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The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle
25 January 2009

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume

O God, who, by the preaching of thine apostle Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel o shine throughout the world: Grant, we beseech thee, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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

Today we celebrate the feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle. Now, in my sermon last week, I made passing reference to the day as the “so-called” conversion of Saint Paul. More about this in a minute. I just didn’t want you to think I had forgotten.

As I have told you before, Paul was never one of my favourite saints and his epistles did not really capture my imagination until just a few years ago. For saints, give me a Peter, who denied Jesus at that vital moment, showed his humanity and fallibility, and was still that one upon whom Christ built his church. For New Testament books, give me the directness of Mark or the erudition of Matthew or the sophistication of Luke any day; give me the poetry and imagery of John. When I thought of Paul, all I imagined was Paul droning on about faith and justification and sin and law; and I just saw his writings as the basis upon which was built so much Christian anti-Judaism and so much Protestant smugness.

I have also told you that my perception of Saint Paul was changed radically a few years ago when I was introduced to the scholarship of the late Swedish Lutheran Bishop Krister Stendahl and his followers.(1) I was given a whole different way of understanding Paul and his mission and ministry and, my eyes were opened and I saw clearly just what it was that God in Christ was doing in Saint Paul. I discovered a Saint Paul who was not converted in the sense that we think of the term—as from one religion to another—but who was given a new mission by his God, the God of Israel, to be the apostle to the Gentiles and incorporate all the other peoples of the world as people of God. And this is what I meant when I referred to the “so-called” conversion of Saint Paul.

In the letter to the Galatians, Paul tells his readers of his career as a zealous persecutor of Jesus’ followers and that he “advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.” Here Paul is proudly telling his readers of his excellence and faithfulness as a Jew (something we see him do again and again in the Epistles, especially in Romans) and that he carried out his work against the Church as part of his life’s vocation. This is the crucial point, that he considered his work against the Church part of his vocation as a faithful Jew. It is with this in mind that we read, “But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles.”

Here Paul is talking about receiving another call, a different call than the one he had previously been given. Paul does not talk of a conversion from one religion to another. Rather, Paul talks of God, his God, the God of Israel, revealing his Son to him, so that he might have a new mission, a mission “to preach among the Gentiles.” Not only does he talk of his God revealing something special to him, but he does so using the same language as Jeremiah and Isaiah use when describing their own call. Paul, whom Luther wrongly believed to be racked by sin and guilt, has the hubris, has the nerve, has the temerity to speak of himself in the same terms as two of the greatest prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures. Paul compares himself to Isaiah and Jeremiah and tells his readers, tells the people of Galatia that he, an excellent and skilled Jew, has been called by the God of Israel, to show the Gentiles, all the non-Jewish people of the known world, how they might enter into a relationship with his God, how they might become people of God. Whereas before Christ came, only the Jewish people had access to a relationship with the God who was the creator and author of all things. Now, in Jesus Christ, all the world might be reconciled to his God, not through the Law (the covenental relationship under which the Jews have their relationship with God), but rather through grace, through the faith of Jesus Christ.

Paul’s encounter with God was not a conversion in the sense that he woke up one day a Jew and went to bed that night a Christian. Paul heard himself called by God to a new mission, to a new ministry in the very same way in which other prophets had been called before him. Paul listened to where his God was calling him and shifted the focus of his work from persecuting the Church (an institution he had hitherto understood as counter to the work of God) to spreading the Church throughout the world precisely because his God, the God of Israel was acting in Jesus Christ and in the Church to increase his reign, increase his reach, enfold the whole world in his work of redeeming love.

This feast, therefore, is not about celebrating someone’s conversion. It is about celebrating Paul’s prophetic call to a new ministry. It is about celebrating that Paul was so open and receptive to God that he was able to hear God calling him out of one ministry into one whose purpose was the exact opposite of the one he had been doing. In much the same way as Mary at the Annunciation, as Joseph and Shepherds when they heard the words of the Angel, as the Magi when they saw the star, Paul trusted the words that he heard, Paul was able to listen and to respond, Paul was flexible and trusting and able to give himself over to the new work that God has given him to do.

Two weeks ago we celebrated the Baptism of our Lord and learned that by adoption and grace we are changed in Baptism into brothers and sisters in Christ, that we join a new and wonderful family. Last week we celebrated the Confession of Saint Peter and the work of the church, that family of the baptised who are Christ’s body at work in the world, incarnating in the present moment the love of God. This week, as we commemorate the prophetic calling of Saint Paul the Apostle, we celebrate the reality that God calls each of us, out of our diverse lives, to the work of ministry. Each of us is called to a life of service to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Good News of his life death and resurrection that changes lives and that assists God in his work of ever expanding love. Like Paul, each of us has skills and experience. Each of us is called to go forth into the world and, in whatever work we do, wherever our talents and gifts lead us, live lives that strengthen the Body of Christ and cooperate with God as ministers of love.

But how do we hear the call? How do we know that the call is real? This, my friends, is the hard work of discernment that we do in community. This is why we gather as a community to share the stories of Jesus’ life and ministry and of his saving deeds, and share in the meal in which Jesus makes himself present with us. We gather in community so we may learn to be open to God’s call, so we may be transformed into the Body of Christ, so we may learn about and experience God’s omnipresent and transformative love. The work we do together in community trains us to have hearts and minds open to hearing this call when it comes and to be flexible enough to respond generously.


Andrew C. Blume+
New York City
The Ordination of Florence Li-Tim Oi, 24 January 2009

 

1. Krister Stendahl, “Paul Among Jews and Gentiles,” in Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1976), 1-77. See also Stanley K. Stowers, A Rereading of Romans: Justice, Jews, and Gentiles (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1994) and John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul (Oxford: University Press, 2000).

 

©2009 Andrew Charles Blume