"Compeled or Converted?"

Conversion of St. Paul.A.23
Acts 26:9-21; Acts 9:8-10
The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley

This morning we celebrate the namesake of our parish, St. Paul. The Conversion of Paul is referenced several times in the Bible. In the ninth chapter of the Book of Acts we learn that Paul (then named Saul) was traveling to Damascus in the hopes of rooting out and persecuting the followers of Jesus. Luke, the author of the Book of Acts, writes: “Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do…Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing, so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

Interestingly, St. Paul’s conversion is the only conversion the Church celebrates as a feast. Other days upon which apostles and other people of note are remembered are the dates of their deaths--be they from martyrdom, illness, accident or old age. But not St. Paul. Paul’s day focuses upon conversion. It’s a great story, and I find it no accident that the date chosen by the church to remember this occasion occurs in the midst of the season of Epiphany--a season of revelation, light and understanding.

St. Paul’s conversion begins with a dazzling light. Paul, we are told, is confronted by the great light of the Lord, and then swiftly plunged into darkness. Three days of blindness in which the scriptures tell us Paul neither ate nor drank. Think of it as akin to three days in the tomb--a death, of sorts. And, surely, we cannot escape that Paul’s three days of darkness is similar to Jesus’ three days in the tomb before the resurrection.

As I read this account, another story comes to mind, that of a prophet who also spent three days in utter darkness--in a strange sort of tomb. This figure is none other than Jonah who spent three days and three nights in the belly of a big fish. You may recall that Jonah was a problematic prophet of God. Told to go to the Gentile city of Nineveh in order to urge the people to repent, Jonah (who does not care for Gentiles) decides to board a boat to Tarshish instead--a city located in the opposite direction. Suffice it to say, when God wants you to do something--your reluctance doesn’t necessarily factor into the equation. In an adventure story worthy of cinematic reproduction, Jonah is cast into the sea during a great storm and finds himself in the belly of the fish who, after three days, upchucks the disobedient prophet on the shore near the city of Nineveh.

Jesus references Jonah in Matthew’s Gospel when he says: “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth.” And then Jesus reminds us, along with the Pharisees, that what will be accomplished by Jesus’s time in darkness is far greater than that which occurred with the recalcitrant prophet Jonah.

Both St. Paul and Jonah spent time in darkness before they emerged into the light. But this is where the similarities between Paul and Jonah end. For Jonah was compelled to do his ministry. In a sense, he found himself forced to obey the command of the Lord--and he did so, grumbling, even to the last, as he sat under a plant, which God made wither as he complained. Jonah was compelled to do God’s will, But Paul’s situation was different. Paul was Converted. And that is what we celebrate this morning.

You see, Paul didn’t simply do what Jesus wanted him to do--his heart turned. He came to love the Lord so deeply, that the mission of his life changed. Paul not only loved Jesus, he loved the people he had once held in scorn, the Gentiles. And today he is known as the Apostle to the Gentiles. Paul loved so ardently and so deeply, that his impending death was of no concern as he contemplated the promises of the Lord that he had encountered on the road to Damascus.

One of the greatest preachers of the Church, John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, who died in the year 407, had this say about St. Paul: “The most important thing of all to him…was that he knew himself to be loved by Christ. Enjoying this love, he considered himself happier than anyone else; … He preferred to be thus loved and be the least of all, or even to be among the damned, than to be without that love and be among the great and honored.”

Paul’s experience leads me to ponder the darkness into which he was plunged and how this “death” of sorts wasn’t a time of punishment, but a time of preparation, readying him for when he would re-emerge into the light. While he was blind, God sent Ananias to Paul. In the ninth chapter of Acts we read: “So Ananias went …He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized...and regained his strength.”

To be converted means to change. Conversion is different from the reluctant prophet Jonah who was compelled to do the will of God. Ultimately, Paul’s conversion is a story about a change of heart--not a change of personality. This zealous persecutor of the followers of Christ became an equally ardent evangelist to the Gentiles.

Scholars believe that Paul was executed in year 57 of the Common Era. Yet his calling has had ramifications for most all of us here. If you are sitting in the pews today, and you are from a Gentile background--in some way you have St. Paul to thank for that gift.

I would guess that most of us here have not experienced a conversion as dramatic as that of St. Paul. Some of us arrive at a place of faith quietly, over long periods of time with no discernable moment of change--just a gradual deepening and understanding of our faith. Others of us are still on a path searching for answers. The story of Paul’s conversion isn’t about how a change of heart should happen, just that it does--and that God’s plan isn’t about one person; but about how one person’s faith can change the hearts of many. Paul is that person. But so are you, and so am I. Jesus, I believe, calls us all, in our own way and time, and should we choose to respond, our hearts grow larger, able to encompass not only Jesus, but all of the people of God. Paul’s conversion is to be celebrated, surely…but our own is to be hoped for as well. In Jesus’ name. Amen.