Saul’s conversion experience, described in the readings for today, is amongst the most shocking events in early Christianity, which is saying something, but Thomas Aquinas would not call it miraculous, as each soul is prepared to receive grace, which Paul received in abundance. Thomas says that “God sometimes moves the soul so vehemently that it reaches the perfection of justice at once, as took place in the conversion of Paul” and so it seems miraculous. This is a notable point, I think, for conversion is not something extraordinary, but ordinary. We are all capable of conversion, sometimes sudden, sometimes after long trials and growth, and we all need it to grow closer to God and closer to our neighbors. Saul, also known as Paul, experienced an exceptional conversion, yet when we examine the various aspects of this shattering moment we see places in which the unique aspects of Paul’s encounter with Christ express where God works and how God works in each of us.
Saul was engaged in persecuting the early Christians for reasons which are not easily summarized – was he offended by how they followed the Law of Moses? Was he upset about the place of Gentiles in the Church? Did he think Jesus a failed Messiah? – but I think it is clear that he felt he was following God and God’s will. That is, I do not doubt his sincerity that he believed this is what God wanted from him. It turned out he was wrong, though he passionately carried out what he saw as the logical conclusion of his beliefs.
God spoke to him in a clear and distinct voice, which most of us never receive:
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." (Acts 9:3-6 NRSV)
Here are some initial thoughts regarding this encounter. First, God did not tell him directly to stop his persecution, but asked him a question: why are you persecuting me? The question is a challenge to Saul, not a command, but a request for thoughtfulness. Second, Saul’s persecution is the persecution of Jesus, whom he does not even recognize - “Who are you, Lord?” – and so Saul was persecuting “someone” he did not even know. Third, when Jesus states, two times, that it is he who is being persecuted, not just some random, meaningless people who have gone astray, Saul recognizes, I would argue, Jesus as God (“Lord”) amongst these persecuted believers.
Now, all of these reflections are grounded in the real encounter of Saul with the risen Lord, but I think we can draw out examples for our own way of living and encountering Jesus in our day-to-day lives and in our theological expressions.
Jesus questions Saul, he does not demand of him that he stop his persecution, but he asks him, why? What is your purpose? What is your aim? What is your goal? In this question, however, are profound answers for Saul and for us as readers. If Saul is persecuting Christians because he thinks God wants this, this spiritual encounter with Christ, mystical as it is, points to the presence of God in Jesus, the last thing he would expect. Saul felt God had already spoken to him. Saul was not prepared for Christ to speak to him, alive in some form, but this encounter demonstrates to Paul Christ’s continuing existence and his presence within his followers and the surprising ways in which God is made known even when you think you have figured out everything.
Saul responds to the question, though, he listens and does as Jesus tells him, which indicates a genuine change in Saul. It is also the beginning of Saul’s knowledge that God does not demand persecution; this is not God’s way. As the Apostle Paul, Saul will live this truth out. The Apostle is no less passionate than the Persecutor in his love of God and in his desire to make God known, but in this experience, he learns that God does not demand our obedience; he questions us and thereby challenges us with the truth. Violence is never the method by which truth is made known. Saul will go from the passionate man who by violence will attempt to convert others, to the passionate man who will accept and suffer violence in his desire to bring the truth to others. He transforms from the one who causes others to suffer, to the man who will suffer on behalf of others.
Saul also learns in this encounter that Jesus is genuinely present amongst the brothers and sisters of the early Church. It is more than a metaphor when Jesus states that he is being persecuted by Saul; he does not say, “why are you persecuting my brothers and sisters who believe in me?,” he says, “why do you persecute me?” Is it possible that within this initial encounter with the risen Lord that Saul’s theology of the Church as the Body of Christ begins to emerge? The flip side of this, of course, is that God is with us, and we must see God present amongst the people, especially those we wish to persecute. People are never just representatives of "bad" decisions or positions with which we disagree, but the represent God in our midst.
Saul, by listening to the words of Jesus, grants Jesus authority. He turns from the authority which was vested in his life, as an educated and devout Pharisee, at the behest of Temple authorities, those who had been established as representatives of the Scripture and its interpretation, and recognizes God present in a new and surprising way. This is a challenge to all of us: when do we turn from an old way to a new way? When do we know God is speaking to us in some new way and that it is not just our own desires or prejudices? When must we recognize God new among us? When do we hear God's voice and turn so we might be converted?
John W. Martens
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