The Hardest of Hearts
On that day, there broke out a severe persecution of the church in Jerusalem, and all were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made a loud lament over him. Saul, meanwhile, was trying to destroy the church; entering house after house and dragging out men and women, he handed them over for imprisonment. (Acts 8:1-3)
There is no doubt that as a Jew, Saint Paul was zealous. He was a Pharisee, one dedicated to the strict following of the Jewish Law, seeing in its observance the pathway to salvation by God. He even tells us his observance of the Law went far beyond his contemporaries. “For you heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it, and progressed in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries among my race, since I was even more a zealot for my ancestral traditions.” (Galatians 1:13-14)
Why was Saint Paul trying to destroy the Church? And what lead to his conversion, which we celebrate today? How is it the hardest of hearts was softened to worship Jesus? For in the answers to these questions are the reasons we celebrate his conversion.
The first thing to note is that in whatever Saint Paul did, he was likely the person that went at it with everything he had. Schooled in the Law, and likely very bright, if Saint Paul was going to be a Jew, he was going to be the most serious of Jews. And as a Jew, seeing the way of life spelled out by the Law, Saint Paul would feel compelled to follow it completely.
What is also important is the need to note that when Jesus appeared as the Messiah, he was not the type of Messiah that was expected. He did not free the Jews from Roman rule. He was not a military general. He possessed few of the qualities of the Messiah that were expected at the time.
And yet, his followers were proclaiming boldly Jesus was the Messiah. And they were convincing. People were become followers of the Way, the new type of religion. And this worried Saint Paul on a whole number of levels. Most importantly, if this new Way were allowed to grow, in Saint Paul’s view, it would be the case that people would not be following the Jewish Law, and hence their very salvation was at risk.
There was probably also the fear about what this new Way would mean for the practice of Judaism in the eyes of the Romans. Would this new Way cause a division that could threaten the ability of the Jews to practice their religion freely? Would the Romans feel the division provided an excuse to stop the Jews from openly practicing their faith? (The destruction of the Temple could seem to indicate this would not have been an unfounded fear.
But Jesus shows us that as God, he can change even the hardest of hearts. Saint Paul directly encounters the risen Christ, and it changes his heart. He is now “on fire” for Jesus, and we know as we read the New Testament he travelled all over the known world proclaiming the Good News.
Hopefully what we gain from this is the belief that God can change any heart, even our hearts. We can be brought into a deeper relationship with Jesus simply by allowing Jesus to change our hearts. And he can. Today might be a good day to ask Saint Paul to pray for your conversion, as I will do today asking Saint Paul to help me to more fully convert and turn my heart to be more and more like the heart of Christ.
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