And immediately Saul began to proclaim to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ”He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
Some volte-face! Some mind change! Once an opponent, now an advocate, apparently, and an enthusiastic one. What to make of it all? Confirmed, actually, in his Jewishness, but now with a deeper understanding of its meaning and destiny, Saul was treading a dangerous and unfamiliar path in that Damascus synagogue.
Nonetheless, although no great orator by his own admission, Saul was clearly convincing. Spell-binding oratory can blind us to the inadequacy of the case being put. Powerful speeches can persuade where the content otherwise would not. Saul’s case surely relied on its content and not on its delivery.
Saul was clearly a divisive figure. His message convinced some, but threatened, alienated and scandalised others. Although he attracted followers, many Jews regarded him as a dangerous subversive who had to be dealt with. Things came to a head, and he had to be got out of Damascus for his own safety. This is the stuff of adventure films, this lowering in a basket – but it’s hardly a dignified withdrawal.
Oratory is a great gift in the hands, or mouths, of the good and public-spirited, but it carries a menace when used by the unscrupulous. On the other hand, advocacy of the good can threaten not only those seeking to us harm and evil, but also those excessively wedded to the status quo. We who seek to advance the good have to stand up and be counted, and we may have to carry the bruises on our journey.
O Lord God, Give us discerning minds, But not that negative cast which casts innovation cynically aside.
Give us the wisdom to see the path ahead, And to avoid those attractive alternative sidelines.
Give us the courage to lead others to positive living, And the humility, ourselves, to follow wise leadership where we find it.
Give us the resolve to follow wisdom, wherever it may lead, And the character to avoid folly, And the insight to discern the difference.
Ed Strachan is a Lay Preacher, Elder and member of Heald Green URC in Cheshire.