January 25, 2015 Conversion of St. Paul
Isaiah 45:18-25, Psalm 66, Acts 9:1-22, St. Matthew 19:27-30
A certain Jew, Saul, undertook the 150-mile trek from Jerusalem to Damascus “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” The trip takes about a week. Not far from Damascus, Saul chances to undergo the greatest conversion in history.
He had planned to enter Damascus as Christ’s enemy; instead he arrives as Christ’s servant. He had thought to arrive with a show of great force; instead he comes into the city blind and helpless.
He had supposed he would there persecute those of the sect called “the Way”; instead he becomes one of the persecuted. He had expected to use imprisonment and murder to achieve his ends; instead he turns to preaching as his modus operandi.
A transformation this remarkable naturally has occasioned no small measure of interpretation over the centuries. Some have set forth sunstroke and epilepsy by way of explaining Saul’s strange behavior.
If we don’t produce a rational explanation we might have to consider a supernatural source, so it’s an urgent matter to find a logical scenario that fits the facts.
In the middle of the last century, a certain Dr. William Sargant wrote a book titled “Battle for the Mind.” Subtitle: “a physiology of conversion and brainwashing.”
Dr. Sargant explained his aim: “to show how beliefs . . . can be forcibly implanted in the human brain, and how people can be switched to arbitrary beliefs altogether opposed to those previously held.”
His research jumped from Pavlov – the one who went to the dogs – to his own treatment of soldiers who had broken down under what was then called “combat exhaustion,” which is probably what is now known as “post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Saul, he decided, suffered something like what those soldiers endured. He first went through “his acute stage of nervous excitement,” which was followed by “total collapse, hallucinations and increased state of suggestibility.”
Three days of fasting aggravated this condition and he next entered a state in which, first, Ananias could implant in him a set of replacement beliefs just the opposite of those he had previously held. He then underwent “the necessary period of indoctrination” at the hands of the Christians of Damascus.
So Saul’s problem appears to be Stockholm syndrome, or something very much like it. Hmmm.
But let’s consider the possibility God was involved . . . if only because it makes for a better sermon. No slave to convention am I, but I have today one of those old-fashioned sermons – you know, three points, two illustrations and a joke – because that’s just the way it worked out.
By the way, that was the joke.
We’ll take a look at what we can learn about the person who is converted, what we can learn about conversion itself and what we can learn about the church.
So we begin by looking at Saul. This episode for centuries has been called “the Conversion of Saint Paul,” as we call it today. And there’s no denying the dramatic change in him.
But truth to tell, the narrative’s emphasis is less on the conversion than the call – that is to say, less on what happens inside him than on what is imposed on him from outside. For the transformed Paul, life’s meaning comes not from introspection and internal change but from obedience to a higher authority, a power outside himself.
As soon as we head down this path the question arises, as always: Isn’t what you’re describing blatant determinism? Has Christ made of Paul a robot?
As is so often the case, the best answer comes from C. S. Lewis. In his autobiography, “Surprised by Joy,” Lewis describes his response to God’s call on his life:
“I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out. Or, if you like, that I was wearing some stiff clothing, like corsets, or even a suit of armour, as if I were a lobster. I felt myself being there and then, given a free choice. I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armour or keep it on.
“Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either, though I knew that to open the door or to take off the corset meant the incalculable. The choice appeared to be momentous but it was also strangely unemotional.
Still quoting Lewis: “I was moved by no desires or fears. In a sense I was not moved by anything. I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite.
“On the other hand, I was aware of no motives. You could argue that I was not a free agent, but I am more inclined to think this came nearer to being a perfectly free act than most I have ever done.
“Necessity may not be the opposite of freedom, and perhaps a man is most free when, instead of producing motives, he could only say, ‘I am what I do.’”
So wrote C. S. Lewis, and I’m afraid that’s as simple as we can make the thing. My guess is that Paul would agree, but in chapter 9 of Acts Luke presents Saul’s experience in even starker terms. Saul is what we might call an innocent victim of his conversion.
Could he have resisted? I don’t know how. I suspect that one who is knocked off his feet, struck blind and bludgeoned by the voice of God will go along with the divine program in a high percentage of cases.
This brings us to point two, the process of conversion. Paul is a rather formidable figure in the annals of the church. Surely we can learn something from his come-to-Jesus moment.
Was he on a spiritual quest? Did he experience an epiphany while praying the Jesus Prayer? Undergo a spiritual awakening while watching the “Jesus Film” or “The Passion of the Christ”? Hear the five spiritual laws and fall on his knees? Answer an altar call? No, no, no, no and no.
Do not misunderstand. I am not making sport of evangelism or the tools used in its service. I am insisting that God is the Prime Mover in every individual conversion so that He alone gets the glory.
The experience of this villain named Saul is unique in that no one else, so far as we know, has known a Damascus Road moment on the same scale. Yet if the method varies, the motive and result are entirely typical of God’s acts in calling those He chooses to Himself.
If you belong to Him, it is so because of what He has done. Our Lord usually operates with less drama than in this case but for all that He is no less active in those countless ordinary conversions.
Our response to this grace, according to the Scriptures, ought to be faith. Is it? In his 1966 classic “The Triumph of the Therapeutic,” Philip Rieff sketches the individualism that infects Western culture and its devastating effect on faith.
As Western democracies have exalted the individual, Rieff demonstrates, individuals have become less interested in sacrificing for God and more concerned with finding fulfillment for themselves. Individualism has robbed the church of the sort of interdependence that Paul will go on to set forth in his letters, as in 1 Corinthians:
“But God composed the body, having given greater honor to that part which lacks it, that there should be no schism in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another. And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (12:24b-26).
Well, all God’s chillun got problems. Where do they turn for solutions? Many individual Christians rely not on relationship with their Lord or their fellow members of the body but on therapists.
They turn not first to a priest to investigate how their problems might arise from flawed relationship with their Father or their brothers and sisters but to secular counselors who will instruct them on how to eliminate impediments to fulfillment.
And so we come to point three, what we can learn about the Lord’s church. We see that, once called, Paul does not metamorphose into the sort of Christian who wears a mask, rides a white horse called Silver and hangs out with a trusty Galilean sidekick named Tonto.
Would he not have done better in the role of rugged loner? Could he not have stepped out immediately into the gentile orbit and gone straight to work as an itinerant evangelist?
It seems the more logical course. Up to this time, all of the proto-Christians are ethnic Jews and all know this scourge Saul of Tarsus by reputation.
Right here in the conversion story we find the first of them, Ananias, saying, in effect, “For goodness sakes, Lord, you want me to befriend this plague upon my people?”
And the Lord’s answer is, “Precisely that.”
God has called this man for a purpose and he will achieve that purpose within the context of the church. He will not “convert” people and tell them to revel in their salvation and have a nice life. He will tell them to go to church.
Paul will establish congregations and nurture them and divide and multiply them and appoint first pastors to shepherd them and then bishops, including Timothy and Titus, to oversee them.
All that he does he will do in the service of Christ’s church. He will teach and preach and encourage and admonish and love the churches. He will suffer hunger and shipwrecks and humiliation and scourging for the churches.
We can grasp neither the person nor the call nor the mission of Paul apart from the church.
How important is it? Whom has Saul been persecuting? The church. But what does Christ say to him on the Damascus Road? “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” To persecute the Lord’s church is to persecute the Lord.
We get it spelled out in even plainer terms in the next verse: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
Do you hear an echo of the sheep-and-goats passage in Matthew 25? "And the King will answer and say to them, `Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me’” (v. 40).
The risen Lord, having blinded Saul, could restore sight to Paul. He could issue Paul’s marching orders. Instead, He sends him to the church – in the person of Ananias, surely a Bible character who deserves far more credit than he gets.
The church Saul has been doing his utmost to destroy will bless him and heal him and instruct him – if a bit reluctantly at first. And Paul’s early test is to make amends to, to come to terms with, his Lord’s church.
He cannot serve as Christ’s apostle to the gentiles until he has made his peace with his fellow Jews in the nascent church. Mark well this point: Christ calls him but leaves it to Ananias to restore his sight and to anoint him with the Holy Spirit and to commission him to take the gospel to the gentiles.
The vital role of the church is not in doubt.
And let us not leave Ananias without noting his further role in shaping St. Paul, the great reconciler. This is Paul who will preach, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Ananias receives his instruction from Christ and approaches Saul. The first words he speaks – perhaps the first words Saul hears following his conversion – are “Brother Saul.”
He was there at the stoning of Stephen, holding coats and looking on approvingly. He was there on the Damascus Road, bent on searching out and jailing or executing those who would follow Christ. And the first words he hears tumbling out of the mouth of one of his intended victims are “Brother Saul.”
What God-given grace! What a ministry of reconciliation!
Well, Paul the Pharisee had lacked understanding. He had never lacked knowledge. Understanding now, he sets out immediately to begin to fulfill his mission. He begins to preach. Why? To attract followers and to build Christ’s church.
Think back a week. We looked at the passage from Mark 1 in which Jesus arises from the waters of the River Jordan at his baptism and receives the Father’s benediction: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
I supposed that we were supposed to look forward to that gentile at the foot of the cross, that centurion who proclaimed, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Mark 15:39).
What is the message of this new preacher named Paul? “Immediately he preached Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God.”
Here is the gospel for gentile no less than for Jew, for our day no less than for Paul’s. Here is the word the world must hear. Here is the foundation on which our Lord will erect His church. Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Halleleujah! And amen.