The Conversion of Paul

Rev Sue preached this sermon on Wednesday 25 January 2023. Here it is for you again:

Saul’s conversion must surely be the most radical change of direction in history. He was a murderer, perhaps of the worst kind, because he was not himself violent. He did not act from passion and lack of self-control, swept away in the moment, but was fuelled by a cold and fanatical religious hatred. He incited others to violence, while keeping his own hands clean of physical acts, because he was a Pharisee. He was there when the mob stoned Stephen for doing nothing more than preaching, and he looked after their coats while they did the dirty work. At the beginning of today’s reading he is on his way to the high priest for authorisation to purge Damascus of followers of Christ and bring them to Jerusalem for trial. Remembering Jesus own trial there, we have a good idea how that would go.

But conversions do not happen out of the blue. People who apparently suddenly change their whole outlook have been resisting for a while. Saul heard the message of Stephen, and other Christian preachers and it touched his soul, but he fought it all the way. The foundations of his life were built on his identity as a Jew and a Pharisee – a sect of intense devotion to purity of actions, if not necessarily motives. Very few people have dramatic conversion experiences because most of us are not consciously devoting our lives to what we later see as evil. Saul was not going to hear a still small voice – he needed the spiritual equivalent of sledgehammer.

And so it was that a sudden blinding light accompanied a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Jesus was making it personal – he identified wholly with his followers – anything done to them wounded him, too. This slipped beneath Saul’s defences – who did this voice belong to? Someone he called “Lord” as he met with a power that even he could not resist. Jesus identified himself but refused to tell Saul the step after next. He must go into Damascus and wait for instructions.

Although it was an overwhelming experience, Saul still had a choice. I don’t know how migraines and psychotic episodes were viewed at that time – possibly as demonic attacks – but Saul would have known well that every dramatic experience was not from God. He could have put it down to overwork, a tiring journey or the forces of evil deceiving him. But he didn’t. At that moment he encountered Jesus and knew that he had met with goodness and truth.

Eventually Saul would become as passionate an advocate for Jesus as he had been his persecutor, but for the time  a little humility was in order. Saul’s previous spiritual blindness had become an actual loss of sight, and he was reduced to vulnerability and dependence on others.

At this point the story switches to Ananias, who also had a vision, albeit a far less dramatic one. His task was to walk into the lion’s den, to approach the man who had come to Damascus to arrest him. He, too, had to have faith that his vision was from God, and he also had to swallow any thoughts of fear, hatred or revenge that would have been natural and he had to be the one who restored Saul’s vision. He gets a mere paragraph devoted to him, and then drops out of the picture, and we never hear from him again. But his quietly heroic act was instrumental in Saul’s transformation from bigoted persecutor to apostle of Jesus.

Saul went on to spread the gospel throughout the Greek speaking world, and eventually to Rome itself. Without him Christianity would have remained a Jewish sect, not become a world religion. The spread of the Christian faith depended on a man of prodigious strength, stamina and ability, who was undeterred by calamities of every kind. We rightly remember him as a saint alongside the disciples who were with Jesus in his lifetime. But let’s spare a thought, too, for St Ananias whose quiet courage and obedience played a crucial part in the spread of the gospel without which we wouldn’t be here today.

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