Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Acts 9:1-19.
God has a really funny way of doing business. He choses a murderer with a speech impediment to lead His people out of Egypt, an ethically challenged chiseler to bear the name of the nation of Israel, and a murderous philanderer to unite the kingdom of His people. In today’s reading, Luke reports that despite the resurrection, Saul continued to breathe threats and murder against those who followed the Way. Let’s be clear about this: Saul was engaged in genocide against those who followed Christ.
And so, had the Lord asked me about his selection of Saul, like Ananias I would have asked Him, “Are you really sure this is the guy?” You see, not much in Saul’s life suggested that he would be the person most responsible for spreading the message of Jesus throughout the Empire. God, however, had something remarkable in mind. God knew something we really struggle against: people can change.
While en route to Damascus to continue in his campaign of annihilation, Saul (or Paul, in the Greek form of the name) encounters the risen Lord. Again, the reading meshes well into our Epiphany theme, as Scripture records that he was surrounded by a light from heaven.
This passage further reinforces our understanding of the Church as the body of Christ. Saul, of course, was persecuting the early Church. Jesus didn’t ask, “Why are you messing with my church?” Rather, Jesus asks Saul, “Why are you persecuting me?” Already, in the book of Acts, the Church is identified therefore with the body of Christ.
After his post-resurrection encounter with Jesus, Paul loses his sight for three days. This story fits very well within an idea we’ve already encountered, the distinction between physical observation and spiritual insight. And Paul must lose his physical powers of insight before he can gain a genuine spiritual vision. God was reshaping Paul’s understanding of the Lord and his entire world-vision. It’s as though this transformation, this conversion, required a complete reboot of his system. Paul must have gone through a terrible loneliness during this time. As Bonhoeffer once observed, we are never more isolated than we are in becoming a Christian, but the alienation occurs for the sake of a new community.
For most of us, our conversion experience will not look like this. Although I’ve run across them now and then, most folks will not find their conversion so complete or so dramatic. I’ve found that my conversion takes place in small increments, daily, through several small decisions to follow Jesus’ example, through self-denial and participation in the sacramental life with which the Church has blessed us, and mostly through God’s redeeming grace.
And yet, God chose Saul–this monster, this antagonist and enemy of the early Church. God saw within him “an instrument to bring my name before gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” It’s worth noting that Saul’s conversion required more of him than simply changing his mind about things. Saul’s conversion, like ours, carried along with it a call and a vocation. Rather than simply offering a new way of looking at things, his conversion required an apostolic commitment as Saul would be sent out to serve in the world. Ours does too.
So today, as we celebrate the Feast of St. Paul’s conversion, I hope this story serves as a reminder of the need for charity towards our enemies, and perhaps even charity towards ourselves. God may yet have in mind a way to use them (and us) for his redeeming work. As children of the Creator, we may all someday become new creatures, a great blessing and a great gift to the Church. Saul did.
May the peace of Christ disturb you profoundly,
© 2012 James R. Dennis