Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Paul's Conversion from Fear to Hope

Orthodox icon of Sts. Peter and Paul.
The apostles Peter and Paul are frequently paired with each other, particularly in the names of cathedrals, since they are regarded as two founding pillars of the Church.  According to Holy Scripture, Peter was the first among the original twelve apostles, the rock on whom the Western Church was built, while Paul was known as the apostle to the non-Jewish population of the eastern Mediterranean.  In fact, Paul claims in his Letter to the Galatians to have met Peter (or Cephas, as he was also called) and some of the other apostles at the Council of Jerusalem in around 50 CE, and there is an alternative account of this meeting in the Acts of the Apostles that is interestingly much less flattering to Paul.  The Feasts of the Confession of St. Peter and the Conversion of St. Paul are thus unsurprisingly quite close together--only a week apart--not only because of the traditional pairing of the two apostles, but also because there is something quite similar about their struggles as people of faith.  If Peter was the faithless apostle that out of fear denied Jesus three times, Paul was the unlikely apostle who had hunted down and murdered Jesus' followers in the early years following the Crucifixion.  Each had a checkered past.  Each had denied Jesus and had worked against His divine mission and yet was transformed into a key supporter of this same mission and proclaimed Him as Lord.  But in Paul's case, what is the nature of this "conversion" that we observe today?

St. Paul by Masaccio.
Contrary to popular understanding, Paul did not convert from Judaism to Christianity.  The man's name change from Saul to Paul does not signify some transference of allegiance from one institutional religion to another.  This is mainly because the Judaism of the first century CE was not one monolithic entity, but a combination of many sects, perspectives, and priorities that defied easy oversimplification.  What we know as Christianity, moreover, did not yet exist as either a consolidated identity or as a distinct alternative to contemporary Judaism of any stripe.  Followers of Jesus were known as adherents to "the Way," but many of them considered themselves faithful Jews, as did the apostle Paul, who was also a Pharisee.  Current Pauline scholarship has attempted to reclaim the Jewish identity of Paul, which one will discover is well supported by reading Paul's undisputed epistles:  Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians, and Philemon.  The authorship of the other epistles attributed to Paul are generally in dispute, but almost certainly are not his original work.  A good introduction to Paul's Jewish identity and the epistles is Pamela Eisenbaum's 2009 book, Paul Was Not a Christian:  The Original Message of a Misunderstood Apostle.

Caravaggio's take on Paul's conversion.
My belief is that Paul's conversion is rather one that opened his eyes to a larger perspective on humanity's future to which he had been blind.  Like Caravaggio's painting to the left suggests, Saul's encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus unbalanced him, threw him off his high horse, and knocked the wind out of him.  This unseating was necessary and purposeful, for his narrow and limited viewpoint had made him an opponent of Jesus and a vicious persecutor of his disciples. He needed to learn to see differently.  This condition is emphasized in Acts 9 by the blindness that afflicts Saul for three days following his unexpected meeting with Jesus.  It is only when the disciple, Ananias, lays hands on him at Jesus' command, that Saul receives the Holy Spirit and regains his sight, which inspires him immediately to be baptized and embrace a different path.  Peter's previous faithlessness and Paul's former violence against the followers of Jesus should remind us to remain open to the ever unfolding truth that God wishes to communicate to us, however frightening it might seem to be at first.  The scariness of crucifixion and the threat posed by Jesus' followers to the status quo should encourage us, like Peter and Paul, to avoid reacting out of fear.  Fear can be a very powerful force that leads us away from God.  In moments when fear blinds us and encourages us to persecute like Saul, we must resist the urge toward violent acts and speech and rely on the hope offered by the risen Christ.  If the Gospel really is good news, then we should respond as Peter and Paul ultimately did, and preach a message of good news that is gracious and seasoned with salt, as Colossians commends.  With this in mind, I can think of no better way to end than to quote the collect for this feast of Paul's conversion:

"O God, who through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world : grant, we beseech thee; that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught.  Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who livest and reignest with Thee in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen."

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