The Conversion of St. Paul
Acts 26:9-21; Matthew 10:16-22
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
If we knew that judgement were headed our way, I suspect most of us would not be anticipating this event with eagerness so much as find ourselves rapidly scanning for the nearest exit in sight or giving consideration to what we might be able to offer in return for a lighter sentence. And, if this is our inclination, I don’t think any of us should be blamed. The holy scriptures themselves provide us with some deeply uncomfortable words about the need for conversion and the threat of impending judgement. The prophets verily thunder God’s anger and disappointment. John the Baptist refers to the throngs of people gathered on the banks of the river Jordan as “you brood of vipers. How any of this gets referred to as “Good News” might seem to be little more than painful irony rather than balm for troubled souls.
So, here is a question for us this morning: Can the need for conversion and judgment be something other than a hand-wringing experience of overwhelming guilt, pain and suffering? And, let’s be honest, do we want it to be? Not in terms of ourselves (of course we want judgement to be gracious for us…but what about those whom we have every good reason to fear and dislike). Ask yourself—how would you feel about a converted neo-Nazi who had advocated in the past for women who dated people of a different race and religion to be stoned and who had once participated in a lynching, to be redeemed? Would you be comfortable if that individual, whose heart had been filled with hatred, who went out of his way to persecute others with a zealousness that led to violence, to eventually help lead this church at which you worship? How happy would you be with that?
It’s a question worth considering, particularly on the feast day of the namesake of our parish: St. Paul. Today, I would like to talk about conversion and judgement; but a vision of judgement which lies far beyond our stereotypical view. This is a judgment which allows room for change, compassion and mercy.
While giving his testimony before King Agrippa, Paul recounts his experience of conversion. He says: “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth…I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were condemned to death. By punishing them oftin in all the syagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities. It was with this in mind that I was traveling to Damascus…when at midday along the road…I saw a light from heaven….(and) I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.”
Now, a textual note for those of us unfamiliar with goads. A goad is a long rod with a sharp end that is used to prick an animal to move or to get it to move in a different direction. If you kick against the goads—you are going to experience pain. What Jesus is saying here is that in the process of persecuting Christians, Saul was hurting himself.
And with this, Jesus gives Paul a mission to the Gentiles: “that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”
So, about this accusation and subsequent conviction of the accused; it seems to be lacking the teeth that so many of us appear to want for those who inflict hardship on others. If we’re being honest, we might have to admit there are times when we want those who persecute others to suffer—as much, if not more, than the victims upon whom they vented their rage.
But let’s look closer at this encounter between Jesus and Paul. It wasn’t bitter, it was gracious—what’s more, it entailed purpose, not simply pain. Spend a bit of time reading the letters of Paul in the New Testament. What you’ll discover is that Paul was not a person with an overweening sense of guilt and shame. Hardly! What he was, was a joyful, impassioned follower of Christ. He was the bearer of glad and hopeful tidings.
“Love is patient, love is kind. Love is not envious, boastful or rude…Faith, hope and love, these three, but the greatest of these is love” That’s St. Paul—he’s the one who wrote these beautiful words. With the same zeal that he used in persecuting Christians, Paul is now employed in the all-encompassing mission of bringing people to Christ and speaking of the love of God.
The judgment of Christ for Paul resulted in an awareness that salvation wasn’t something a person earned and deserved, so much as it was found in the person of Jesus. Think of it this way: God’s judgment upon humanity is Christ: the baby in the manger, the young man telling stories at the side of the road, the savior of the world, dying upon a cross. God’s judgment walked among us and made us his heirs. And that is a reason for conversion.
This is what we celebrate this morning as we baptize James Dekowski. We celebrate this child’s judgement of grace. This is not a judgement encompassing threats, pain or punishment, but is instead a reminder that in his life in Christ, James is God’s child, a member of Christ’s family, a bearer of the promise of forgiveness and the hope eternal life. What James is given today is a reminder that even though the world in which we live has the capacity to judge himself and fellow human beings harshly, from this moment onward, he shall never lose the love of God.
And with this knowledge, my hope for James is that he will find within his spirit a healthy dose of resilience. The world is not an easy place—but children such as James, who begin their lives surrounded with the love of good people; who continue to grow into a knowledge and love of a Savior, who becomes to them more than simply an historical figure or the teller of good stories—but a Lord who listens to their prayers and a Good Shepherd who guides them where they need to be—these are children who are truly blessed. Faith for them becomes more than simply what the ears hear. It becomes a strength residing in the heart. And with this knowledge and understanding comes the kind of courage we find in saints such as Paul, whose conversion we celebrate today. St. Paul was blessed with a resiliency which allowed him to move from grace to grace, to suffer hardship with joy, to face the trials and tribulations of this life with the knowledge that there was both purpose and grace in the uttermost difficult moments of living. For Paul, Christ’s judgment came with a calling—to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth—and by following this calling, Paul found joy and peace—and, what’s more, he blessed, and continues to bless the lives of Christians the world over—including those of us here, at St. Paul’s.
My hope for James, and for each of us, is that we too might discover our calling; not necessarily that we should be thrown to the ground and blinded by light; but that we might find the unique purpose to which Jesus has called us. And in finding this a purpose, we too might live with courage and joy, and be bearers of the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In Jesus’ name. Amen.