Today (January 25) we remember the conversion of St. Paul. His original name was Saul and he was a zealous student of Jewish law. Like many of his teachers, he was bitterly opposed to the new movement that followed the teachings of Jesus (called at first “the Way” and later the “Christian” movement). He worked with the Jewish authorities to arrest members of this movement as heretics who (falsely in his view) acclaimed Jesus as the Messiah and said that he had risen from the dead. Saul got authority to expand his work from Jerusalem to Damascus. On the way, he was struck blind and heard a voice saying, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” This must have been a staggering encounter for someone who was making it his business to arrest anyone who said Jesus was still alive. Following Jesus’ directions, Saul allowed himself to be led into Damascus, where he remained blind and took no food or drink for three days. Then Ananias, a disciple of Jesus in Damascus, had a vision telling him to go to the place where Saul was staying and to lay his hands on him so that he could recover his sight. Ananias initially raised objections, knowing what a dangerous man Saul was, but he was assured that all would be well. He also heard, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” [Book of Acts, Chapter 9.] Ananias trusted in God and went to visit Saul. As soon as Ananias laid his hands on him, Saul’s sight was restored. Saul then began preaching in the synagogues in Damascus, arguing forcefully that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God. Those who had known him before were astonished at how he had been converted (“conversion” means to change direction or belief).
After this 180-degree turn in his life and with foreknowledge that he would suffer for Jesus’ name, Saul went on to be a powerful missionary to the Roman Empire. He took the name Paul, which was more familiar to his Latin and Greek audiences. His deeds occupy a large part of the Biblical Acts of the Apostles and many of his letters are included in the New Testament. Paul reminds us to listen for God, that God’s service may involve suffering, and that great things can be done by dedicated believers.