Today I am reflecting on the story of “the conversion of Paul” (as it is often called) in Acts 9. This story appears in the lectionary readings for this coming Sunday. I see it as providing a model for the missional calling of the church in our times.
I prefer to call this story “the calling of Saul”, since Saul is how he is named in the narrative, and the text actually recounts a calling to a particular role, rather than a conversion from one faith to another. (The way the story is told follows the conventions of call narratives as we find them in Hebrew Scriptures and Hellenistic Jewish texts.)
I think it is worth viewing this story within the broader narrative framework of Acts, the second volume which follows on from Luke’s “orderly account” of the story of Jesus. This first volume ends with a brief narrating of the ascension of Jesus into heaven (Luke 24:50–53). This pivotal event is repeated at the start of the second volume (Acts 1:6–11).
A crucial role is played by Luke’s version of the commission which the risen Jesus gives as a parting word to his disciples: repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, “beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47).
Another version of this commission introduces the second volume (Acts 1:8): “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This verse sets out the programme for the rest of this volume, as the good news is carried out from Jerusalem into all manner of other places.
Immediately, Luke turns his attention to the community of Jesus’ followers who remain in Jerusalem (1:12–26). Here, in Jerusalem, the spirit is manifested both to these followers and to a crowd of pilgrims who witness what takes place (2:1– 13). Peter seizes the opportunity to proclaim the good news of Jesus, with greatly encouraging results (2:14–42).
The early faith community in Jerusalem maintained its strong link with Judaism, participating in the Temple rituals on a regular basis (2:46; 3:1; 5:12). Interestingly, Luke reports that a number of priests became believers (6:7). Subsequent chapters (3:1–8:3) report key developments in this community of Jesus’ followers. Peter and John are twice arrested by the Jerusalem authorities and twice released from imprisonment (4:1–22; 5:17–42), whilst Stephen, after his public denunciation of the Temple, is stoned to death (6:8–8:1).
Stephen’s martyrdom is the next pivotal moment in Luke’s narrative; it provokes persecution and a scattering of community members away from Jerusalem (8:1). The followers of Jesus now form a dispersed movement, known simply as “The Way” (9:2; see also 18:25); they preach and heal in a variety of places.
One figure, Philip, travels to Samaria, where he replicates the preaching, miraculous activity, and successes of the leaders of the Jerusalem community (8:4–40).
In subsequent chapters, Luke recounts further strategic events relating to the leadership of the movement. The first strategic moment is when one of the persecutors of the movement, Saul of Tarsus, is commissioned as a messenger for the movement, which he joins in Damascus before moving to the community remaining in Jerusalem (9:1–31).
We read some of this story in the Acts reading set in the lectionary for this coming Sunday. Interestingly, this story was so important for the author of Acts, that it is retold (with some interesting expansions and variations) twice more–in Acts 22, when Paul is attested in Jerusalem; and in Acts 26, when he stands before the Roman authorities in Caesarea.
The calling that Saul receives is signalled at 9:6 (“get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do”), and then specified in the words of the Lord given to Ananias: “he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (9:15-16). This calling signals the turn to the Gentiles in a clear way. The book of Acts narrates a selection of key moments as the mission to the Gentiles grows and beats fruit.
A second strategic moment in the narrative occurs when the leader of the Jerusalem community, Simon Peter, experiences a dramatic vision which overturns his understanding of how holiness is to be lived out in daily life, at table. He meets with a Roman godfearer, Cornelius, and together they institute a ground–breaking table fellowship of Jew and Gentile, and the spirit inducts Gentiles into the hitherto Jewish community of Jesus’ followers (9:32–11:19).
Luke thus offers this important pairing of leaders within the early movement: both Saul (later Paul) and Peter are in the vanguard of taking the good news to the Gentiles. So, all is prepared for the crucial “turn to the Gentiles” which will take place under the leadership of Saul, with the agreement of Peter. The section ends with an account of community life in Antioch (11:19–30), where members of “The Way” are first named “Christians” (11:26), and then in Jerusalem (12:1–25).
From this point in the narrative, attention is focused almost exclusively on Paul (the new name adopted by Saul of Tarsus). With Barnabas, Saul is commissioned in Antioch as a representative of the movement; the pair travel north and west to proclaim the good news to the nations. They start to enact the “turn to the Gentiles” already foreshadowed, beginning in Pisidian Antioch, where Paul preaches, with mixed success (13:14–52). This will be Paul’s experience in every place he visits.
This week’s Acts reading underlines the missional imperative that was at the heart of this movement. Each in their own way, Saul and Peter, provide us with a clear model of what following Jesus means. We are charged with this missional task in our own time.