In Acts 9, Jesus Christ has raised up another man to minister in His Name: Paul. We have a tendency to make heroes out of individuals and to treat them as individuals apart from the community that gives them life. Since the age of print and the consequent desire to display oneself as the one who created a particular object of art or literature, we’ve had an impulse towards individualism. It’s the Romantic idea that I, by myself, am original, and I have created something truly unique and individual. Therefore, I am worthy of immortal glory (or at least to a coterie of groupies). In contrast, original before the advent of print meant ancient or traditional. Being original meant going back to the sources or origin, which was not the self.
And so even in our Christian lives we have a tendency to read and write our narratives as individuals. We approach our lives in God as individuals and interpret them in terms of myself as the reference point. To some degree, this is inescapable.
But it is a mistake to neglect how the grace of God is poured out in our lives through His Church. Some of you may have remembered that St. Augustine’s Confessions were written long before the age of print and be thinking to yourself that it is unmistakably an individual writing about himself. True. But even the Confessions are unthinkable without his praying and longsuffering mother, Monica, or his mentor and bishop, St. Ambrose, and a host of other supporting characters.
As great as the life and ministry of St. Paul were, they did not exist in isolation. Saul became Paul largely because of how Jesus Christ worked in his life through the Church.
Just as with the other apostles (but not necessarily those designated “disciples”), Paul had a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. As Jesus had said, “Follow me” to the earlier apostles, Jesus says, “Follow me,” to Paul. Only He doesn’t say it as nicely, perhaps.
In fact, Paul’s first experience with Jesus Christ was to have a light shine on him from heaven (something like a celestial spotlight, I take it), and he fell to the ground. Jesus’ first words to Paul were not “Follow me” or “Your sins are forgiven,” but “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
Why does Jesus come after Saul? His first words to Saul are: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” Not “Why are you persecuting my Church” or “Why are you persecuting My people,” but “Why are you persecuting Me?” To Jesus Christ, an attack on His Body, the Church, is an attack on Him.
And so Paul’s relationship with Jesus Christ actually began earlier. It began with Saul persecuting Jesus Christ by persecuting His Body.
But even after Jesus Christ’s initial epiphany to Saul is over, He continues to work in the life of Saul. He does it through His Body.
Even before Saul was Paul, he was raised to know the Jewish Scriptures. How did he attain such great learning? God had ordained that he would be taught by others and raised to know the Scriptures from his youth. It’s important to realize this because Paul was not a Christian who was converted from paganism and had no idea of who the True God was.
The very next thing that happened to Saul, after he had encountered Jesus Christ personally is that Jesus entrusted him to one of His disciples, Ananias. In this case, Jesus also appeared to Ananias in a vision, saying simply: “Ananias.” And Ananias responds the way that God’s faithful people from Abraham to Isaiah have always responded: “Here I am, Lord.”
Like others before him, this Ananias was hesitant to obey because there, well, extenuating circumstances. But Jesus encourages him and explains His purpose in the life of Saul, and Ananias obeys, even though it is potentially a very dangerous mission. It is through Ananias’ ministry that Paul receives his sight back, is physically strengthened, and is baptized. Did Saul accomplish any of this on his own? Did he even ask for it? Never forget the beginning of Paul’s life in Christ: it’s a picture of God’s sovereignty in our lives as well.When Saul is about to be killed by the Jews who had plotted against him, Jesus rescues him again. But He does it through His disciples, who let him down through the wall in a large basket.
In Jerusalem, Saul tried to join the disciples, that is, the Church. But they were rightly afraid of him and did not believe that he was a disciple. So Jesus Christ sticks up for him and declares what He had done to and for Saul on the road to Damascus. But He does it through the life and words of Barnabas.
When Saul again was about to be killed by the Hellenists, it was again Jesus Christ who delivered him, this time by the brethren (Church) who brought him to Caesarea and sent him back to Tarsus.
Outside of Acts 9, we discover that even though Paul was a missionary pioneer, on the front lines of brining the gospel to new lands, and even though he had unique revelations from God, that he was constantly supported by the Church. He had with him many co-laborers: Barnabas, Silas, Titus, Timothy, Luke, Epaphroditus, etc. He had the support of the Jerusalem and Antiochian churches, as well as many others.
If Paul, perhaps the most individual Christian hero we have, was surrounded by such a great cloud of co-laborers, we should consider the social aspect of our own lives in Christ.
Think about your own life. From whom did you first hear the gospel? Who first introduced you to Jesus Christ? I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t an out of the blue vision in which Jesus Christ blinded you and knocked you down. Someone, someone who was part of the Body of Christ, introduced you to Jesus Christ. Someone catechized you, in some way. Someone taught you how to study the Bible. Someones preached to you the Word of God. Someones challenged you to walk more faithfully with your Lord.
Some planted and some watered, but it was Jesus Christ acting through His Body that formed you in Him.
There have been some interesting studies done on how people convert to a particular religion. But at the heart of the conversion process, which even for Paul was a process and not an instantaneous thing, is a relationship with Jesus Christ through a relationship with His Church.
When, therefore, we consider the conversion of St. Paul, don’t look to compare your experience with his in every detail. It suffices to know that it is the same Lord Jesus Christ who has called you both. And in both cases, He brought you to Himself through bringing you into His Body.
As blessed as this is, and as much of a reason for praise and thanksgiving as it is, there is another blessing just as great: that now you and I have been commissioned to take part in helping to bring others to Jesus Christ, since we are a part of His Body.
Consider the conversion of St. Paul a big screen moving picture of your own conversion. And remember: that the Almighty Lord who knocked the great Paul off his feet has also knocked you off your feet so that He might be the one who makes you stand for Him.
Prayer: O God, who, by the preaching of thine apostle Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same by following the holy life which he lived; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Point for Meditation: Meditate upon how Jesus Christ has come to you throughout your life. Remember to give praise and thanksgiving for His presence and work in your life.
Resolution: I resolve to give praise and thanksgiving throughout the day to Jesus Christ for His presence and work in my life.
Conversion of St. Paul – U.S. Public Domain