Sermon for April 26th, 2020
9 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Jesus on the Road to Damascus
For the past few weeks, we've been talking about encounters with Jesus on the road--something that happens often in the New Testament, and also functions as a metaphor for our own spiritual journeys through life--the different ways in which Jesus meets us where we are, transforms our way of seeing the world, and often sends us in an entirely new direction. That's what happens in today's scripture passage, where a man named Saul is traveling to Damascus with thoughts of murder in his heart, and a legal warrant to find Christians there, apprehend them, and bring them back to Jerusalem on charges of heresy. But instead, Jesus finds him, and in a blinding blaze of light, asks Saul "Why are you persecuting me?" This dramatic encounter leads to a change of heart for Saul, a change of purpose, and eventually a change of name--after this he will be known as the Apostle Paul, the one who brought the gospel message to people all over the mediterranean lands.
This is without a doubt the most famous conversion story, and possibly the most famous "on the road" story in all literature, not just in the Bible. Because of this, it has been portrayed in great works of art through the centuries. I want to take advantage of that fact (and also this online medium) to do something a little different today, and actually look at some of those representations, and how one story can be told in so many different ways.
While depictions of this story span all the way from the earliest days of Christianity to the present day, I want to zoom in on the centuries of the Renaissance and the Reformation in Europe. It was a period of great artistic and spiritual renewal, and also the period that gave birth to the Presbyterian movement. We'll begin with the great Italian painter Michelangelo.
This piece by Michelangelo is titled "The Conversion of Saul," and was completed in 1545. It's a fresco, which is a type of mural painting on plaster walls. This particular fresco is painted on the wall of the Pauline chapel in the Vatican palace.
The first thing we notice is that there's a lot going on in this painting. A lot of people and a lot of chaos, which perhaps tells us something about the artist's understanding of what a conversion experience is like. Notice that there's a sharp division between all the people--Jesus and the "saints" above, and Paul and the "sinners" below.
Right near the middle of the painting, there's also a horse, which is something of a mystery, since there's no horse in the actual scripture passage, but just about every depiction of this scene from the 13th century onward always features a horse.
In the scripture passage from Acts, we read that "a light flashed from heaven" and you can see that light, almost light a thunderbolt flashing straight down from Jesus (who looks kind of angry) directly to Paul. In verse 7, we read that those who were traveling with Paul, "heard the voice but saw no one." Or, in the original Greek, they saw μηδένα (medena) "no thing." In all the pieces we'll look at, pay close attention to who hears and who sees. In this painting, almost everyone is looking up to heaven and, like Paul, several are shielding their eyes from the light.
But the most fascinating thing about this painting is the face of Paul--an old man with a white beard. Michelangelo, like anyone who reads the story, probably knew that Paul was a young man at the beginning of his career. The face of Paul in this painting is actually a self-portrait. Michelangelo, nearing the end of his life and experiencing a great renewal in his own faith, painted himself right into the picture. That's something I believe the scriptures and the great stories of the Bible are constantly calling all of us to do as well.
The next painting is my favorite. It's titled "The Conversion of Paul" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, a Flemish painter who was a contemporary of the reformers Martin Luther and John Calvin. Bruegel is known for his depictions of peasants and common scenes of every day life. This painting is still busy, with lots of people, but there's actually not a lot of commotion or chaos.
Note the long and winding road that runs throughout the painting--everyone is on a journey. Unlike Michelangelo, who puts his subjects in ancient-looking costumes, Bruegel's subjects are dressed in the costumes of Bruegel's own century--another attempt to put the viewer into the story. And those mountains that the characters are crossing are the Alps, not anything anywhere near Jerusalem or Damascus.
At first glance, you might be asking yourself, okay, so where's Paul? That's on purpose too--it's a technique from the mannerist school of painting that draws you into a painting, forcing you to see other things (and people) on your way to the main subject. Have you found Paul yet? Look for the obligatory horse near the middle.
What's fascinating about this painting is that there's no Jesus, no flashing light, and the people around Paul seem more interested in what's happening to him than what's happening in the heavens. A few are looking up, but not many. And that makes sense, too, since according to the scriptures, only Paul sees the light. Most people just go about their business, carrying on with their own lives and journeys, perhaps waiting for their own conversion experiences some other day.
This next painting is one of the most iconic depictions of Paul's conversion. It's called "Conversion on the Way to Damascus," and was made by the Italian painter Caravaggio in 1601. He actually painted three different versions of this scene, but this is the one most people remember.
Note that there is no crowd in this painting, just Paul and a servant. And the obligatory horse. It's a very intimate and personal painting, which again may point to the artist's notions about the conversion experience. Like Bruegel's painting, Jesus does not appear directly--but look at the light! This is a hallmark of Caravaggio's work. The light illuminates everything, and yet surrounded by the light is a deep, almost impenetrable darkness.
Also notice how Paul is posed--his arms are outstretched, not shielding himself from the light but embracing it. His eyes are closed, his face is peaceful and serene, and his sword--the implement of his power and violence--is lying abandoned next to him on the ground.
Caravaggio himself was no stranger to violence. Listen to this description of the artist, by one of his contemporaries: "after a fortnight's work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ball-court to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument, so that it is most awkward to get along with him." In 1606 he killed a man in a fight, and had to flee his country.
Looking at this painting (and that abandoned sword) I can't help but wonder if it's a cry for help, for the kind of peace and release from violence that Jesus offers in converting us away from the life we have known.
This next piece is by Flemish Baroque painter Peter Paul Rubens, "the Conversion of St. Paul" completed sometime in the 1620s. Rubens also painted this scene several times, and this particular work is actually a collaboration between Rubens and several of his students. I like the idea that art, like music and like worship, is something you can do individually or with others.
In this painting, we're back to the busy crowd and chaos, with Jesus radiating light from the heavens. This time, Paul's horse has fallen to the ground with him. There are several horses here, and a few camels thrown in for good measure. The animals seem to be just as spooked by the light and the voice as all the people are, with one man in the center holding his head and writhing in agony. But what strikes me most about this particular painting is Jesus, flanked by two sweet baby cherubs in the sky. Unlike Michelangelo's Jesus, who was thrusting that light down on Paul in anger, this Jesus is extending the palm of his hand downward to Paul in love, as if he desires to raise him back up again.
It reminds me that the way we see and understand Jesus profoundly affects the way we react to him, when he shows up unexpectedly on our journeys. Paul, who looks utterly bewildered in this painting, had no reason to expect that kind of mercy from the man he had set himself against.
Our final painting is technically not from the Renaissance. It's a pen and watercolor drawing by the Romantic poet and artist William Blake, called "The Conversion of Saul," and completed around 1800. But I couldn't resist including it here.
Like Caravaggio's painting, this piece is intimate and personal. Even though there are others depicted (both above and below) they fade into the background. The angels are all looking away, and the soldiers (see the spears?) are for the most part, bowing their heads, shrouded in the shadows. There's one upturned face in exception to that, but there's always an outlier, isn't there?
Jesus and Paul are closer together than in any other piece, so much so that you can see them looking right into each others' eyes. Oh, and in this one, the horse is down, but Paul is still mounted, according him a dignity and status that other paintings do not.
There is also some wonderful symmetry and shape to this piece, with Paul's arms framing the edge of the circle of heaven. Everything above is fluid and in motion, everything below is fixed and static, but Paul is halfway in between both worlds. His arms are outstretched, and reminiscent of the crucifixion, perhaps foreshadowing the Christ-like suffering that he will face in his own ministry. But the arms of Jesus are interesting too: One is reaching down to Paul, like the Rubens painting beckoning him upward. But Jesus' other arm is pointing outward into the distance--a reminder that conversion is not just a call for us to change our ways, but also a call for us to get up and go, to proclaim the gospel to the world. This is also foreshadowing Paul's new road and his mission to the gentiles.
Bringing it all together
I hope you've enjoyed this little trip through art history and our scripture story. All of the images we've talked about today are posted on the church website in case you'd like some time to look at them more closely.
I want to leave you today with this thought: While not everyone is gifted with the skill or talent of a master painter, all of us carry in our hearts and minds images and understandings of our sacred stories--they are just as varied, just as diverse and beautiful as we are. The way we see Jesus, the way we understand Jesus, has profound implications for how we share Jesus with other people. But that's exactly what Jesus calls us--and inspires us--to do.
May all of your art--your music, your dancing, your singing, your writing, your craftsmanship--whatever it is that you do--be a living testimony to the one who meets us on the road, the one who knocks us down and lifts us back up again, the one who gives us new purpose, new hope, and unfailing love.
Thanks be to God!