Conversion of Saul
Sermon at St James
Jeremiah 1:4-10; Acts 9:1-22; Matthew 19:27-30
To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:
Today the church remembers the conversion of St. Paul as we read in the book of Acts today. It’s a well-known story and is so important to Paul’s understanding of his mission, that it’s retold on two further occasions in Acts, as well as referred to in some of his epistles. But in our readings this morning we heard of other calls and conversions as well as Saul’s: Jeremiah, Ananias and the disciples of Jesus. These have something to say to us and so in the light of all of those, I’d like to invite you to think of your own call and conversion and where it has led you. Or perhaps I should put that in the plural: calls and conversions because God never stops calling and converting us as he seeks to draw us more deeply into his life.
No doubt most of you will say. “Well I’ve never had a moment like Paul’s, I’ve never had that Damascus road type of experience.” Well that’s OK. I haven’t; probably most of us haven’t; though a few of you may be able to point to a specific moment when you were convicted of the truth of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. By far the majority of people will speak of a gradual dawning and growing in faith.
God comes to us in many different ways, as he did to the people we encountered in our readings this morning. The common factor that we discover, and which perhaps you would endorse(I know I would!) is that when God calls, it almost always takes us out of our comfort zone.
Take Jeremiah. Called by God to be a prophet at one of the most difficult times in the history of Israel. A task requiring courage and great wisdom. “Not me God, I’m too young,” said Jeremiah. “I wouldn’t know what to say or how to say it.” Not a good enough excuse for God I’m afraid. “No need to worry” says God, “I’ll tell you what to say and who to say it to." And God did. But I can’t pretend that Jeremiah had it easy after that. He was mocked and scorned and even left to die in the bottom of a well for his trouble. God’s call took him well out of his comfort zone. In being faithful to his calling as God’s prophet, Jeremiah lost everything.And yet - he survived all that was thrown at him and became a source of hope and a witness to his community of God’s fidelity in a time of trouble. There was grace to be found.
Then there was Ananias. He was a Christian disciple in Damascus. He’d heard Saul the persecutor was on the way and was probably about to flee or go into hiding to avoid arrest. But God comes to him in a vision with the preposterous request that he actually go and find this same Saul where he is staying and lay hands on him to restore his sight. “You can’t mean it God. You might as well ask me to go into the lions’ den. If I’m not killed, at the very least I will be arrested. The answer’s no.” But God persists: “This is the man who is going to be instrumental in the growth of my church. He needs you, Ananias, to first bring him into the fellowship of the church.” And so Ananias, no doubt with his heart hammering in his chest and his hands and knees shaking, goes to the house where Saul is staying, lays hands on him, baptises him, and so an enemy is transformed into a brother. We never hear any more about Ananias, but it’s him we have to thank for Paul’s acceptance into the church and his subsequent mission, without which it’s unlikely that we would be here today. An instrument of God’s grace.
And then what about Saul himself? It would be a mistake to think that because Saul had this dramatic experience on the Damascus Road which left him 100 percent certain that he had encountered the risen Christ, that life was then a bed of roses. Because it most certainly wasn’t. We first meet Saul in the book of Acts standing by and approving the stoning and death of the Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Widespread persecution of the followers of the Way, as early Christians were called, then broke out and many fled from Jerusalem. But Saul is zealous for the God he knows and is determined to stamp them out as heretics and blasphemers. He leads a systematic persecution in Jerusalem, going from house to house, dragging out anyone associated with the embryonic church and committing them to prison.
Then, knowing that many have fled to more distant towns, he gets letters of authority from the high priests and sets off to do the same in Damascus. And, as we heard, it’s on his way there that he has a life-changing encounter with the risen Christ. It’s an encounter with a purpose, and that purpose is for God to harness Saul’s zeal for God into taking the good news of Jesus Christ to Gentiles and to kings- in other words for Paul to take the gospel message beyond the confines of Judaism and bring its message of justice and peace to those in power. Which he does, but in doing so the persecutor becomes the one of the persecuted. The warning is there in God’s words to Ananias: “He is an instrument I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” When we read on in Acts we will see how Paul indeed suffered imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck, none of which made him deviate from his mission to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, nor stopped him from testifying to the joy he found in his life in Christ. When God calls, God takes us out of our comfort zone but there is grace to be found.
And the disciples who followed Jesus are aware of how much they have sacrificed in answering his call. The short passage we heard follows on from Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man, who was invited to give up his worldly possessions in order to follow Jesus. That seemed for him to be a step too far out of his comfort zone. So what does that mean for the disciples, Peter wonders, as he reminds Jesus that in following him they have left behind their families and livelihoods. Jesus’ answer is a promise of reward. Those who respond to God’s call are taken deeper into the life of God and God’s purposes. Their inheritance is a share in God’s life and God’s kingdom.
So what of us? Have you been thinking about how God calls you? We’re not all called to be prophets like Jeremiah or missionaries like St. Paul. But as followers of Christ we may well find ourselves out of our comfort zone as we readjust our values and priorities in life to conform with those of the one we follow.We may very well be called like Ananias to make a brother or sister out of an enemy and bring them into the community of God’s people. There are countless different ways in which God may ask us to make a difference in the world, and we may well have to grasp our courage in both hands in order to do so.
When we respond (and it’s no shame to admit that our first response is often, no, not me God, ask someone else!) we will discover, as did Jeremiah and Paul and Ananias and the disciples, that God is indeed with us, enabling us and strengthening us. Out of our comfort zone we may be, but only so that we are freed up to enter more deeply into the riches of life with God, receiving grace upon grace as we take our share in building the life of God’s kingdom here on earth.