The conversions of Saul and Tony Stark

Acts 22:3-16, Mark 16:15-18 (Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle)

Tony Stark was an incredibly talented man. He was an ingenious engineer and especially skilled with robotics. Tony, however, used his skills in a selfish way, amassing an incredible wealth that he used to fund his playboy lifestyle. One day his life was changed forever when he was kidnapped by a group of terrorists who tried to force him to build a weapon of mass destruction. Refusing to build the weapon, Tony created a powered suit of armor that he used to escape captivity. From this point onward, he was a changed man. Instead of using his great talents for selfish reasons, Tony Stark decided to dedicate all his skills and energy to defending the needy in the world. Tony Stark became Iron Man.

Saul was a man possessing great skills, drive and enthusiasm. He was fluent in Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew. He had a very cosmopolitan upbringing, being well versed in Greek, Roman and Jewish cultures. Though a Jew, Saul also had Roman citizenship, a great advantage to those living in the Mediterranean region during the first century. Saul was a devout man. He prayed and scrupulously followed the religious laws of his people. His knowledge of the Jewish faith was exceptional on account of his years of study under Gamaliel, one of the most famous teachers of that time. Saul was extremely loyal to the Jewish religious authorities. He was desperately trying to make a difference in the world. He wanted more than anything to complete the mission God had given him. Unfortunately, at the time, Saul thought that this mission was to track down, persecute and kill Christians. One day Saul’s life was changed forever when he was making his way to Damascus, chasing down Christians who had fled there. Along the road, Saul encountered a blinding light and heard a voice addressing him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul responded, “Who are you Lord?”. The voice answered with words that would forever mark his  life: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:3ff). From that point onward, Saul decided to dedicate all his talents and energy to telling other people about Jesus and the salvation that comes to us through His Passion, Death and Resurrection. Saul became Paul.

Though the story of Tony Stark becoming the comic book hero Iron Man is fictional, it has much in common with the true story of Saul becoming the hero and Apostle Paul. Both are stories of conversion. These conversion stories are dramas which take place in three acts or scenes. As followers of Jesus, our lives should follow the same story.

Act 1: Before our conversion, we use our time, gifts and energy for the wrong mission
Tony Stark and Saul were both very talented individuals. At the start, however, they misused their gifts. Stark was selfish, living a life in which he looked only to please himself. Saul, in persecuting Christians, was violently misguided in what he thought God was asking of him. We too can commit the gifts God has given us to the wrong mission. Pope Francis explains that as Christians we are called to be missionary disciples. We must be both disciples and missionaries. We fall short as disciples when we sin and fail to cultivate our relationship with Jesus through prayer and the sacraments. Even if we are sincerely living as disciples, we can fail in our call to be missionaries. As Pope Francis points out, all of us are called to lead other people closer to Jesus through our words and actions. It is not enough just to live a life in which we avoid sin and strive to grow in virtue. We are supposed to be missionary disciples. If we are not trying to do this, we are using misapplying the time and talents God has given us.

Act 2: We have an experience that causes us to dramatically rethink our lives
Tony Stark was kidnapped. Saul saw a blinding light and dialogued with the Risen Lord. Some people have dramatic moments of conversion like this. One event causes them to reconsider their lives completely and make serious changes. For others, it may be a series of events stretched over a length of time. Slowly but surely they begin to assess their lives and make changes. There are many different kinds of experiences that can become a catalyst for conversion. God can use a moment of tragedy such as a death or illness in the family as a wake up call to have us focus on what is most important in life. At such times people often begin praying or going to Mass again. Other times, the experience can be a joyful one. Sometimes when people make the choice to get married, it becomes an opportunity to leave sinful behaviors behind and grow closer to God. Whether large or small, we have all had such experiences. Though the experience may cause us to question the way we live, the experience alone is not enough. We need to decide to change.

Act 3: After conversion we devote our lives to Jesus and His mission
In this final act of the conversion drama, we choose to accept more fully our call to be missionary disciples. Instead of using our talents, time and energy for the wrong mission, we to use them to follow Christ. We become disciples by leaving sin behind and growing in virtue. We become missionaries by making a conscious effort to lead people closer to Jesus. We see this so clearly in the life of St. Paul. Saul becomes Paul when he decided to become a follower of Jesus and preach the gospel far and wide at great personal cost. During his life, St. Paul traveled over 15 000 km (more than the distance from Vancouver Island to Newfoundland and back) starting new churches. He was persecuted, beaten and eventually killed because of his efforts. Because of his burning zeal to preach the Gospel, St. Paul left an enduring legacy on the Church.

Deep within each of us there is a desire to be a hero. We want to do great things and impact the world around us. Owing to our lack of engineering skills - and the fact that it is impossible - we will never become like Iron Man. But, when we live our lives as a story of ongoing conversion we can become like St. Paul. When we zealously use all our gifts to follow Jesus and answer His call we become missionary disciples, who are, in the end, the true heroes.