Sermon – Conversion of St. Paul

St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Carroll St., Brooklyn
The Rev. Robert Griffith
January 28, 2007
The Conversion of St. Paul and our Own
Today we are celebrating the Feast day of the Conversion of St. Paul. It was actually January 25, but because St. Paul is our Patron, today is the day were we do-it-up-right.
What was so significant about this conversion we heard of in the readings today?
Who was this man, called Saul and later Paul?
Saul was born in the Roman city of Tarsus making him an honest Roman citizen. This becomes significant as we follow his life through his conversion through his ministry and into his imprisonment in Rome. At his circumcision, he was given the Hebrew name of, “Saul.” At the appropriate age, his parents sent him off to Jerusalem to study the Law under he great Rabbi Gamaliel. It seems that Saul was a prodigy who had the attention of the leaders of the Jewish people.
We are introduced to Saul at the stoning of St. Stephen, the martyr, when Stephen accused the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish religious leaders, of betraying God. In Acts 7, we find this, listen:

When they [the Sanhedrin] heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him…. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.

At this point, the persecution of the followers of Jesus began and they were driven out of Jerusalem. Saul comes up again in Acts 8 & 9 and this is what is said of him;

“But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.”

And again –

“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 men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”

I suspect that if he were present in our day, he might be referred to as a religious terrorist.
However, Saul was not by any means uncultured or ignorant. He was educated in the best Roman and Jewish schools. He was fluent in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, at least. He debated philosophers in Greece, and he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, zealous for service to God.
That was Saul, before his conversion.

You heard in the reading this morning about the incident that began his transformation. A bright light, a falling to his knees, Jesus confronting him, blindness for a time, and going away for a while to think about it all.
Afterwards, well, after God, as he said, “… was well pleased to reveal his Son to me…” he did not just turn over a new leaf, he was thoroughly converted to something profoundly new and different. The significance of this transformation was so complete that God saw fit to change his name – no longer would he be knows as “Saul,” but his new name would be “Paul.” The old had gone, and the new had come. We know of the significance of Paul’s conversion and transformation for the development of the early Church, the writing of Holy Scripture, and the example he set for us even today.
This type of conversion might be called a Grand Conversion – a thorough transformation.
I want to make a distinction between conversion and change. All conversions always involve change, but not all change necessitates a conversion. Politicians may be quick to change their position on an issue for purposes of political expediency, but that doesn’t mean they have been converted to the reasoning or rational behind their newfound position or have acquired a heart-felt-belief in it, either.
In the context of faith, conversion is not like change. Conversion begins with a realization that a personal change is necessary, and then by an intentional decision, with God’s help, we turn from one way of understanding… or knowing… or feeling to another way, and soon we are thoroughly transformed. You don’t just decide to take on a new attitude, but you ARE a different person upon conversion.
The recognition of the need for this kind of transformative change can come from a variety of sources – it can come from being hit over the head by a two-by-four, kind of like what happened to Paul, it can be a result of an honest assessment of your life and recognizing that things are not right, or it can happen by your responding to the still-small-voice of God saying that He wants you to be right with Him.
In the context of Christian faith, we undergo conversion, with God’s help, from that which works contrary to the reconciliation of us to God, to one another, and to all of God’s creation. We turn away from the author of strife, confusion, and death and to the author of life, peace, and reconciliation.
There are other kinds of conversions that we are faced with day-in and day-out. These might be referred to as Petite Conversions. These are times we face everyday when we feel the pull back to the old ways and see in stark relief the old and the new. Petite conversions require the engagement in the process of deciding to turn from what we once habitually did in order to more fully orient our actions… our thoughts… and our feelings to the new way. It is the continuing process of transformation, or in the Christian sense of being made into the image of Christ.
Know this, we are all in the midst of conversion, whether we like it or not. We will be transformed whether we make a decision to be or not. The question is to what will we be converted and how will we be transformed?
On the grand scale, over the last few decades we have been undergoing the cultural and perceptual sift between Modernism and Post-Modernism. Our foundational way of understanding the world is shifting and we can witness poignantly the shift in the attitudes and ways of younger people, who have been steeped in the precepts of Post-Modernism. We are also moving from being a primarily Christian oriented culture to a Post-Christian culture that is far removed from the way we understood things 50 years ago. I don’t necessarily see fundamental problems caused by either cultural shift, but these two examples, perhaps, are what confronts those of us who are Christians in a most profound way. How do we respond?
On a smaller scale, all of us are in the process of enculturation – social conversion by another name. We are confronted with forces that beg for our attention and our allegiance – for our hearts, and minds, and souls. Billions and billions of dollars are spent each year to change the way we think… and feel about a myriad of things – what car we drive, what political candidate we choose, how we think about money and our families, what is important in life to make us happy, and to encourage us to be even more selfish, because we deserve it after all. This is hyper-individualism, and it is not the Christian way, despite how many churches have adopted it… along with it’s cousin consumerism. The changing culture is converting and transforming the Christians, rather than the other way around.
There are forces trying to determine where our devotions should lie, how much time we should spend working for the company instead of being with our families; there are cultural forces trying to influence our attitudes of what is more important for our children – the soccer match on Sunday morning or being present with God in Church; and social forces that encourage us to be embarrassed by our faith among friends or collogues.
What influences you when you think of the kind of example you will be for our children? What influences you as you move into adulthood? What “voices” do you listen to when you think about what it means to love God with all your heart, and mind, and soul or whether you would rather love money or food or the yacht or the summer home or your girlfriend even more? Who do you listen to during those moments of Petite Conversions when you are confronted with a decision between loving your neighbor as yourself or philandering or climbing the corporate later or attempting self-actualization just one more time?
Paul was confronted by God and given the privilege of understanding that he was at the crossroad of his life – he was at the point of his own Grand Conversion. As you read the Bible, recognize in Paul the many points of Petite Conversions he had to face and work through. While our conversions and transformation will not likely be like Paul’s, there will be many similarities as we face decisions of change of all types. As you read and hear the Word of God, listen to how Paul managed the struggles in his life and how he experienced the transformation that God worked within him so that he knew well the life of peace and reconciliation that God offers.
Have you experienced a Grand Conversion in life in Christ? If you want to explore it more fully, see Fr. Cullen or me or any number of people sitting around you. We will be glad to walk with you through the process, as Saul became Paul, and as you are transformed.
If you have experienced such a thing, how are you doing with the Petite Conversions you face every day? How are you more fully living into the vows of the Baptismal Covenant? Through your daily struggles and joys, where do you see God and how do you experience your relationship with God? The Holy Spirit is present with you always to aid in your transformation into the image of Christ. We, as the Body of Christ present at St. Paul’s are meant to be partners in the process.
In is not unusual for monastics, monks and nuns, to take upon themselves a new name when they make their final and lifelong vows. While most of us will not have the privilege and luxury of being so singularly focused , yet have you who have been converted and are being transformed thought about what might be your new name?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.