Our readings today come from the Acts of the Apostles and from the Gospel of John. Both share stories of events that occurred after the Resurrection of Jesus, stories that are important to our understanding about the early followers of Christ. In our Gospel, we hear of Jesus’ appearance to his disciples as they are out fishing once again, likely having returned to the work they had known before they began their travels with him. The story in Acts is of the conversion of Saul, later called Paul and the important moment in his life that leads to his many years of travel to share the story of Christ with many and especially the Gentiles. Let us pray, Everloving God, you accompany us on the paths of our lives and sometimes, you inspire and yes, challenge us to reimagine how we might best live as followers of Christ. Help us to be open to the signs, to the sound of your voice, and to the times when you beckon us forward in faith and hope. Amen.
There is a story of a devout old shepherd lost his favorite Bible while he was out looking for a wayward lamb. Three weeks later, a sheep walked up to him carrying the Bible in its mouth. The shepherd couldn’t believe his eyes. He took the precious book out of the sheep’s mouth, raised his eyes heavenward and exclaimed, “It’s a miracle!”
“Not really,” said the sheep. “Your name is written inside the cover.”
Our story from Acts today is a story of conversion. I am intrigued by the stories of people who make a course correction in their lives, whether it be in a small or truly radical way. We hear of those who perhaps embraced racist or antisemitic views and then spend the rest of their lives preaching love. There are early stories of people who lived morally questionable lives and then found their way to God; stories of people in prison from Malcolm X to convicted murderers. Often, conversion does not happen in a matter of days, like the story we hear today from Paul. In the stories I have read, there is a progression, a period of reading and prayer perhaps, of conversations with those who meet you on your journey or who open you up to new ways or thinking. People have experiences which contradict their long-held beliefs and finally, they begin to rethink those beliefs and open their hearts and minds to a new way of moving forward in life. And some people have suffered for so long with their old modes of being that they are ready for a new path, a new way. Which brings us to Paul today…
With apologies to those who have a strong background in Scripture, I thought it would be helpful to share in more detail who Saul, then Paul, was and how he became so important to our tradition. Paul was originally known as Saul of Tarsus and was born somewhere around 4BCE in a region of what we now know as Turkey. He was a prominent leader and writer in the earliest years of Christianity. To many scholars, he is considered the most important person after Jesus in the history of Christianity. In his time, he became a major leader within the small Christian movement, although he didn’t always receive the level of respect given to such leaders as Peter and James. His letters, however, have had enormous influence on subsequent Christianity and secure his place as one of the greatest religious leaders of all time.
Of the 27 books in the New Testament, 13 are attributed to Paul, and approximately half of another, Acts of the Apostles, deals with Paul’s life and works. Thus, about half of the New Testament comes from Paul and the people whom he influenced. Only 7 of the 13 letters, however, can be accepted as being entirely authentic (dictated by Paul himself). The others come from followers writing in his name, who often used material from his surviving letters and who may have had access to letters written by Paul that no longer survive. The seven primary letters serve as the best source of information about Paul’s life and his teachings; These primary letters include Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. (The probable chronological order (leaving aside Philemon, which cannot be dated) is 1 Thessalonians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Romans.) The other letters were probably written by Paul’s followers after his death or by those who lived a generation later.
Paul was a Greek-speaking Jew from Asia Minor. His birthplace, Tarsus, was in a region that had been made part of the Roman province of Syria by the time of Paul’s adulthood. Two of the main cities of Syria, Damascus and Antioch, became important in both his life and the letters he wrote. We don’t the exact date of his birth; however, it was know that he was active as a missionary in the 40s and 50s of the 1st century CE. From this it is believed that he was born about the same time as Jesus (c. 4 BCE) or a little later. He was converted to faith in Jesus Christ about 33 CE, and he died, probably in Rome, around the year 62–64 CE.
We know that Paul was a Pharisee, an ancient Jewish sect, known by its strict observance of the traditional and written law, and commonly held to have pretensions to superior sanctity. They were learned students of the Hebrew Bible. We hear Jesus challenge both the Sadducees and Pharisees as hypocrites in their criticism and judgement of others. Paul was able to quote extensively from the Greek translation of Hebrew Scriptures. It is not fully clear why Paul was inspired to persecute the early Christians; the Sadducees were known as the chief persecutors.
“Perhaps Paul believed that Jewish converts to the new movement were not sufficiently observant of the Jewish law, that Jewish converts mingled too freely with Gentile (non-Jewish) converts, thus associating themselves with idolatrous practices, or that the notion of a crucified messiah was objectionable. The young Paul certainly would have rejected the view that Jesus had been raised after his death—not so much because he doubted resurrection, but likely because he would not have believed that God chose to favour Jesus by raising him before the time of the Judgment of the world.”
Whatever his reasons, Paul’s persecutions probably involved traveling from synagogue to synagogue and urging the punishment of Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah. Disobedient members of synagogues were punished by some form of ostracism or by light flogging. At the beginning of our passage today, we hear that “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
It is on this road to Damascus that Saul receives the vision that will totally change the course of his life. On his way to town, he saw a blinding bright light and he falls to the ground. He hears the voice of Jesus asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” And when Saul asks who is speaking to him, he hears “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul then stands but is unable to see though his eyes are open. His friends then take him by the hand and lead him to Damascus where he remains unable to see, not eating or drinking for 3 days. God then calls his servant Ananais to go to Paul and lay hands on him to help him regain his sight. Ananais was reluctant to go, knowing Paul’s terrible reputation, but he does as he is asked and goes to the house where Paul is staying. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” I am struck by the fact that Ananais calls Saul brother, a term of endearment. He knows that Saul has been an enemy of the followers of Christ, but he embraces him as a brother, a fellow traveler, a fellow beloved child of God.
The passage goes on, “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
In the years following this conversion, Paul spent the rest of his life traveling and preaching about Jesus and his teachings, first in his native Syria and Cilicia and then later in Asia Minor and Europe, including the church at Corinth. It was three years later that he went to Jerusalem to become acquainted with the leading apostles there. After this meeting he began his famous missions to the west, preaching first in his native Syria and Cilicia (Galatians 1:17–24). During the next 20 years or so (c. mid-30s to mid-50s), he established several churches in Asia Minor and at least three in Europe, including the church at Corinth. He is well known for having traveled widely to share the Good News with the Gentiles as Peter continued his preaching to those in the Jewish community.
In the late 50s Paul returned to Jerusalem with the money he had raised from small church communities he helped form, along with a few of his Gentile converts. In Jerusalem, he was arrested for taking a Gentile too far into the Temple precincts, and, after a series of trials, he was sent to Rome where it is believed, he was executed, (1 Clement 5:1–7), perhaps as part of the executions of Christians ordered by the Roman emperor Nero following the great fire in the city in 64 CE.
It is impossible to say whether Christianity would have spread as far without the Apostle Paul and his many travels to lands far beyond where Jesus himself had journeyed in his too short life. He is certainly credited with bringing the Word of God to people far beyond Galilee and Judea. Not only did Paul change his behavior and thinking after this event on the road to Damascus, he embraced the message of Jesus with such passion and conviction that he spent the rest of his life preaching and teaching, writing letters to the many friends he made along the way, as well as to many small church communities he helped start all of which expanded the reach and love of Jesus to many seeking a new way of living in love and compassion.
The Woman’s Study Bible