It’s not for nothing that the Church remembers the Conversion of St Paul during the Epiphany season, because it is Paul who is most obviously the Apostle to the Gentiles, that is, to those of us who were not privileged to be born into God’s covenant. It had to be a Jew – and a strict, observant Jew – who was chosen by God to carry to the rest of the world the good news that God welcomes every community, from every background - into a loving and transforming relationship of justice, peace and reconciliation.
True, St Peter was perhaps the first person to grasp this astonishing possibility, following his vision on the sundeck above Simon the Tanner’s house on the lakeside. But Peter wavered at times - and had to answer to Paul for that. No, it’s clear that God had Paul in mind to drive forward that essential project of opening up the divine promise to the whole world. Just look at a map in the back of your Bible (I hope it’s one that has maps at the back) to see the extent of the journeys that Paul made back and forth across the eastern half of the Roman Empire. It’s on record that up to the point where Paul was killed in Rome, he had planned to go on to Spain, to make sure that he covered the western half as well. Who knows, if he’d been spared, he might have made it to the cold north and arrived in Colwall.
It’s hard to imagine what he must have gone through on that fateful journey to Damascus. Here was this strictly observant Jew who was a Roman citizen at home with Roman customs, law and social mores, and equally a man steeped in Greek culture, philosophy and religion. We can only guess at what happened to him in that blinding flash. But between that instant and his meeting with Ananias a few days later, all that education, that immersion in three different cultures (Roman, Jewish, Greek), his religious observance from the day of his birth - all is suddenly turned round and emerges as something radically different.
Everything in his life and everything in his teaching was set on a new foundation – the conviction that he had been confronted by the crucified and risen Messiah. From that point on, the life of the committed Pharisee was transmuted into something, something radically new and quite unprecedented. It dawned on him that he and the followers of the Way were one – together, we become in Messiah, we become the body of Messiah. Paul was first to put it that way: we are in Messiah / in Christ. The Roman citizen, the cultivated Hellenic citizen too were equally subsumed into that new identity as we are in our status as citizens of the United Kingdom, as women and men, young and old, well-off and poor.
We cannot know what God might have done had Paul refused this startling transformative experience. We have God to thank, as well as the man himself, that Paul allowed the risen Jesus to enter his life and to take the gospel out of its confines in Judaism and to proclaim God’s good news to the world. God grant that, as we meet Messiah, we become with Paul – as our Book of Common Prayer has it – very members incorporate in that mystical body.