The Conversion of Paul
In or about the year AD35 a young Jewish man, a strict Pharisee named Saul, was travelling with some companions from Jerusalem to a town called Damascus. He carried with him letters from the chief priests authorising him to arrest any Christians who he could hunt down in Damascus, and to bring them back to Jerusalem. As the party journeyed along, the young man was struck down by a blinding light from the sky. He then heard a voice: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you?’ he asked. ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting’ came the reply. ‘But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what to do.’
The conversion of St. Paul, or Saul as he was then known, was a decisive event in the evolution of the infant Christian Church, and it was pretty decisive for Paul too, but just as that conversion experience took place on a journey, so Paul’s conversion was a journey too, a lifelong process of growing towards God, being moulded in His likeness. The Damascus Road experience was just the beginning. Fortunately for us, we have Paul’s letters as a permanent legacy, to tell us about his physical journeys across the then known world, but also about his spiritual journey.
When I was a child there were two major religious influences in my life. One was the non-conformist chapel where my parents and family worshipped, and the other was the Roman Catholic convent school where I was educated. The pastor at the chapel spoke often and loudly about conversion. In his sermons he asked people to come to the front of the chapel as a public act of witness to their turning to Christ. He called it being saved. I never got saved. Well, not in that rather spectacular way. It may have been the Catholic influence that stopped me, I don’t know. There was just never one single moment of decision, but rather, steps on a journey of faith, faltering and tentative at first, but drawn on by the love of God. In fact a lifetime punctuated by small or larger decisive moments of drawing closer to Christ by saying ‘yes’ to God.
Saul was brought up in the Jewish faith, a student of the eminent rabbi, Gamaliel. He attended synagogue and zealously observed the Jewish law. The impact on him – and on human history – of his experience on the Damascus road was momentous, but I think it’s somewhat misleading to understand it as the one and only moment of his conversion to Christianity. Let’s rewind for a second. Surely, God was already at work in the anonymous band of men and women who had suffered at Saul’s hands back in Jerusalem. There were humble disciples who must have spoken, acted, and even looked in such a way that they demonstrated the power and love of Christ in a human life. Then there was Stephen, who witnessed to Christ, not only by his life and eloquent testimony of faith, but by his own death. At his trial we are told that ‘his face was like the face of an angel.’ We often attack what challenges us, and Saul must have been shaken in his Pharasaism. It must have begun to erode his security. The heavenly voice suggested to him that it was hard for him to ‘kick against the goads.’ It seems there was already some kind of attraction to the faith he was committed to eradicating. Saul’s bitter onslaught against the Christian Church was an indication of the power of the Gospel to unnerve him.
After Saul had experienced his blinding vision, he was led by his companions into Damascus, where the voice had said he would be told what to do. And he was. A Christian disciple called Ananias visited him in response to a vision. He laid his hands on Saul, who recovered his sight, and subsequently baptised him. He took the baptismal name of Paul, and was told that he would be a chosen ‘instrument’, to bring the Lord’s name ‘before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.’ Almost immediately Paul began preaching his new found faith, but interestingly, after his hasty departure from Damascus and the fear he engendered amongst the faithful in Jerusalem, Paul was sent to Tarsus, in what was then known as Arabia, on a sort of sabbatical that lasted for approximately 3 years. It’s about the same length of time it takes to train for ordination. Nothing changes!
Presumably Paul used this time to study the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of his Christian faith, and to pray and reflect on this amazing turn-around in his life. He probably listened to the stories fellow Christians shared about the life and ministry of Christ. At the end of his sojourn in Tarsus, Paul emerged as the first great evangelist of the Church, but there was still a whole lifetime’s spiritual journey ahead of him, as he pondered on key issues of doctrine and faith - universal salvation, justification by faith, freedom in Christ and the law of love.
Over the 20 years after his conversion, Paul mounted a series of ambitious missionary journeys from which many mission churches came into being across the then-known world. Those churches included both Jews and Gentiles. His letters, which form a substantial part of the New Testament, offer a unique picture of the life of the Church in apostolic times. They were written for particular churches in specific contexts facing particular circumstances, which is why we sometimes struggle to understand some of his answers to specific questions within our own culture, context and circumstances. Paul was not setting out to produce a once and for all manual on church governance!
Perhaps most importantly, Paul’s testimony is of someone who is on the journey, but who knows that he hasn’t arrived yet. His story is as compelling as it is because it comes from someone who, by his own admission, is deeply flawed. Paul knows that he is fallible, like the rest of us, that he ‘sees through a glass darkly.’ He knows that he doesn’t always get it right. Paul admits that he does what he doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do what he wants to do. In his letter to the Romans, he is close to despair as he bewails his own wretchedness. All of which makes the story of Paul’s continuing journey of conversion all the more thrilling.
We are all, I hope, on that journey. Whether we’ve experienced a pivotal and decisive moment of conversion, or whether, like me, we’ve turned to Christ gradually, we know that we are still on a journey of transformation towards God. For the next few years we’ll be journeying together, you and I, learning from God and from each other, leaning on each other when the going is tough, forgiving each other when we get it wrong, recognising each other’s foibles and laughing about them. We’ll be on an exciting missionary journey together, to grow the churches in Martham, Repps with Bastwick, Thurne and Clippesby, but most of all we’ll be trying to grow in love, for God and for each other, being transformed together into the likeness of Christ. I so look forward to that.