I like having dinner with friends. The menu is immaterial, though a tasty meal well-served is nice. The best part of dinner with friends is the conversation. No matter how often I share dinner with a friend or friends, there is always something new to learn and share; and there is, of course, the joy of revisiting a shared past.
I recently decided to mix things up a bit and invite the Apostle Paul to dinner. Yes, the Apostle Paul who wrote nearly half the New Testament. I wasn’t sure he would come. After all, he’s an Apostle and I’m just a local pastor of a relatively small church in a small town. But, nothing ventured, nothing gained. So, I asked. He accepted.
There was the usual small talk, but by the time dessert was served, I was ready to get down to the real stuff. “Tell me about the Damascus Road experience.” (Dear Reader, you can find the story in the Bible, Book of Acts, chapter 9.)
“There isn’t much to tell other than what I’ve written. You have read that, haven’t you?” Paul asked with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“Yes, I’ve read that, but I mean . . . did it happen like that, really? The light, the voice? That’s pretty dramatic stuff.”
“I wouldn’t have written that it happened that way if it hadn’t.” Paul didn’t seem to be warming up to this conversation as quickly as I had hoped. I was about to change the topic, when he added. “I was on my way to Damascus to arrest and silence those noisy Christians. They and their new faith were causing quite an upset. I’d been about the persecution business for some time. As for what happened, I can’t testify to what anyone else saw or heard, but the light blinded me and the voice was the most real thing I’d ever heard. I thought I was about to die . . . that this Jesus I had been persecuting was going to take me out.”
“Did you already have an idea that the persecution of Christians was not a good idea?”
“No! I thought it was the right thing to do. My faith had always been important, and from my perspective and that of many like me, Jesus had been just another troublemaker. When you find yourself dealing with troublemakers, particularly those who are spreading heretical teachings, it’s the wise person who acts to silence them. I saw what I was doing as pleasing to God.”
“Pleasing to God . . . killing people?” I mused.
“It’s seems odd to me, too, now, but it didn’t then.” Paul paused pensively a moment, taking a bite of his peanut butter pie, and seeming to think. “The truth is that ever since we stoned the deacon named Stephen, I had been struggling with my work. That man shook me to my very foundation. Stoning is mean business and we had plenty of folks willing to pick up the largest, most jagged rocks they could find and hurl them at the man. He was bleeding all over. He prayed that God would receive his spirit and then he fell. I remember thinking that it was finally over, but he wasn’t finished. From his knees, with the voice of a healthy man he cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’ (see Acts 7:60). At the time, I thought it was just the cry of man delirious from his pain. As the days passed, I began to wonder
“Paul, as I’ve read those accounts in Acts, I’ve often wondered if Stephen’s prayer may have played a role in the experience you had on the Damascus Road.”
“When the light blinded me and I heard that voice, I wasn’t thinking about Stephen. I had never believed the stories about Jesus; I had never seen or heard him; but the moment that voice spoke, I knew who it was. I knew, and I figured it was the end of the road for me.”
“But Stephen’s prayer had to have had some affect on you. Surely!” I’m not sure I believed that, but I hated to have my theory break down. I had often used Stephen’s prayer and its influence on Paul often to illustrate the importance of our saying and doing the right thing. I really didn’t want to have to give that up. Some things are just too good not to be true.
“Oh, I’m sure it did—both his words and the look on his face. Dying in agony, the man looked to be at perfect peace with himself and with us. It was a powerful witness to a faith that made no sense to me. As to how his prayer changed me, it bugged me. I could push it away for a while, but it—the face and the words—kept popping back to the front of my mind.”
“Well, the faith certainly makes sense to you now. What changed that?” I asked to keep the conversation going.
Paul’s response was a bit sharp. “You are a preacher, right? Also a Christian, I presume?”
“Well, yes to both,” I blurted out, “but . . . .”
“But you want to hear it from me. Okay. The Christian faith makes sense to me because I met Jesus. I didn’t meet him like Peter and John and the rest of those early apostles met him, but I met him. I knew who he was and he knew who I was. Don’t ask me to explain how I knew. I just did.” Paul paused, tears filling his eyes before continuing. “Pretty amazing, isn’t it? He knew me and knew what I was and he wanted to save me, not kill me. I’m stilled awed by that.”
“Well, Paul, it is amazing, and just as amazing is the kind of follower of Jesus you became. I just hope I can become that kind of follower
“If you want to be follower like me, all you have to do is do what I did—sell out to Jesus. Obey him, take up your cross, and follow where he leads. Oh, and you will have to stop worrying about what it will cost. He told you—your life.”
I had other things I wanted to talk about, but it just didn’t seem like the right time. Besides, I needed to digest that last response. It’s one of the things about Jesus that I sometimes try to forget.
Maybe Paul will come for another dinner.