For the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul, the opening line of this feast is that Paul was a persecutor of Christians, who on his conversion became an apostle to the gentiles. In describing Paul he is painted as a zealous Pharisee who persecuted the early Christian community. Always mentioned is that he was present for the stoning of Saint Stephen, the first Cristian martyr. The story is told in the framework of Paul’s relationship between himself and Christians and modern Christians hear the story largely from that Christian point of view. Rephrased, it is told as the relationship between Paul and Christians. Relationships are an important part of this event, and the point of view of the narrator is equally important.
Just as Paul had a relationship with the Christians, he also had relationships with others in his lifetime. He was a Jewish Pharisee, and he also was a Roman citizen. If the story of Paul’s conversion can be told describing him and Christians, should not the relationship between a Jewish Pharisee and Rome also be told? After all, much of the Christian experience was strongly influenced by the relationship between the Roman treatments of Jews in first century Israel. If Paul was a persecutor of Christians, wasn’t Paul also persecuted or oppressed by that Roman Empire? From the way in that Paul’s story is told, he is presented as someone in power, yet perhaps it might be worthwhile to view him as someone who is on the defense. It is his homeland that is occupied, and it is his culture that is being dismantled. If Paul is on the defense, might it be that what he is trying to defend is that peoples covenant with God? Might his persecution of Christians also be spun as a devout Jewish Pharisee defending that what is most precious to him, that relationship between God and Gods chosen people? With that emphasis it becomes easier to gain insight into Paul’s actions. He was a zealous persecutor, and he also was a zealous Pharisee, and also a zealous defender of that covenant. He was both devout and passionate in his thoughts and actions, for good or for bad.
For Paul to see the clouds part, and for him to hear “Saul why are you persecuting me,” Paul needed that passion and zeal that was so much a part of this life. He needed that zeal to hear Gods words, and he needed that zeal to break through the barriers that prevented him from seeing who Christ was. Once Paul could witness Christ, he could witness Christ in those Christians, and enter into a new communion or covenant that he would pursue for the remainder of his days. For Paul that conversion did not come easy, but a true conversion for anyone is never pleasant, or simple, or easy. They are often conflicted, and trying, and passionate. They require strong convictions, and strong challenges to those convictions. They also require that zealous devotion to God that leads to a true conversation with God. It was that zealous devotion to God that gave Paul the strength to endure that breakthrough that was his conversion. His conversion that caused him to witness Jesus Christ as the son of God was no less that of the Hebrews crossing the Red Sea. His conflicts as he persecuted Christians might be viewed as the uncertainties of those same Hebrews as they travelled the desert and his conversion no less than those Hebrews crossing the Jordan into the Promised Land. Paul’s conversion was a journey, and a difficult one at that, but it was a path that he followed with passion, and devotion. It is one he travelled with both his heart and his intellect. It is also a journey he did not take alone, his always was a journey both with God and towards God.