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Can You Hear Me Now?

Sermon - 4/18/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Acts 9:1-9

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:



And Paul, 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:

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. 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 ground:

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 born.

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 monument:

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 spoils".

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 successive moves.

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 comes religion.

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 victory.

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 Thessaloniki today.


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 in Jesus.

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 friends.

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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