Easter 3: 5 May Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
Luke tells the story of Paul's conversion three times (see chapters 22 and 26 where he has Paul recall it). People hearing Acts read at one sitting, as many would have done, would have been impressed. Doing things in threes was a common ploy to bring emphasis. In each account Paul is depicted as a persecutor of Christians. According to Luke he was standing by in support at the stoning of Stephen. Apparently the conflict became most severe in the Greek-speaking communities in Jerusalem. Stephen was one of their leaders.
In 8:1-3 Luke tells us that the apostles remained safely in Jerusalem, while the others had to flee the city. The likely explanation is that the conflict was not so severe in the Aramaic-speaking community to which the apostles belonged. Luke's account of the issues which confronted Stephen in chapter 6 seems to indicate that they are not the same as those which earlier faced the apostles, but were about the status of the biblical law and the temple. Acts tells us that there were a number of different Greek-speaking communities in Jerusalem, reflecting the different homelands from which people had come. For many of them, as for many diaspora people of other cultures even today, issues of maintaining identity were crucial. The reports that the new movement was advocating a stance towards scripture which would undermine or compromise that identity would have caused outrage. This probably explains why the conflict was so much more severe among them.
Forced to flee Jerusalem these Greek-speaking Christian Jews would have carried their message into the synagogues of neighbouring towns and cities. So the harassment was counterproductive: it spread the movement quite literally and stirred up new problems, especially as Gentile guests in the synagogues, sometimes called "god-fearers", also came to hear the Christian message in greater numbers. The first Christians had to face a whole host of new questions, including whether to admit Gentiles, if so, whether to circumcise them, and what biblical laws they should observe, not to speak of the problems entailed in eating regularly with them as a matter of course in the new Christian communities, something most Jews would see as a practice one should avoid unless absolutely necessary.
Enter Saulus Paulus! Saul as his fellow Jews called him was known by his more formal name, Paul, out in the wider world. Change from one to the other had nothing to do with his conversion. So Paul is chasing down Christians who have fled to Damascus in Syria. Precisely what he would have been able to do is unclear. Probably it would include encouraging synagogue leaders to join in the suppression, including whippings. There are serious doubts about Luke's claim that Paul would have been able to arrest people and bring them to Jerusalem because that would go way beyond any jurisdiction exercised by the high priest as we understand it. Nevertheless, it is clear that Paul is committed to stamping out the new movement. From his own writings we have his first hand testimony that he "persecuted the church of God" (1 Cor 15:9; Gal 1:13).
We must also assume that he would known why he was doing so. The story of his encounter with Jesus to which he, himself, also alludes in 1 Corinthians and Galatians, would only make sense if he knew who Jesus was. Perhaps more significantly, he must have understood why these Christians were dangerous. The issue of the inviolability of scripture and its law, and therefore the unique status of Israel, was at stake. It is tempting to speculate that he may well have grasped the core of Christianity very well - before his conversion, better than many Christians did later!. The issues he faced then are not so different from the issues with which most of his letters grapple and for which he was harassed - mostly by Christians who alleged he had betrayed scripture and Israel.
Paul flipped. Psychologically, such an about face is quite credible. People's intensity in resistance tends to rise when they fear what they are resisting is perhaps valid. What evoked the change - or perhaps the straw which broke the camel's back - was an experience he had on the road to Damascus. Luke dresses it up or uses a dressed up version complete with sound and light effects. Paul, himself, never indicates such detail, but he does report that the risen Christ, the one appointed Son of God, appeared to him. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul includes himself in the list of those to whom the risen Lord appeared - depicting himself in a shockingly self-deprecating phrase as an "abortion" of a person, nicely disguised n translations as ":one untimely born"!. But he belongs among the witnesses. In his lifetime some disputed his claims. Interestingly, Luke's sources appear to reflect a position closer to the doubters, since Luke does not have the risen Jesus appear to Paul before his ascension on the 40th day, but only afterwards in what he describes a "heavenly vision". Luke seems unaware that his sources are not as favourable to his hero as he is.
Conversion may indeed miss the mark in describing what happened. It certainly does if we reduce it to meaning recruitment or even if we think it just means turning to God so that one will be saved or safe. There is a good case for speaking instead of Paul's call. This, in fact, fits almost all of the stories of appearances and disappearances of the risen Jesus. They are nearly always depicted as Jesus asking disciples to do something. Both Luke and Paul himself relate the event to Paul's sense of commission to bring the gospel of Christ to the wider world. It is, after all, not as though Jesus is thought to have finished what he was doing and changed now to developing a loyalty program of admirers and worshippers. What came alive again in the Easter story was not just a person, but that person's passion and mission.
Paul would probably wonder what we are talking about when we distinguish conversion from call - and so most likely would Luke. That overwhelming sense of love, embodied in Christ, and now flowing in the body of Christ, namely those identified with him and his story, broke through barriers and reached out to all. Paul saw himself as a prime example of this amazing grace - as did Luke. Such amazing grace also changed Paul's perspective on scripture from a fearing defensive fundamentalism to a centred, critical, interpretation, inspired by Jesus' own stance. He was prepared to follow its logic to the end, refusing to withhold regular table fellowship with Gentiles (as James' pressure insisted, to which Peter and Barnabas succumbed - Gal 2:11-14), resisting those who insisted on circumcising Gentiles (because scripture said so in Genesis 17), and asserting that in the love of God in Christ we are no longer under the biblical law, even though we more than fulfil the legitimate demands it contains.
Paul's is a very big conversion and models a very big conversion which many refuse to make. Sadly, much that vaunts itself as authoritative Christianity, belongs firmly on the side of the Christians who hassled Paul all his life and who carried on even in the name of Christ what once inspired his own acts of persecution..
Gospel: Easter 3: 5 May John 21:1-19
Epistle: Easter 3: 5 May Revelation 5:11-14