The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Many of us have, shall we say, “feelings” about Paul, asking ourselves whether he is an appalling or an appealing apostle. For some of us, we heard a lot of Paul growing up, assuming that all of the New Testament epistles attributed to him were actually written by Paul himself. The Letter to the Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians were indeed written by Paul, but others clearly were not, and some have dubious authorship. It isn’t that they were forgeries, but rather they were written by the followers of Paul, perhaps a generation or two later, and it was a common convention in the ancient world to attribute a letter to a revered leader. Interestingly, much of what we find difficult about Paul (“Slaves, obey your earthly masters,” “Women should be silent in the churches.”) were not written by Paul himself.
Marcus Borg and Dom Crossan write, “There is more than one Paul in the New Testament…it is essential to place his letters in their historical context…His message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul…is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic.” And that brings us to today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, often called the Damascus Road Story.
Last week, I had a fascinating conversation with one of our members about different ways of knowing and experiencing truth. Not everything is factual in a literal way, yet it still may be true. When we read scripture, as when we hear a parable, we know that it may not have happened exactly the way the storyteller relates it. We don’t actually know if there was a Good Samaritan or a Lost Sheep, but we know that the story is true, because we appreciate the wisdom it contains, namely that we should love our enemies and that we are loved by God. This is a “more than literal” reading of scripture. It is more than literal because it conveys a greater truth than a straightforward narrative account.
There is also experiential knowing, feeling something in your gut that you know to be true. If I were to give you a video camera and ask you to prove the depth of your love for your parent, you wouldn’t be able to film anything convincing at the heart of the matter…just the effects of your love, like running errands or giving a hug. The depth of feeling is something you experience in the depths of your being, and it is likely something you experience differently than anyone else, yet it is profoundly true.
So, what about this story of Saul/Paul’s radical experience? If there was a video camera there, do you think it would have captured what happened?
Mystics, like Paul, have a direct experience of God, not simply a knowledge or a belief in the divine. William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience, written 120 years ago, details different types of mystical experiences. He describes mystical experience as: transient (the experience is temporary), ineffable (beyond words), noetic (that the person has gained knowledge and insight), and passive (can’t be controlled with an on/off switch). All four of these characteristics define Paul’s experience on road to Damascus. Paul has a vision of a bright light, which James would call an illumination. The medieval mystic, Hildegard of Bingen, also had such visions which she called “reflections of the living light.” Mircea Eliade, a great scholar of comparative religions, called them “experiences of the golden world.” These are visual encounters with the holy that involve light.
John Philip Newell (who will be with us at Plymouth on May 11) suggests that we all have inner divine light, which is the very essence of life. In the Celtic tradition, creation itself is a theophany, a showing of the divine light. “Our job is not to create the light,” he says, “but of releasing the light that is already there.”
Interestingly, Saul doesn’t see a person, but radiant, blinding light, which is why he asks Jesus to identify himself, and he says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And those who were accompanying Saul don’t see the light, but they do hear a disembodied voice, so they had an auditory mystical experience.
What would we have seen if there had been a CCTV camera on the road to Damascus? Would we have seen a flash of light? Probably not, since Saul’s companions didn’t see it either. Would microphones have picked up the voice of Jesus speaking to Saul? Probably not. Does that mean it didn’t happen?
Nothing suggests that Saul ever met Jesus, the living man whom Marcus Borg describes as the pre-Easter Jesus. His sole experience is a direct encounter with the post-Easter Jesus, and it changes him forever.
Rather than rounding up followers of Jesus and carting them off to Jerusalem for punishment, Paul joins the rebel movement. Can you imagine what might cause such a radical transformation? There is ample evidence that whatever happened on the road to Damascus was a dramatic catalyst in changing Paul’s life. He shifts from becoming the hunter to the hunted, from the tool of religious establishment to a leader of the anti-imperial movement. Borg and Crossan write, “This sets up the fundamental opposition in Paul’s theology. Who is Lord, Jesus or empire? In Paul, the mystical experience of Jesus Christ as Lord led to the resistance to the imperial vision, and advocacy of a different vision of the way the world could be.” It is hard to imagine a greater transformation.
You all remember Plymouth’s mission statement, right? “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ. We do this by inviting, transforming, and sending.” If you need a reminder, check out the very cool banner Anna Broskie made with a caterpillar, a chrysalis, and a butterfly to illustrate inviting, transforming, and sending.
What happens to Paul is a life-transforming chrysalis experience. A phenomenal transformation occurs in Paul’s life. It isn’t just a one-and-done experience, but rather one that shifts who Paul is, not only in name, but in the marrow of his being. That is what religious transformation is about: having our lives shift.
Not all of us see a blinding light, hear a clap of thunder, get hit by lightning. But I imagine that there are those among us who have had experiences of union with the divine or the presence of God that have shifted our directions. Have you had that kind of transformative experience? When I was in my 30s, I was sitting at the dining room table in our house in Boulder reading Dom Crossan’s book, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography, and I paused for a moment, had the sense that there was a hand on my shoulder, and I heard a message: “You can do this.” A year later, I was switching careers and studying theology at Iliff. How about you? Have you ever just known something in your bones? What happened when you listened to it, considered it seriously, and changed course?
When Ananias came to Paul and laid his hands upon his eyes and something like scales or flakes fell from Paul’s eyes, and he could see again. That is part of the mystical transformation: gaining new sight. We sing these words and perhaps take them too lightly: “I once was lost, but now am found. Was blind, but now I see.” The gift of new sight is a powerful metaphor for a noetic experience that can help change our lives.
All of us can be transformed, and I would daresay that we need to be transformed. Maybe it isn’t a one-time occurrence, but rather a gradual process of realization and knowing. We can open ourselves to the presence of the holy and continue to be open. It may not be that we hear trumpets or see flashes of glaring light, but part of our human spiritual journey can involve knowing the numinous firsthand, without mediation. We can be open to letting God have her way with us and guide us. And that takes trust.
How have you experienced transformation and growth over your years? Major life events — confirmation, marriage, the birth of a child, joining a church, the loss of a loved one, illness, divorce, starting a new career, two years of pandemic — all of these can be occasions for transformation. In terms of your spiritual life, when have you felt closest to God, and when has your relationship seemed distant? One of the things about spiritual transformation is that there is no pressing it, demanding it, controlling it. It is a gift, and perhaps the best we can do is to stay open to the possibility, to delve into our faith in all the ways we can. Whether it is exploring a new spiritual practice, coming to learn about Celtic spirituality with John Philip Newell, spending time walking the labyrinth, or volunteering to help with Faith Family Hospitality.
Paul had an experience of the holy that was out on the road, not in the pew, and you may find your own mystical experience in the process of living your faith, even or especially if it is on a day other than Sunday. And may you release the divine light that is within you and help others to do the same.
May it be so. Amen.
© 2022 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal at plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, The First Paul, (SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 2009), p. 13.
 ibid., p. 26.