An Unlikely Ally
In today's first reading from Acts 9:26-31, we hear about the post-conversion Saul, who would soon be known as St. Paul.
Saul's conversion story is truly remarkable, and although we've all heard it many times, it merits revisiting. Saul was a devout Jew, a Pharisee trained under the rabbi Gamaliel. He vehemently resisted the Christian movement with murderous violence, approving Stephen's execution, dragging Christians from their homes and off to prison, and making his best efforts to destroy the Church. Ironically, Saul was acting against the moderate advice of his teacher Gamaliel, who took a “wait and see” attitude toward Christianity, telling the Jews, “...have nothing to do with these men [the Christians], and let them go. For if this endeavor or this activity is of human origin, it will destroy itself. But if it comes from God, you will not be able to destroy them; you may even find yourselves fighting against God” (Acts 5:38-39).
One day, Saul set off to Damascus, bent on gathering up Christians and bringing them back to Jerusalem in chains. On the way, in an instant, his entire life changed. A bright light flashed around him, and he fell to the ground. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” a voice cried out. Saul said the only thing that came to mind, “Who are you, sir?” “I am Jesus, Whom you are persecuting.” Jesus told Saul, who was now blind, to enter Damascus and wait for further instructions. Saul fasted for three days before a Christian named Ananias, who was acting on direct orders from Jesus, baptized him. His physical sight returned, and his spiritual sight, his whole outlook on life, on God, and on the Church, had changed. He began to proclaim Jesus in Damascus, boldly professing his faith in the Son of God and his full acceptance of Christianity. His hearers were shocked. Saul only grew stronger in his faith and preaching.
Here we come to today's reading. Saul's perspective may have changed, but others still saw him as the persecuting Jew who had been making life miserable for Christians. When Saul traveled to Jerusalem to meet the other disciples, they didn't trust him at all. In fact, they were scared of him. For all they knew, he was acting, pretending to be Christian so he could infiltrate their ranks and betray them from the inside.
Barnabas took hold of the situation. He knew the details of Saul's conversion, and he knew it was real. He had seen the transformation in Saul and its results. He assumed the role of Saul's sponsor, brought the new Christian before the apostles, explained the circumstances, and gave his testimony about Saul's preaching in Damascus.
On Barnabas' evidence, the apostles accepted Saul, who immediately began to spread the Christian message throughout Jerusalem. Imagine people's reaction...astonishment, hesitancy, mistrust, even anger. Some of Saul's debating opponents even tried to kill him, and the other Christians quickly took him away from Jerusalem and down to Caesarea. Saul may not have been worried about giving his life for Christ, but his fellow disciples recognized that he was a powerful if unexpected ally, someone who would serve Christ and preach the Gospel in new and exciting ways.