Published in the Episcopal New Yorker (Summer 2013) with illustration, page 13
How Saul Became Paul: The Power of the Prayer of Forgiveness
by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson, priest-in-charge, Church of the Intercession, Manhattan
The conversion of St. Paul is one of the most famous stories in the Bible. The dramatic episode on the road to Damascus – the blinding flash of light, the booming voice that sounded like thunder, Saul’s blindness, followed by the return of his sight after he submits to the reality, love, and lordship of Jesus – are all well known to us from accounts in the Book of Acts (9:1-19) and Paul’s own Letter to the Galatians (Gal. 1:11-16).
What is less well known is what precedes this episode. When we had last seen Saul in the Book of Acts, he is consenting to the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:54-70). After Stephen is martyred, Saul continues on “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, (and committing) them to prison” (Acts 8:3).
This was not new behavior for Saul, who had a well-deserved reputation as a virulent and violent enemy of Jesus’ disciples (Acts 9:13-14). The question is: what provoked this transformation from Saul, Jesus’ worst enemy, into Paul, arguably Jesus’ most effective evangelist? Why was he converted at this particular moment?
I submit to you that it was Stephen’s prayer for of forgiveness for his persecutors as he was dying that released the healing power of God to heal Saul and transform him into Paul. On his knees, Stephen prays for forgiveness for his killers, echoing the words of the crucified Jesus (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” Lk. 23:34). Stephen says, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). Since Saul was a member – perhaps the leader – of the persecutors’ band, he was a direct object of Stephen’s powerful prayer.
Forgiveness of sins is a common theme to many prayers for the healing of body, mind, and spirit throughout the gospels. We tend to think of healing prayer as a category unto itself – how often do we pray for the healing of a sickness, or a situation, any kind of problem, by asking for Jesus to solve that problem only and not tinker with the rest of our lives? But Jesus is a holistic healer, concerned with the well being of soul as well as mind and body; his healings are often accompanied by forgiveness of the sufferer’s sins. The connection between healing and forgiveness is so crucial – and so provocative to Jews who believed that forgiving sins was only the province of God – that Jesus feels the need to state it plainly when healing a paralytic: “Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he then said to the paralytic – “Stand up, take your bed and go to your home” (Matt. 9:5-6).
Now let’s be clear here. Jesus is teaching us that a forgiven and forgiving spirit is necessary to health in every corner of our lives, not that we are to denigrate those who are suffering as sinners. In fact, he says the very opposite when he is questioned about the man born blind: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (Jn. 9:2-3). All challenges to our health are opportunities for God’s glory to be revealed. Forgiveness puts us on our own road to Damascus, our own road to healing.
Jesus grants us the power to forgive, even requires us to forgive others as a condition for continued membership in his community. He gives us instructions on how and how often to forgive (Matt. 18:15-22, Lk. 6:37, Jn. 20:23), and teaches us to pray for the forgiveness of our own sins in the Lord’s Prayer. Yet many of us persist in seeking healing without either forgiving others or receiving forgiveness ourselves. Let’s face it, we have an instinctive revulsion to forgiveness. Forgiving others offends our sense of justice. We know when we’ve been done wrong, and it just doesn’t seem right to us to be told that we can’t hold injustice or injury – whether perceived or real – against the offending party. And receiving forgiveness ourselves can be just as difficult, since we tend to make our own sins part of our identity, even cherishing them to the point of allowing them to define us.
But if we are to pray with power for healing, Jesus tells us we must both give and receive forgiveness. If forgiveness can transform Saul into Paul, who knows what mighty works of glory God can reveal through us when we forgive and are forgiven?