By Paul N. Walker
Before the Apostle Paul was the Apostle Paul, he was Saul, a man who fiercely persecuted Christians. But one day when he was on horseback on the road to Damascus, the risen Christ appeared to him, saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul was literally knocked off his high horse and blinded by the light.
While Saul was lying on the ground, unable to see, Jesus gave Saul his new mission in life. He said,
But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you … to open [people’s] eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.
Saul became the Apostle Paul, the chief articulator of the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ.
We hear a direct reference to his Damascus Road experience in this morning’s reading from Colossians. Paul tells his group of fledgling Christians that God “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” That is a clear reprisal of Jesus’ charge to him while he was lying on the ground in darkness.
There are certain passages of Scripture that efficiently articulate the Gospel, and today’s passage is one of them. Remember, the gospel is not an adjective — “gospel music” or “gospel truth.” The gospel is not a call to action — “the gospel compels you to do so-and-so.” The gospel is not a genre of literature — “a reading from the Gospel of Mark.”
Instead, the gospel is news. It is an announcement of something that has already happened — “the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup for the fourth time.” Now, you may like the U.S. women’s soccer team, you may dislike the U.S. women’s soccer team, you may not care about the U.S. women’s soccer team, you may have never heard of the U.S. women’s soccer team, or of the sport called soccer, or of the country called the United States. None of that matters. None of that has any bearing on the fact, the news, that the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup.
Like that announcement, the gospel is news. Specifically, the Gospel is good news. And more specifically, the gospel is good news about God and people. In Paul’s iteration of that good news in his letter to the Colossians, it is the announcement that God has “rescued us.” Specifically, “He has rescued us from the power of darkness.”
Let’s pause there to peer into the power of darkness. But let’s not pause too long or peer too keenly, because the power of darkness will make us shudder. Remember that the Bible’s worldview recognizes the presence of an active malevolence. This is why the first question a baptismal candidate is asked is, “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” It’s followed by, “Do you renounce all the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
What is the power of darkness? With the new season of Stranger Things, and the plethora of superhero movies, there are plenty of cinematic depictions of the more obvious powers of darkness, which seek to corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. These “powers and principalities,” as the Bible calls them, are real. But let me give you a more relatable illustration of the power of darkness’s endgame. Robert Capon, our favorite theologian, describes his vision of hell. It is a description that has convicting power for those of us here on earth:
the neat spirit of hell is a championing of the right so profound that it produces a permanent unwillingness to forgive, an eternal conviction that wrong should be prevented whenever possible and punished whenever not, but that it must never under any circumstances be absolved. … That is the hell of hell. That’s why it’s presided over by the rightest angel who ever lived.
If you are a person who always has to be right, or a person who has to see justice done, you know the neat satisfaction of seeing wrongdoers punished or having the truth vindicated. The world needs this to happen to stay on its axis. But you also know the personal toll that having to be right exacts on a relationship.
I found this out in the Christ Church parking lot. If you’ve ever attempted to park at Christ Church, not just on a Sunday, but at any hour of any day, you know it is next to impossible. I have to admit that sometimes during the week I take a perverse pleasure in catching transgressors trying to park in our lot. I’m happy for parishioners to use it, but it drives me nuts when random people ignore our signs and take up one of our 18 spaces. It’s just not right.
At the end of a particularly tiring day, I caught a young couple leaving their car and walking to the downtown mall. I have to say, I kind of lit into them: “May I help you? Are you here on church business? Can’t you read the signs?” I only stopped my harangue because it dawned on me who they were — a young couple I really liked and who had started coming to Christ Church on Sundays at my invitation to hear the preacher preach about the grace of God. I had been very excited that they were in church. Despite my apology to them in the parking lot, you already will have guessed that the previous Sunday was their last Sunday ever at Christ Church.
On that note, we’ll move on to the second part of Paul’s gospel announcement. Having rescued us from the power of darkness, God has “transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Again, Capon gives us a glimpse of this kingdom into which we have been transferred:
though earth can sometimes indeed be heaven, it can never quite manage to be pure hell: there is always the chance that out of pure feeble-mindedness if nothing else we might just drop the subject of being right.
… Heaven is not the home of the good but of the forgiven forgivers; … everybody in heaven, God himself included, has decided to die to the question of who’s wrong; whereas nobody in hell can even shut up about who’s right.
As an illustration of this new kingdom, there is moving scene in the novel The Overstory, which won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. A woman comes to see a therapist who has a thriving practice but a highly unusual method: she and her client look directly at one another, locking eyes and not saying a word for three full hours. Strange, right? Try staring at another person for more than six seconds. Most people, even people newly in love, find it too intimidating and intimate to hold the gaze.
But the therapy works. Her waiting list is a mile long. The session described in the novel includes the thoughts going through the patient Stephanie’s head, thoughts like, “Do I make sense to you? Am I much like everyone else?” The tensions builds:
At half an hour, Stephanie melts down. She’s hungry, stiff, itchy, and so sick of herself she wants to sleep forever. The truth seeps out of her, a bodily discharge. You shouldn’t trust me. I don’t deserve this. You see? I’m [messed] up in ways even my children don’t suspect.
What the therapist does, and why her therapy works, is to look directly at her clients without judgment for as long as they need. Finally, after three hours, Stephanie (and the therapist) burst into tears: “Who are you? Why won’t you stop? No one has ever looked at me like this, except to judge. … In my whole life, my whole life, never.”
The kingdom of God’s beloved Son is not the realm of the good but of the forgiven. And that’s because on the cross of Christ, the Lord decided to die to the question of who’s wrong. In fact, it is we, all of us who were wrong, who were blinded by the power of darkness. But in his mercy, God has rescued us in Christ Jesus, in whom we have the forgiveness of sins.
I’ll close with a prayer from the Daily Devotions for noon, in our Book of Common Prayer. This one could sum up the Apostle Paul’s mission to the world. As we’re seated, let us pray: “Blessed Savior, at this hour you hung upon the cross, stretching out your loving arms: Grant that all the peoples of the earth may look to you and be saved; for your tender mercies’ sake. Amen.”
The Rev. Paul N. Walker is rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Charlottesville, Virginia.