Reading: Acts 9:1-19
Paul’s conversion is one of my favorite parts of the New Testament. I learned several things from the story of Paul — I learn about devotion to God, I learn about the message that God gives, I learn about communities and bias, I learn how much a prophetic message can change people and communities, and most of all I learn not to put limits on God’s grace nor forgiveness.
We are first introduced to Saul, also known as Paul as he is watching people’s coats as they stone Stephen after he gives a public sermon. Paul quickly moves on to become a great persecutor of the church. Acts 8 tells us that he “went from house to house dragging off both men and women.” The result of this persecution was that the Christians, who violated the order to stop speaking the name of Jesus, were scattered. They left Jerusalem to the Judean countryside, and they even became refugees outside of Galilee, moving to Samaria and Syria.
When we get to Acts 9, Saul is preparing for a journey to Syria to seize refugees and take them back. He is leaving the borders of Judea, going to a gentile country, to extradite refugees so that the cannot escape the religious persecution that he represents. Saul is a deadly and tenacious enemy who is clearly willing to go to extreme measures to kill Christianity in its infancy.
What stands out here is found in Paul’s letter to the Philippians — that Paul persecuted the church due to his religious devotion. He believed that he was doing God’s work and that it was important to drive out the sect of Jesus followers who were a real challenge to both the religious institutions and to the religious traditions that had developed. Paul was waging war against something that threatened his culture and his way of life, and it turned out that he was wrong.
What I learn from this is that passion, devotion, and sincerity are not enough to make something right. People can be convinced that they are right, fight hard for what they believe, and be disastrously wrong. This truth has been growing in my mind throughout the 21st century. I look at the variety of conflicting views among Christian leaders, and I have to say that a number of them are disastrously wrong; I sometimes think that God should confront them as God confronted Saul on the road to Damascus.
Of course, this revelation should come with some humility. My ability to correctly name those who need God’s specific revelation is dependent on my passion and devotion representing what is right. When I look at Paul, I see somebody who was not only passionate but well studied. Paul knew the scripture, Paul knew theology, Paul was a studied how religion worked in a nation that answered to a huge world empire that had no interest in his God. No amount of devotion or credentials or surety made him less wrong.
The next thing that stands out is that God’s grace and forgiveness are absolute. We have hints of radical forgiveness when Jesus forgives the thief on the cross, when Jesus prays for the forgiveness of those who crucified Him, and when Steven prays: “Lord do not hold this sin against them” as he is being stoned to death. The extent of this radical forgiveness is shown when God not only forgives Saul but meets Saul on the road and changes his life.
Grace and forgiveness is something that we’ve already know about through words, but seeing forgiveness in action is something else. Paul’s conversion is something that demonstrates God’s forgiveness, and it also comes as a call for the church to forgive as well. The hardest thing that Christ teaches us is to forgive — we love the idea of forgiveness until there is something that we must forgive and then we fight against it.
This was not just true of us, but it was true of the early Church. God, being God, knew that the church would have trouble forgiving Saul for his persecution that made them into refugees, so God gave Ananias a vision, told him that Saul was blinded, and told him to heal his blindness and to welcome him as a Christian. As you can imagine, Ananias responded to God saying: “Saul, you mean the guy who drove the Christians out of Jerusalem, you mean the guy who brings Christians to their death?” Like any of us, Ananias was sure that God must be mistaken.
This is, for me one of the lessons that I have to learn: We are not perfect. Anyone of us would need that divine vision to welcome Saul. Even after this vision, the Christian community had trouble believing Ananias’s prophetic message. It was hard work for the Christian community to accept this teaching of radical forgiveness, even though both Jesus and Stephen prayed for those who were involved in their deaths would be forgiven.
Just as God was gracious and met Saul on the road, God met Ananias in his home, God allowed miraculous signs to show that God really brought Paul to the Christians, and after Saul was converted, God met Peter, and let Peter know that this Christianity thing really was for everybody; what Jesus taught wasn’t just words that sounded nice, but they were exactly what Christianity was about — Christianity is about forgiveness so powerful that your greatest enemy can become a valued member of the community, hate, division, and disagreement can all be overcome in Christ.
We all need to learn some humility. As Augustine says, “If you understand It, It is not God.” We all imagine God as something less than God really is. No matter how devout we are, things like God’s forgiveness is hard for us to completely comprehend. Without knowing Paul’s history, we would not have an example beyond words, but because we see Paul, we have an example that shows us what forgiveness looks like when there is genuine repentance.
The final lesson that we all need to learn is the lesson we learn from the identity of Paul. Remember how the disciples didn’t go to take Christianity to all the nations and the ends of the Earth? Remember how they were content to stay in Jerusalem until persecution drove them out of Judea and made them into refugees? Remember how even after they spread, they stayed a Jewish sect, rather than bringing Christ to the Gentiles? Remember how Peter needed a divine vision in order to accept that Gentiles could be Christians too?
Paul eagerly obeyed the great commission even when the apostles were reluctant to do so. The disciples got the command to go out from Jesus, but they were in no hurry to obey it — Paul, on the other hand, spent his life traveling, spreading the gospel, and writing pastoral letters to all the communities that he worked to build up.
Christianity needed somebody with the energy and the devotion of Paul — somebody who would go and spread the message to anybody. Christianity needed somebody who had the tenacity of Paul. Who other than Paul could stand up to Peter in Antioch, because Peter thoughtlessly acted like a bigot when in the presence of bigots rather than having courage, and continuing to eat and associate with the Gentile Christians? It was Paul who could clearly tell how the Cross and the resurrection is a metaphor for what happens to us — our sinful selves are crucified, and we are raised in Christ as new people. Nobody’s life was as completely changed as Paul. It was Paul who could talk about the dividing walls being torn down by Jesus, because Saul, in his former life, was one of the wall-builders, and Jesus tore down the walls in Paul’s heart.
Paul changes everything, or more precisely Paul reveals everything. Because of Paul, I know that Jesus meets us where we are at, even if we are at a place that is so far from God’s will that we are acting as God’s enemy. Because of Paul, I know that Jesus meets us where we are at, even when there are walls in our heart that need to be torn down so we can accept another person created in God’s image into our community. Because of Paul, I know that the good news is that Christ can forgive and change everything.