Today’s reading: Acts 9:1-22
Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus is one of the most famous stories of the New Testament.
Let’s look closely at some of the details…
First, we must go back to Acts 5, where we read:
But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men. The God of our fathers raised Jesus whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
When they heard this they were enraged and wanted to kill them. But a Pharisee in the council named Gamali-el, a teacher of the law, held in honor by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a while.
Then we see in Acts 8 that,
And Saul was consenting to his death. And on that day a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison. 4 Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.
We know from Paul’s other writings that he was one of the students of Gama-ilel, the rabbi mentioned in Acts 5, Paul very may well have been one of the ones angry at Peter and the other Apostles in Acts 5. Then we see that Paul is present at the stoning of Stephen and approves. We also know that the writer of Acts is Luke, who was Paul’s travelling companion of many years. Thus, these passages are in a sense a confession of Paul to the crimes he committed before his conversion. Therefore, they tend to reinforce the credibility of the entire book.
Next, we know from the text and history that Paul would have traveled to Damascus with a large entourage. The text says there are witnesses present. The passage states, “The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.” Further, it simply wasn’t safe to travel alone and Paul was going to arrest people, thus he would likely have been traveling with soldiers. We know from later chapters that the only reason Paul is not later convicted of treason is because so many soldiers testify that something happened on that road that the Sanhedrin decides to leave well enough alone.
We then come to one of the most important aspects of the conversion. What the resurrected Jesus says to Saul.
Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?
Now Saul, never knew Jesus before the resurrection. He never persecuted Jesus directly. Saul has only persecuted the disciples of Jesus. Yet Jesus says, “why do you persecute ME?’ For Jesus, there is no difference between him and his disciples. For Jesus, there is no difference between Himself and the Church.
This will become a major theme in Paul’s future writings. Paul will speak of Baptism incorporating one into the Church which is the Body of Christ. He will speak of his no longer living and Jesus living in him. He will speak of the disciples being so closely bound together that they are the same as a person’s own hand to their own foot.
This was the idea that changed the world.
This was the concept that ended tribal divisions and made caring for the sick and poor the Christian way of life.
This is the truth, the reality of which we have largely lost today. There is no difference between Christ and his Church, which is his body made up of his disciples. This is why Jesus says “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute ME?” One cannot separate from the Church and expect to have life any more than one can cut off their own hand and expect it to still be alive.
Further, notice that Jesus commands that Ananias lay hands on Paul. Why is the risen Christ doing this if it is not an important tradition to be maintained? It is not just for Paul’s healing. We see plenty of healings in the New Testament which are not done by laying on hands. And this event comes right after we read about the laying of hands for the making of deacons and the confirmation of the faithful. The laying on of hands has clear importance to the practice of Christianity. Here Paul is being consecrated to his special new mission.
Finally, notice what Jesus wants from Paul.
But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
This will become another theme in Paul’s writings. Suffering for the cause of Jesus is valuable. Suffering has merit. Not because it is suffering, but because we are so closely united to Jesus that our suffering is suffering through, with, and in Jesus. The suffering Jesus suffered on the cross was not just the pains of that day. The suffering of the cross was all the suffering there ever was and ever will be in the world. When we suffer, if we unite that suffering to the cross, through Jesus by prayer, our suffering can be and is meritorious. We actually participate in the work of salvation by uniting our sufferings to Christ. Notice, from the moment of his conversion, Jesus has Paul’s faith, but Jesus wants Paul’s suffering. Why would a good God want that? Paul will do many great works for Christ. He will travel the known world. He will endure much sufferings, ship wrecks, beatings, and eventually martyrdom. But it will all be worth it because, as Paul will later say, “we are God’s co-workers”.