Conversion of St. Paul – 2015

Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle
January 25, 2015
The Lesson. Acts 9. 1.
And there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias: and to him said the Lord in a vision: Ananias. And he said: Behold, I am here Lord. And the Lord said unto him: Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight: and enquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus: for behold, he prayeth, and hath seen in a vision a man named Ananias, coming in, and putting his hand on him, that he might receive his sight. Then Ananias answered: Lord, I have heard by many of this man, how much evil he hath done to thy saints at Jerusalem: and here he hath authority from the chief priests to bind all that call on thy name. But the Lord said unto him: Go thy way; for he is a chosen vessel unto me, to bear my Name before the Gentiles, and kings, and the children of Israel. For I will shew him how great things he must suffer for my names sake.
We have heard this story of the Conversion of St. Paul so often over the years that it becomes, like so many of the selections from the Lectionary, almost ordinary in its recounting. Indeed, some of the verses found in this lesson have even become clichés in our language today. For example, I have heard someone who has suddenly come to understand a point or opinion referred to as having “the scales removed from their eyes”. By itself, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but if we leave it at that, then we miss the complete significance of St. Paul’s Conversion and the impact it had on the Church and on our Faith today.
To gain a greater appreciation for this event, we must first remember something of the history of St. Paul himself. He first appears in the seventh chapter of the Acts of the Apostles as one Saul of Tarsus; a young man who was a willing and consenting participant in the Martyrdom of St. Stephen. But this Saul was more than just the “coat check” man at Stephen’s stoning; he was a firebrand, a zealous and enthusiastic leader of the effort to purge the fledgling Church from Jerusalem. He undertook a program of persecution that resulted in the imprisonment of many followers of Christ; going door-to-door to conduct his interrogations and arrests.
Of course, this was not enough for Saul. Many fled Jerusalem in the face of this persecution, dispersing to the various cities and towns throughout the region. And since this diaspora was an unintended consequence of his efforts, Saul proposed to rectify the situation by broadening his focus; spreading the net, if you will, so as to round up and punish these blasphemers; with the ultimate goal being, quite naturally, to snuff out Christianity before it had a chance to get started. And to begin this process, Saul sets his sights on the city of Damascus.
The selection of Damascus was a very natural strategic move for Saul; since time immemorial, Damascus had been a place where important military and trade routes met. Allowing a group espousing this new “Way” to remain in this city would certainly have created the risk of its further spread just by the use of those trade routes. This situation would have been particularly dangerous to the Jewish authorities so something had to be done. Saul, perhaps realizing that he was somewhat responsible for this development, proposes to clean up the mess there; intending to enact his own version of a “final solution”.
But of course, as we all know, while Saul is on his way to Damascus, Our Lord intercedes. Christ appears to the young man, and in an almost pleading voice, lays his sin before him; “Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me”? I admit that I am somewhat amazed that even after hearing this, Saul can still find his voice enough to ask; “what wilt thou have me do?”.
It is interesting that it is at this point we are told that Saul is blinded. Too often we might tend to believe that once we accept Jesus Christ then all our blindness will be lifted. But such was not the case with Saul. Rather, his acceptance, “what wilt thou have me do?” was only a first step; a beginning of the Spiritual evolution that would be required of this man in order for him to fulfil his Divinely Inspired destiny. I think it is instructive for us to remember that Saul’s Spiritual evolution also involved an example from one of the Faithful who we might consider to be “lesser” figures in the history of the Church; thereby providing a lesson to us.
Of course, I am referring first and most obviously to that certain disciple who lived in Damascus at that time; Ananias. At the same time that the blinded Saul is taken into a house owned by someone ironically named Judas, Our Lord appears to Ananias in a vision and tells him; go to this particular address where you will find one Saul of Tarsus waiting for you; indeed, he is expecting you.
We can only imagine the dread that this thought must have inspired in Ananias. News of the deeds of Saul had spread far and wide; the closest historical analogy of which I can conceive would harken from the Second World War; to be told to that one must go to see the head of the Gestapo. Such was the reputation and infamy of Saul of Tarsus.
So it was only natural that Ananias would be reluctant, even questioning; um, Lord, you do remember that this Saul, well, he’s not a nice guy?!? In fact, if I go to him, I might very well be arrested! This is where Our Lord gives us such a great and wonderful message, that I think it is sometimes so overwhelming, so nearly inconceivable, that we miss it all too often; Go thy way; for he is a chosen vessel unto me”.
Ok, let’s step back and think about this for a minute. Let us put ourselves in the place of that faithful disciple Ananias. We know that there is great bodily risk involved if we are to blindly follow Our Lord’s instructions. But then, we are also graced to know the intentions behind those instructions; “Go thy way; for he is a chosen vessel unto me”.
How would we have reacted then? How would we react today? Certainly, if Christ spoke to us so clearly, I would hope that we would respond in the same manner; but as we all know, he does not often speak so obviously. Yet this does not absolve us of the obligation to respond in the same way.
The point here is that Ananias recognized, through the words spoken to him by Christ, that there was someone who was in need; someone to whom he, Ananias, was commanded to minister. Someone who would receive, through the hands of one chosen by God, the Grace needed to cure his blindness; someone who would then overcome all his fear, distrust, suspicion, and enmity; someone who would increase in strength and proclaim the Gospel in ways that were and are unassailable and unmatched even today; the result of which would be the Glorification of God and the growth of His Church. Ananias recognized that by simply doing as he was told by Christ, that something, someone, greater would be unleashed.
Saul of Tarsus. Persecutor of the Church. Murderer of Christian Martyrs. Zealot, firebrand, he who “breaths out threats and slaughter” against the disciples of the Lord. There are few in Holy Scripture, or in the history of the Church, who have committed crimes more heinous than his. And yet, as we know, there are none who contributed more to the spread of the Gospel, the growth of the Church, and the Glorification of God.
Our natural inclination on this day would be to focus solely on the miraculous Conversion of St. Paul. But we must never forget the participation of the Faithful in this Conversion. When Ananias was confronted with the opportunity to aid this man who was struggling with the knowledge that his whole world view was wrong, and worse, that he had committed crimes against God Himself, he put aside his fear and apprehension and set forth to do as Christ commanded and minister to that man. He played his part in God’s Divine Plan, the result of which turned loose upon the world the greatest evangelical power ever known.
And so, even as I commend to you the lesson of St. Paul’s Conversion, which reminds us that there is no crime (save those committed against the Holy Spirit) from which we cannot be saved, so to do I commend to you the lesson of Ananias. He it was among the Faithful who was chosen to participate in Paul’s Conversion. He it was who set aside his fear and followed the commandment of Christ.
Now take these lessons together; no matter our sins, no matter our crimes against God, no matter our shameful past, there still exists within us the ability to do great things for Christ and his Church, if only we will hear him, believe in him, grow in him, and pray that our blindness be removed.
Likewise, we must also accept that as Faithful people, we are obligated to play our part in the conversion of others; to set aside our fear and apprehension, so that we may follow Our Lord’s commands and help to remove the scales from the eyes of the blind. We may think it unlikely, if not impossible, for any of us to aspire to be another St. Paul; but of a certainty, we are all called to be Ananias.
And so, even as we express our wonder and joy that God has seen fit to offer His Forgiveness to even the greatest of sinners, let us also be mindful of the role that we are commanded to play in His Divine Plan; to seek out those who are in need, to minister to those who are in distress, and to comfort those who are searching. To set aside our fears and confidently proclaim Christ, so that the scales may be removed from the eyes of the blind.
We may never know, in this lifetime, the result of such devotion; but we can know, most assuredly, through the example of the Conversion of St. Paul, that God uses these efforts to His Greater Glory. We might not be ministers to the next St. Paul, but still those we aid will be living testimonies to our Faith; for everyone we help in the name of Christ will be a chosen vessel unto God.

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