The Apostle Paul almost certainly went to a school with a pretty formal dress code, but he was still one of those kids.
You know the kind I mean.
The kind of kid who shows up in a jacket and tie even when you don’t have to, because he likes it.
The actual point he’s making might be obscure, but the fact that he’s making one is unmistakable.
If you’re from the 80s and remember Alex P. Keaton from “Family Ties,” that’s sort of Paul as I picture him…except Paul was probably more snide.
He seems like he would have been a fast talker, and that in a way that most kids and many adults don’t especially like but still recognize as a mark of someone destined to go far, just the same.
As places go, Tarsus was not a bad place to be from.
The initiation fee to become a citizen of Tarsus, and by extension, of Rome itself, was about a year and half’s wages, which tells you the sort of person they had in mind for citizenship—and someone seems to have gone ahead and paid this for Paul, even as Paul was already bound for Jerusalem and the great stage that the Temple would have offered for someone like him, a quick-thinking, fast-talking young man who wanted “in.”
When it came to his faith, he was a true believer from the first, but not necessarily in a good way.
He had a score-keeping side, and in his case, that meant that righteousness didn’t do anything much for his heart.
Unlike some of the other well-placed Temple leaders we encounter in Christian Scripture, like Nicodemus or Joseph of Arimathea, Paul’s personal faith had not offered much by way of an emotional education, or taught him what it was to feel for other people.
That’s a fault.
The Scripture he would have known was far from silent on such matters.
The Hebrew Bible describes chesed, lovingkindness, as an attribute of God which God’s people are to practice.
It describes God as deeply concerned with mishpat, justice, particularly for those with few resources or worldly influence.
Those do not appear to have spoken to this young man, particularly.
Moreover, there is something profoundly solitary about him.
Maybe he was saving up the energy actual friendship requires, anticipating that later on, there would be time for that…once he’d gotten to where he belonged and it made sense to invest time in knowing whomever else he found there.
He first appears in the Book of Acts at the stoning of Stephen, who is considered the first martyr of the church.
We’re told that Paul (or Saul, as he was still known at that point) was holding the coats of the people who did the actual stoning, which is somewhere between being included and not included—like being the pledge the seniors send out to get more beer.
And so in the place where this morning’s Scripture opens, no wonder that Saul is on the road outside Damascus, entrepreneurial in his enthusiasm.
He’s just itching to bring back some other Christian to Jerusalem for the gang, to get another chance to hold their coats, and perhaps, to take another step or two further inside their circle.
The world still has its share of people like Saul.
Don’t we all know people who push everyone away rather than face what’s right in front of them?
Isn’t it true that sometimes the brokenness we are most blind to is our own brokenness?
Jesus warned us about the speck we see in our brother’s eye, as we ignore the log in our own.
We don’t just see it in the murderous self-righteousness of Saul before his moment on the Damascus Road, but in so much of the brokenness of our own world.
We see it in the boss who won’t retire. The alcoholic who won’t recover. The husband who won’t go to therapy. The sister who won’t apologize.
It’s probably in all of us, somewhere.
There are even those who are essentially willing to go unloved if that’s what it takes in order to stay unreal.
To be able to keep up our act.
But then, suddenly, there on the road to Damascus, everything changes for Saul.
Jesus is suddenly present in a blinding light, and he takes Saul and cracks him open like an egg.
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” he says.
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asks.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and go to the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
What follows is a complete reversal of the life that Saul has worked so hard to build.
Ultimately, Saul will come to be known as Paul.
He will become a central figure in the Church—the most important voice in the New Testament outside of the Gospels, themselves—which is why we make a point of remembering his conversion in such detail.
Yet the silences of the story seem important, too.
Because who comes to claim this guy after he limps into Damascus blind, literally “led by the hand” according to the story, and unable to eat or drink for days?
His traveling companions seem like they check him into his hotel, pull off his sandals, drop him on his bed, and hustle to make the 4:55 Acela back to Jerusalem.
They leave the story without a word.
Clearly, whoever it was who had sent him out does not seem to want him back, either. Not now.
Why would they?
Saul has abruptly outlived his usefulness. Now he can’t even guard someone’s coat.
Ironically, the only people who come forward to claim this broken shell of a man are the people whose faithfulness he has been so pointedly unwilling to try to see or understand.
These folks would turn out to be an odd assortment of mismatched socks, in a way, but their faith has taught them to see what he cannot, and to recognize the potential for good even in the likes of him.
Among the many reasons he needs them, that’s really why he needs them the most.
Oddly enough, his blindness might actually be the least of it.
It’s learning to live with what he now understands that’s the hard part.
Because his self-deception is abruptly no longer possible.
Now he can no longer keep his eyes on the world’s distorted vision of what success and character and control are supposed to look like.
He can no longer be misled by his own misguided dreams.
That’s all gone.
Yet without all it, what’s left?
At first, it isn’t clear that anything is.
Except that, in this fragile moment, these people can somehow find a way to love him.
They are able to name the goodness of God in rescuing him.
They are able to sit with him as the future comes to find him.
What’s left is a new life as a follower of Jesus, wherever that may lead, which is to say, what’s left is actually everything, as he will soon come to understand.
To me, that’s why this is such an important story for the church.
It’s not because Paul became a towering figure, although he most certainly did.
It’s that his conversion points to so much that Jesus still directs his church to be.
Brave. Trusting. Patient. Welcoming. Loving.
It’s a story that teaches us to ask: whom is Jesus asking us to sit with in the darkness, as they wait for the future? And how do we do that without pretending to know that future?
Who needs us to name the goodness of God for rescuing them, especially when all that used to seem so certain is now no longer so? How can we do that without putting a smiley face on their anguish?
Whom does Jesus need us to love through their fragile moments in all the ways we can, particularly without quietly requiring them to make progress on our schedule rather than God’s and their own?
Who needs us to affirm their dignity in a world that can be so quick to look away or cast them aside, particularly without inadvertently placing ourselves at the center of their story?
These are not questions that the church can ever hope to answer once and for all.
But we know that in the sudden absence of someone’s illusions, there is suddenly and abruptly the presence of Christ.
And as the scales fall from their eyes, may they find themselves in the company of someone who will look on them with love.