there
countless tributes to divine emperors, including this one -- the
Altar of Augustine peace:
Where the divine Augustus is forever
immortalized as the one brought "true peace and prosperity to
the entire inhabited world". And everywhere you go, you will
carry coins within images of the divine emperor, the God
Augustus (or whoever the current Emperor happens to be):
So you see, everywhere Paul went, the message of the dominant
culture was the same: the son of God, known as the savior of the
world, was this man:
Augustus Caesar, who brought peace to the world through victory
against his enemies. One Nicolaus describes the wide devotion to
the Roman Emperor thusly, writing: "The whole of humanity turns
to the Divine Augustus, filled with reverence. Cities and
provincial councils honor him with temples and sacrifices, for
this is his due. In this way do they give thanks to him
everywhere for his benevolence".
And what is striking about Nicolaus, is not his devotion, which
is not unique (we have many such testimonies), but his location.
For he is known as Nicolaus of Damascus. Saul, who became,
of course, Paul, as part of his new identity in Christ, is on
his way to the home of Nicolaus, to Damascus. To find
followers of "the way", not of the way of Caesar, of course, but
of the way of Jesus. And to bind them like criminals and to
bring them to Jerusalem, presumably for punishment similar to
that of Stephen (told a few chapters earlier in Acts), stoned to
death under Saul's watchful gaze.
Now, two things we must note about Paul's zealous intent: first
of all, Damascus is in an entirely different region. It's not
Jewish territory. And where, therefore, the high priest of
Jerusalem has absolutely no authority. So if Paul in fact
were to arrest anyone in Damascus, he could only do so with the
blessings of Roman authorities. Which in fact is entirely
plausible. Imagine how those authorities would have
responded to a group who proclaimed a man crucified by Rome, who
was in fact the true king, who is about to establish his kingdom
here on earth. So Paul most likely was motivated by good
intentions, to prevent any mass retaliation by Rome against the
Jews for subverting that central claim of the emperor's
divinity, the son of God, and his divine right to rule. In
other words, Paul is using the same means as Augustus. Peace
through victory over his opponents.
But something funny happens on the way
to Damascus. An unexpected encounter occurs with the risen
Christ, so important, so surprising, so pivotal, that it is
narrated in Acts two more times -- in chapters 22 and 26, told
on the lips of Paul (by the writer of Luke). And then Paul
describes it himself. In each of these there are slight
variations, so we can't get too hung up on the details. Paul
writes about it at length in Galatians, and then writes about it
again in his letters to First and Second Corinthians.
So a couple of things we should note about this conversion
experience, whatever those details. First of all, it was
not a conversion from no religion to religion, to faith in God.
Paul is a very devout man, just as was Caesar Augustus. He
takes his faith in God very seriously.
Nor was it a conversion from Judaism to Christianity. Paul
states repeatedly in his letters that he remains a faithful Jew.
Rather, his conversion was from one way of being religious to
another way of being religious. From being a Pharisaic Jew
to being a Christian Jew. For Paul clearly does not
perceive himself to be breaking away from his Jewish faith.
That break between Judaism and Christianity would not occur
until after his death.
Secondly, Paul's famed mission to the Gentiles, the commission
that he receives later on in this story in Acts, that begins
soon thereafter, was not an effort to replace the synagogue with
the church (as so often has been assumed), and this is where
where I most want to change the way that we see Paul:
rather, his effort, his reason for his focus on the Gentiles,
was to replace Roman faith in the emperor with Christian faith
And I think the implications of that for us today are rather
quite profound and far-reaching, especially as we reflect on how
Pax Romana has become Pax Americana. And the Roman faith
in the emperor has been replaced with the American faith in free
enterprise. But that is something that I wouldn't want to
meddle in :), but perhaps I'll save that for a future sermon,
I'll just let you ponder that for now.
Note that while this idea that Paul was opposing the temples of
Rome, not the Temple of Jerusalem, has perhaps not yet gained a
majority of Biblical scholars, but is quickly gaining ground as
evidenced by its acceptance of the rather famed conservative
scholar, Anglican Bishop NT Wright. Dr. Wright sums up
Paul's conversion experience with these words, as if it were on
the lips of Paul: "As I, Paul, have rethought my Jewish
allegiance in light of the crucifixion and risen Jesus, so you
should rethink your Roman allegiance in the same light".
And what if we substitute there for
"Roman", whatever allegiance we might have?
The main challenge, Wright writes: "Was to the Lordship of
Caesar, which though political from our point of view as well as
the first century, was also profoundly religious. Caesar
demanded worship as well as secular obedience. Not just taxes,
but sacrifices. He was to be hailed as Lord and trusted Savior.
This is the world in which Paul announced that Jesus, the Jewish
Messiah, was Savior and Lord. In short, in claiming the
way of Christ, Paul renounces the way of Caesar. True peace will
not be found through victory, but rather true peace is found in
Christ, through justice".
Thus, Paul's conversion experience, while certainly religious,
was so much more than that: it was political, economic and
social. In short, his whole life changed. But not
only his life, the conversion Paul experienced called for a
change across the spectrum of social interaction. A change
to be implemented through a new kind of community in Christ
where the traditional barriers of society, class, gender and
race, would all be broken down in a new reality, an alternate
reality to the Roman world would be created. A Kingdom of
God, on earth as in heaven. Lived out in small communities
that Paul called the "body of Christ". Those places where Christ
lives and dwells and is made tangible, visible, and real, where
people come to experience that living presence.
So what do you think, do we need that kind of reality still in
the world today?
Communities where peace is found not through victory over one's
opponents, but rather peace found in Christ where enemies become
Communities where barriers of race and gender and class and
sexual orientation and immigration status are all broken down
and all share equally at the table of the Lord.
Communities where love is not just something you feel, love is
something you do.
Communities where hope is not a change we believe in, hope is
the faith that we act on.
Communities where transformation is ongoing, where resurrection
is ever present, where lives are changed by God's love, where
Christianity is reborn as a force for justice and peace in this
world, where the whole world can see a new way, a new
possibility of living in harmony with God and with one another.
People of God, this is the good news. Here, now, is that place.
May it be.
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