Conversion of Paul

Sermon at St James, Epiphany 3, 23 January 2022

Acts 9: 1–22

To listen to the recording of the sermon as you read:

There are some people who, once they have made up their minds, will never change them and there are also people who will easily change their minds when the evidence supports it. One man will buy a second-hand car at a bargain price and will insist that it was a good buy despite the fact that it frequently breaks down. Only when its engine blows up or a door falls off will he change his mind. Another man will buy a car and as soon as it starts to misbehave will sell it on.

It is strange how there are some of us who will hold a view despite the evidence and others who go with the evidence. Holocaust deniers or anti-vaccination campaigners are surely extreme examples of the first group and in the second group are those who flip flop from one view to another seeming never to make up their mind. Where do we lie, I wonder?

I ask this because today we celebrate the life of a man who was a fanatic on one side of an argument for a long time before being forced to change his mind and eventually to become perhaps the greatest Christian evangelist of all time.

Saul was born into a devout Jewish family around the same time as Jesus’ birth in the coastal town of Tarsus in today’s Turkey. The family made its living from tent-making but Saul at quite a young age was sent to Jerusalem to the school of Gamaliel, a renowned scholar and a leading Pharisee. The Pharisees were a small, very devout Jewish sect who insisted that the way to God was to obey the Jewish law. They were zealous rather than fanatics and Saul was brought up as one of them. So when he noticed a group of his fellow Jews starting to preach about the arrival of the Messiah and opposed to much of the Jewish legal tradition, Saul was appalled and became fully involved in trying to put an end to what he saw as heresy.

Therefore when Peter and John and James and Stephen began their preaching campaign in Jerusalem Saul was one of those determined to stop it. The final straw for Saul was when Stephen denounced the rabbis investigating him. Stephen was taken outside the city and stoned to death for blasphemy and one of those supervising it was Saul. Saul was actually holding the coats of the stone-throwers.

Saul now committed himself to attacking those early Christians and volunteered to chase them with a band of soldiers to Damascus. As we all know it was on the road to Damascus that an event occurred which we call The Conversion of St Paul and which we remember today. A blinding light and a challenging voice brought the group to a sudden halt. Various classical artists have portrayed the scene, notably Caravaggio, showing horses rearing and soldiers panicking and Saul on the ground. Whatever it was, it was a mind-blowing, traumatic experience that made Saul change his mind. “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me? Why do you resist what your conscience tells you?”

To cut the long story short, Saul became Paul, the great Christian evangelist—a fervent teacher, missionary and pastor, who founded around 14 churches and wrote letters to those churches which we find in our New Testament. Much of our Christian theology today starts from Paul’s writings. And he probably died a martyr’s death in Rome—a heavy cost to bear for his change of mind.

We can all be stubborn, can’t we, when it comes to important decisions. We love the security of a settled view which we have held for a long time and will hold on to it despite the evidence. It’s human nature and there is an element of pride there too.

Someone who understood this and who was celebrated for his wisdom was the principal of the College where Paul had studied. His name was Gamaliel, a leading Pharisee, and his advice was sought when Peter and other early Christians started challenging Jewish teaching after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Many of Gamaliel’s fellow Pharisees wanted to pursue these heretics, but Gamaliel counselled caution. He said, If the plan of these men is of human origin, it will fail: if it is from God you will not be able to overthrow it. You may even be found to be fighting against God. Wise words.

Saul learnt this in a startling, painful way and it is a reminder to us that when it comes to important decisions not only should we pray about them but we should be open to change our minds.