A Reflection on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

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The Rev. Teri Daily

The Conversion of Saint Paul by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)
The Conversion of Saint Paul by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682)

New life, in whatever form we find it, is always a gift from God.  An artist is stuck in a rut, and she stares at a blank canvas.   She can’t find anything to paint that’s actually worth the work.  After what seems like an eternity, inspiration finally comes.  The end result—a piece of art that seems both her own, and yet strangely not hers at all.  It’s like a new creation that transcends her own efforts.

A couple has waited nine long months for the arrival of their child.  They’ve taken seriously the research about what increases the chances of having a healthy baby—folic acid, no smoking, the almost perfect diet.  They’ve prepared the baby’s room, and they’ve taken the most extensive birthing class offered by the hospital.  In as much as it lies in their control, they’ve done everything they can.  And yet, when the baby is laid in their arms for the first time, they’re acutely aware that they’ve really done nothing to deserve or bring about this miracle.  The gift of this particular life transforms their own forever.

New life comes to us in many ways and many forms.  Any time a relationship is restored, oppression turns to liberation, brokenness is healed—there’s resurrection.  For Paul, it came in the form of a dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus.

January 25th is the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul, an important feast in the life of the Church.  This feast has an important place in my heart as well, for it was on this day twelve years ago that I became a “postulant for Holy Orders” (or began the process toward ordination) in the Episcopal Church.  I’ll return to the fittingness of this coincidence in a moment.  But for now, Paul’s story…

Paul (named Saul at the time) was a fervent Jew, a Pharisee who had studied under the great rabbi Gamaliel.  He was also an avid persecutor of early Christians; in fact, we’re told in the book of Acts that, after the stoning of Stephen, Paul went from house to house in Jerusalem hauling Christian men and women off to prison.  All of this came to a halt, though, the day of Paul’s conversion.  Which conversion? you might ask.  The one we read about in Galatians or the one we read about in the Acts of the Apostles?  After all, there are significant differences between the two accounts.

In Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, he boasts that his call to proclaim the gospel (his conversion) was of divine origin; he goes to great measures to refute any possibility that the good news he proclaims has come to him through human means, writing “the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”  Here the gospel Paul teaches the Galatians is a gift from God alone.  And he continues to distance himself from the apostles of Jesus by pointing out that he waited three years after his famous conversion on the road to Damascus before even going to visit the apostles in Jerusalem.

There were good reasons for Paul to paint his conversion and call to ministry in this way.  After Paul brought some Gentiles in the region of Galatia to faith in Christ, rival missionaries began challenging the teachings of Paul with respect to Jewish Law.  Particularly, they taught that Gentiles who converted to Christianity had to be circumcised—something Paul saw as a rejection of the grace of God extended to the Gentiles.  So, what was at stake here for Paul in this passage was an issue of authority.  If Paul’s gospel message came straight from Christ and not through any human chain, who could claim a superior authority?  Who could challenge Paul?

But compare this passage in Galatians to the account of Paul’s encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus that we find in the Book of Acts, Luke’s history of the early Church.  It’s telling that the story is different when told from the perspective of the Church.  Paul was on the road to Damascus when a bright light flashed around him and he heard the voice of the Jesus calling him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Paul was blinded, we’re told—he could see nothing, so the men who were with him had to lead him into Damascus.  Then the Lord instructed Ananias, a disciple of Jesus in Damascus, to go and lay hands on Paul so that he might receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.  In fact, Ananias occupies pretty much half of the story of Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts.  Not exactly the individualistic, isolated depiction of Paul’s transformation that we find in Galatians.

So, why the two totally different accounts of Paul’s conversion?  It’s not as if one account is accurate and the other is necessarily false.  Instead, when we find two accounts of the same event in scripture, each version usually has something to teach us about the nature of God and our relationship with God.  And what we find in these two accounts of Paul’s conversion is the tension between two aspects of God’s work in the world that we know to be true.  The first aspect is this:  every time new life comes to the world, in any form whatsoever, it is an absolute gift from God—something that transcends and is greater than any efforts of our own.  Redemption and resurrection are the domain of God.  This is the truth that we see in the account of Paul’s conversion we find in Galatians.

And yet, there’s a second truth:  when God brings the gift of new life to the world, God chooses to involve us in the giving of this gift.  That’s the truth we find in the story of Paul’s transformation found in the book of Acts.  The thing is, we don’t have to choose between these two truths—they are both true.  When resurrection and new life come into the world, it is the work of God; and God chooses to do this work with and in and through us.

This is a paradox that’s hard to understand and hard to live out.  There is the potential danger of falling completely into one or the other of these truths, failing to honor the reality of both.  If we think of new life as only a divine work, then there’s the possibility that we’ll become complacent, expecting God to do the work of reconciliation and resurrection in the world without us.  We might relax into our own comfortable world, using the phrase “God is in control” as a shield that protects us from the demands of discipleship.  On the other hand, if we think that the work of bringing new life to the world is our own burden to bear, we become paralyzed by our own inadequacies.  And what’s worse, it becomes easy to mistake our own agenda for God’s—to find that instead of following Christ, we’re following our own goals, just like a hunting dog that finds itself running in front of the fox it’s supposed to be chasing.

So, how do we live out this paradox faithfully, recognizing that the work we participate in is not our own but that of Christ?  How do we respond to all the many forms of death in our world and still realize that any new life that springs forth from the work we do is always a gift from God?  I don’t pretend to have the answer.  But when this paradox seeps down to the core of our heart and mind, we are neither complacent nor paralyzed by the enormity of need in the world.

True, the gift of new life is always the domain of God, but that fact doesn’t absolve us from responsibility of seeking and working for resurrection.  Instead, it empowers us to participate fully in the work of making God’s dream a reality in the world, knowing that our own limitations, insecurities, and failures won’t be the last word.  Knowing that it is first and foremost God’s work actually frees us to take part in it.  Knowing that we are part of the beautiful dance of the Trinity and so part of God’s work of redemption and reconciliation, that gives us courage to make a difference.

So back to being granted postulancy twelve years ago today…  I wasn’t knocked down with God’s call that day; I wasn’t blinded by a bright light; no one physically led me anywhere.  But my life did change course that day.  The Church had met for months in the form of my discernment committee, the Commission of Ministry had affirmed the discernment committee’s recommendation, and the bishop had given his final approval.  The whole process was bound up in the work of the Church.  And yet my vocation (like all vocations) came to me as a gift.  I think that’s true for all of us.

That’s why we experience any call to participate in God’s dream as both hope and challenge.  That new life always comes as a divine gift—now that’s our hope.  That God does that work of resurrection with and through us—well, that’s our challenge.