25 January 2015
The Conversion of Paul
Acts 9:1-22, Matt 19:27-end
May I speak this morning in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
You may remember that last week we spoke about a number of different ways in which people in the bible were called by God. The boy Samuel was called audibly by the voice of God, although it took a little help from Eli the priest for him to learn how to recognise that voice. Philip was called personally by Jesus and responded immediately, whereas Nathanael was called by Philip to ‘come and see’ and he took a little more persuasion, saying, ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth?’, but when he met Jesus in person he soon declared him to be the Son of God.
I concluded last week by saying that God calls us individually in the way that we need – it is still up to us to open our ears and our eyes and our minds in order to recognise that call – but that God will work with us and our characteristics, not forgetting that he knows us better than we know ourselves.
Well, this week, we celebrate the conversion of Paul and, as you might expect, the feast of the conversion of Paul is one that is close to my own heart. However, whilst I love the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, I want to sound a note of caution right at the outset: there are some within the wider church who would have you believe that unless you have had your own Road to Damascus experience and unless you can point to the exact moment that you became a Christian, that you have not really converted, that you are not really a Christian. Let me say loud and clear that I believe that to be errant nonsense. Saint Paul’s conversion was never shown to be the normal or usual way in which God turned people around, it was a way peculiar to him, for reasons we shall explore in a moment. Within Church life there is nothing that makes me crosser then Christians telling other Christians that they are somehow second class just because their experience is different. So let’s journey together with Paul on his road to conversion, but I want you to feel inspired by it, not in anyway deficient. And if anyone ever tells you that you are not a proper Christian just because your experience of being called or converted is different, just send them to me.
As I am sure most of you know, before Paul was converted his name was Saul and he was referred to as Saul of Tarsus, which was his birthplace. In case you are wondering Tarsus is on the Mediterranean coast in what is now South East Turkey, but was then simply a region within the Roman empire.
Before we look at the conversion experience itself it is absolutely vital that we look at how Saul was behaving towards the early Christians, who were then called Followers of the Way, because it is only be understanding the type of person he was before his conversion that we can begin to understand the power of the experience that he underwent.
Saul of Tarsus makes his first appearance in the bible two chapters prior to his conversion experience. So we meet him for the first time at the end of chapter 7 of the Book of Acts. You doubtless know that Boxing Day is also celebrated as the feast of St Stephen – who was one of the first people to be ordained as a deacon by the early church and he was also one of the first to be martyred for their faith. Well, at the end of chapter 7 of Acts Stephen is stoned to death by an angry crowd and Saul is amongst the crowd, approving of their actions:
“Meanwhile the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul…and Saul was there giving approval to his [Stephen’s] death.”
But this does not mean that Saul was simply a bystander in this persecution of the early church. On the contrary he was a prime mover and shaker in seeking to stamp out this new and heretical sect wherever it could be found. We encounter him again at the beginning of chapter 9:
“Meanwhile Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the High Priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether man or women be might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
And we don’t just have to take the word of the Book of Acts (commonly thought to be written by St Luke) for what Saul was like prior to his conversion. In his letter to the Galatians, chapter 1 verse 13, Paul said of himself:
“For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my Fathers.”
So Saul was doing all he could to stamp out the church. Today he might have been called a hate preacher, inciting violence against those he saw as undermining his own faith. He was one of those zealous young men who are so dedicated to their own cause that they can see no value in anything else and must destroy anything which does not totally agree with their world view. We see many similar young men in radical Islam now and in extremist political parties.
And so this radical and zealous young man set out from Jerusalem to Damascus to round up those people he believed to be heretics and to bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners, possibly to face execution. In terms of where people are on their journey of faith and their predisposition towards Christianity I think it is fair to say that Saul of Tarsus was one of the most implacable enemies of the faith – think Abu Hamza crossed with Marilyn Manson and Richard Dawkins, if that is not too hideous to consider at this time on a Sunday.
But then something amazing happened:
“As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
‘Who are you, Lord? Saul asked.
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
And we know that Saul was temporarily blinded by the experience and so he entered Jerusalem not as a zealous young hunter of the church, but being led by the hand like a blind old man and not eating or drinking anything for three days. It was not until the follower of Christ called Ananias was sent by God to pray over Saul that the scales fell from his eyes, he got up, was baptised and ate again. Although I said that Saul entered Damascus like an old man you could also see this three days of blindness and not eating like a baby in the womb, with him being born again through prayer and baptism. And, although this is not something that I had thought of previously, perhaps there are also parallels to be drawn between this period of three days and the time Jesus spent in the tomb.
In his conversion experience Saul died completely to the person he was previously, he entered either the tomb or the womb of blindness, as you prefer, and then he was born again or perhaps resurrected to a new life in Christ.
And, of course, following his conversion Saul of Tarsus changed from being the churches chief persecutor to being Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles who took the Christian message well beyond its Christian roots into the Roman world. Not only did he found many church communities but the letters he wrote to those communities and to individuals form a very substantial part of the New Testament.
So the conversion of Paul is a wonderful example of the fact that in the economy of God no one is beyond redemption and conversion.
However, as I said at the start, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Road to Damascus is the only conversion experience worth having. It is worth comparing this to another conversion experience on another road – the Road to Emmaus. In that story, as I am sure you recall, two disciples were fleeing from Jerusalem following the crucifixion and whilst they were walking and talking Jesus started to walk beside them, although they did not recognise him. As they walked Jesus explained the scriptures and how they were fulfilled by the events that had just taken place in Jerusalem. It was only when they stopped to eat and Jesus broke bread with them that they recognised him. I believe that for many people coming to recognise Christ comes only after a long journey of travelling with the anonymous Christ, the unknown Christ. Those disciples on the Road to Emmaus were not struck down in a flash of light but they travelled beside him, or rather Christ travelled alongside them, until they were ready to see him in the breaking of the bread.
And the Road to Emmaus story illustrates my final point very well – conversion is not necessarily a one off experience that sets us right with God for all time. Those two disciples had already been followers of Christ before the crucifixion, but they had to meet him again on the road in order to turn around and become his followers once more. They undertook a metanoia – a turning around, a change of heart.
A true encounter with God, in whatever form it takes, has to lead to a conversion, a turning around, a change of heart because if we are less than holy we cannot help but be changed by an experience of the holy.
So whilst we celebrate the conversion of Saul of Tarsus into Saint Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles we should not think of the moment of conversion for ourselves or for anybody else as being the end of the road – whether the road to Damascus or to Emmaus. Rather, as Paul himself discovered, it is only the start of a much greater and even more remarkable journey which lasts our whole lifetime and beyond and in which our repentance, our conversion and our submission to God should be a moment by moment experience which leads us from one degree of glory to another.