a Sermon for the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle
Text: Acts 26:9-21
From Saul to Paul
In the story of the Conversion of Paul, we have perhaps the ultimate Christian example. Paul speaks of his old self, a conversion, and a transformation.
Before he became Paul, he was Saul: a self-proclaimed zealot. He was Jewish and Roman: an unlikely and unusual combination as each is a status usually conferred upon one through birth—as opposed to belief and conversion. This dual status gave him huge advantages in society and in his ministry. It is no doubt for both of these identities that Saul gains significant notoriety in the region as persecutor of Christians.
In that story we heard from Acts, we hear Paul describe this stunning reversal. Saul, the “SuperJew” and persecutor of Christians is blinded, thrown from his horse, and is called by Jesus to become an apostle. In Acts 9, when the conversion itself occurs, we read that he is left blind for three days and is healed through Jesus’s direction of another. But here we learn that Saul is being invited to become an apostle. Not just another follower, or part of the crowd, but an Apostle—counted among Peter, James, and John.
Like Simon, renamed as Peter, Saul’s conversion leads to a name change. He becomes Paul. And he turns his zeal from persecution of the early Christians to evangelism.
It is in that moment of conversion that we might see Paul’s greatest gift.
…I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions.
He is blinded by an intense light and it is there that he encounters Jesus. The radical theologian, Peter Rollins recently spoke in a public lecture that Paul’s encounter with Jesus is not a moment based on seeing the light, but confronting the darkness caused by blindness. For three days he loses his sight. It is the light itself that prevents him from seeing and it is Jesus’s words that, for the first time, compel him to observe himself.
Rollins says that in this moment, Saul is forced to confront his belief, his own darkness. Paul’s conversion from persecutor of Christians to one expanding the Body of Christ doesn’t come from sticking with his childhood faith, but in confronting what it had made of him.
The example for us in Paul’s conversion then is not flowers and rainbows and a moment of transcendent joy—nor is it a faith built by hard work and weekly synagogue attendance with his family. His conversion comes through confronting what he has done while he is cast into total darkness.
The new thing
Paul’s example is particularly challenging to those of us raised in the church. It exposes the possibility that despite baptism, many of us hold our faith as Saul does, rather than Paul. That our zealous support of our faith is not directed by Jesus but in reaction to what we perceive as threats to our our childhood faith.
Yet Jesus gives even Saul a chance to become Paul. Jesus gives even the most satisfied and zealous among us the chance to examine ourselves and be converted. To relinquish our childish hold on an unexamined life and an ignorant faith. A chance to repent for the evils we have done and chart a new course. To dispense of our anger and hatred of others and embrace the joy that comes from loving others as GOD loves. And perhaps, most importantly, do a new thing based on the skills we have.
For Paul was converted from Jew to Jew who follows Christ. And the new thing he is called to do is to proclaim the Good News to non-Jews. This is totally unheard of and a huge departure for a tradition that was more concerned with maintaining family identity than bringing outsiders into the tradition. I hope this sounds familiar.
Listening for a new thing
For St. Paul’s the conversion reminds us that GOD operates by changing course; by forcing us to examine ourselves; and by giving us new work to do. St. Paul’s is the second incarnation of the Episcopal Church in St. Clair. First born as Trinity Church in 1846, and after a fire in 1873, the congregation continued to meet irregularly and became a mission in 1881. It was reborn as St. Paul’s in 1885. Since then, we have changed many times over. Each time, reflecting the work GOD has given us to do.
As we move once again into our new era, our new life, we are doing so not as St. Saul’s, zealously devoted to preserving the past by persecuting the present, but as St. Paul’s, eager to use our gifts in the new thing GOD is giving us today.
We are making new commitments to lifelong Christian formation, to providing a safe and nurturing environment for children, to new efforts of spiritual discernment and practice, to new avenues for evangelism, and to holistic approaches to mission, worship, and stewardship.
The gift GOD gives Saul is darkness: a moment of self-examination and discernment from which Paul is born. May we recognize our own gift before us.