I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry. Once I was a blasphemer and a persecutor of the Church, an arrogant man. But I have I have been treated mercifully because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. Truly the grace of our Lord has been abundant, along with the faith and love that I have received in Christ Jesus. [i]
Saint Paul’s induction into the Damascene church caused no little contention among its members. Questions arose and they deliberated vociferously. Many voted to accept him; others wanted him expelled. Some of the disciples recognized him from the Synagogue of the Freedmen in Jerusalem, where the Greek-speaking Jews from Cilicia, Paul’s home region, and Alexandria gathered to study the law and to debate, all of them bested by Stephen, a superior preacher and a servant of the Church. They suspected that Paul’s change of heart was a ruse, orchestrated by him and his companions to infiltrate the Church for to slap its members in fetters of iron and haul them back to Jerusalem to stand trial before the Sanhedrin. Wasn’t that why he had come to Damascus? A wolf comes only to steal and to slaughter and to destroy and Paul of Tarsus was a ravenous wolf who had donned sheep’s clothing. It would not be easy for him to change their minds. The saints feared a reprisal of what had taken place at Jerusalem in the weeks prior to Paul’s arrival in Damascus. Another wave of persecution would force them to flee from the city further into the Diaspora and again the flock would be scattered. Already their existence in these cities seemed tenuous even as the number of disciples continued to grow. Many more persecutors waited to depart from Jerusalem with orders from the high priest to capture or to kill the followers of the Way.
Ananias, the disciple that had baptized Paul, rose to his defense. He believed that God had preordained Paul’s vocation, had been told so in a vision. Many forgave Paul — but could they forget? How could he be trusted? How could they worship and live with him after what he had done to the holy ones in Jerusalem? Kicking in the doors of houses and dragging out women and men he handed them over for imprisonment. Paul didn’t need anybody to defend him; he advocated for himself, dealt them one of his rejoinders. “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen the Lord?” [ii] Remembering his wisdom literature, he turned their own polemic on them. “Could anyone refuse mercy to another like himself, can he seek pardon for his own sins? If one who is but flesh cherishes wrath, who will forgive his sins?” [iii] Instantly he recognized the hypocrisy in these lines. This new life in the Lord was going to take adjustment — for everyone. The community accepted Paul and he remained in the city for a number of days.
Damascus in the first century after the birth of Christ was an ancient and diverse city (founded circa 4,000 BC) and populated by four major ethnicities: the Jew, the Greek, the Arab, and, as of that period, the Roman. Along the southeastern edge of the city a large “Jewish quarter” existed where members of The Way continued to attend synagogue each Sabbath to revere the Law and to pray for the coming of the kingdom. Theological viewpoints varied among the religious houses of study and each synagogue leader (called an archisynogogus) tolerated varying degrees of belief, which is to say that interpretations spanned a wide theological spectrum. By the time Paul arrived in AD 36 the resurrection of a crucified Savior was regularly being discussed at many of the synagogues around town.
But the Christian community had affirmed Paul’s vocation and accepted that he was a disciple; he stood on new footing, his roots grasped terra firma. He was eager to debate, to prove with persuasive arguments that Jesus was the Christ. He knew this because the Lord had revealed himself to Paul and told him specifically what he must do.
I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you as a servant and witness of what you have seen of me and of what you will be shown. I shall deliver you from this people and from the Gentiles to whom I send you, to open their eyes that they may turn away from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may obtain the forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been consecrated by faith in me. [iv]
This mandate that Paul received from God through his Son was not something Paul intended to carry out passively. The education that he received at Tarsus in rhetoric and in the classics and his study of the law under the tutelage of the famed Rabbi Gamaliel made Paul a promising preacher, but additional catechesis was necessary, for though he had received the faith through the Eucharist and the Word he lacked the fundamentals essential to impart the truth to nonbelievers. Paul knew the Bible but his great knowledge proved a liability. “How could this be?” he wondered. “Am I not a Jew? Have I been wrong all this time? Must I relearn how to relate with God apart from the traditions of our elders that I have been practicing for my whole life? ” His fellow Jews and the Greeks, Syrians, Romans, and Arabs stood and listened to him preaching — in Aramaic and Greek — in the agora but his rhetoric came across as two-dimensional, more from the head than from the heart.
Lord, to whom shall I go? You have the words of everlasting life, and I know and am convinced that you are the Holy One who has come from God. [v]
Yet his words attracted the sort of attention that put him in danger. To where could he flee? Jerusalem was no good. There his former allies sought to put him to death. Officials in Damascus threatened to apprehend him at the urging of the companions who had accompanied Paul on his mission because they felt he had turned on them by joining the Christians. Tarsus was far to the northwest across the sea and through perilous mountains and his people there would ask too many questions. How could he face his family, who might have construed that his newfound interest in “this Jesus” meant he had abandoned his heritage and spurned Torah? In reality Paul now possessed a superior understanding of the law than he ever thought possible because he had come face to face with the fulfillment of the law, which was love and mercy itself. Would his own people accept him?
Paul faced a dilemma. Stay in Damascus and languish underground in inactivity or return to Jerusalem to face the Sanhedrin and be judged for having quit his commission. Perhaps the high priest might give him a fair hearing, or he might even feel emboldened enough to affirm the beliefs held by the council’s senior members, Gamaliel, who counseled restraint in dealing with the apostles; Joseph of Arimathea who asked Pilate for the body of Jesus. Was Paul to give up everything he had worked toward for so long? Perhaps what he had seen that day had only been a mirage. The reports of Jesus as a malefactor had come to him from men whose judgment he trusted, accomplished leaders whom he held in high regard, whose zeal for the law he had now surpassed. He had no reason to believe that they had been lying to him, though he knew in his heart that he truly had been blind, that all his actions he had lived out in ignorance. Gamaliel was at the height of his renown when he cautioned the council and said, “Be careful what you are to do with these men.” He enjoyed widespread credibility. And it was Nicodemus, a teacher of Israel, who said to Jesus, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for none one can do the signs that you are doing unless God is with him.” [vi] He was a believer too.
Now that Paul had received baptism the truth behind his calling to discipleship rang clear: he was no longer in control. He began to wonder whether he had ever been. No man or woman could keep him from fulfilling his commission to preach and to teach in the name of the Lord. Everything had changed. He could not return to his former way of life in Judaism, no more than his people the Israelites could have returned to the fleshpots of Egypt after passing through the waters of the Red Sea. Peter, James, and John, and “those who were apostles” before Paul had dropped their nets and followed the Lord for three years until he was apprehended by lawless men who hung him on a tree. Paul wanted to put away self-indulgent ambition and to discern without distraction. In imitation of Christ he began to prepare for a pilgrimage, to a place far outside the city, into the desert where nobody but God knew who he was or where he had come from or where he would end up.
That night Paul walked along the Via Recta until he stood on the wall near the rampart near the city’s eastern gate, not far from where Ananias his teacher and his friend had immersed him into the waters of the Arabah River and made him a Christian. He looked out at the howling wilderness and sensed all that huge raw bulk of land where his destiny waited. Someone Else was in control.
[i] 1 Timothy 1:12-14
[ii] 1 Corinthians 9:1
[iii] Sirach 28:3-5
[iv] Acts 26: 16b-18
[v] John 6:68-69
[vi] John 3: 2