Transforming Paul (Acts 9:1-31)
By Bruce Epperly
Our holy adventure in Acts takes on a new dimension with the introduction of Saul of Tarsus. The transformation of Saul into Paul cannot be understood purely as a conversion experience, but as an opening to deeper dimensions of the faith he affirmed. Although the later Paul counts his earlier orthodoxy as worthless, the fact of the matter is that Saul was a faithful Jew, whose persecution of the Way of Jesus was motivated by his belief in the God of Jesus, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is not that Saul had gone astray; he simply had not strayed far enough into God’s new frontiers of spiritual adventure. His orthodoxy had limited his ability to experience God in new and creative ways. Even after his mystical experience, as a leader of the fledgling church, Paul still affirmed God’s covenant with the children of Israel.
Acts 9 is shrouded in visionary experiences. On his way to persecute Jesus’ followers in Damascus, Saul sees a light and hears the voice of Jesus. He is blinded and then transformed by this theophany, this moment of divine revelation in which Jesus appears to him as the Risen One, God’s beloved revealer of a new age and new way of life. Saul receives a new vocation, and eventually a new name. He receives new sight and what John Biersdorf calls “the healing of purpose.”
Saul’s visionary experience is part of a larger ecology of revelation. Ananias also has a vision in which he receives divine guidance to welcome Saul into the community of faith, despite his previous history. Vision leads to vocation, both for an encounter and for a lifetime.
Acts 9, like the rest of Acts, invites us to a world of wonders in which God is active in each and every moment and each and every life. Yet, the one who is moving through all things addresses each thing – each moment and each person – uniquely and individually. Saul is “chosen” by God for a particular vocation in the early church. God is present in different ways in different situations and with different people. This is not a matter of supernatural intervention, but personal relationship. Healing moments – whether of vocation, body, mind, or spirit – emerge from a lively interplay of call and response, moving through our lives, unconscious mind, personal history, and historical and environmental context. Perhaps, God was gently and persistently moving through Saul’s religious quest to bring him to a moment of transformation. Despite the theophany, Saul still had to respond in order to experience the fullness of revelation and claim his new vocation. Likewise, Ananias also needed to be open to a new way of experiencing God’s presence in his life and in the emerging Christian community. Ananias had to experience God moving within Saul’s life: this was an act of courageous faith – opening to the proclaimer waiting to emerge from within the persecutor!
Acts 9 reminds us that burning bushes and theophanies can be found around every corner. God is constantly giving us guidance and inspiration. When we open to this inspiration, new possibilities emerge. Even when we appear to be going in the wrong direction, God is still working in our lives, inviting us to greater sight and insight in our vocation as God’s beloved children, sharing good news of healing and transformation.
Bruce Epperly is professor of practical theology and director of continuing education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of 17 books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry.