Sermon for the Feast of the Conversation of St. Paul January 27, 2019

Acts 26:9-21                        Psalm 67                              Galatians 1:11-24                              Matthew 10:16-22

Today we are celebrating the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. We read the story of his conversion in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and we also read about it in St. Paul’s Epistles, his letters.  Paul’s life was transformed by the risen Christ.  The story of Paul provides a great example for us of how a person’s life can be changed by the love of Christ.

In Acts, Paul is telling his story to the king.  Before meeting Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul says, “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests.”  The reason for his journey to Damascus was to pursue those who were proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to punish them.  But then, he says:

I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, `Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ I asked, `Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, `I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you.

The resurrected Christ not only comes to Saul, Jesus gives him a new mission and new authority.  Saul’s experience is so life changing that he even changes his name to Paul.

In the bible, we have other instances of people changing their names:  Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah, Jacob becomes Israel.  Changing one’s name marks a significant change in a person’s life.  In the bible, it marked a change in that person’s relationship with God.  Saul becoming Paul was a change from one who pursued and punished followers of Christ to one who gave his life to bring others to Christ.

One day I was watching a program about Christianity on the History Channel and the narrator said something to the effect of “Christianity would not have become a world religion if it were not for Paul. “Certain, Paul was instrumental in spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.  It was, after all, Paul who first established churches outside of Israel.  It was Paul, a devote Jew, who carried the message of Jesus to the Gentile.  His letters were circulated and read aloud in the churches he helped form – and we are still reading his letters today.

More books in the bible are attributed to Paul than any other author.  Paul’s conversion was such that he was willing to die for his faith – and he did.  Some of Paul’s teaching are difficult for us to hear today because they reflect the times in which he lived.  Some of these are believed to have been written by people who studied his teaching.  They are attributed to Paul because they are from “his school,” so to speak.  Still, some of Paul’s words are among the most inspiring in the Bible.  His 13th Chapter of 1st Corinthians on Love, may be used at more Christian marriages than any other scripture.   You know the one, here’s a few verses from that chapter:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal . . . Love is patient; love is kind, love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude, . . . Love never ends. . . .  faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Paul did do a great deal to spread the good news of Christ Jesus, but it all began with what happened on the Road to Damascus.

Many of have had such an experience – perhaps not as spectacle as his, but a profound experience, nonetheless.  Mine happened on the Road to Mountain Home – many, many years before I was called to the Priesthood.  As many of you know, I drove a Keg Beer Truck after college.  Driving gives us time to think, particularly when driving long distances such as my drive from Fayetteville to Mountain Home and back.  On this particular trip I remember stopping at traffic light in Harrison and saying out loud – “there has to be more to life than this.”

The rest of the day, as I made my deliveries and then as I drove back to Fayetteville, I reflected on my life and where I found joy and meaning.  I remembered working for the Appalachian Service Project alongside others, repairing homes of people who could not afford to do so.  It was a mission service of the church – so on that journey, I decided to return to church.  At that point in my life, I didn’t believe in God – but that’s another story.  What I did know was that working with others to make a difference gave me a sense that I was a part of something larger than myself.

Paul knew right away Christ was calling him to turn his life around.  It took me much longer – but I never forgot that day and the fact that it altered the course of my life.  Over the years since, I have heard many people share their stories about events that have changed the direction of their lives.  Stories that now, looking back, they understand began a journey of faith and led them to led a life of service.

To become a priest, I had to share my story over and over again.  The story I was asked to share was not my autobiography, it was my spiritual autobiography.  In it, I shared the story of my trip to Mountain Home, my experience when I first attended St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, and many other key moments in my life.  Each time I was asked for my spiritual autobiography I wrote a new one – and they were all different.  Becoming a Christian is not the end of our story.  It is merely a part of our journey.  God’s work in us is not finished – I regularly remind myself of this when I forget to do something important, loss my temper, or become too focused on myself and fail to respond to the needs of others.

My journey is not finished and I have found that reflecting on where I’ve been is helpful.  I’d like to ask you to do the same.  Spend a few minutes thinking about experiences in your life that have altered its course.  A word of caution, however, many of these experiences in our lives are filled with pain or guilt or both.  In my life, facing my own sins, or being hurt by others were often the times in my life that have led me to experience God’s grace.

Saul was confronted by Christ, Jesus asks, “Why are you persecuting me?”  The memory of that experience changed his life, and the History Channel might argue, our lives as well.  Note that Saul was acting on the authority given to him by the Chief Priests, but after meeting Christ, Paul acts on the authority given to him by Christ.  Jesus says, “I am sending you to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”

Pain, shame, and grace – these are all present in Paul’s story – but the greatest of these is grace which is the love of God for us, the love of God which frees us and calls us to a new life in Jesus.  Paul embraced his past – sharing it with others as an example of just how great the love of God is for us.  Paul writes in Galatians: “When God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles.”