The Conversion of St. Paul , 25. January 2004
Acts 9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus , suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 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 . 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 11 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, 12 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." 13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem ; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 15 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 ; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 17 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." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus , 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 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?" 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
What's in a Name?
The week of prayer for Christian unity ends, appropriately, with the minor festival of the Conversion of St. Paul. This is among the earliest and perhaps most misinterpreted of the New Testament stories taught to us in the Lutheran elementary school that I attended as a boy. We were taught that Saul, a persecutor of the early followers of Jesus is blinded on the Damascus road and becomes Paul, the proclaimer of Jesus. This transformation was the biblical equivalent of Clark Kent becoming Superman or Bruce Wayne becoming Batman, with the twist that Saul was surely “bad” and Paul was purely “good.”
The unfortunate thing about this way of telling the story is that we get hung up in several places. First, the name change. Careful examination of Luke's story in Acts shows us that it is several chapters after Saul's conversion that the name changes, and then it comes not with a change in personality or attitude on the part of Saul, but rather as he moves in the story from Hebrew speaking to Greek speaking communities. Saul's name doesn't change, we are just given the Greek version of it as he preaches to a Greek audience, or so it seems. One myth down the drain. The second unfortunate thing here, is that the focus on the change in Paul might seem attractive to us, but it leaves young children and the young at heart thinking that Paul is the hero. In Acts, he is not. He is very human, and prone to pride and mistakes. He is no super hero. The third unfortunate thing is that it leaves the real value of this story out of our purview. When we focus on Paul, we don't see the center of his message, we don't see the Gospel at all. And with this, I think Paul would be aghast.
The reality with Paul is that the name change is minor when compared to the change that Paul brings both to the understanding of Judaism in his day, and the understanding of how the Gospel reaches people. And all of this springs from an encounter with the real hero of our story, the risen Jesus.
It was, after all, an encounter with the risen Jesus that makes it all happen for Paul, just as last week, with the Confession of St. Peter, it was not Peter, but his confession of Jesus that was the Rock, the anchor for the foundation of the Church. So this week, it is not Paul, but Jesus who has the vision and shares that vision of what the Church and its mission might be.
The extraordinary thing that we learn about God, in Jesus, is that forgiveness and conversion are possible at all. Acts (and we must admit that Luke may exaggerate for the sake of the story) portrays Paul as the greatest enemy of the earliest followers of “The Way.” But rather than smite him, or demonize him, Jesus instead takes his gifts of zeal and persuasion, and puts them to work for the Gospel.
An encounter with the risen Lord can do that for a person. There have been countless stories over the years that proclaim this basic principle. The hymn, “Amazing Grace,” sings it not only as Paul's song, but also as ours. The first good news in this story is that God doesn't give up on Paul, nor does God give up on us. Even when we are at enmity with God, God loves us and claims us. And since God does not separate us into “good” people and “evil” people, we no longer have to do that with each other. We need not justify our actions by pointing at others and proclaiming how bad they are, quite simply because God does not.
Conversion happens. Turnarounds happen. But they don't happen because I make them happen in myself. They happen because I am grasped, time after time, in an encounter with the risen Christ. Such is the wonder of our God.
Paul's radical understanding of the Gospel
Paul's conversion alone would not be enough of a reason to celebrate his life with a Church festival, no matter how minor. It is his radical understanding of both the calling of his own people, the Jews, and the good news for all the people's of the earth that make Paul stand out.
As hard as it may be for Lutherans like me to admit, the center of Paul's teaching may not be “justification by grace through faith,” though that certainly is a prominent point in his theology. The radical center of Paul's preaching seems to be that in Jesus, the covenant God made with Israel has reached its climax. (For more about this, see the writings of N. T. Wright. In particular his short book, What Saint Paul Really Said or his longer book, The Climax of the Covenant .) Paul understands a continuity between the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the God who acted in Jesus Christ. Paul sees that God has fulfilled his covenant promises even though Israel did not, except through Jesus. Paul understands grace as larger than forgiveness for the individual. In fact, Paul was the first, or perhaps the most vocal, to see that grace is larger than just the people of Israel .
Paul extends the understanding of God's love in Christ Jesus to all the gentile peoples of the earth. He argued, successfully, with other early leaders that it is no longer circumcision or the keeping of the cultic laws of Israel , but rather the Gospel itself that binds people together. Thus, Gentiles who are baptized into the name of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who are baptized into the story of the Gospel itself are now part of the Gospel community. Thus when he begins his letter to the Romans he states clearly that he also is set apart by the Gospel. The vocation of Israel is fulfilled as all the peoples of the earth are drawn into the community of God through Jesus Christ.
Good News for Us
This has been a source of struggle and argument for the people of God ever since. We seem to be as disjointed and disparate, as a group of Christians, as any major religion can be. We argue about most anything, from human sexuality and how to live as Christians to what we believe and the truth of the core Gospel message. In the midst of this we have something to learn from St. Paul and his message after his conversion. That message was startlingly similar to the confession of Peter, come to think of it: “He is the Son of God.” At this end of our annual week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we do well to remember that despite the things that we think divide us as Christians, this confession of faith unites us in the Gospel, just as it united Peter and Paul so long ago.
And the good news goes far beyond this. It is, simply, that the risen Lord Jesus continues to seek out and encounter a lost and hostile humanity in surprising and startling ways. Our “ Damascus Road ” experiences happen as we too are grasped by the risen Lord through Word, Sacrament, or even by occasional extraordinary encounter. We may be blinded and confused momentarily, but in the end, we too are called by God to share the wonderful news that the risen Jesus, the Son of God, is Messiah and his kingdom includes all peoples. When all humanity shares this experience of the risen Lord, we will be one indeed. Until that day, we hope, we pray for unity, and we give thanks for Paul, Peter, and all the saints who have caught and shared glimpses of the risen Lord with us.
Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman