Today in the Church calendar is the feast day of the Conversion of St Paul the Apostle. Last Thursday was the feast day of the Confession of St Peter the Apostle. What with one being designated the apostle to the Gentiles and the other the apostle to the Jews, the week in between has been dedicated to an intensification of prayer for Christian unity.
The story of Paul’s conversion is very prominent in the New Testament. The story itself is told three times in various ways in the Acts of the Apostles, the last of which telling we heard this morning. We also heard Paul allude to it in his letter to the Galatians, as he does in several of his other letters.
One of the mysteries for me at the heart of the story is why Paul, or Saul as he was originally known, had been so angry with the disciples of Jesus. The reason he was on his way to Damascus was that in his rage he had already done great harm to the Church in Jerusalem, so that most of Jesus’ followers had fled, and Saul had started going to other places to hunt them down.
Paul describes himself as having been a student of Gamaliel, a respected teacher in Jerusalem. The interesting thing about that, is Gamaliel himself seems to have been a relatively moderate and reasonable man. His opinion was that, if the new Way of Jesus was of merely human origin, it would die out on its own, but, if it was from God, then those who opposed it would find themselves fighting against God. Well, Saul found himself fighting against God, and losing.
Paul says that his actions then had resulted from being zealous for God and for the traditions of his ancestors, both of which he was convinced had been offended by Jesus’ disciples. In his Rule for monks, St Benedict wrote that, in contrast with a good zeal of fervent love which separates from evil and leads to God and everlasting life, there is a wicked zeal of bitterness which separates from God and leads to hell.
Saul suffered from a bad case of wicked zeal, a zeal that confuses our will for God’s will, a zeal that produces hatred of those who are different from us. It is all too common still today. We need to look no further than the hell of Gaza for horrific evidence of this.
When the basic assumption that Jesus had to be dead was challenged by Jesus’ appearing to Saul on the road to Damascus, it caused Paul to reconsider all that he had been so sure about. I think his actual conversion would have happened during the three days of fasting in Damascus when he was unable to see but had a lot to think and pray about.
At his baptism after he regained his sight, Paul would have received the Holy Spirit, so that Jesus the Christ moved inside of him. Christ lives in me, he later testified, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I enjoy the possibility suggested by that choice of phrase, the faith of the Son of God. Paul regarded himself as having been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised. It seems to have less to do with Paul’s faith in Christ and more to do with his sense of Christ’s faith in him.
Paul’s conversion is a very dramatic story, and it’s easy to see why it features so prominently in the New Testament writings. It’s not all about Paul, though. After his encounter with Jesus on the road, Saul is blind as well as bewildered, and has to be taken by the hand and led into the city. We aren’t told what happened beyond that to those who had been his travelling companions.
We are told about others who had essential roles in the process of Paul’s conversion, though. Ananias, who seems to have been both a faithful disciple of Jesus and a devout man according to the Jewish law and well spoken of by all the Jews living in Damascus, this Ananias was sent by Jesus to Saul to lay hands on him so that he could receive his sight again and be baptized. Later, Barnabas interceded when Paul went to Jerusalem, testifying about Paul’s conversion so that the Church leaders would accept him as a disciple of Jesus.
Our own conversions to becoming followers of Jesus tend to be less dramatic than Paul’s was, but we also need help along the way. I think conversion can also more helpfully be regarded as a continuing process rather than a single event. These ideas, of needing help with a process that continues throughout life, are of central significance to monasticism.
In his Rule for monks, St Benedict describes commitment to a threefold vow of continuing conversion supported by obedience and stability. Conversion is understood to be a lifelong process that takes place in the context of a community, so that an individual’s journey towards God is supported by those around him or her.
Through each day, we turn again and again towards God, asking Jesus to assist us by his Spirit so that more of his life might be lived in and through us. We hope to learn to see as he sees and to love as he loves. We hope to learn with Paul that we have never looked into the eyes of someone God does not love, and we hope to live that truth more and more towards all we encounter.