Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The questioning of a flashback: why would Saul see Jesus rather than Stephen?

Last week I raised an uncomfortable question. I do not question that Saul had a flashback on the way to Damascus – the stories that follow closely conform to the characteristics of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The issue is, why did Saul see Jesus - whom we have no account of him ever encountering - and not the stoning of Stephen?

What we have in the memory of a post-traumatic event is, of course, not wholly accurate. Remembrances vary over time – a minimum of thirty days, and we are reading a long recounted event. Saul experienced it, Paul would have witnessed to it as he preached. The writers who passed on the story did so in the context of their own situation.

Jesus’ words, as must have shared in many sermons, accused Saul of “persecuting” him. “Persecution” is simply not an accurate description of the events in Jesus’ life, “abuse,” would be. He was physically abused by some Roman soldiers after Pilate agreed to his execution. He was also verbally abused on the cross – directly attributed to some Pharisees. There is then yet another story of abuse, an account in all three Synoptic Gospels, and it is a sadistic one. After the High Priest ripped his robe apart and yelled out his condemning judgment of Jesus, it is recorded that some persons – it sounds adolescent – spat on him. Perhaps significantly, for our question about Saul, they also blindfolded Jesus and punched him - probably laughing as if playing a game, “If you are a prophet, tell us who hit you?” The question Saul heard on the way on the way to Damascus seems in response to that. You can imagine how it would hit a person who suddenly remembered that. A blinding revelation.

What is important to us, I think, is that this story of Jesus’ abused is linked to Peter’s frightened denial of even knowing Jesus. We need to set these stories in the historical context of the writing of the three Gospels. It was a time best described as “persecution.” Christians were literally thrown to the lions in the Coliseum.  In that context, Paul would already be honored as a martyr. If he were in that group who were beating a blindfolded Jesus, Paul could have witnessed to that event in his preaching as a part of testifying to Christ’s forgiveness, but no later Christian writer could have told the story on Saul, without insulting the great Apostle’s memory.

In a time of persecution, however, the story of Peter’s denial and – as an educated guess – Saul’s “persecution” would be of vital importance. Under threat of torture or death, some Christians would have denied their Lord; some of those who tortured or did actually killings, were nevertheless potential converts – those experiences can turn you around. Both the abused and the abusers were being addressed in that twined story of Jesus’ ordeal. 
Then came the execution: between two persons, one who taunted, one who admitted wrong doing and plead for mercy: both thieves. It is a beautifully created doubling, isn’t it?

My guess is that we are reading history, alright, from the time of taking of the sacrament that Passover, to the disciples breaking and running, to the abuses, and last words on the cross. Saul would have them flash on his mind repeatedly, have to work through them. He did, talked them out, witnessing to forgiveness, growth in Christ. 

Persons from all over the Roman Empire were being caught up in violence of many kinds; all were invited to work those experiences through: out grow them, use them.

So are you and I. 

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