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The two roads of St Paul

Nevie Peters  |  02 November 2020

Paul’s encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus changed his life forever.

It was loud on the road to Damascus. Men cheered and jested, camels kicked up dust, and birds whistled and dived in the sky. Saul’s feet crunched, crunched, crunched through the dirt. Towns came into sight, then fell away into the countryside again. Saul was a traveller, and he had a story to tell.

Through Cyprus, Greece, and the lands to the east, people were violating the Law. Saul’s upbringing in Tarsus, guided by father and faith, had armed him with a moral code. The Law was the centre of Saul’s relationship with God, and seeing others estrange themselves from Him by throwing it away was an insult to his traditions. Their recklessness was spreading, too, and Paul had to bring it to an end.

Crunch, crunch, crunch. Saul had recently obtained permission from the high priest of Damascus to persecute Christians who dwelled there. In Jerusalem not long ago, a Christian was stoned to death for blasphemy. Saul didn’t remember much from that day. He had failed to grasp the full details of the man’s execution, or the words he had cried out just before he died. Saul was a traveller, after all, and he did not dwell in destinations that were behind him.

Paul looked up from his feet to see that the camels had stopped. The men paused and tugged at their ropes, squinting at the plains. The birds had ceased their whistling and flew mutely above. What had they seen? Saul looked from horizon to horizon, looking for a crack in the scene, a pair of eyes, perhaps, or maybe a wolf.

From the empty depths of the bright sky appeared a blinding light, so commanding it pushed Saul to the ground. He scrambled back and hit the hooves of a camel, then fell to his stomach and crawled to the side of the road. Silence.

‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ A man stepped out from the light.

‘Who are you, Lord?’

‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. This fighting is useless. Let it go.’

From light followed darkness. Saul lay with his face in the dirt until he was pulled up by the other men. They placed a rough rope in his hand and pushed him on. They offered him food and drink that he refused.

It was the camels, in the end, that led the blind man down the road to Damascus, the crunch, crunch, crunch of travelling feet the only assurance of direction.

_____

It was quiet on the road to Tarsus.

Pain in his shins and the sun beating down. Stones kicking out in different directions. Flies buzzed and worms squirmed into the dirt to escape the birds. Paul was almost home.

His name had changed, his legs were weary, and his skin had grown wrinkles from the sun. His robes were tattered and torn and his sandals had holes. Despite the marks of time, Paul was still the same traveller he had always been.

Paul had been shipwrecked, whipped, and plotted against. He had been lowered to his safety from the gates of Damascus in a basket when the first of the schemes arose to kill him. Paul had taken beatings in Jerusalem and been imprisoned by the Romans.

He saw his past self in these persecutors and recognised their anger like an old and estranged friend. They were just as misguided as he had been, failing to understand the weight of Jesus’ sacrifice and therefore unable to discard their guilt. Paul was older and weaker, it was true, but he no longer buckled under the weight of misgivings from the past.

Most of all, Paul had been hurt by those he sought to befriend. He had forfeited acceptance when he persecuted the followers of Christ, and for this he suffered consequences. Paul had to fight for a seat, for a voice, for trust. Alone, the mission seemed insurmountable, but Paul was never alone.   

Ananias was the first to visit him in that dark house in Damascus. Unwilling at first but trusting in the Lord, he had placed two hands on Paul’s shoulders, addressed him as a brother, and forgave him. Paul had regained his sight that day. In Jerusalem, Barnabas had introduced Paul to the apostles when others were afraid of him. These glimmers of kindness were unlike anything he had experienced before, save for the loving embrace of his father and, of course, Jesus himself.

He thought back now as he crunched up the northern road. It was there, of course, buried in the depths among a pile of memories he had always refused.

The scene at Jerusalem’s gate. The crowd’s silence was interrupted only by swishing clothing, children’s voices, and the distant hilltop wind. There was only whimpering to fill the scene, the man’s cries as each stone was cast upon him, the man’s feet shuffling pointlessly in the dirt, Stephen’s feet, bare.

‘Lord’, Stephen had cried, ‘do not hold this sin against them.’

But it had not been pointless, had it? Paul had watched on then in approval, but he had failed to see the pattern. Had Christ’s feet not shuffled pointlessly when he died on the cross? Neither had held Paul’s sin against him. Nor had Barnabas or Ananias or the others who had helped him along his way. Just like them, Paul had been whipped and beaten and humiliated.

He could let the anger consume him if he wanted. He could hate those men, the Christians who failed to accept him, the Jews who plotted against him, he could hate the stones in his shoes, he could hate the sun, he could hate age and death and the wind and the lonely road.

When Paul was young he had carried it all with him like a load on his back, crunching through the dirt with the camels, the men and the hate all ready to work and bring about more. But if Stephen had not hated the men who stoned him while he cried, if Christ had not hated the men with their hammers and nails, then how could Paul hate anything at all? 

The town of Tarsus was getting closer now. Paul could hear the children and the chickens, reminders of innocence he had long since let go. The boy who had left this town was the same man he was today. He would not let the two become estranged. He would love his past misguided self just as Christ had loved him, he would delight in his innocence, the trust he had in his father, the ambition, but not the hate.

Paul’s feet shuffled up to the edge of Tarsus and paused at the gate. A cold change ruffled his robes as invisible crickets began to chirp, singing to the setting sun. Paul may have been home, but his pilgrimage was far from over. He still had so much more to do. 

> Nevie Peters is a member of our young writers community.

 

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