Today is that day set aside in the church’s calendar to mark the conversion of Saul — his being struck down by Jesus on the way to Damascus to persecute the church, and instead becoming the risen Christ’s “chosen instrument” for brining the reconciling promise of God to the Gentiles. As Paul later described his own conversion in Galatians, chapter 1:
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers. 15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, 16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus.
18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. 20 (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) 21 Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God because of me. (Galatians 1:11–24 ESV)
I like the version of the story Luke tells in Acts 9 (and has Paul retell again in Acts 22 and 26) because it has drama. Jesus, reaching out, knocking Saul blind and senseless, and speaking to him — “Rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” — and putting Saul in a position of utter dependence on the people he had come to persecute.
And putting them in a position of complete power. All they had in common between them was Jesus.
The conversion of Saul is a new thing. Once, the wrath of God came upon a sinful world, flooding it completely and killing nearly everyone in it. Then it came upon a sinful city in the form of fire from heaven, destroying the entire city and nearly all who lived in it. Then the vengeance of God came as the armies of Assyria and Babylon, to fight, to defeat, to conquer, and to exile God’s wayward, faithless, and disobedient people.
But now, God’s vengeance is something different. Something new. It isn’t defeat, destruction, and exile. It’s resurrection. It’s conversion. Saul, the enemy of the church, fierce opponent of Christ, is met in the midst of his “ordinary” life (just as Peter and his brothers, or Matthew/Levi, met Jesus as they were simply going about their ordinary business) and yanked from it. He is now Christ’s servant, to do Christ’s business, at Christ’s bidding.
Jesus even seems to reassure Ananias that Saul “will suffer much,” though it will no longer be a punishment for wrongdoing, but a real consequence of preaching the Good News of Jesus in a world hungry to hear it. Because the powers that be don’t want this Good News preached.
So Paul will suffer. And die.
But not as an enemy of God. Not as a consequence of his sin. Rather, he will die a beloved disciple. With the rising of Christ, suffering and death goes from a sign of the wrath of God to a mark of God’s favor. It is no longer a consequence of our faithlessness, but of our faithfulness.
Resurrection and conversion, not death and destruction, are God’s final words on our sin. On our rage. On our anger. Our murderous desires. Jesus went there first, and invited us to follow.
Some he called softly and tenderly. Maybe even many. But some, he struck blind, and drug them (okay, us) kicking and screaming all the way to the foot of the cross, to the empty tomb. Where we could see what a love that claims us utterly and completely really looks like.
And how it is little different than wrath. And because of that, God’s wrath does’t matter anymore.
All that matters is God’s all-consuming, all-claiming, and all-encompassing love.