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Readings: Conversion of St Paul

16 January 2015

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Conversion of St Paul

Jeremiah 1.4-10 or Acts 9.1-22; Psalm 67; Acts 9.1-22 or Galatians 1.11-16a

O God, who caused the light of the gospel to shine throughout the world through the preaching of your servant Saint Paul: grant that we who celebrate his wonderful conversionmay follow him in bearing witness to your truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

ROADS are an important motif for the writer responsible for Luke's Gospel and for the Acts of the Apostles. The road from Jerusalem to Jericho (Luke 10.25-37), the Emmaus Road (Luke 24.13-35), and the desert road to Gaza (Acts 8.26-40) are all scenes of transformative experience. Against this background, the journey of Saul of Tarsus from Jerusalem to Damascus, and from persecutor to proclaimer of the resurrection, is arguably the most dramatic convergence of metaphor and reality.

Saul had devoted himself to rounding up members of the group of people testifying to the coming of the Messiah. They were already visibly identified as followers of The Way (Acts 9.2), and it was along another principal route - the Damascus road - that Saul set off, after the death of Stephen (Acts 7.54-8.1). Temporarily blinded by his encounter with the risen Jesus (Acts 9.8a) - a physical manifestation of a spiritual state -- he has to be led into Damascus (Acts 9.8b). There, the way was less direct. The writer Mark Twain, in his vivacious account of a trip through Europe and the Holy Land with a group of American tourists in 1867, says of his visit to "the street called Straight" (Acts 9.11) that this is "the only facetious remark in the Bible" (The Innocents Abroad, 1869). Saul's clear-sighted intentions had been subverted by blindness, and by the winding urban geography of a city he did not know well.

The rest of the story is remarkable too: Ananias's courage in overcoming understandable fear of the exterminator, suddenly present in their midst; the restoration of Saul's sight, and the gift of the Holy Spirit; and the powerful preaching ministry which begins immediately after his baptism.

But why Paul? God's answer to Ananias, who is horrified by being sent to find Saul, is only that "he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name" (Acts 9. 15-16).

This way of choosing seems very distant from the call of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1.4-10), who received not only the voice of the Lord, but also God's assurance that he had been singled out before birth. Paul's case suggests that it could have been someone else; and he himself would later write to the communities with whom he shared the message of Jesus Christ that his role as an apostle had very little to do with him. Indeed, he was surprised that he should have been chosen at all.What he could offer was the direct conviction of having been confronted and appointed by God - this is a message not learned, but "received through a revelation of Jesus Christ" (Galatians 1.12). He described himself to the Ephesians as "less than the least of all the apostles" (Ephesians 3.8), and to the Corinthians as "the least of the apostles" (1 Corinthians 15.9). Is this a rhetorical trick to elicit lavish praise? Probably not. Some of Paul's difficulties with the other apostles involved in the first missions must have originated in his position as the johnny-come-lately.

The Gospels do not disguise their insecurities over priority in Jesus's favours, and all three Synoptics record versions of a dispute among the disciples about which of them is the greatest (Matthew 20.24-28; Mark 10.41-45; Luke 22.24-30). The Gospel reading for the Conversion of St Paul (Matthew 19.27-end) fits into this dispute, and here again Jesus must remind his followers that faithfulness is always honoured, but not according to criteria of long service: "many who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (Matthew 19.30). This admonition comes after Matthew has told the story of the rich young man who wishes to follow Jesus.The only quality he lacks is the readiness to give up the security of possessions.The same episode is recounted by Luke (Luke 18.18-30) and by Mark (Mark 10.17-27), but only in Mark's account do we hear that Jesus, "looking at [the young man], loved him" (Mark 10.21). It is this hope that -- despite our distractions, distorted perceptions and opinions, and material attachments -- we are seen and loved as potential witnesses and followers of Jesus which helps us to make sense out of the wonderful improbability of St Paul.

Forthcoming Events

21 April 2021
Book launch: Miles to Go Before I Sleep
Claire Gilbert in conversation with Richard Holloway. 

29 April 2021
Book launch: How Not to Be Afraid
Gareth Higgins in conversation with Cole Morton.

More events

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