Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
In May, as a part of my continuing education, my wife Janna and I visited the city of Rome. My summer sermon series in the Footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul is based on that visit. This morning we turn to St. Paul and the dramatic event on the road to Damascus that eventually would lead him to Rome.
When our sons Vitali and Alexei arrived from Russia, they quickly learned the names of the Italian masters Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello and Michelangelo. Of course, it wasn’t through an art appreciation class. No, they were watching episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Perhaps it prepared them for the visual arts or at best the Japanese martial arts. But I do know, that if there had been a fifth turtle in that mutant teenage series, he would have been named Caravaggio, and they would have been fascinated by him, just as he has done to audiences for the past 400 years. And Caravaggio would have been the most reckless and artistic mutant turtle in the teenage clan.
The 16th century Italian painter, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, was active in Rome for most of his artistic career, which was very short, only 38 years. Yet he was regarded as the artistic world’s rock star with blazing colors, dramatic contrasts between light and dark, and foreshortened figures which inspired the next generation of Baroque artists across Europe, from Peter Paul Rubens to Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to Rembrandt.
Caravaggio, however, was also the legendary bad boy in the Roman art world. His life was turbulent and his attitude perilous. His litany of angry actions included throwing a plate of artichokes in the waiter’s face, casting a sword against another man in a love dispute, hurling stones at his landlady and the worst of all murdering a man over a tennis match brawl. With a death sentence hanging round his neck, Caravaggio fled from Rome to Naples, to Sicily and to Malta. Everywhere he went he was pursued by those he had hurt and those who were opposed to him. He eventually won a papal pardon for his crime and sailed home to Rome. He died mysteriously on-board ship, either from fever as was officially reported, or murder which was insinuated.
25 of Caravaggio’s 90 paintings can been seen in Rome today, and many are in churches where they can be visited free- unless you want a better look. The churches in Rome are often very dark, but if you put in a euro coin in a time operated machine, the lights will go on for two minutes so you can study the paintings in better light. Two of Caravaggio’s most poignant and personal works are found in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo. The one is of the Crucifixion of St. Peter and the other the Conversion of Paul on the Road to Damascus. You may recall that in Rome, you seldom see a picture or statue of one saint, without seeing the other near by. The picture of Paul is the image you see on the bulletin.
There seems to be a painful and canny affinity between Caravaggio and the St. Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus. Saul, too, was a colorful, violent and conflicted character. In scripture, we read that he was a fiery Pharisee, who loved the law and in faithfulness lived by it. The Apostle Paul or Saul of Tarsus was a Greek-speaking Jew from Asia Minor who was sent from his home in Tarsus to Jerusalem to study the Jewish Scriptures at the feet of Gamaliel. This noted rabbi was a respected member of the Sanhedrin who showed gentleness and restraint when the Apostles were on trial. Gamaliel spoke against violence and persecution towards the church and said that if this movement was not of God, it would ultimately fail. If it was of God, he added, the Sanhedrin had no right to oppose it.
The teaching of his mentor Gamaliel, however, didn’t temper Saul’s attitude towards the Way. Instead, like his zealous, religious brothers in faith, Saul viewed the Christian concept of a suffering servant and crucified Messiah unappealing. He wanted a Messiah who would overthrow the Roman armies. Saul could not comprehend Christian new found Way, and so, determined to preserve the purity of the Jewish faith, he began a series of hateful persecutions. Breathing murderous threats against the followers of the Way, he galloped off to Damascus to pursue and secure the truth. But the Truth he sought, seized him. God changed the hateful man. In the words of the Apostle himself from his letter to the Philippians, Saul said, “I was overpowered by Christ.”
Caravaggio captured that overpowering moment in his painting. Eliminating the extras, he let darkness pervade his canvas, so that that the observer focuses onto the essential and the intimate encounter between Paul and Christ. The young passionate persecutor is flung off his horse and pinned to the ground. He lies there silent, stunned with arms raised in surrender, hearing the voice speaking directly to him, “Saul Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Oddly, it is not a question, “Why are you persecuting my followers, my people or my church?” It is the directedness of his sin. Jesus’ voice is clarion and pointed, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” For Saul, it is a profound, life changing moment. It is his conversion. In solemn ecstasy Saul with outstretched arms seems to embrace God’s new vision.
Interestingly Caravaggio lets the horse dominate his composition. The huge steed towers over Saul. His upturned hoof lingers dangerously mid-air as if about it could strike or trample upon the persecutor. The delicate balance of the uneasy hooves creates a visual tension that serves as a metaphor to meditate on. Unlike Saul, and quite unlike the artist Caravaggio himself, the all-powerful God cares and is careful where he treads. He crushes the sin and not the sinner. In that moment of Paul’s conversion, the one who knew about God came to know God. The zealous apostle who pursued revenge for God’s-sake, suddenly and drastically realized that God’s revenge was not destruction, but love. It also brings about hope. Where the mighty Saul once fell, there an even mightier Paul would soon rise up.
Although conversion is basically a change in one’s relationship to God., it is more often about being enlightened than being blinded. But spiritual change or conversion involves a transformation in behavior as well. Perhaps that is what the bad boy Caravaggio didn’t see. Paul, however, grew to understand that change in behavior was needed daily. Conversion points you toward a spiritual goal which you must pursue in light of the actions of your past.
Of course, as the church we believe in the possibility of a road to Damascus experience, but deep inside we also struggle with them. Like the skeptical Ananias in Damascus we wonder: Does anyone ever really change? Maybe, you feel the same about someone you know or love, or perhaps yourself.
My friends, as one who has known unlikely candidates for God’s kingdom who were converted by a chance meeting with Christ on a deserted way, I am convinced that lives can be changed, and I believe that the story of Saul provides us with a guide and hope.
First of all, Saul reminded the church that his own healing did not take place in a moment or in the twinkling of an eye. When he was converted, he did not return to the scene of the crime in Jerusalem or even to the place of salvation in Damascus, and proclaim that I am a changed man. According to the Book of Acts Paul went out into the wilderness, where God could speak to him and taught him the ways of suffering. He remained there for three years learning and growing in the love of God
Second, Saul reminded the church, that the true word of healing was not his own. He was not sent by his own authority or with his own approval. After three years in the wilderness, Saul returned to Jerusalem, and there he received the word of strength and confirmation from Peter. Here were two men who had both denied Christ. For 15 days they shared their faith journey. Together they confessed their regrets and failings, and together they encouraged one another to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Change, you see, may not be discernable to you, but true change is always recognizable to others.
Finally, Saul reminded the church that many times you cannot return to the places you know best. No matter how hard you try and as painful as it may be, your change is the only one you can count on and measure. Saul did not go back to Tarsus, Jerusalem or Damascus. Rather, God called him to new ventures and thus, the hated and despised Saul, became the beloved Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles.
My friends, in your personal longing for change, you must be prepared as well for something new. You may not be allowed to return to the relationships that once were. The pain and sorrow you caused then may continue to haunt you and the rumors of your past may arise and cause you to stumble. But trust that God’s salvation will change you for the better and that that same unbounded grace will move you to a new place where you will discover who God has called you to be. You were once struck down like Saul, but by God’s infinite power and grace, you have been raised up like Paul. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.