The Conversion of Paul
Readings: Psalm 67: Acts 9 1-22; Matthew 19 27-end.
Hymns: 47, Brightest and best; 380 Jesus Lord we look to thee; 180 thou whose almighty word; 515 There’s a spirit in the air
Let me admit straight away that Paul fascinates me, from his writings on marriage and relationships to his guides to honest faith. His conversion and subsequent output effectively created Christ’s church. Yes, had the writings, the gospel, not been written, Christ would still have been, and would still be: but the outcome of that divine descent would have looked unimaginably different. Paul’s succinct or discursive early emails to distant friends from Rome to Turkey, letters filling out and following up on his visits to fledgling congregations, set the shape and much of the practice of the church, and thus shape us. Research on conversion from local tradition to Christianity and Islam in Borneo and on intra-Christian conversions in South Australia, as well as supervising PhDs on the subject, means I have a professional as well as a personal and pastoral interest. So let’s look at conversion, commitment, and reward, appropriately linked in Epiphany by the enlightenment brought by the Light of the world.
Paul’s conversion was out of the blue, and its apparently immediate and complete ‘turning round’ has become the yardstick for all true conversion. Yet while a single dramatic conversion event may be known, conversion is more usually embedded in an ongoing process. Despite that, currently some would divide Christians into those of the first rank with a proud Damascus-like conversion event and those of the second who fall at that hurdle. Well I remember travelling to Texas for a conference some years ago. The man by me asked my destination and purpose: ‘I’m going to Waco for a conference on World Christianity,’ I said, hesitantly. ‘At Baylor?’ ‘Yes’. ‘So you are saved?’ In his terms, I knew I was not, as there was no sudden conversion experience publically testified, ‘just’ a long process punctuated by sparks of enlightenment – 1985, 1991, 2010, for example – sparks which I trust will continue until my death. Almost apologetically I said: ‘I’m Anglican.’ Amid the subsequent silence, the seat belt sign went off and, tired as he’d come from Kenya, he found a spare couple of seats and departed. Had I been on the ball, Archbishop William Temple’s riposte to such a question- ‘I have been saved, I am being saved, I shall be saved’- might have come to mind. But it didn’t, just some nevertheless significant memories of ‘getting it a bit more,’ each of which changed my relationship to myself, my surroundings and to God.
Now Paul’s conversion through the direct call of Christ certainly changed his relationship to himself, to his peer group of seventy in the Sanhedrin, or High Court, and to God, for his commitment to ‘proclaiming Christ’s name to the Gentiles and to the people of Israel’ was total and, ultimately in worldly terms, fatal for him. But it did not mean that from that day he ceased being a Jew- he explicitly did not as he writes elsewhere- and nor does it mean anyone else who converts eliminates everything which was in their mind, their training, their experience, beforehand. The writer of our first hymn, Bishop Heber of Calcutta, ordained the first Anglican Indian priest in 1824, a convert by the name of Christian David. A Christ follower, his thought was influenced, willy-nilly, by his Hindu foundations. Many of us here today each learnt different ways of life and faith practice as right and proper, over which are layered more recent ways. Even if there has been conscious conversion, those early foundations remain even if we want to ‘make all things new.’
Paul as a Christ-follower accepted God had been and was known to the people of Israel, and he did not reject the available scriptures, the Law, the Prophets and the Writings – in that decreasing order of importance normal in Judaism. Nor did he suddenly treat them as a fixed canon every word of which is to be slavishly followed, a trap some modernists fall into. He saw the written scriptures as part of that entire text of life which includes the performed, or as we might say the cultural, text, with proverbs and examples drawn from daily life. It is the whole text which frames and feeds God’s people. Paul lived and wrote the text of his and therefore our encounter with ‘God complete,’ God come to earth in the form of Jesus and God in every follower as the Holy Spirit. But the Word of God did not become incarnate in a Book but in a Life, a Life which enlightened, brought light, to Paul, and to all he knew. It is that Life which he and we celebrate, that Light which challenges each of us to encounter and live out the faith of Christ.
But seeing a spark of light, seeing that Light, as something of intense emotion is irrelevant if the insight is swiftly set aside for a less challenging life. Paul was committed to Christ with no tangible reward, turning his back on his earlier classy career path. The rather earthier disciples, represented by Peter who later denies Jesus, bluntly ask what they will get for leaving hearth and family and following Jesus. In the short term, Jesus offers them no tangible rewards, no robes or golden stools, but a vision of their future status, each judging one of the tribes of Israel. And he offers all a hundred times what they have given up for God.
A vulgar understanding of this passage is one source of current Prosperity Gospel teaching which affects-I could also say afflicts- many Christians: here’s a simple example. A priest visiting the Borneo village in which I often live told the congregation that if they gave money to the church, God would increase their oil-palm harvest a hundredfold. Poor though many are, they reasoned that buying fertiliser was a wiser bet. Villagers were and committed to following Jesus, despite the material benefits of conversion to Islam, and committed to being safe with Jesus now and after death: his offer insulted their faith.
Christ’s acceptance of us is not indicated by the value of our possessions or achievements. The reward for following the way of Christ with slowly evolving enlightenment is a life grounded in the love of Christ, the light of the world. It is proclaiming Christ through our respect and love for God, our neighbour and our self so that, as the Psalm says, God’s ways may be known among all nations. That is the point of the conversion, the life, and the death of Paul. May it be the point of our continual turning to Christ.