Friday, January 30, 2015

Conversion of St. Paul

And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight.

In last Sunday's lessons, the common thread that tied the lessons together was the idea of God's calling. In my sermon, I pointed out how most of us think of our lives, including our faith, in terms of a narrative with self at the center. Genuine faith is born in us when we recognize that God has called us, even called us by name like the prophet Samuel or one of the Lord's disciples. This calling is not, in general, with an audible voice, but the recognition that God is the one who initiates the communion and fellowship that we can have with him. In other words, to paraphrase our Lord, it is not you who has chosen him, but he who has chosen you. If God has called you, all the sudden the self is not at the center but God is. The Lord says through the prophet Isaiah, Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

In this commemoration of the conversion of St. Paul, we have yet another instance in which we hear the call of God. God is the acting subject, and Paul is the object. In our passage, Paul hears the Lord say, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? All of this suggests that at the heart of our faith is a call to radical conversion. Now, you might ask, what is conversion? The way the Bible answers this is with the straight forward metaphor of death followed by new life. By death, we mean a turning away from what the prayer book calls the world, the flesh and the devil; it is to reject the impulse to live apart from God, to live by our own light, and to live apart from others. As we die to these things, we are born anew to the kingdom of God and are transformed into the image of our Lord. We live in communion with God, putting our lives in his light and seeking reconciliation and peace with all men. This call to conversion, furthermore, is really for everyone. There are some religious people who are content with their religiosity and a religion of comfort. Such a religion affirms every prejudice and opinion you already have. It tells you that you don't have to change, you just have to embrace the true you. On the other hand, there are religious enthusiasts, who treat conversion as something for those people, that is what are perceived as the unconverted. They fail to realize that conversion is a life-long awakening. There are always areas of our lives that we have not yet put in the light of the Lord. There are always ways in which we are cold or indifferent to the word of God. Hence, the call to new life never really ceases, and this is why, we make a confession of sins every time we have gather for Communion or worship because conversion is not a one-and-done kind of thing.

The commemoration of Paul's conversion is unique in the church calendar; the other saint's days generally are supposed to coincide with the date of their death or martyrdom. Paul's conversion represents an important turning point in the history of the church, as Paul would become the apostle to the Gentiles. We can also see in Paul's conversion a kind of prototype or model for our own conversion. There are three points about his conversion that I want like to point out.

First of all, there is a judgment in this conversion: the Lord asks, Saul, why do you persecute me? Normally, when we think of judgment, we think of condemnation. This is because this is the judgment we witness most often in the world. The judgment of condemnation says you have done badly, therefore I do not love you, and you are not lovable. The judgment of God is different. It is a grace-filled judgment, which says you have done badly, but I love you nevertheless; you are lovable because I have chosen to love you and nothing can undo that decision. What God does in judging us is tell us the truth about ourselves and the world; in most instances, it is a truth we do not want to hear, and so often it has to take the form of a confrontation. Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? The Lord, in a sense, is staging an intervention. The Lord does this to us as well, in every moment, if we will just hear his voice. It is a voice of judgment, but also, an invitation to new life, as it was with Saul. Saul's name is changed to Paul because this judgment has been an invitation a new life, a new way of being.

The second observation is that this judgment and confrontation leads to Paul's blindness. The loss of eyesight has to be one of the most frightening handicaps. Imagine not being able to see where you are going, not to see others' faces, not to be able to read a book or watch a sunset. Paul's sudden loss of sight means that he has to trust others for everything: to guide him the remainder of this journey, to search out lodging, and even to search out Ananias. The point here is that in conversion we are called to surrender our self-willed and self-directed lives to live instead by faith and trust. We are not meant to live alone, either apart from God or one another. In conversion, we learn to trust again, like a child, and I think this precisely what our Lord means when he says that you must become like a little child to inherit the kingdom of God: children live unconsciously by trust that others will care for and nurture them. The invitation here is to get out of the business of being the manager and director of the show called my life, and to take your place in the communities in which God has placed you and to live with a sense of trust that you are God's child.

The third and final observation is that Paul's blindness is only temporary. He is given his sight again, but it is clear that this is a new vision. In conversion, we are called to look at the world in a new way, with the eyes of God. When we heed to call to new life, we are going to look at the world in a new and probably different way that our peers. In some ways, this vision might be like seeing color for the first time. Your heart might be filled unexpectedly with joy and gratitude. On other hand, this new vision might be like seeing that the emperor's new clothes are no clothes at all. While the masses chatter on about a perceived truth, you may find yourself in the lonely place of seeing something quite different.

These three marks of conversion, judgment, blindness, and new vision, are at the heart of Paul's and our conversion. Turning to such a conversion can be scary, but in it we are promised peace and joy and new life, and in the end, it is not about our initiative, but about God's loving call to us to turn to him and receive this new life.