How Sweet the Sound
It was the man’s eyes that haunted him most. He had seen other people die of course, but they were usually sick and it was a relief. He had seen an execution or two on the hill outside the city gates, but never close enough to see their eyes in the moment of death. Even standing behind the crowd those eyes had caught him and it was as if they were looking way through him, beyond him, into him. The one they called the Deacon looked at him the way he imagined God would look at the world, with the deepest love, the deepest sadness, the deepest forgiveness. He shook the thought away.
The Damascus road was paved with Roman brick, laid with Roman perfection. Along the way were the irrigation projects that the Romans had built, the schools they had erected. The troop barracks that kept the banditry along this route to a minimum and the trade balance positive. He nodded with satisfaction. The Empire had its problems, but it was basically a good thing for Palestine. His people had never had it as good as they did since the Romans came. It was especially good for him, a Roman citizen, of the Jewish aristocracy, with a pedigree that was the envy of nearly all the Sanhedrin. Why anybody would want to revolt against the Pax Romana was beyond him. The Romans were the protectors of the Jews and he was going to see that it stayed that way.
As they walked along his companions made small talk, but his mind was far away, in that field, where the man the Nazarenes called the Deacon, stood in the middle of a snarling crowd and had stared through him. His defense had been a bizarre rambling attack on everything holy, on Yahweh, on scripture, on the entire two millennia of Jewish tradition. He deserved to die. The Jews had no King but Caesar, and anybody who didn’t understand that was too dangerous to live. If this insane Nazarene movement kept spreading it would endanger everything that he and the rest of the Council had worked to protect. They had freedom to worship, freedom to be, and overthrowing that would only mean chaos and tragedy. The Deacon had tried to revise the sweep of history, turning the scriptures into a call to revolt, along with the claim that the dead Nazarene was the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Revisionism would not stand, not if he had anything to do with it.
Patting the arrest warrants in his purse, he kept his face stony, never revealing the doubts in his heart. He had actually gone back and read the scriptures after Stephen’s tirade and the old words haunted him. The sheep before the shearers, the Suffering Servant, the man of sorrows. He shook his head and his companions watched him out of the corner of their eyes. He had hardly spoken to them the entire trip, and when he had, it was to complain that they were moving too slowly, that they had to make Damascus before the Sabbath day. He was aware of how hot the sun had suddenly become, and how the sweat was pouring off his brow. He stumbled and looked around. The landscape disappeared and he was surrounded by light, as if the sun had landed upon the finely placed bricks. It was so bright he couldn’t see anything.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” It was a voice from within the light, or within his soul. It sounded like the Deacon’s voice—but no, it was deeper and farther away, or closer, he couldn’t be sure. It was a voice like an earthquake, like thunder, like the earth, the heavens, the sea. He collapsed under the weight of that voice. “Saul, why are you kicking against the goads?”
He lay on the ground, staring up or staring down, he wasn’t sure. “Who are you?” he croaked, but even as he said it, he knew, he knew.
“I am Jesus. I am the One you are persecuting. Get up and go into Damascus and you will find out what I am commissioning you to do.” His breath was gone. He was dead. This is what it felt like to die. He floated back up through the ground, through the sky, through time, through clouds and leaves. There were hands on him, he was sure, but the brightness was gone and he was in darkness.
“Saul, get up. What’s wrong? Are you okay? Saul?” They were shaking him, but the voices seemed far away. They pulled him to his feet. Darkness as dark as the light had been bright. He didn’t remember the rest of the trip, but he knew they had laid him on a bed. Someone tried to get him to eat and to drink. But he was deep in the darkness, and there was nothing there to see, except the memory of the Deacon’s face.
Then came the knock on the door. He still couldn’t manage to speak. He heard footsteps and someone speaking to him. “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.” Someone was rubbing oil on his face. His shivered with cold.
He felt as if something fell off his eyes, as if a mask he had been wearing all his life had tumbled to the floor. He stared at the man in front of him, a man with a kind and gentle smile. “I’m Ananias. Welcome to our city. We’ve been praying for you.”
A thousand questions flooded his mind, but he couldn’t even put them into words. Ananias handed him a plate of bread and a goblet of wine. He ate. He drank.The darkness was gone. That night the room filled up with Ananias’ friends. Some of them came close and hugged him, other stood back, as if he were some kind of Roman circus freak.
The next few days he spent quietly with them, reading the scriptures as if he had never read them before, as if they contained the very essence of life. On the Sabbath day, he asked them if he could go with them to the synagogue. When they got there, it was Saul who stood up to read. It was Saul’s voice, now, not the Deacon’s who proclaimed justice, who interpreted the prophets. It was Saul’s voice that rang out over the people with the words that none of them ever thought they would hear him say: “Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, the Son of God.”
Saul’s conversion to the Way is certainly one of the most profound mystical stories in all of religious history, Jewish, Christian or otherwise. It ranks right up there with Moses at the burning bush, Naaman in the Jordan, Buddha under the lotus tree, Augustine in his garden, Luther on his knees in his monastic cell, C.S. Lewis at Oxford. Psychologists of religion have pointed out the similarities in conversion stories, and we have to grant that them that point. But that similarity only confirms the reality of grace—someone once far off has been brought near, people living in darkness have seen a great light.
For us, living in a post-Enlightenment grayness where truth is no longer true at all, conversion can smack of religious quackery, of the worst sort of excesses done in the name of God, of the seamy jailhouse preacher, an Elmer Gantry mash-up of exploitation and ecstasy. Conversion can be all those things, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Because meeting God face to face is certain death and certain resurrection. No one who has been there can ever be the same. G. K. Chesterton, put it like this in his poem The Convert:
The sages have a hundred maps to give
That trace their crawling cosmos like a tree,
They rattle reason out through many a sieve
That stores the sand and lets the gold go free;
And all these things are less than dust to me
Because my name is Lazarus and I live.
Conversion is designed with one thing in mind: the start of a new life—with a commission to bring that new life to others. Saul, breathing threats and murder, becomes Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, to Kings, and the people of Israel. That’s the purpose of grace—to call us to a new life, raised from the dead, a life that is lived for the world.
In 1748, a young sea captain grasped the wheel of his ship in a fearsome storm off the Irish coast. The ship began taking on water and John Newton was sure that he and his ship would be lost. From deep within came a prayer to a God he didn’t even know, and somehow he managed to keep The Greyhound afloat. After she limped into port, her stern low in the water, he grabbed a Bible and began to read. There he met God and received his commission. John Newton was a slave trader and suddenly he knew that God detested the very notion of humans selling other humans. He eventually became an Anglican priest and spent the rest of his days agitating against the despicable practice of human slavery. He was the one who wrote Christianity’s most precious hymn, which has been recorded by jazz artists, rockers and opera’s finest divas. It’s a song that can stir the soul of even the most cynical of cynics, the least believing of doubters. It’s not just a song of conversion; it’s a song of commissioning.
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me….
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now, I see.
We don’t like to see ourselves as wretched, blind, lost. But that’s how John Newton saw himself, once he met God face to face. That’s how Saul felt, too, until the power of being raised from wretchedness to sweetness drove him to stand before the whole world and declare that everything was made new, that all the rules were different now, that Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free were released from wretchedness and lostness and made whole.
Peter, dripping with shame from his denial of Jesus before a charcoal fire, finds himself in the cold morning light in front of another charcoal fire. Three times Jesus asks him if he loves him; three times, he proclaims his love, once for each denial. And three times Jesus, with amazing grace, commissions him: feed my sheep, and follow me. Peter remembers the first time he heard those words from Jesus, three years before, on another beach, only this time he finally understands what it means.
Easter grace is supposed to change us, commission us, send us forth. How has Easter changed you? Have you been sitting here these past three Sundays, secure in the knowledge that the good guys won, that we’re free at last, free at last? Have you been shouting back the Alleluias that float like the perfume of lilies above our self-contented middle-American Easter lives?
Grace means being raised to new life and commissioned to raise up the world in hope. It means being called to do justice, to love mercy, to stand before Kings and Emperors and Governors and Presidents and Senators and mayors and declare that their ways are not God’s ways, their thoughts are not God’s thoughts. It means struggling against slavery, poverty, oppression, prejudice or any other works of the devil that crush and destroy the little ones God loves. It means being able to see through the false claims of the powers and principalities that put Jesus in a grave and who want to keep him there and keep you silent. It means standing up and saying: “Jesus is the Son of God. Your time is past. Your world has ended. Eternity has begun.”
How sweet the sound.