Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Conversion of Paul or A Call to the Gentiles?

In the liturgical calendar, yesterday, January 25 (every year) commemorates the conversion of the Apostle Paul.

Paul's conversion experience can be read in Galatians 1: 11-17, Philippians 3: 4-17, Acts 9: 1-20, Acts 22: 1-21, and Acts 26: 2-23 I Timothy 1: 12-17 and Romans 7 are also sometimes considered to be autobiographical accounts of it.

Acts 9 contains the classic tale with which most of us are familiar. Saul was on his way to Damascus to persecute the Christians there. Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him and he fell to the ground. He heard a voice asking him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" When he asked, "Who are you, Lord?" he received the reply, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting." The voice then told him to get up and go into the city where he would be told what to do. The men around Saul heard the voice and saw no one. Saul was blind for three days, regained his sight miraculously through Ananias (sent by God). He was baptized and he began to proclaim Jesus, in the synagogues, as the Son of God, much to everybody's amazement.

In Galatians 1, Paul (formerly Saul) explains what happened in this way: But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. (Galatians 1: 15 - 17).

Was Paul's dramatic meeting with Christ on the road to Damascus a classic example of Christian conversion or is it an experience demonstrating Paul's unique calling to the Gentiles? Up until a few decades ago, most Biblical scholars thought it was the former but due largely to K. Stendahl and his book Paul Among Jews and Gentiles (1976) many today agree that this experience describes Paul's unique call to be apostle to the Gentiles. It is because of this calling, Stendahl writes, that Paul, who had "advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age" (Galatians 1: 14a), starts to ask questions about the Law, in the light of the coming of the Messiah (Christ) and what this means for relationships between Jews and Gentiles. Paul's Damascus Road experience is part of his unique, apostolic call, and not meant to be an example of Christian conversion.

Is this important for ordinary Christians to know? Whether we agree that Paul's experience is a conversion, a call or both (let's leave it to the scholars to debate this issue) I think its important to reflect on Paul's Damascus experience keeping these two categories in mind. It reaffirms and reconfirms that we have a self-disclosing God (God wants to reveal himself especially to those who seek him sincerely) and He created each of us for a unique purpose. God both revealed Jesus Christ to Paul and as having created Paul himself for a unique calling. In Galatians 1: 15-17 (quoted above) we can see that the language Paul uses is similar to that of the prophets of the Old Testament. Compare Paul's call as he himself describes it in Galatians for example to Jeremiah 1: 5 where the world of the Lord came to Jeremiah saying, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations."

Paul's conversion/call not only defined his theology and his total Christology but also Christianity. Similarly, you and I have been created by God to be unique and given a special calling. Nobody else can do what you or I have been created for and called to do. Thanks to Paul and all glory to God, we have been given magnificent resources - the Body of Christ - to help us in our calling. Followers of Christ are faithful members of an always growing, transformed, and redeemed community. So let us not be hesitant in joining Paul's other call that he shares with the Philippians, a call that is given by God to all Christians, namely, the call to be transformed, in Christ - "forgetting what lies behind" and "straining forward to what lies ahead."  Remember: But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown stand firm in the Lord in this way, my beloved. Philippians 3: 20-4: 1.

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