Today’s first reading at Mass from the Acts of the Apostles recounts the dramatic conversion of Paul. To underline its importance, Luke recalls it three times in his description of the spread of the church from Jerusalem to Rome, the ends of the earth.
Though largely responsible for Christianity’s growth among the gentiles, in Luke’s eyes Paul is Christ’s instrument, first of all. He’s an agent in God’s hands. His mission doesn’t come through his own powers of reason or imagination; he doesn’t suffer a natural life-changing blow as he falls to the ground on his way to Damascus.
Jesus speaks to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” That appearance caused Paul to be convinced that faith is a gift that justifies us and that the church is the body of Christ. He did not come to these beliefs on his own.
Paul’s great conversion story in Acts introduces a succession of stories recalling the conversion of the gentiles. Though Paul has a prominent part in these stories, he is still an agent whom God sends and constantly empowers.
Reading the Acts of the Apostles, we realize it’s not just a description of the past; it’s a template for the church of every age. Personalities like Paul and human factors play a part in her growth, but the church’s advance is not principally through human power, reason, or imagination. The power of God’s Spirit guides and supports it through time.
We need to pray and welcome it.