The conversion of the anti-Christian zealot, Saul, to the apostle of Christ, Paul, is clearly related in the reading from the Acts of the Apostles, but it has to be remembered that this was a beginning: Saul took some time to become Paul and some time to begin to understand that his call to preach – to Jew and to Gentile – the saving power of Jesus, the Son of God, was something that was a whole life’s journey for him. Paul says in his Letter to the Church in Galatia, ‘God set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace … Three years after (the Damascus Road conversion), I went up to Jerusalem.’ The preparation for this moment of his conversion was his whole life. This feast has been celebrated in the Church since the sixth century but became universal in the twelfth century.
O Lord, open our lips
and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.
who caused the light of the gospel
to shine throughout the world
through the preaching of your servant Saint Paul:
grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversion
may follow him in bearing witness to your truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.
God be gracious to us and bless us
and make his face to shine upon us,
That your way may be known upon earth,
your saving power among all nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
O let the nations rejoice and be glad,
for you will judge the peoples righteously
and govern the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
Then shall the earth bring forth her increase,
and God, our own God, will bless us.
God will bless us,
and all the ends of the earth shall fear him.
Glory to the Father and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit;
as it was in the beginning, is now
and shall be for ever. Amen.
Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’ All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?’ Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.
The introduction to today’s service of Daily Prayer describes Paul as an ‘anti-Christian zealot’ who was converted to become an ‘apostle of Christ’. To understand how profound a change this represents we need to reflect upon what the words ‘zealot’ and ‘apostle’ are describing.
The name ‘zealot’ was given to a group of Jews whose whole philosophy of life was driven by fanatical religious nationalism. The fanaticism of the zealots led them into open violent conflict with all whom they considered to be enemies of Jewish law and teaching. The zealots thrived between c.200BC and c.73AD. They were a ruthless ideological fighting force, motivated solely by religious conviction. This pen-picture of the zealots gives some idea of how extreme Saul’s conversion into Paul really was.
There is no evidence of Paul being one of the zealots but his breathing of threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord bear the hallmarks of those fanatics. Such determination could only be shaken by a dramatic demonstration of what God really had planned for him, and that is exactly what happened. On the road from Jerusalem to Damascus he was confronted by and called by the risen and ascended Jesus. The zealous persecutor was called to set aside his murderous fanaticism and allow himself to be led into discipleship.
Of course, discipleship was not the end of the story for Paul. As we considered a few days ago, disciples are believers and followers. Just as Jesus called his disciples to become apostles, so he was calling Paul to take his belief into the wider world. Jesus was calling Paul to take the first steps on a journey that would lead to him becoming one of the most influential apostles – ever!
As we reflect upon and celebrate the conversion of Paul we are also being called. We are being called to reflect upon our own apostleship. In the special prayer for today we say: grant that we who celebrate [Paul’s] wonderful conversion may follow him in bearing witness to your truth. Paul’s life, up to the point of his conversion, could not have been more hostile to faith in Jesus Christ. Then came the moment of conversion. Despite the mythology around Paul’s conversion, the follow-up to his Damascus Road experience was not immediate. His journey into apostleship took time to mature and flourish.
So, how long has your discipleship been maturing? How long have you been hesitating to take the journey from discipleship into apostleship? Listen carefully, perhaps God is answering your prayer right now. Perhaps God is empowering and equipping you to bear witness to his truth right now. Bon voyage!
Prayers of intercession
Called to be followers of Christ, let us pray for his Church and for his world.
As Paul was appointed for the increase of the Church at its beginning, so may the Church in our day grow in faith and wisdom and be true to the Gospel which he preached. We pray that all who confess the faith of Christ may be united in love for him and for one another.
Give peace among the nations, that their diverse ways may be brought into harmony for the good of all humanity. Teach the powerful to learn the wisdom of simplicity and the strength of gentleness.
As Paul found friends to shelter and sustain him in his journeying, make us more ready to receive the stranger and the wanderer in the love of God. Make our homes holy and prayerful, remembering the houses where the first believers met for worship.
We pray for all who suffer for their faith. As Saul the persecutor became Paul the Apostle, let the eyes of those who hate God’s people be opened to the truth. We pray too for all who travel, those in perilous places, and those who are weary with long wandering.
Grant that those who have come to the end of their journey here on earth may find rest and peace at the last. Bring them into the company of blessed Paul and of all the saints who have fought the good fight and stood firm to the end.
We pray in the name of Jesus Christ who chose Paul for his own and empowered him to preach with holy wisdom.
Prayer for the week
By the prayers of Jesus,
Lord, teach us how to pray.
By the gifts of Jesus,
Lord, teach us how to give.
By the labours of Jesus,
Lord, teach us how to work.
By the love of Jesus,
Lord, teach us how to love.
By the cross of Jesus,
Lord, teach us how to live.
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever. Amen.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,
and the love of God,
and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit,
be with us all evermore. Amen.