The Conversion of St. Paul

January 25, 2000

Acts 22, 3-16 or Acts 9, 1-22 + Mark 16, 15-18

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Today's liturgy commemorates one of the most important events of the first century of the Church, the conversion of St. Paul. "Now Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the LORD. . . " This is the story of a man who hated those first Christians, who in his rejection of the Messiah consented to, encouraged, and willingly participate din murder and injustice, but who even so is called out of darkness into light.

It's also the story of an early Christian, who like Jonah in his era is called to go and minister to someone he had good reasons for be afraid of. "But Ananias replied, 'LORD, I have heard from many sources about this man, what evil things he has done to your holy ones in Jerusalem." The blood of the first Christian martyrs was certainly on his hands. So it takes faith for Ananias -- the Persecuted -- to go unto Saul -- the Persecutor -- and lay his hands of healing upon Saul's blind eyes. Ananias does this AND he also calls Saul his BROTHER.

It would have been much easier for Ananias to denounce Saul. If I could project myself and web technology back to this period, I probably would have put a page at my website shouting, "Pray for the conversion of Saul the Pharisee of Tarsus, henchman of the Sanhedrin, hater of Christians, running dog of the High Priest and his rich and powerful Temple elite. Scorn be heaped upon his head."

God could have healed Saul without the assistance of Ananias. But here we have the pattern, established quite early, of the responsibility of Christians to be people of healing for those who are lost and separated from God. The laying of Ananias' hands upon the blind eyes of Saul brought light into darkness. It was the LORD who brought conversion also to Ananias. Was he ready to embrace the oppressor who was leaving his wicked ways behind him and walking into the light? He was, and we should remember his good example when we are called to help the oppressors find their ways out of darkness into life This celebration thus also reminds us that conversion in Christ is not a one-time deal, rather, it is a call to daily renewal of faith, repentance for sin, and meeting the challenges of applying that faith to the day to day realities we have in our lives.

Today's Gospel is Mark's version of the Great Commision to go into all the world preaching the Gospel. This is a message that Saul -- whose name now becomes Paul -- embraces. Through his ministry, the practicalities of taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, as well as the Israelites, were developed. He and the other apostles argued -- "hotly", the Bible says, about some of those details. In particular, there was a lot of argument about whether the Gentiles had to "inculturate" themselves as Jews by embracing circumcision and Jewish dietary laws in order to be Christian. The answer to this was no, and thus Paul is also the apostle of diversity of cultures within the Christian Church (it's not for nothing that we call it Catholic). We haven't always remembered this, and in fact we have sinned by using the Gospel to advance particular races, cultures, or nations by practicing injustice to others and supporting the structures of sin that make such injustices so easy and profitable. This is the Jubilee Year, however, it's time to leave those behind us and cross the threshhold of hope to something better, more just and peaceful.

Saul's blindness weighed heavy upon him, the physical blindness with which he was struck after his vision was emblematic of the spiritual blindness he took with him to Damascus, "breathing murderous threats." The Truth of Jesus, breaking through his spiritual blindness, no doubt was utterly blinding to him physically in its contradiction and condemnation of his willing participation in persecution, oppressions, and injustice. And it is the loving hands of Ananias, commissioned by the Savior -- plus his faith and willingness to live his faith by embracing his enemy as his brother -- that bring healing and hope to a penitent sinner.

The Lord sometimes asks us to do things that are very hard. Christ asked Saul to turn his life upside down in relation to his position, status, ideology, and nation in order to accept Him as the Messiah. Christ asked Ananias to look beyond the oppression in order to see the oppressor, who in fact is on his knees fasting and begging for forgiveness, and extend to him the hand of love and friendship. Thus on that day, many years ago, salvation came to a house in Damascus of the Syrians, and the future of the Church and the world was changed. The doom of the Roman imperial system of domination was sealed. Great consequences in human history flowed from the conversion of those two hearts.

How blessed upon the mountaintops are the feet of those who bring good news, preaching peace and bearing justice. May we be Saul, turning from oppression to justice, and may we be Ananias, ready and willing to extend hands of fellowship and healing to all people -- perhaps especially to those we have reason to hate and fear.

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