Galatians 1:11-24: The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul

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GOD, who, through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may shew forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Conversions are messy.  If someone were to ask me when I became a Christian there would be many different answers I could offer.  I grew up in the baptist church.  There was no sprinkling of babies there.  You had to decide.  A choice was forced upon you.  At the age of 6 young Esau walked the long aisle to the front of the church to say that I wanted to have my sins forgiven, though they be like scarlet, I wanted to be as white as snow.  But can I claim that as my Damascus road experience?  The moment when all things became new? I am not sure.  Maybe my true conversion came during high school or university, when I heard my pastor speak about how cross had reconciled God to man and invited us into his family where there was neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. But there were so many times that I drifted to and fro like the tide.  Sometimes coming closer to Jesus others receding into the distance.  I can speak of dramatic shifts, experiences that cannot be unfelt, but were those conversions?   I can say that once I lived apart from God and I do so no longer. That is sufficient for me.

Not so with Saint Paul.  One moment he did not know Jesus, the next he did. A vision, a revelation changed everything.  Next to that meeting on the road to Damascus, our conversions can feel meagre and insignificant, barely worthy of a pamphlet, much less holy scripture.   So is the feast of the conversion of Saint Paul closed off from us? Too far removed from our experience to be of any use?   Set aside visions of Jesus and revelations, are the days when All Saints saw conversions a thing of the past?  Has the sun set on our time as a church that sees lives changed by the good news?

I remember our family trip to the isle of Skye.  We went to a little fishing village that stayed afloat by taking tourists on boat trips to witness the wonder of seals, a lake in the middle of an island,  and old rock formations.  The way out was full of expectation.  We watched our destination appear us before in the distance.  The driver even let my children take turns driving the boat.  We could not wait to see this exotic locale that few would ever visit.  Once there we told stories about battles and bad guys and heroes. It was a wonder.  Then we returned to that little fishing village.  I remember the last few moments of the boat ride.  The engine is off and we are drifting to shore.  Nothing left to but to secure the boat to the dock and help the passengers off the ship.  Is this our vision of the church today?  Do we secretly believe that we live at other side of the church’s great adventure.  That we can no longer expect to see wonders.  That there is nothing else to do but to comfort one another as we one by one get off the boat? I do not think so.  The potency of Paul’s conversion does not come from the spectacular nature of the encounter.  It arises from the power of the gospel itself.  What matters is not how Paul encountered Jesus, but that he encountered Jesus.  In that way Paul’s story is not so far from us.  It is the common testimony of our life in Christ.

 The conversion as encounter

Paul tells us the story of what happened when he met Jesus.  He asserts that the gospel that he preaches is not of human origin.  No one taught Paul about Christianity.  This statement is polemical.  He is in the midst of an argument with his opponents.  They claimed that Paul taught the Galatians a rogue and deficient version of Christianity, unapproved by the pillars of the church in Jerusalem. While his opponents properly taught the need to be circumcised and submit to the Law of Moses,  Paul taught a law free gospel that mislead the Galatians. The Galatians were uninformed about what it meant to join the people of God.  In Galatia, Paul finds himself in a battle for the integrity of the gospel itself.

Paul — with a swagger only he could pull off —  counters by saying no one taught him anything. But has Paul lost himself  in his polemics?  In 1 Corinthians 15 he makes it clear that he handed on what he had first received.  That Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures, that he was raised and appeared to Cephas, the 12 and then five hundred brothers and sisters?  Did he change tactics between Galatia and Corinth?  No.  His words in Corinth spoke to how he communicated his gospel. It was the same at the other Apostles.  In this way Paul stood in the continuity with the early Christian tradition.  But Paul was not converted by the testimony of the twelve.  He had an encounter with Jesus.  The word Paul uses to describe this is an “apocalypse.”  Paul was converted by a world shattering revelation of the Messiah.

The Christian is someone who has met the Lord. It might not come with the clarity of a vision, but at some point we realize that we have come to know him, that he is with us.  According to McCaulley family lore, I proclaimed my future place in a long line of preachers at the tender age of 7.  I even told my pastor that I wanted to be ordained, but it was not until I stepped into the pulpit for the first time that I knew. I thought, “yes, I belong here.  This is what I was made to do.” Paul’s encounter with Jesus was a moment of clarity when his life came into focus.  It was not simply a vision of Jesus, it was a vision of Jesus that spawned a new vision for his own life and the renewal of all things.  The church is composed of people who have seen these things too. And long to see that same transformation in others.  We are not here to get the boat ashore.  We —even in the winters of our lives — push forward to explore new glories.

Conversion as crisis

For Paul, however the gospel is not just an encounter. It represents a crisis.  The tale of the revelation prompts him to tell the earlier part of his story.  He says that “you heard of my when I was in Judaism and that I zealously persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy her.”  Before Paul became a Christian he found the gospel deeply offensive.  He was a faithful Jew, formed for ministry at the feet of the great rabbis of his day.  That God’s plan for Israel and the world could come about by crucifixion of her king seemed an absurdity.  When Paul called the gospel “a stumbling block” in Corinth and foolishness, he spoke from personal experience.  Those words once resided on his lips as an accusation. Now they are testimony.

It is hard to take you from Scotland to the Alabama of my youth, but that is the background to my conversion so we must visit there once more.  My state was in many ways divided between blacks and whites.  The use of racial slurs on both sides was common.   My neighbors distrusted the police and the police distrusted my neighbors.  The local businesses and convenience stores were owned by outsiders.  In this context, many started to speak about reclaiming our communities.  Blacks needed their own businesses, schools. Some even thought we needed our own religion.  Christianity was caught up in this critique, and put in opposition to blackness.  It was a religion for whites.  How could it be a help for us?  Now a distinction must be made between my crisis and that of Paul.  His was rooted in misunderstanding of the God’s plan for Israel.  Ours came from a different place, but there is a fundamental similarity.  Both looked at the cross and said this cannot be it.  Both Paul and the people I grew up with were wrong.

The gospel is a crisis in the life of the believer that requires us to change the way we look at the world.  For Paul he meant that he had read the Law incorrectly.  He came to see that God never planned to bring about the redemption of the world  through obedience to the Law.  Rather, God planned to reconcile all things through the death and resurrection of his Son, the king Israel, the hope of the world. So Paul’s world had to be torn down and built back again on the foundation of the crucifixion and resurrection.  The christian is always in the process of this is tearing down.  What is the gospel calling us to rethink?   I decided that the hope of black people did not reside in creating our own religious identity separate from the rest of the world, but in joining that great community than reaches through the centuries and across cultures.  Where does the hope of Scotland reside?  What about St Andrews?  Do we still believe that it is in the Church of God?  Do we still believe that God can and does convert people?  I worry that we are in a grave danger of losing hope.

Conversion for mission

Paul’s conversion spawned a mission.  after his conversion Paul came to see that this had been God’s plan for him from the moment he was born: to preach Jesus amongst the nations.  conversion brings with it a call a mission.  Paul’s vision was audacious.  It involved nothing less than the conversion of the Empire. He wanted the create communities of the converted from different tribes and tongues whose love for another would bear witness to the kingdom of the beloved Son.  Can we, in our day, regain a bit of that gospel ambition?  Can we  begin to ask ourselves about how we might find our confidence and hope for the future?

And it is okay to fail. Paul, the greatest missionary the church has ever seen, wanted to reach Spain the outer edges of the empire.  He did not make it.  He died in Rome.  This did not make Paul a failure, it made him a martyr in the truest sense, a faithful witness to the good news.  It is not a matter of success, it is about faithful labor.  That can be our legacy.

The end of Paul’s testimony speaks to this.  He says: They only heard that the one who was persecuting us now preaches the faith which he was once trying to destroy and they praised God because of me.  Even those who did not know Paul personally, knew of his mission.  He was not known for his remarkable conversion.  They did not say that he who had once persecuted the gospel saw a vision; they said that he who persecuted the church now engages in mission.  That is Paul’s legacy. He met the Lord.  This meeting caused him to rethink everything that he thought knew about God and the world.  This meeting gave birth to a mission.  Can this be the legacy of All Saints church in this generation?  Can now be the time when the church found its mission and engaged St Andrews in ernest?  I live everyday with the reality that two and now three people are watching me very closely.  The way I treat them and their mother will impact how they view God and the world.  They are my most intimate parish. I evangelize them daily.  The church too has a watching world and a creator who has commissioned us to speak on his behalf.  What will we say?

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