The new Jesus movement was controversial; going against the practices that the religious authorities considered essential for the faith, the rabble of leaders insisted on proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah. It led, eventually, inevitably, as the controversy heated up, to arrests and imprisonment. The fact that at least one leading follower managed to escape from prison was irritating, but didn’t stop the arrests. The authorities were determined to stop this new movement that threatened the essentials of their faith. Which, let’s face it, was very sensible of them. Religions can easily be taken over by radicals, or heretics; people who don’t quite get the essence of the faith, or people who have misunderstood the text, people who are maybe charismatic, attract followers, yet miss the core beliefs. We’ve seen the Bible misused by extremists. So why shouldn’t these religious authorities do what they can to stop their faith from being distorted? One very faithful man eventually took on the leading role, searching out followers of this new movement, and arresting them. With letters of authority, he travelled to a nearby city, to continue to root out these heretics there, and stop the movement dead.
It was with some concern, therefore, that the followers of the new movement in that city heard that this man had been taken in by one of their own, and was now preaching on their behalf. What new strategy was this? Could he really be trusted as a new convert, as some said – or was it some new tactic to find and arrest them? Hesitantly, some came forward and saw the impact this man was having. But the news was not without controversy on the other side: those who supported the religious authorities had expected this man to come and support them in stamping out the new movement in their city. They were angry, and felt betrayed, and plotted to get rid of him. But the man found out their plans and, despite their best efforts, managed to escape. Rather than fleeing far away, the man returned to the original city, again joining the followers of the new movement – eventually. They, too, were afraid of him and they, too, required supporting evidence from another follower. Yet as they came to know him, it became clear that this man was not only a new follower, but an intelligent one, who knew their scriptures, and would prove an asset to their cause. Unfortunately, he proved equally controversial here, and again there were plots against him. He was sent off once more, this time to his home town. Hopefully, some time away from the focus of the new movement would enable the temperature to cool, and the man could spend time with the scriptures and in prayer, before maybe taking up his preaching role elsewhere.
We don’t know how long Saul spent in Tarsus, before Barnabas went there to find him and bring him back to Antioch. We know what happened next (and if you don’t, it’s all in the book of Acts). Yet I wonder if we realise what a radical act it was for Saul to convert? He was a key figure in the persecution of the new movement, and he was on his way to Damascus purely in order to bring followers of Jesus back to Jerusalem. Everyone knew that – it was Ananias’ first response when God told him to go to Saul. Moreover, he may well have been seen as a traitor by those he left behind. Yet, when called by Jesus, when given that vision on the Damascus road, he changed and followed, whatever the result. It was not so surprising when you think of it: Saul was a man zealous for his God, and when he saw that Jesus was part of that, he followed Jesus as zealously as he had persecuted the followers of the Way before that. Indeed, he was persecuted many times himself for his faith.
This isn’t a comment on Judaism and Christianity, or about how they relate to each other now. It is not even about how they related back in the first century. Nor is it about the response of religious leaders to new ways of being. It is about Saul/Paul, his fierce concentration on his God, and his willingness to change his focus completely once he realised he was going in the wrong direction. A change that could only have come about because Saul was a man filled with faith, ready and able to recognise the truth of God, once he had it put before him. Admittedly, his experience on the Damascus road was fairly dramatic, and not very ignorable, especially as he was left blind as a result. Saul had no way to pretend it was only a dream, or that he had imagined it, and he was forced to spend some time being still, before Ananias came to heal and baptise him. Yet, still: it was a complete turn-a-round, and one he could have refused.
Saul’s response must have come from a serious searching after God, one that he could not initially see in the new movement. Yet, he immediately recognizes the voice from heaven as ‘Lord’, even if he can’t identify it as Jesus. He was completely prepared to admit he was wrong, and almost immediately set about proclaiming his new faith. We may not be called to proclaim our faith in the way Saul was. Yet I wonder if we cannot learn something from his zeal and his focus on God. How focussed are we on God, and how much are we prepared to give up in response to God’s call? Would we recognize the voice of Jesus or the Spirit if we were called? It is not that we have to spend all day praying, or thinking about God at every moment. Our daily lives bring many other things that attract our attention. Yet is there an underlying searching for God amongst all those issues? Or is God, our faith, something we keep separate, for occasional parts of our day or week?