This essay was first published at FirstThings.com in September 2019. Given recent debate about justice, friends, and enemies, it seemed useful to repost it here.
A third of the way through the Book of Acts, a man named Saul takes over the narrative. Like Israel’s King Saul, this Saul is from the tribe of Benjamin. Like King Saul, this Saul persecutes a David: Jesus. Jesus proves greater than his ancestor. The first David eluded Saul long enough to become king. Jesus conquers his adversary and enlists him as an apostolic ambassador.
Acts 9 records Saul’s dramatic conversion. Carrying letters that authorize him to arrest Christians in Damascus, he is himself arrested on the way by a blinding light. Saul falls to the ground like a dead man and becomes so helpless his friends have to guide him by the hand. He’s reduced to nothing, shattered by his encounter with Jesus. For three days, Saul sees nothing, eats nothing, drinks nothing. Then he’s baptized, receives his sight, and breaks his fast. On the third day, he begins to live in the resurrection life of the Jesus he once persecuted. The one who “breathed” murderous threats is made new by the breath of the Spirit.
The incident is also Saul’s commission as a witness, martyr, and apostle. Acts as a whole is a book of succession, showing how the ascended Jesus chooses his successors and conforms them to his own dying and living. Peter preaches in the power of the Spirit, heals, testifies to the Sanhedrin, is beaten, and rejoices that he can suffer for Jesus. Later he’s arrested and imprisoned; released by an angel, he shows himself to the disciples who think he’s a ghost, and then departs (Acts 12). Every moment of Peter’s life recapitulates an episode in the life of Jesus.
Saul, too, is conformed to Jesus by being twinned to the Christlike Stephen. Saul first appears in Acts alongside Stephen’s murderers (Acts 7:58). Then he begins to ravage the church, dragging off men and women like a wild animal (Acts 8:1–4). After he encounters Jesus, he becomes another Stephen. Chosen to be a suffering witness, Saul contends with Jews to convince them Jesus is the Messiah and swiftly becomes the target of a murder plot. As Paul, he’s accused of opposing the law and the temple (Acts 21:28), the same false accusations lodged against Stephen (Acts 6:11). Saul the martyr-maker becomes Paul the martyr. The hunter becomes prey. Coming to the light of Jesus, he shines a light to the gentiles (cf. Acts 26:17–18, 33).
Midway through his account of Saul’s conversion, Luke changes the scene. We leave Saul blind and fasting in Damascus, and move into the house of Ananias, a disciple of Jesus. Ananias’s experience tracks along with Saul’s. Like Saul, he receives a vision, engages in a dialogue with the Lord, and obeys the Lord’s command.
The Lord sends Ananias to heal Saul’s blindness and to mediate Saul’s entry into the Church. Saul’s conversion is the paradigm of direct, unmediated encounter with Jesus, the original Damascus Road experience, yet he’s grafted into the Church just like everyone else—through the waters of baptism. But Ananias isn’t merely a sacramental minister. His experience mimics Saul’s because Ananias undergoes his own conversion. Saul has to be changed, but Ananias has to be changed in order to welcome him. Saul has to be reconciled to the Lord Jesus, but he also has to be knit into the fellowship of Jesus’s disciples. Ananias’s first reaction to the command to seek out Saul is to remind the Lord of the harm Saul has done to the saints. But he goes, lays hands on Saul, and, at the dramatic climax of a dramatic story, addresses him as “Brother Saul.”
Every conversion demands a communal conversion so the whole Church embraces a former stranger as a family member. The conversion of a former enemy poses a more challenging demand, a radical trust that Jesus can and does turn Sauls into Pauls, Hutu killers into brothers to Tutsis, Islamic terrorists into companions, hostile races into kin. As my friend Timothy van den Broek put it, the Church is an unsettling miracle of reconciliation, where persecutors and persecuted, abusers and abused, share a common table. Acts 9 shows what Jesus continued to do and teach after his ascension, and what he continues to do and teach to this day, converting enemies into friends and converting churches so they welcome their abusers.
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