By The Rev. Porter Taylor
On January 25th, the Church celebrates the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. The readings for the day are Psalm 67, Acts 26:9-21, Galatians 1:11-24, and Matthew 10:16-22. Below is a blog post written by The Rev. Porter Taylor about the feast day.
The Collect: O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
In the list of prominent New Testament figures, Paul surely occupies one of the top spots after Jesus and Mary, the mother God. He is known for his conversion on the road to Damascus, for his missionary travels, for his time spent in prison, and for his prolific writing. He is referred to as “the Apostle Paul,” “St. Paul,” or “Paul, Apostle of the Crucified Lord,” but what does this all really mean?
Today we celebrate the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle. The lessons understandably center on Saul’s conversion while traveling to Damascus as part of his ongoing efforts to persecute Christians but they do so from the perspective of Paul at the end of his ministry. Saul, as you’ll recall, was a Pharisee, a Pharisee of Pharisees (Acts 23) and a Jew of Jews. We first encounter him in Acts 7 as he stands watch over the stoning of Stephen. Next, we hear of Saul’s persecution of the church: he was ruthless and intense, even to the point of going to the High Priest and requesting letters (i.e. authority) stating that he could imprison all members of The Way and bring them to Jerusalem.
And so it happened, one day, as Saul was traveling to Damascus…
Saul meets Jesus on the road. In a blinding light—but truly an eye-opening encounter—Saul hears the voice of the Crucified and Risen Lord asking him, “Why do you persecute me?” This is the moment that changes Saul’s life forever. Years later, before King Agrippa, Paul recounts this event and outlines how everything he has done since that encounter with Jesus was in obedience to the Gospel. He preached in Damascus, Jerusalem, Judea, and then to all Gentiles. The Gospel spread like wildfire because the Holy Spirit anointed and empowered men and women like Paul to take their stories public and draw others to Jesus.
Conversion is always a two-part movement: you must be converted from something and you must be converted to something. Saul is converted from his persecution of Jesus and his followers, and Saul is converted to the Gospel of Jesus, the Good News of YHWH in Christ. Saul is blind for three days but is healed, anointed, baptized, and then begins preaching to the ends of the earth.
Paul begins his letter to the Galatians by establishing his authority to preach: this authority is grounded first and foremost in a revelation of Jesus (read: road to Damascus) and second in his time spent in Jerusalem with Peter and the other apostles. Paul is telling the Galatians, “You can trust me and what I say!” Remember, Paul was formerly Saul, and his reputation was well-known and well-earned. Many in the early centuries of the church were preaching their own gospel rather than Christ crucified; Paul points to his encounter with Jesus and his time with the apostles to help the Galatians know that he was preaching the true gospel. Perhaps we should point to Jesus rather than ourselves in our own lives…
Paul is tangible proof that God’s faithfulness to this covenant promises with Israel extends fully to the Gentiles as well. Put another way, in Paul we see that through Israel the whole world will be blessed just as YHWH promised Abraham way back in Genesis. God’s faithfulness has always been to a specific people but also through a specific people unto all of creation. This is what Psalm 67 is trying to show us: all the peoples of the world will know of God’s goodness because that has always been the plan. The people of God are a people of blessing through whom the world is blessed and brought into the family.
We are sent out ones as well, friends. Our own stories of conversion may not be recorded in Scripture with such specificity and wonder as Saul-now-Paul, but I promise you that your story can be found within The Story. We have been called from our old lives and called to Jesus. Our faith is grounded in our encounter with God, our reception of apostolic faith from those who have gone before us, and it is worked out most concretely in service to and on behalf of the world. Giving our faith away to others is at the same time both an act of pure generosity and a profound way of strengthening what we believe.
The celebration of Paul’s conversion today is an invitation to remember our personal conversion to God and His kingdom and an urgent call to do as Paul did: remain obedient to the Gospel and proclaim it to the ends of the earth. Freely have we been given, and so freely should we give to the world God created and for whom He is in the business of restoration, reconciliation, and redemption.