Paul's Conversion

Whose reputation frightens or intimidates us?

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Commentary on Acts 9:1-19a



This story is such a powerful part of the spread of the Good News that it is told not only in Acts 9:1-19a, but also in Acts 22:6-21 and Acts 26:12-19. But in some ways, this kind of call/conversion is God’s stock in trade. Once more, as is God’s habit, God has chosen the least likeliest person of all to speak God’s Good News. 

Of course, that’s not how Saul saw himself or how he was seen by others. If anyone had reason to have confidence in the flesh, it was Saul. Even in later life, he could still recite his credentials. Among these he noted that he was a Hebrews’ Hebrew, a faithful follower of the law, and zealous for the Lord (Philippians 3:4-6). And then he notes they are all skybalon—dung or excrement, compared to knowing Christ. 

In this call/conversion of Saul the narrative picks up the theme of believing without seeing that Jesus extolled to Thomas in last week’s reading. In fact, Saul’s call/conversion plays out a theme of being brought to belief by not seeing. Being struck blind on the Road to Damascus is just the final, most literal blindness of Saul’s life.  

In his blindness, Saul approved the stoning of Stephen (Acts 22:20). In his blindness, he was a—if not the—top persecutor of the church. Asking for and having been granted power by the high priest, Saul purged and purified the synagogue of those belonging to the Way of Jesus. He didn’t know he was persecuting the Lord. He didn’t know that being a self-made man makes it tough to be a person made and re-made in God’s image.  

In fact, Saul’s first career seems to be more readily defined by what he repudiated than by what he embraced. His second career, however, lives out what it means to be enveloped by the light of God. Driven to the ground, Saul meets God. The light of God, accompanied by God’s voice, illuminates. Saul recognizes the speaker as a power greater than himself. He addresses this voice as “Kyrios,” meaning Lord or Master.

This light causes blindness by the strength of its light (Acts 22:11). It dispels dark shadows and corners, revealing God in unexpected places. Saul did not know that persecuting the church was persecuting Jesus. Or maybe he did—maybe he just didn’t know that persecuting Jesus was something he would be called to account for by God.

This call of Saul by God demonstrates the prevenience of grace. This grace is prevenient in that it has to originate with God. No one else would even conceive of such a thing! God goes on to further reveal Godself in unexpected places. (There was a Christmas skit a few years ago in which a small angel responds to God’s plans for the birth of Jesus with the repeated line, “Brilliant! No one will expect that!”) True to fashion, God calls together the persecutor of the church and the disciple Ananias. Saul would not expect help from those whom he’d persecuted. And Ananias would not expect to help Saul, the great persecutor. 

Ananias, too, has a spot of blindness with regard to the power of God. He knows Saul as the evil authority. He knows Saul as an enemy of the saints of God. He knows Saul as having free reign to bind those invoking God. And, unsurprisingly, he doesn’t want to go anywhere near him.

Who do we want to stay away from? Whose reputation frightens or intimidates us? Who do we leave in possession of the stage because we don’t want to have anything to do with them? Because we don’t know how to engage them? Because it’s easier to write them off than try to find and address their humanity? 

God counsels Ananias that he has special plans for Saul. Now Saul is going to become what he thought he already was—God’s instrument. Ananias will serve Saul so that Saul can, in turn, serve those whom he persecuted: Gentiles. And kings. And the people of Israel. And God Godself will reveal to Saul “how much he must suffer for the sake of [God’s] name” (verse 16). Paul enumerates this suffering in 2 Corinthians 11:16-33. So Ananias goes. He lays hands on Saul. And Saul receives his sight. And the Holy Spirit. And baptism. All in short order. (Subsequent Narrative Lectionary passages will go on to reveal more about Saul/Paul as God’s instrument, as the vessel of God filled with the Holy Spirit and doing God’s will.)

Paul’s subsequent ministry continues what has begun here—the interdependence and ongoing relationship between Jews and Gentiles, and between other similarly separated groups: slave and free, male and female. The community of faith joins what humanity has split asunder, but not in a way that nullifies or ignores what has gone before. The abuser is not forgiven without repentance. The oppressor is not freed from responsibility. Instead, what—and who—has gone before is converted. 

Death-dealing is confounded by the giving of life. Oppression is swallowed up by freedom. Hatred is answered by love. The enemy becomes the beloved. No wonder God had to take the first step! No wonder Paul was blinded by what God was doing! No wonder all this was—and is—predicated on the work of the Spirit!


PRAYER OF THE DAY

God who calls us into service,

Transform us as you transformed Paul. Shape us into children who rejoice in knowing and proclaiming you to the world. Amen.

HYMNS

We are called   ELW 720
Unexpected and mysterious   ELW 258
All are welcome ELW 641

CHORAL

The Call, Ralph Vaughan Williams