My pastor preached a fantastic sermon last Sunday concerning the transformation of Paul by his encounter with the living Christ on the way to Damascus. This post is not about that (though it found inspiration in his text).
Instead, I was struck by the Evangelical church’s language of a “Damascus road experience” and how we use this language to describe radical conversions as we understand them. This is typical in my experience as referring to those who had been given over to all manner of (Evangelical) sins: drunkenness, drug addictions, sex outside of marriage (the old saying: “smoking drinking and chew, and going with girls who do”)… you know the stories. You’ve heard these shared at camps and in churches. We’re all moved by these individuals in their transformation from sins committed wantonly and flagrantly. And then … some radical encounter with Jesus to change it all. This may happen by being jailed or some other form of reaching the “bottom of the barrel” until suddenly the light dawns.
Such testimonies are indeed moving. I’m also moved by them. And I praise the Lord for such transformations!
But the Damascus road experience for Saul was not this.
Saul was a man deeply and faithfully committed to righteousness and piety, and holding all others who made profession in his God to such standards. He was so radically convinced of the Scriptures that he actually sought to forcibly attack and destroy anyone not holding to such singularity of worship and love as he did. And all of this was in obedience to the word of the Lord. He did this when so many others were willing to simply allow folks to respond to the Lord as they saw fit. Saul would have no such room for compromise. He would be faithful to the end. This was the “Evangelical” Saul.
But then Jesus showed up.
Saul’s encounter with Jesus was the turning point because Saul’s righteousness was rooted in Saul’s righteousness. Here on the road, he met God’s righteousness in and for the world. And God’s righteousness was not trekking to the ends of the earth in search of the unrighteous to destroy, but to save. It did not look down on “the others” but declared their inclusion in this kingdom of righteousness as intended to embrace “whosever will”. God’s righteousness meant the end of Saul’s own righteousness as one who had every appearance of loving his God with all he was. This righteousness of God was loving Saul with all he was. And this righteousness met Saul to bring that righteousness to bear in Saul’s life … and the lives of those who Saul would later seek at the farthest corners of the empire, that they might also know this righteousness that is apart from themselves. This righteousness embraces “the other” in his transformative embrace.
It is this kind of “Damascus road experience” that I am more and more convinced needs to still happen among “Evangelicals”. The turning is not from Evangelical sins (those which such a community regards with disdain and treats its public practitioners with disdain, as mentioned previously) which one must also turn from, but from the sins of Evangelicals: pride, arrogance, self-righteousness, and abuse/disdain of “the other” (as outsider). This seems never more true of the sins of Evangelicals than found currently across the U.S. as the last several decades indicate.
Evangelicals find themselves now “kicking against the goads” of Jesus, all the while waging wars against “the others” that they believe are destroying the Faith. For too long this has continued.
It is these sins of Evangelicals that marks such persons and communities as being like Saul with his religiously institutionalized letter of approval to oppose all who do not conform to the standards of piety and righteousness dictated by a (mis)reading of Scripture. And I pray that when Jesus shows up in blazing light that the senses will be both dulled and enlightened by that encounter. An encounter that leads to a baptism of repentance and a transformation by the Spirit.
For the sake of God.
For the sake of Christ.
For the sake of the World.