One of the appointed readings for today’s Daily Prayer is taken from the Acts of the Apostles where we read:
And Saul approved of their killing him.
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Now those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word. Philip went down to the city* of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah* to them. The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.
Now a certain man named Simon had previously practised magic in the city and amazed the people of Samaria, saying that he was someone great. All of them, from the least to the greatest, listened to him eagerly, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great.’ And they listened eagerly to him because for a long time he had amazed them with his magic. But when they believed Philip, who was proclaiming the good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women. Even Simon himself believed. After being baptized, he stayed constantly with Philip and was amazed when he saw the signs and great miracles that took place. (Acts 8: 1-13).
Saul was a zealous Pharisee. Saul was well trained in the faith of Israel, God’s chosen people, set apart from all other nations. As a zealous Pharisee, Saul was willing to kill if that was necessary to preserve the purity of the faith. His willingness to do so is made clear in today’s passage. Bishop N.T. Wright notes that Saul was born, raised, and educated at the city of Tarsus as revealed in verse 11. Tarsus was a wealthy university city that was famous for being a center of learning. There Paul studied under the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3), the same Gamaliel that stopped the Jews from killing the Apostles in Acts 5:33. Now there is an obvious difference between the reaction to the new belief of Christianity between Gamaliel and his student Saul. Gamaliel responded by a peaceful action and wanted to leave the outcome of this group to the judgment of God (Act 5:38-39), Paul resorted to terrorizing and persecuting the church (Acts 8:1-3). There were two main camps of the Pharisees: the Shammaites and the Hillelites. These groups debated on the strictness of personal observance of the Torah in the midst of Israel being ruled from outside forces. The Hillelites believed in a policy that was fine with foreign rule as long as they could freely practice Judaism where as the Shammaites believed that the Torah demanded that Israel be free from foreign rule. And this freedom could be accomplished by any means necessary—even violence. … Saul, resorted to violence to fend off the Christian movement (Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-2). … Saul began to see the danger of the Christian movement and its ever increasing strength. He saw them growing so much that he left the example of his teacher and followed the path of the Shammaites to deal with the followers of “the Way.” Saul (who would be named Paul at the time of writing these things) would later testify to his passion in persecuting the church as “zealous” (Gal 1:14, Phil 3:6). It could be said that Saul began seeing himself in the same heroic line as Phinehas (Num 25:1-9) and Mattathias (1 Macc 2:23-26) who displayed their zeal for God by slaying those that openly defiled God’s commandments. Thus, when Paul is shown in the first part of this narrative he is “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). For his passion against those that defiled the Torah is great enough that he used violence to set things right. And in his mind the Christians called for such a response. Charlie Albright, The Conversion of Paul, Renewing Thoughts (April 23, 2010).
Yet after Saul encounters the Risen Christ, after his conversion Saul, now Paul, is able to re-imagine Judaism in a new way; he is able to become a zealous Christian and spreads the Good News giving his very life in service to his Lord, Jesus.
Let us pray: Gracious God, you are able to open the hearts of us all to adhere to your will. Give us the grace to be like Paul, to be able to set aside our own way of looking at things, our own agenda, to be open to your will for our lives, and to preach your Gospel purely. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Please pray for those gathered in Salt Lake City at the 78th General Convention of the Episcopal Church.
Please remember everyone on our Prayer List, especially those who are ill.
Your servant in Christ,
Fr. Chester J. Makowski+
St. Augustine of Hippo Episcopal Church
Galveston, Texas 77550