Calling of Saint Paul

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According to my church calendar, today is the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul.

However, ever since my college class on Paul I have figured that “conversion” isn’t exactly the right word. It’s more of a call. I came to this conclusion because both in college, and then in seminary, I was asked to choose which it was. Paul was called, not converted. Here’s my reasoning:

Until recently, the incident which occurred on the Damascus road has commonly been referred to as Paul’s conversion, but recent discussion has debated whether or not this is the best term for what brought Paul into Christianity. Much of this debate hinges on the definition of the term “conversion”, so it is here that a discussion of the topic should begin. There have been two uses which have dominated. The first is the traditional concept of conversion as “the process by which a person who struggles with a sense of guilt and inferiority becomes a person with a conscious sense of being right and unified as a consequence of achieving a firmer hold of religious realities.” Although this has been a long held view, an examination of Paul may lead to some doubt whether he dealt with a “sense of guilt and inferiority” at all. Stendahl, in his book Paul among Jews and Gentiles, challenges this view, saying that this idea comes from an “introspective reading” by Augustine and Luther, and that this event is more of a call than a conversion in the traditional sense.

The second, and more recent, definition of “conversion” is very different from the traditional view. Conversion here is defined as a change in community, causing a re-interpretation of life and thought. This is the view that C.K. Barrett holds to, saying Paul was indeed converted, and that there is not a distinction to be made between being given a new vocation and being brought to Christ, both happen at the same time, and both are part of the change of life that happens to all that are converted. It is impossible to argue that Paul did not change communities and begin to re-interpret his past in light of the Damascus Road experience. The question, however, arises whether what happened to Paul can be correlated to what happens with all Christians or whether there was something unique to Paul and his experience which requires a term that signifies this uniqueness.

Paul was a very zealous Jew. He was very well educated and passionate about the law, so passionate that he felt a need “to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth” whose followers he felt were a great enemy. This is what led him to pursue “them even to foreign cities” such as Damascus, where he could lock them up and help sentence some Christians to death. On his way, however, he met Jesus. This was not an internal awareness of the truth of the message of the Christians he was persecuting, but rather he met Jesus, the risen Lord, himself. Suddenly, the truth not only dawned upon him, but struck him down and blinded him for several days. Paul was not given a choice whether or not to follow, he was told to. F.F. Bruce puts it well:

“With no conscious preparation, Paul found himself instantaneously compelled by what he saw and heard to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified one, was alive after his passion, vindicated and exalted by God, and was now conscripting him into his service. There could be no resistance to this compulsion, no kicking out against this goad which was driving him in the opposite direction to that which he had hitherto been pursuing.”

This event is not the typical manner in which other Christians entered the Church. Rather than being convinced, Paul was told in a way that left no room for argument that he must become a Christian. What we see on the Damascus Road is comparative to the calling of the original Disciples, and especially to the calling of the prophets and Moses. Paul did experience a change of life, and changed communities, but before he even had a chance to reflect on this, or even realize this, he was given a task to accomplish. He was not facing an internal struggle, rather as Brown states “before a dramatic moment in the mid-30s Paul had been at peace with his upbringing, with himself, and with his God.” And unlike Nicodemus for example, in which the message is presented, and a response dependent on the hearer, Paul is not given a choice, so it is different than the typical conversion that all Christians face. The uniqueness of this event, in its force of power and command, causes a need to seek a term that differentiates between what happens in the hearts of most Christians and the event that brought Paul into Christianity. So, it is more precise to use the term “call” rather than conversion in relation to what happened with Paul.

On this feast day, read the story for your self, in at least one of the versions it is told:

Acts 9:

1Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5″Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6″Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13″Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
Saul in Damascus and Jerusalem
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.[a]

23After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him, 24but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. 25But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.

26When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. 27But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. 28So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. 30When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

31Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace. It was strengthened; and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it grew in numbers, living in the fear of the Lord.

(see also Acts 22 and Acts 26)

There’s also Galatians 1:11-24:

I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.

Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me.

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