Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lordsaid to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God."
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.
St Paul's conversion is here presented for the first of three times in the Acts of the Apostles (see also 22:4-26; 26:12-18). Here it highlights the movement of the church beyond Judaism to the gentile world. This account is preceded in Acts by the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was baptized by deacon Philip and then followed by the conversion of the Roman centurion Cornelius. Both the Ethiopian and Cornelius were baptized without going through the full procedures of becoming Jews by circumcision and by accepting the Jewish dietary laws. The conversion of these foreigners shared an important feature with Saul's conversion. Each took place because of special, miraculous intervention by God.
Up till now Paul had been persecuting the church, in Jerusalem and now (he had thought) in Damascus. His conversion, however, would bring an entirely new type of suffering to the small group of disciples. In becoming an apostle to the gentiles, Paul insisted that it was not necessary to be circumcised nor to follow Mosaic laws like those for food and drink, in order to be a follower of Jesus. This action on Paul's part split the church right down the center. The controversy comes to the surface in Paul's Epistle to the Galatians and in a later chapter in Acts. Paul, therefore, was considered a traitor by his own Jewish family and coreligionists, and he was to be isolated and calumniated even by his Christian community. When Jesus announced to Ananias that Paul "will have to suffer for my name," he was referring not just to Paul's eventual martyrdom in Rome but even more to a life of martyrdom within his own church!
Wherever then we bring the good news of Jesus and the family love of the Eucharist, we are also instruments of suffering. Our lives are intertwined as closely as flesh and blood. Blood brings the strength and vigor for flesh to suffer crucifixion. Flesh keeps the blood circulating within a single body where we are all united.
Once Paul was converted, both he and the church took the consequences. Each would suffer the effect of the other's gifts, insights and apostolate. And as each one is strengthened further by Jesus' eucharistic bread come down from heaven, each will be clearer in insights, more forceful in demands and expectations, even more impatient at the slow or indifferent reaction of others. This process of life, into death, for a new and greater life is the story of Jesus, Paul and each of us.
Many questions are asked by people in the course of the gospels. Some are posed by Jesus; others are asked by those who meet him. Today it is the Jews who ask, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" Far from pulling back in response to that scornful, dismissive question, Jesus goes on to speak of the need not only to eat his flesh but to drink his blood as well. The language of eating the flesh, the body, of Jesus and drinking the blood of Jesus is shocking. Yet, it is the language of John's gospel. Jesus, who gave his life for us on the cross, gives himself to us as our food and our drink in the Eucharist. Jesus goes on to state that he gives himself to us as food and drink so that we might draw life from him. "Whoever eats me will draw life from me." The life which flowed from the side of Jesus as he hung from the cross, symbolized by the blood and water, is conveyed personally to each of us when we eat his body and drink his blood. We come to the Eucharist to draw life from the Lord, as branches draw life from the vine. We are then sent from the Eucharist to live with his life, to live his life.