Conversion of St. Paul: A Culture of Change

Yes, you get a bonus this week!  Our church is using the Scriptures for the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul, so you get extra Scriptures.  The usual Lectionary texts were included in the previous post.

 

"The Conversion of Saul", Michelangelo, 1542-1545, Frescoes, Pauline Chapel, Vatican, Italy
“The Conversion of Saul”, Michelangelo, 1542-1545, Frescoes, Pauline Chapel, Vatican, Italy

OLD TESTAMENT:  Acts 26: 9-21

To read the First Reading for the Conversion of St. Paul, click here

This Scripture is not really the account of Paul’s conversion, per se, but rather a reflection of it in the context of Paul’s defense before King Agrippa.  We know Paul’s story.  His conversion actually occurs in the ninth chapter of Acts, when scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life anew.  At this point, Paul has been a prisoner for more than two years in Caesarea and there is now a hand over of power of sorts to the new Roman Governor, Festus.  The new governor invites the Jewish king Agrippa to hear Paul’s case.  So Paul stands before both the head of the Jewish state and the Roman governor and tells the tale of what happened to him on the Road to Damascus and why he saw himself as being true to the vision of God that had begun the whole thing.

We read this passage as part of the Feast Day celebrating the Conversion of Paul—not Paul himself, mind you, but his conversion, his change, his vision, his sight.  Now we logical Methodists don’t really know what to do with this.  It sounds a little like a super hero who bursts out of his cloths revealing the letter of his true name and true self.  But that’s not really the way it happens.  The change for Paul was surely painful on some level.  After all, he had to take a good hard look at his own life.  And then he had to CHANGE—not just change his place or his clothes or even his name (his name didn’t really change on that road; rather, I think the translation changed later).  He had to CHANGE.  He moved from one that preached against this new way, one that fought tooth and nail to make sure that it didn’t take on, that this Gospel of Jesus Christ would just die a fast death before it messed everything up.  And then he CHANGED.  He saw something differently, something that moved him, perhaps kicking and screaming all the way, to being a witness for The Way of Jesus Christ.  Somewhere along the way, Paul saw something beyond himself.  Somewhere along the way, on that road or perhaps even before, he experienced the Risen Christ in a way that even he could not dispute.  Somewhere on that dusty road in modern-day Syria, Paul experienced the holy and the sacred.

The mystery of God’s transcendence is never static or predictable.  But in the midst of our ordinary and sometimes mundane lives, we are given glimpses of the holy and the sacred.  They come without warning.  They come without bidding.  Sometimes they come when we’re not quite ready.  But life is not just about those pinnacles of holy sightings.  If we spent all of our lives on the mountaintop, we would certainly get a bit of altitude sickness.  Life is an ordinary road on which we travel.  It’s got hills and valleys and a few potholes along the way.  And every once in a while, holiness enters and dances with us.  And then we must return to tell the story.

I must admit that over the years, I have had sort of a love-hate relationship with Paul.  I don’t know if it is his pushiness or his run-on sentences.  I have a feeling that it has more to do with the fact that he DID change.  After all, it is hard to put my own life against his.  When God dances into my path, I probably tend to cower in the corner a little, wanting to change, but not really willing to take the first step.  Maybe this week is not so much a celebration of Paul or Paul’s conversion, but a reminder that we are all called to turn and dance with the Divine.      

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What is your experience of Paul and his life?
  3. Where do you see your own faith journey in Paul’s?
  4. What does this passage call us to do as followers of this Way of Jesus Christ?

 

NEW TESTAMENT:  Galatians 1: 11-24

To read the Epistle passage for the Conversion of St. Paul, click here

Paul had founded the churches in the area in and around Galatia and then had moved on to do the same in other places.  But after he left, there were those who had questioned his authority, his “pedigree”, so to speak.  Instead, they were insisting that these new Christians had to first become Jews (or, in other words, be circumcised) or they were not really righteous at all.

So Paul begins by first re-establishing his authority not as a rabbi, a trained teacher, but rather as one called by God.  Paul doesn’t talk about his “conversion”, as if he is part of another religion.  Instead Paul refers to his experience as his “calling”, an experience in which his authority came not from human succession but from God.

This letter is odd.  It doesn’t begin with the normal salutation of the day.  Instead, Paul gets right to the point.  He is frustrated and angry that this newly-formed community seems to have gotten so incredibly off-course.

This is a difficult passage.  Paul is insisting that his calling, his authority, is divinely-received.  There is no tradition of the church or teachers.  There is no apostolic authority bestowed or any “laying on of hands” as Paul was ordained.  Paul, in fact, had never met Jesus and had actually spent years fighting against the very version of the Gospel that he was now so vehemently proclaiming.  This passage could very easily be interpreted as one in support of “non-organized” religion.  And yet, Paul is not completely denouncing Judaism; he is instead calling it to renewal.  (Hmm! It seems that most new denominations or new religions begin with a call of renewal for the ones that are already there.)  It’s not really clear if Paul sees himself as called to a revelation about Jesus Christ or a revelation given by Jesus Christ.  But Paul’s understanding of the faith was not one based on a set of rules or traditions but rather one that offered the tradition of faith to those on the outside.  Paul dared to believe that the revelation of God and the love of Christ is not limited by the bounds of our understanding of who God is.

In Feasting on the Word, Wendy Farley says it like this:

If this letter is bad news for authoritarianism, it can be good news for those committed to the constant renewal of Christianity.  It is good news for those outside systems of power who might see more clearly ways in which Christianity has cut off some of its own limbs in the name of tradition.  It is good news for all those oppressed by the church:  women, slaves, the poor.  It is good news for al those lovers of Christ whose wisdom about the Divine is distorted or repressed by leaders of the church.

Stepping back from the heat of this controversy, it seems that Christianity absorbed more of James than of Paul.  Though the Holiness Code and circumcision did not come to define Christianity, the rest of the Hebrew Scripture remains authoritative for Christians.  The authority of the church and its leaders has also survived just fine, but Paul reminds us that, as important as tradition may be it can never be adequate to the gracious and extravagant love God pours out on us.  For Paul, corralling grace in a particular community or in relation to particular practices will always violate the gospel.

I, personally, love the tradition of the church.  It keeps me grounded.  It gives me a springboard on which to start my journey of faith.  I don’t think Paul was against that.  He just didn’t believe that we should stop there.  So, Paul would probably contend that there was nothing wrong with holding the traditions of the faith and the traditions of the church close.  You just need to let them breathe into the present and leave room for the Holy Spirit to breathe into them a little.

1)      What meaning does this passage hold for you?

2)      What does holding too tightly to traditions do to the church?

3)      What does letting traditions go do to the church?

4)      Why is it that this balance is so difficult for us today?

GOSPEL:  Matthew 10: 16-22

To read the Gospel passage for the Conversion of St. Paul, click here

Well this is something that will just get people to sign right up!  But, seriously, this is not going to be a cake walk.  I think Paul’s ministry proved that.  These uncomfortable words are yet another reminder that this is not easy, that disciples are living an alternative Way in a culture that does not welcome it, that isn’t “built” for it.  But perseverance will depict the Gospel that you are called to preach.  And some way, somehow, you will be given what you need.

Buried in these words of seeming doom and gloom is a promise—that no matter what, God will be with you.  You will never be left alone.  But the Way is not the “easy way”.  It is worth far more than that.  The passage that we read begins with a reminder that the followers of this new way were in the minority.  They were not part of “accepted society”; they were not part of the usual.  They were not going to be welcomed with open arms.  But they had something of vital importance to say, something imperative to do.  It was their reminder to not be swayed, to walk head first into society and be who they were called to be.  God would be with them.  The words and the acts would come.

Now I don’t know if we are uncomfortable because we don’t get this or because we do.  After all, most of us do not live in a faith minority.  There are those who even go so far as to call this country a “Christian nation” (although, they probably should discuss that with our deist fathers who signed the Constitution.)  The truth is, it is NOT hard to call yourselves Christian in this country.  But I would argue that it is still difficult to follow The Way.  After all, we live in a culture of change.  But I heard someone say (and apparently forgot who!) that “in a culture of change, it is the learner that is set for change; the well-learned are poised to accept things as they are.”

I don’t think God came in Christ to create a majority religion but rather to show us another way, to show us a way that is not necessarily easy but one that gives us Life.  We are called to be learners of this new way.  The warning from this passage still holds.  There are still sheep in the midst of wolves. (And probably a few wolves in sheep’s clothing!)  There are still those that will pull you away from who God is calling you to be.  Have faith…persevere…and, most importantly, learn, and listen…listen for the music that calls you to dance a different way and to tell others why you are dancing.  

  1. What does this passage mean for you?
  2. What does this say about discipleship?
  3. How can this passage speak to us in our context?
  4. What does this say about witnessing or proclaiming the Gospel?

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 Help me, Lord, to remember that religion is not to be confined to the church, or closet, nor exercised only in prayer and meditation, but that everywhere I am in Thy presence.(Susanna Wesley)

 I found out it is not what happens, it is how you tell it and who does the telling.  (Nancy Willard)

 If I were called upon to state in a few words the essence of everything I was trying to say both as a novelist and as a preacher, it would be something like this: Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery that it is. In the boredom and pain of it no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it because in the last analysis all moments are key moments and life itself is grace. (Frederick Buechner)

 Closing

You are the god who makes extravagant promises.  We relish your great promises of fidelity and presence and solidarity, and we exude in them.  Only to find out, always too late, that your promise always comes in the midst of a hard, deep call to obedience.  You are the God who calls people like us, and the long list of mothers and fathers before us, who trusted the promise enough to keep the call.  So we give you thanks that you are a calling God, who calls always to dangerous new places.  We pray enough of your grace and mercy among us that we may be among those who believe your promises enough to respond to your call.  We pray in the one who embodied your promise and enacted your call, even Jesus.  Amen.  ((“A Hard, Deep Call to Obedience”, from Searcy’s Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, p. 90)

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