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The Eyes of the Heart

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Apr 10

Text: Acts 9:1-20

Years ago I had a friend who, due to serious illness, had lost his eyesight in his twenties. Mark described his strategies for navigating in a “seeing” world—how he recognized coins by touch, created a special system for folding his bills (before placing them in his billfold) so he could distinguish between a five and a twenty, negotiated travel on city buses. It was pretty impressive, and my first glimpse into that world.

Because Mark had lived a full two decades with normal vision, he was able to reflect on the contrast between life with and without eyesight.  Mark said, “the thing that sighted people may not understand—but is absolutely clear to me—is that everything is connected. People with normal eyesight perceive space and distance between people. I sense connection and continuity. Everything is connected. Everything.”

Mark appreciated that one of the “gifts” he had discovered in blindness was an ability to perceive—much more readily—a person’s essential character. Without the visual cues that sighted people use to judge age, attractiveness, and status, he claimed one can see much more directly what a person is actually like as a human being.

None of this is to valorize blindness. (Believe me, I would not do that!) But my friend Mark was definitely describing another way of knowing. Something he found himself attuned to. You could call this seeing with the eyes of the heart.

“Seeing with the eyes of the heart.” This concept arises both in our own Christian tradition and in the great Islamic tradition of Sufism. Sufi mystics consider the heart (or qalb) to be the seat of knowing God; while it is the spirit (ruh), which loves God; and the sirr (inmost ground of the soul) which contemplates God. One interpreter explains, ”unlike the English “heart,” the nature [of qalb] is [more] intellectual than emotional, but whereas the intellect cannot gain real knowledge of God, the qalb (heart) is capable of knowing the essences of all things.” (1)    

To see with the eyes of the heart. What is this way of knowing?

Today we read a familiar story from the Book of Acts about Saul of Tarsus, whom we have come to know as the Apostle Paul. Saul was walking northward along the ancient road from Jerusalem to Damascus, a distance of some 135 miles that would have taken him through inland hill country, up past the Sea of Galilee. He was headed to Damascus, with letters of introduction to the synagogues there, for the purpose of rooting out the followers of Jesus, whom he believed to be in error. This was his intent when, on the road to Damascus, Saul had an experience that caused him to see in a new way.  

Acts tells a story that has all the marks of a divine revelation: flashing light, hearing voices, falling to the ground, receiving a new name, receiving a commission. (2) All of this happens to Saul on the road to Damascus. Saul loses his eyesight; becomes Paul. He receives new insight, and changes his ways. There’s even a laying-on-of-hands by Ananias. And Paul’s story wraps up with a baptism—the most powerful symbol of transformation and new life in Christ.  

As we read Paul’s story from the Book of Acts, it’s tempting to assume that what we are reading is biography. It’s such a compelling account. It reads like a firsthand report by an eyewitness. But let’s be clear that this is not what it is. Rather, it is a faith-story, written years after Paul’s death, by someone who could not have known Paul directly, and was certainly not with him on the road to Damascus.

The author of Acts is not interested in historically-accurate reporting. He wants to show us the new thing that God is doing. And on these terms, this is a dazzling story. For Paul clearly has a change of heart that reorients him completely. He stops persecuting the followers of Jesus and comes to see Christ as the Messiah.   

Many see the Damascus Road experience as a moment of conversion. Though, some scholars observe that this event in Paul’s life is less like a conversion experience and more like a prophetic call. It has strong similarities with the call narratives of Hebrew prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah.  (3)

If we do use the lens of “conversion” to understand Paul’s Damascus Road experience, I suggest we exercise caution. Let us ask, from what and to what is Paul converting. The caution is this. Many Christians have read the Acts account of Paul, and even Paul’s New Testament letters, in ways that are anti-Jewish. There is so much potential for harm here, that we must look very closely and honestly at who Paul really was.

Paul’s relationship to Judaism is something that would take lifetimes and volumes to explore. We will not come to a full understanding this morning.  But let’s take a look at what we do know about Paul. Paul was the founder of fledgling Christian communities across the Mediterranean. The Greek word for these communities is ecclesia. In today’s lingo, we would call Paul a “church-planter.”

Paul is the author of key New Testament writings. (Letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Thessalonians, and Philemon.) Paul’s letters are the primary source of information about those communities and about what the church was like in its earliest years, as it struggled with issues of identity—even before it’s eventual separation and distinction from Judaism. That is a process that took many, many years.  

We know that Paul was born to a Jewish family, sometime early in the first century CE, and that he practiced Judaism according to Pharisaic norms.(4) Paul himself tells us this. Paul was born in Tarsus, in the south-central region of what is now modern-day Turkey. He may have been a Hellenistic Jew—someone whose mother-tongue was Greek.   

On all of these things there is consensus. But scholar Mark Nanos writes,

More controversial is whether [Paul] continued to practice Judaism after his change from being a persecutor of the followers of Jesus to becoming an apostle of “the nations” [the Gentiles.]

Paul has traditionally been portrayed as having converted from Judaism to Christianity, and thus as both the original apostate and a threat to the Jewish people and to Judaism. But this is not the only way to interpret Paul. During his time, Jews who accepted the proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah understood themselves (and were understood by many others) to be practicing Judaism, albeit as members of a new subgroup.(5)

Was Damascus Road a conversion experience? Perhaps. But not from Judaism to Christianity.

Calvin Roetzel writes,  
Nowhere does Paul speak of “Christianity” as an entity separate from Judaism.  Everywhere he envisions his Gentile mission as part of God’s promise to Israel to include all peoples in a final redeemed human family…it is best to guard against the too-common assumption that Paul rejected the tradition he once loved. Not only does this dislocation do violence to Paul’s thought, it; it also distorts our picture of first-century Jewish faith. (6)

In his letter to the Romans, Paul declares Torah to be “holy and just and good,” even “spiritual” as opposed to “of the flesh” He he sees Israel as a people of covenant and blessing. Mark Nanos argues, it is far more likely that “Paul saw himself as wholly within Judaism, as one who was assigned a special role in the restoration of Israel and of the nations.” (7)

So what are we to make of Paul’s Damascus Road experience, of his temporary blindness, and of his awakening to a new vision? What happened to him? How was Paul transformed? And into what? Of this divine encounter, Paul himself writes to the Corinthians, “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord?” (8)

I suspect that—in that flash of blinding light—Paul learned to see with the eyes of his heart.

Like my friend, Mark, who felt he could “see” more clearly without benefit of eyesight, Paul came to new confidence and clarity. A conversion experience? Sure. But not from Judaism to Christianity. This was a transformation of Paul’s own heart. Paul’s eyes were opened and his energy shifted from violence to persuasion, persecution to inclusion, from condemnation to openness, and suspicion to welcome.  

It’s hard to read a story of Damascus this morning without being painfully aware of just how much the world needs this kind of conversion. I have been speaking about Paul’s story and the first-century tension between Judaism and the nascent Christianity. But to mention Damascus brings to mind the third great Abrahamic tradition—Islam. Damascus is in the heart of the Islamic world.

To speak of Damascus also drops us into the middle of geo-politics. We know that Syria is in the midst of a bloody civil war, with casualties in the hundreds of thousands. (9) The UN High Commissioner for Refugees records that 4,800,000 refugees have fled Syria. (10) And Christians make up a disproportionately high percentage of those: an estimated 1 million Christians have fled.(11)

This sermon is almost done—and I’m not going to go off in a whole new direction and get deep into the geo-politics of Syria. We have offered (and will continue to offer) opportunities here at First Church to understand and act on issues of faith in Syria and the Middle East.  

For now, as we read this foundational faith story of Paul on the Road to Damascus, let us lift up the Holy Land in our prayers. Let us keep Syria—its peoples and leaders—in our prayers for peace, for non-violent means, and for deep compassion and understanding.   

In the way of the great Sufi mystics, if we are to know God with our hearts, to love God with our spirits, and to contemplate God with our innermost souls, let us pray that we all learn to see with the eyes of our hearts.

In this spiritual truth—shared by our three traditions—is great wisdom.  

1) http://www.answering-islam.org/Books/Mystics/chap3.htm
2) Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, eds, The Jewish Annotated New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), Acts 9:10, p. 217.
3) Johannes Munck, cited by Calvin Roetzel, The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 51.
4) Mark D. Nanos, “Paul and Judaism,” in The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 551.
5) Nanos, p. 551.
6) Calvin Roetzel, The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009) p. 210.
7) Nanos, p. 552. (Romans 7:7-25)
8) 1 Corinthians 9:1
9) Estimates from The Centre for the Documentation of Violence, The United Nations, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and The Syrian Centre for Policy Research: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Casualties_of_the_Syrian_Civil_War
10) UNHCR: http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php
11) http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/commentandblogs/2016/04/07/flight-of-a-m...

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