The story of the conversion of Saul is a familiar one, placed in the Epiphany season as both an educational tale about the early days of the followers of Jesus Christ outside of the disciples who followed him in the flesh, and also a story about how one of the most hated persecutors of those Christians became a preacher and evangelist who reached people outside the usual group who had previously heard of Jesus. While the disciples themselves were preachers and teachers, the story of Saul is one of epiphany, trial, and forging new ground in the spread of the news of Jesus Christ outside of Israel.
Saul was a fervent Pharisee, educated in the law and also the practices of Judaism. Pharisees were strict followers of both the written and oral traditions of the faith, strict in interpretation and practice. He was a type of super-Pharisee since part of his job was to find those who were not following the laws and traditions as strictly as they felt it should be, and to crack down on those who practiced heresy, blasphemy, and other crimes against the teachings of Judaism.
Saul was zealous in his searching for law-breakers, and that is how he came to be present at the stoning of a man called Stephen, a deacon in the congregation of the apostles in Jerusalem, and a spokesman for the teachings of Christ to those who would listen and possibly become new proselytes in the faith. Paul stood guard over the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen for his blasphemy, and who approved and encouraged the stoning to its conclusion with Stephen’s death. He had undoubtedly heard Stephen’s masterful recital of the history of salvation in the scriptures but was unswayed by Stephen’s arguments that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God, and the messenger of salvation for the world.
From the story in Acts, we know that Saul sought permission to go to Damascus to disrupt the growing movement called “The Way” and gained approval from the high priest to do so. As Saul approached Damascus, he was stopped by a blinding light, which caused him to fall off his mount onto the roadway, blind and frightened by a loud voice asking why Saul had persecuted the man Jesus and his followers. This was Saul’s first meeting with Jesus in person. Saul was told to go into Damascus and to follow the directions he would be given. Some men of the town helped him to the house of a man called Judas (how curious that the man named Judas betrayed Jesus but another gave refuge to a persecutor of Jesus). Saul stayed there for three days, not eating or drinking but praying.
On the third day, a man named Ananias (another coincidence, since another Ananias was the high priest who condemned Jesus) came to the house at God’s command, although with some trepidation, knowing Saul’s reputation as a relentless man toward followers of Jesus. He told Saul what God had instructed him to do and touched his eyes, allowing Saul to see once again. Saul may have been blinded under his original name and profession, but was reborn with new sight, a baptism for cleansing, a new job as an evangelist, and a new name, Paul.
Paul went on to evangelize the gentiles around the Mediterranean, and to travel to many ports and cities, establishing new outposts of Christianity. His many letters to various groups of new Christians became the earliest and most influential writings about the new church. Many times students of Paul’s writings wish he had used more punctuation (Koine Greek and Hebrew did not use commas, periods, etc.), and that Paul had included the text or at least the gist of the letters to which he was replying so that we could more accurately establish precisely to what he was talking about in his replies. We wrestle with some of the concepts (slavery, homosexuality, the role of women, etc.) he either stated or condemned, but we have learned in the past couple of centuries that we don’t consider the context of Paul’s words and world when it comes to translation, culture, or words that don’t appear anywhere else in Biblical literature. We have even fought wars over the interpretation of Paul’s utterances.
It is little doubt that the teachings of Paul have had an impact on Christianity, second only to Jesus Christ himself. For someone who never met Jesus in the flesh, many of his writings have had much more effect on the faith than the words of even Jesus’s disciples themselves. It is because of Paul, the Way moved out of mainstream Judaism and into the inclusion of gentiles, and outcasts. Paul’s travels and expansion of outposts of Christian believers set the stage for global recognition and, in many cases, acceptance of that faith in many lands and cultures. It has not always been easy; in fact, wars on the grounds of religious belief are still part of our global perspective. Nevertheless, we have much for which to thank Paul, not least the lengths he had to go to and the suffering he had to endure to complete his task as God instructed.
We may not have conversions as dramatic as Paul’s, but now and then, when we get knocked off our donkeys, we have to stop and look around for what might be in front of our faces that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. While we’re at it, we might need to rely on our other senses other than mere sight to tell us when God is trying to get our attention. We might not get a new identity or a lot of renown, but we’ll be a bit closer to doing God’s will and carrying Jesus’s message. Isn’t that our primary job as Christians?
Beware of bright lights and rearing donkeys today. We might be in for a real change in our lives.
Image: Conversione_di_san_Paolo (Conversion of St Paul), Domenico Morelli, 1876, Cattedrale di Altamura. Found at Wikimedia Commons.