I was born a slave, though I did not know it, I thought myself the freest of men. I had all the advantages of a privileged upbringing -- the best education that money, hard work and devoted parents could supply. I was still very young when they decided that Tarsus was too provincial to develop my talents, and sent me to Jerusalem. I was -- and I can say this now without the disclaimers of false modesty, for I know how little it matters -- the kind of student any rabbi would rejoice to have: bright, eager, quick to learn, and taking my studies and their subject matter very seriously. I was very devout at an age where most young men are more interested in pursuing pleasure than wisdom, and with all my heart I sought to earn approval – the approval of my distant parents, and my teachers, but, most of all, the approval of God. If I knew that who I was and what I did was absolutely pleasing to God, then it would never matter what anyone else thought of me.
And that, of course, was slavery of the darkest kind, for how can a prideful, foolish human being ever hope to please God? But I thought that I could do it; I thought that by study and effort and tremendous zeal I could be all that God required, putting all lesser men to shame. I was a slave to the Law, and I did not even know my bondage.
All went well until the Christians came along. I had never met their Founder, who was executed by the Romans when I was not in Jerusalem, but the followers soon became deeply offensive to me. It wasn’t that they disobeyed or disparaged the Law exactly (this is hard to put exactly into words) it was more that .. somehow .. they had superseded it, moved it away from the centre .. turned their focus away from all the sacred commandments as the rabbis had explained them for centuries, and put a mere human being, this Jesus, who died the death of a common criminal at the centre of things instead. I was there when one of them was stoned for blasphemy – it disturbed me deeply – not the stoning, you understand, but the man himself. It was then I decided that this Christianity must be exterminated: for the sake of God’s holy name, I told myself, but it was really for the sake of my peace of mind. I had found something that seemed to work, and invested my whole self in it; I was not going to let anything or anyone spoil it for me! And, for a little while, it worked: I channelled all my unease into fiercer zeal, and became the scourge of the nascent church.
Then came the day when it fell apart, and God Himself stepped in to smash the chains of my old slavery. Memory is a strange thing. I remember so clearly the white heat of the day, and the taste of dust in my throat, yet I cannot remember who was with me, and what they said or did. But I remember the light, which made the midnight sun seem as night, as if light from beyond this world had gathered itself together, to assault and overcome my deliberate darkness.
But most of all, I remember the voice. If love has a sound, that is how it sounded, pure and perfect beyond all human understanding. And the voice told me I was wrong, utterly and terribly wrong. I had tried to rid the world of those who challenged my hard-won, deeply invested understanding of God, but it was God Himself I was fighting. He was not who I thought he was. I had read the Law, I had studied the law, I was in thrall to the Law, but I had never understood the Law. The Law could never make me holy, but this Jesus could. He was who the Law had been about. Somehow I had imagined it was about me.
Yes, I am still a slave. But this slavery does not bring death, but life. On that day on the road to Damascus, I fell to the ground in horror, and found I had fallen at the feet of Love. And Love will never leave me, and there is nothing in all creation that I desire compared to him, my Saviour and my God. I will seek his will and follow his word till the end of my days, though the whole earth rise as one against me. For now I am bond-slave to the one whose service is perfect freedom, perfect peace, and everlasting love.