By David Harrison
“The Road to Damascus”
This may be one of a dwindling number of biblical references which still has some popular currency and resonance. A hardened criminal, behind bars with a criminal record as long as his (or her) arm, has his “road to Damascus”. A friend bound and determined to hold a deep grudge suddenly has her “road to Damascus” and reaches out for reconciliation and peace. A wealthy tycoon, coming to the end of a long life of ruthless business acumen and wealth accumulation, has his “road to Damascus” and gives it all away.
But, of course, it is St. Paul who first walked this road. A story we hear twice today. First, as part of Paul’s defense of himself against King Agrippa on charges of treason and blasphemy. And then in the introductory words of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
The recounting of the road to Damascus in the Book of Acts focuses on the details of the event. Paul, armed with the authority of the chief priests, is walking to Damascus in order to continue his violent, murderous regime of persecution against the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. And there, at mid-day, he and his companions see a light brighter than the sun. They fall to the ground and he hears a voice. “I am Jesus, the one whom you are persecuting. Get up and stand on your own feet. For I am appointing you to serve and to testify.” And in his letter to the Galatians Paul is providing his inner experience of that moment on the road to Damascus. You’ve heard, he admits, of my earlier life when I was violently persecuting the Church, trying to destroy it. He admits he advanced ahead of his peers because of the depth of his zealousness — his ambition. But that God had set him apart, even before he was born. And sent him to proclaim the faith to the Gentiles.
And so Saul becomes Paul. And let’s not sugar-coat it. The life of a violent and murderous man is changed, and he becomes an apostle of God’ grace and love.
Saul is, in short, broken. His name is broken. He sheds his old name and adopts a new name. But, what’s– more, he shed his old identity and, at mid-day, on that road to Damascus, assumes a new identity. His heart of stone has become a heart of flesh.
But — what does this have to do with today’s celebration of the ordination to the sacred priesthood of Colin Bowler? Sure, we gather in this parish church which bears Paul’s name. And we gather to celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.
But still, is that all that can be said about celebrating an ordination to the priesthood mindful of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus? And isn’t today about completion, not breaking? Isn’t today about the completion for Colin of a journey begun a long time ago of formation and discernment? Today is, surely, about Colin’s journey to priesthood being made whole. Being made complete when he is presented to us by the bishop: Colin, priest of the Church of God.
Well, yes. But here’s the thing. The priesthood is about broken things. Priest handle broken things.
To serve as a priest of the Church is to come face-to-face with brokenness. It is to be invited deep into the fissures and fractions of life. Broken people. Wounded by disease, suffering, hardship, neglect, isolation, abuse. Broken relationships. Broken families. Separated by hardness of heart, by sin, by narrow mindedness, but human frailty. Broken systems. Which reward greed, ambition, self-centeredness, injustice. Sometimes, yes, broken parishes. Torn apart visibility or invisibly by conflict, misunderstanding, hardness of heart. A broken Church, still caught in visible disunity. Something we remember in the midst of this week of prayer for Christian unity.
Colin, you know already, by and through your life, of brokenness. (It would be impossible to reach the age of I’m-not-going-to-say, and not know deeply and really of brokenness, and loss, and regret.) And my hunch is that, in these last eight months of ordained ministry as a transitional deacon, you have seen that brokenness up close and (I trust) in a new way.
But when you become a priest, you will handle broken things you have never handled before. You will handle bread, and you will handle wine. Bread which is broken– bread that you will break — so that it may be shared. And wine which is poured out — bread that you will pour out — so that it may shared. Celebrating the eucharist is the summit of what it is to be a priest. And at that summit is — brokenness. Broken bread and poured wine. At the summit of the eucharist is a broken body and poured out blood. At the summit of the eucharist is the Broken One — Jesus our Christ. The One who, in the great mystery of the Incarnation we have just celebrated, takes on what it is to be human, and broken — takes it on, in order to redeem and save it. To redeem and save us.
The stock-in-trade of priests are broken things. And all of our handling of those things which are broken – people, relationships, systems — flows from our handling of the broken bread and wine which are poured out for the world. And as we lift that bread and wine up to God, we lift up the brokenness of the world to God.
As a priest you will try to bring wholeness to broken things. You will counsel and pray and care and comfort. You will advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. You will seek to coax healing from where there is brokenness. And may God equip you in that ministry.
But — still – the bread which you break will be put in our hands as broken bread. And the wine which you pour out will be given to us in tiny sips. You will not make those things whole. God will, and does, make those things whole. God heals the brokenness. God mends the torn fabric of our lives and our world. God resurrects. And, as priest of the Church, you will hold all that is crying out for wholeness and healing up to God, in prayer.
St. Paul is very clear about this. There is not the slightest hint in either account of the road to Damascus that his conversion is his own doing. Quite the contrary. God was pleased, Paul says, pleased to reveal Jesus Christ to him, in order that he proclaim Jesus among the Gentiles. Paul’s conversation it not planned or expected– it is pure grace. And a man is broken and made new.
One more thing. And that is that you, Colin, will also be broken. Being priest will break you. You may be broken by heartache. Or by frustration. Or by despair. Sometimes the brokenness of people break your heart. Sometimes it will break your will. Sometimes it will break your self-confidence. sometimes the Church as an institution will break you. (Trust me on this.)
Not because anyone wants to (although a few might). But because the people to whom you minister, and your parish, and your bishop, and the Church, are holy people, and this is a holy institution. But it is still of the created order of the world, which longs for completion and healing by the grace and mercy of God. I am the broken bread and the poured out wine. You are the broken bread and the poured out wine. We are the broken bread and the poured out wine. And we pray that God will make us whole.
Colin. This is your road to Damascus. Unlike St. Paul, you know where this short walk (from your pew to the bishop) which you will in just a moment take, will bring you. You are ready. The Church is ready. We trust that God is ready. You will be lifted up, in prayer, with the sacred laying on of hands, to be a priest of the Church of God. Your vocation to this sacred order will be complete, and your life as one who handles broken things will begin.
Don’t despair. This is not an easy calling, but it is a holy calling. There is, truly, no life like it. After you have knelt, get up (just like Paul). Get up. Stand on your feet. Stand up and serve and testify to the Broken One. Who by his very death and resurrection, restores us to life. And makes us whole.
The Rev. Canon David Harrison is rector of St. Mary Magdalene’s Anglican Church, Toronto.