In the history of the Christian church, Paul is certainly a “somebody.” His letters – the epistles – form a significant chunk of Christian scripture in the Bible, though some may be more authentically Paul than others. Perhaps even more significantly, we have those writings because he travelled, establishing communities of faith around the Mediterranean. Responding to the experiences, issues and concerns of those young communities are much of what those letters are about. Peter might have been the rock (Matt. 16:8), but Paul laid the foundation for the church. He probably did a little framing and drywalling, too.
Paul didn’t always love Jesus, and the story of Paul’s conversion is pretty epic. Paul was a devout Jew who persecuted the followers of Jesus. He was at the stoning of Stephen and, records the author of Acts, he “began to destroy the church.” He went out of his way to root Jesus out of synagogues and homes. On his way to do just that in Damascus, he’s suddenly stopped by a bright light and he hears a voice asking him “why do you persecute me?” Paul asks who is speaking, the voice says it’s Jesus, “whom you are persecuting,” and tells Paul to go into Damascus where he will learn what he’s to do. Paul is blinded by the vision, but his companions help him into town.
In Damascus, a disciple of Jesus named Ananias hears “the Lord” tell him to go to Paul and restore his sight. Ananias is understandably wary – he’s heard of Paul – but does as commanded. He returns Paul his sight and tells him that Jesus “has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” From then on, Paul is a follower of Jesus, preaching and teaching about him. People are skeptical at first and found this sudden switch hard to believe. As you might expect, many of Jesus’ followers were afraid of him and didn’t trust him.
If we were there, we might think the same. But we know the story and we know what followed, so it’s pretty easy to characterize this sudden and epic moment of conversion in pretty clear cut terms. With one great flash of light, the villainous persecutor of Jesus’ followers becomes the saint who establishes the communities of the faithful and helps them grow. With the flick of a switch, even.
In fact, we often characterize this shift with his name. All through that story about Paul in Acts, he’s referred to as Saul. So the villain is Saul, the saint is Paul.
Like he’s a different person.
Except he’s not. Saul is simply his Jewish name. Paul is his Romanized name. Paul was born in Tarsus and there are a couple of references in Acts to his Roman citizenship, but whether he was or not, he would have likely had both names since birth anyway. The vision of Jesus calls him by his Jewish name, of course, and he’s Saul throughout this story and not referred to as Paul until much later: “Saul, who is also called Paul” (Acts 13:9). Since most of his mission work was to non-Jews, it makes sense that they’d know him as Paul. As we do.
But it’s still the same guy and that’s the thing about Paul. He never hid his past. And, while we might know him as only the great apostle and saint, he was more. Our one dimensional portrayal of him doesn’t do him justice. He’s much more complex, just like you and me.
Saul was a good Jew who, in his love for God and his faith, lost his way. Like others, he felt his faith threatened by these Jews who claimed Jesus was the messiah and followed his teaching. He defended the institution of his faith by attacking the blasphemous People of the Way, even to the point of violating the very commandments that, according to Jeremiah, should have been written on his heart. It blinded him.
We’re easily blinded, too: by fear, by different and unfamiliar things, by things that seem to question or challenge what we think we know. For as often as we hear the expression “outside the box” these days, we’re so much more comfortable in one. And the walls of that box must be defended at all costs. Sometimes to death.
What if there wasn’t one? What if we could take the blinders off and see possibility for growth, better understanding and more appreciation of the world around us, whether we agreed with it or not? What if we weren’t so afraid?
For me, one of the great things about Paul is that he’s complicated. Just like you and me. He’s got a past, some of which he’d probably rather not have, but it did bring him here. Just like you and me. What he repented – what he turned from – was fear and hate. I think that, going forward, his faith wasn’t begun with Jesus, it grew, it was renewed and refreshed and opened to others, just like the followers of Jesus he had persecuted. All that Paul could be was already there, it just needed to be freed and brought into the light. The light he saw on that road didn’t blind him, it opened his eyes. The light he saw was love.