“I saw a light above the brightness of the sun”
Saul, the Persecutor of the Way – it wasn’t even known as Christianity at this point – becomes Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. As with the idea of the Epiphany itself, the Gospel goes viral through Paul’s conversion; it becomes for all peoples everywhere. The Conversion of St. Paul is a signal moment in the break-out of the Gospel to the whole world.
With the Conversion of St. Paul, the Gospel of Jesus Christ first captures the world’s attention, for he will take it to Caesar, as it were; second, it captures the world’s imagination, for his writings form not only such a large part of what we call the New Testament but also provide much of the impetus towards the possibility of a Canon of Sacred Texts; and third, it captures the hearts of the world’s people for all times and in all places. Something of the Conversion of St. Paul moves in the conversion of the nations, in the conversion of souls in every age, and even more, in that re-consecration of heart and soul to the things of Christ at times of reform and renewal.
Paul tells us about his conversion, not just once, not even twice, but actually three times. But before we complain that seems somewhat excessive, let us remember that we find these accounts, not in his hand, but in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, from the hand of another, probably Luke. The poet/preacher John Donne reminds us of the observation of Chrysostom and Jerome that “the Book is called the Acts of the Apostles; but…it might be called the Acts of St. Paul, so much more is it conversant about him, then [sic] all the rest”.
Therein lies the difficulty. That “much more” is, perhaps, too much. Paul, it seems, is too much. The nature of strong personalities is that they repel as much as they attract. They challenge our understanding and that is just too much. We have to struggle to grasp what they are really all about and we don’t always like to have to work at such things. But this is all part of our conversion.
For without struggle there can be no conversion. The conversion of St. Paul is, above all else, a struggle. It is, as I like to say, the breakthrough of the understanding.
The struggle concerns the integrity of the images of salvation. How to reconcile the glory of the Messiah with the sufferings of the crucified Christ? The entire personality of Paul is taken up with this question. His relentless persecution of this tiny little sect is driven by a much larger question, namely, the sense of the opposition between conflicting images of Scripture about the glory of the Messiah and the sufferings of Israel. He is an intellectual, after all, someone who has sat at the feet of the learned teacher, Gamaliel, in Jerusalem. Intellectual and spiritual questions are for him the questions of life. So there is a struggle. Something new has come into the world which challenges the understanding. That something new is the Way of Christ.
Certainly, Saul who becomes Paul looked for a Messiah, but not one who would die for our sins. Rather, Israel herself was the Suffering Servant, the true Israel who would be faithful to God by doing the law, who would bear the iniquities of others, who would be herself the acceptable sacrifice for the redemption of the world and who would be raised up and exalted by the coming of the Messiah in whose glory Israel hoped to share. But the sufferings of the Servant are the sufferings of Israel, not the sufferings of the Messiah. To the Messiah belongs only the glory.
Saul persecutes the Way because the glory is held in utter opposition to the suffering. He persecutes the Way because the will to righteousness – our doing the law – confronts the grace of Christ without which “all our doings are nothing worth”. Jesus unites in himself the sufferings of Israel and the glory of the Messiah; he is both God and man.
His conversion is the breakthrough of the understanding in which he sees that the glory of the Messiah is precisely and most fully realised in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. It is not a question of the glory giving way to the suffering or the suffering being denied in the face of the glory. No. The glory is in the suffering and the suffering belongs to the glory.
John Donne wisely observes with respect to the Scriptures that “all the actions of the holiest man are not holy”. Paul would undoubtedly agree. It is, after all, not his personality that we celebrate. We are, in the words of the Collect, bidden to “follow the holy doctrine which he taught”.
Paul demands that we honour with our hearts and minds “the things that are written for our learning”. Only so might there be that breakthrough of the understanding which is conversion and which continues in that constant re-consecration of our hearts and minds to the things of Christ.
“I saw a light above the brightness of the sun”
Fr. David Curry
Eve of the Conversion of St. Paul
January 24, 2012