Yesterday in church we remembered the conversion experience of the apostle Paul. This reflection comes too late for anyone who had to preach yesterday and lacked inspiration.
We speak about a ‘Damascus Road experience’ or about ‘seeing the light’ to mean a sudden turn around of thinking. A dramatic conversion or change of view. In Paul/Saul’s case this was a change from ‘Jesus is dead and his followers need rounding up and putting in prison or worse’ to ‘Jesus is alive and I am one of his followers’ .
Many artist have painted the scene
This one by Nicholas-Bernard Lepicie, 1767
But I think that what came immediately after this dramatic vision was as extraordinary, less dramatic but no less supernatural and possibly even more amazing.
Saul staggers into Damascus blinded by his vision and a disciple named Ananias is sent to him by God. We don’t get to hear about Ananias again but we have a lot to thank him for. Ananias was listening to God and was told by God to go and pray for Saul. Initially Ananias argues politely with the Almighty pointing out Saul’s reputation as a violent persecutor of Christians. God is unimpressed and sends him anyway.
How was Ananias to know that this ‘I’ve been blinded’ routine, wasn’t an act? A ruse to infiltrate the Christian community? I’d have been more than a bit nervous. In contemporary terms it was a bit like being sent to pray for whatever brand of fundamentalist might be your worst enemy.
So I was very moved yesterday when I read the passage that Ananias greets Paul with the words ‘Brother Saul….’ . Brother? Really? What an incredible welcome.
It one thing to have an astonishing revelation about God and quite another to be given a warm welcome by the local church. It’s so sad, but so often true that the one thing is not always followed by the other.
What if Ananias had not been warmly welcoming? What if he’d been suspicious, cynical or even just indifferently cold?
‘Brother Saul’ two small words that welcomed agueably the most influential Christian writer, thinker and missionary of the early church.
They probably wouldn’t have shaken hands. Being middle eastern men they would probably have kissed. (And to think that in some Anglican church folks have a problem shaking hands with the person in the pew next to them).
Thankfully not the case in my church. My congregation are a welcoming bunch but this year we have made improving our welcome to newcomers one of three positive goals for this year. We want to address this issue alongside everything we are doing to try to get our building to more accurately reflect this same value of welcome.
Our biggest struggle is with a door. It happens to be the main front door into our church. (We do have another door obviously, but the problem is that the door that does open is not at all obvious). This door was blocked up in 1984 and we are planning, hoping, praying, applying and fund-raising our way towards opening it up and re-ordering our church to better say ‘You are welcome, come on in’.
Our current bricked up door and how I feel about it
Photo from Rugby Observer