Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and 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. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul 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. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ Then the Pharisees said to him, ‘You are testifying on your own behalf; your testimony is not valid.’ Jesus answered, ‘Even if I testify on my own behalf, my testimony is valid because I know where I have come from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going.
Have you ever noticed that we don’t see light itself? We see what the light has illuminated but not the actual light itself. What I mean is we see colours and shapes either because light has reflected off them or because it has passed through them. If I were to ask you what light looks like, you wouldn’t be able to tell me, but if there was no light you could see nothing. If you stand in a room and gradually dim the lights, so colour slowly bleeds away. Eventually, because of the way our eyes are made, in low light all we can see is detail in black and white because the colour receptors in our eyes can’t pick up colour once the light levels have dropped. But if you begin to turn the lights back up then colour begins to become apparent to us.
Notice when you go outside on a spring day the differences in colour between when the sun is shrouded in cloud and when it shines directly. No photographer would take photos of spring flowers on a cloudy day because you need the power of the direct sunlight to make the colours dance. Everything literally seems to come alive.
But what if you keep turning the light up?
Eventually the colours all seem to fade to white as our eyes are overwhelmed. When light gets too bright we can no longer see. We become blinded. Now hold on to that thought as we turn to the readings because light has a key role to play in what I want to say.
Starting with the Gospel reading, Jesus declares that he is the Light of the World. It’s a pretty bold claim to make and I have numerous good friends in other spiritual traditions who would doubt the validity of that, citing more or less what the Pharisees say in response, which is more or less, ‘Who says?’ ‘Jesus, you say that you’re the light of the world, but shouldn’t it be other people who make that claim on your behalf?’ There are passages littered over the Bible that underline what he says though, although again they are from within the Judeo-Christian tradition, although not from Jesus himself. Some are clearly directed at Jesus whereas others of a more prophetic nature suggest someone enlightening would be coming and Jesus seems to fit the bill. For example Isaiah 49:6 reads like this:
‘It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.’Gentiles is a simple catch-all word for everyone who is not a Jew. Isaiah was looking forward to when the Light of the World would come. And then if we look at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 2 we see the encounter that Mary and Joseph with Jesus as a newborn baby had with the elderly man Simeon in the temple. Simeon had received a word from God that he would not die until he had seen the one whom God was sending to bring salvation. When he sees them he picks Jesus up in his arms and refers to him as, ‘...a light for revelation to the Gentiles’. Again, Jesus is the Light of the World.
And then we come to St. Paul, or as he was known at the time, Saul.
Up until this point in the story Saul thought that he was living by the light, but the light that he was using to see by was the light of his tradition, the light of his religion, and so anything which did not conform to his religious tradition had to be judged as impure. In Saul we see lived out a clash between a judgmental form of Pharisaism and the Light of God’s grace, the result of which left him so changed that he felt the need to change his name.
He was a religious righteous zealot and he felt that anyone who undermined his tradition must be destroyed as an evildoer.
...Sounds a little like a lot of fundamentalists today really.
Human nature hasn’t changed much...
And so when people began to make life-changing decisions to follow Christ as the Light he would have seen this as something that must be stopped. For Saul all that was necessary was Torah, the Jewish rules for living within which were all that was needed to live a righteous Jewish life. He therefore embarked on a wave of religious persecution, obtaining letters of authorisation from the high priest himself that would allow him to seek out followers of Christ from the synagogues of Damascus. And then on the way he has a direct encounter with Christ, and he looks for himself right at the Light of the World.
Now if you have ever looked into the sun you will know that a really bright light leaves a temporary burn-out on your retina as the cells in your eyes are overloaded. But for St. Paul it went much further than that: looking directly at the risen Christ, at the Light of the World, blinded him completely. The powerful became the powerless. The true Light had overwhelmed the false light of religion and fundamentalism and his blindness was a sign to him that he had never really actually seen. Those who were with him took him to his lodgings in Damascus and there he embarked on what is called a total fast, taking not even water for three days until Ananias is sent to him. When he lays hands on him the Lord restores his sight and his new journey begins.
I think it’s important that we recognise that this was not a conversion.
Paul had always served God, but he had done so through the tools of religion and tradition. Now he was being called directly by the Light himself rather than through religion. I don’t think St. Paul was trying to start a new religion. I think that he had been quite damaged enough by the religious traditions he had served. Now he was serving the person, not the religion, and I think that’s really important for us. I think we sometimes, maybe often, have way too much religion and tradition in our lives when actually it should all be about the person, not about the religion. I have too many friends who have been damaged by religion but who still dearly wish to follow the Lord and live in his Light, and I suspect that religious trappings get in the way of the Light of the World because we quickly fall into the trap of trying to support the religion rather than follow the person.
So what is it that St. Paul did that we can learn to do too?
Well the trick with a really bright light is not to look directly into it. Instead we move where we are standing so that we are standing alongside it and look at what it is illuminating. In this way we quickly begin to see things differently because we are looking at them in the new Light. And that is what Saul did. Once he had been healed from looking into the bright light he moved his position so that he could stand alongside the Light, to stand with and identify with Christ, and then the whole world looked different. All the trappings of religious tradition fell away. In fact it is really important that we understand what happened later in Paul’s ministry. He went into direct battle with some of the Jewish Christians, or Judaisers as he called them. Why? Because they were insisting that new Christians who were not Jews had to keep the Jewish law if they were to be proper Christians. For example they expected the men to be circumsized.
Paul stood firm against them. He had had enough of religious tradition. He was done with religious rules and the fundamentalisms that flow from them. It’s ironic now that modern fundamentalists cite St. Paul so often when his way of living was so directly opposed to the fundamentalists of his own day. Following Christ, standing in the Light of the World and looking at the world illuminated by that Light was all that was required.
And I believe he challenges us in the same way today. Have we become too religious? Do we sometimes become too caught up in all the trappings of what we do at our gatherings? That’s what Paul was like before he looked into the Light. But once he had encountered Christ for himself he saw things differently because he was looking at them through a new Light.
Jesus didn’t want us to start a new religion with all the lawlike trappings of that.
He wants us simply to follow him and see the world as illuminated by his Light. The way we do that is by setting aside time to encounter him in prayer, in Bible study, in worship together. But we have to be cautious how we do that because religion can all too easily just get in the way. Ask St. Paul. Religious practice can be a good thing, but only so long as what we do is flowing out of what is taking place within us. But if we are trusting just in the religion, then we will be disappointed because religion on its own doesn’t offer Light, it merely offers one way amongst several in which we can bathe in the Light.
What is needed is that we stand in the illumination provided by the Light of the World, and we gaze in wonder at a world full of colours we have never seen before.