Monday, January 25, 2010

The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul: A Devotional Commentary

Acts 9:1-22 But Saul, still breathing threats and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest. He asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, giving permission that if he found anyone who belonged to ‘the Way,’ whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. As Saul was on his journey and approaching Damascus, a light ffrom heaven suddenly shone around him. He fell on the earth and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now arise, go into the city, and there you will be told what you must do.” The men who were travelling with Saul stood speechless, hearing the sound, but seeing no one. Saul got up from the ground, and when his eyes were opened, he could not see anyone. His fellow-travelers led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. Saul was without sight for three days, and he neither ate nor drank. Now, a certain disciple named Ananias lived in Damascus. In a vision, the Lord said to him, “Ananias!” Ananias answered, “Behold, it is me, Lord!” The Lord said to him, “Arise, and go to the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judah for someone named Saul, a man of Tarsus. For behold, he is praying, and in a vision he has seen a man named Ananias coming in and laying his hands on him, so that he might receive his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard about this man from many, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. Here, he has authority from the chief priests to bind all those who call upon your Name!” But the Lord said to him, “Be on your way, for he is my chosen vessel to bear my Name before nations and kings, and to the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for my Name’s sake.” Ananias departed and entered into the house. Laying his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me, so that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit!” At once, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he received his sight. He arose and was baptized, and after taking some food, he was strengthened. After staying for several days with the disciples who were at Damascus, Saul immediately went in the synagogues to proclaim that Christ is the Son of God. All who heard him were amazed, and asked, “Is this not the man who did such damage in Jerusalem to those who called on this Name? And had he not come here intending to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul grew even more in strength and confounded the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.

Galatians 1:11-24 As regards the Good News which I preached, I proclaimed this to you, brethren, that it is not of human origin. I did not receive it from man and I was not taught this Good News by man, but it came to me through a revelation of Jesus Christ. You have heard about how I used to live in Judaism, how I persecuted the Church of God beyond measure, and how I ravaged it. I advanced in the Jewish religion beyond many of my own age among my countrymen, as I was more extremely zealous for the traditions of my forefathers. But when it was the good pleasure of God, (who had set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me through his grace, to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles), I did not immediately confer with flesh and blood: I did not go up to Jerusalem to visit those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia. Later on, I returned to Damascus. Then, after three years, I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Peter and I stayed with him for fifteen days. However, I did not see any of the other apostles,a except James, ‘the Lord’s brother.’ Now, regarding the things which I write to you, you can see that I am not lying before God. After that, I visited the districts of Syria and Cilicia. My face was still unknown to the Churches of Judea which were in Christ; they only heard, “The one who once persecuted us is now preaching the faith that he once tried to destroy!” And they glorified God in me.

Matthew 19:27-30 Then Peter said, “Behold, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Amen, I tell you that you who have followed me, at the recreation, when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. Everyone who has left houses, brothers, sisters, father, mother, wife, children, or lands for my Name’s sake will receive a hundred times more and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first!”

Today we commemorate the conversion of St. Paul. In pietist circles, the conversion of St. Paul is considered the norm for conversion to Christianity. Some will even question whether or not you are really a Christian if you have not had a Damascus road experience. Laying aside the fact that even pietist conversion stories rarely if ever involve a visible encounter with Jesus that causes them to go blind, Paul's conversion seems far different than the conversion stories that are told when people give their testimony.

The modern "Damascus road" testimonies generally involve people going to some event and not being able to sleep and saying some sort of sinner's prayer and then feeling all tingly. Sometimes the person talks about how they used to be an alcoholic or drug addict but now that they said the sinner's prayer they no longer have the desire to drink or use drugs anymore. We should certainly praise God whenever God frees someone from alcoholism or drug addiction. But freedom from drug addiction is not the Gospel. There are plenty of people who have managed to stop drinking and doing drugs without ever becoming Christians. And Christians have had a variety of conversion experiences. Throughout history, most were raised in Christian homes and cannot remember a time when they did not know the Lord. Paul does not go around telling everyone that they have to have a conversion experience like him. Jesus says that adults must become like babies in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Salvation is not dependent upon cognitive ability and babies are able to receive the gift of faith from God. When the baby is given faith he's not going to start telling you about how he used to go out drinking every night.

Paul was not the the typical guy telling his conversion story about how he was raised in a dead church but went to a crusade and became radical for Jesus. Paul was on fire. Paul was Ablaze. Paul was a Pharisee. Jesus said that the Pharisees would cross see and land to gain a single convert. Paul was radical for God. Paul was obsessed with the expansion and preservation of Judaism Inc. He wasn't one of those guys who just went to synagogue once a week. He was passionate, he was missional, he had a heart for the lost, he had a vision, he was authentic.

Also, Paul was not some drug addict or prostitute. If you were a Jew and looking for the guy in your community that did the best job of keeping God's law you would probably point to Paul. From all outward appearances Paul was as godly as you could get and that was his problem and that's your problem. If you were a Christian at the time you're opinion of Paul might not have been very high but if you were a member of the Jewish religious establishment and you were looking for someone who exemplified righteousness you would point to Paul. Many of the Jews believed that the Messiah would come after the Jews had attained a certain level of righteousness. Beating down and killing those heretical Christians would be a great help in making sure the law didn't get messed with. Paul was a great hero of the Pharisaic faith. He wasn't going to take this unrighteousness lying down.

But Jesus had other plans for Paul. Jesus appeared to Paul and instructed Paul in the Christian faith. When Paul went around preaching the Gospel it was not the message of his personal testimony that he brought with Him but the Gospel of Christ crucified. When Paul met with the other Christians he certainly had to tell them what had happened. He had to give some explanation as to why he would want to join the church and convince them that he wasn't just sneaking in so that he could kill them all. He also brought up his conversion story when he saw the Judaizers bringing the false teaching that we are saved by our works into the church. But his conversion story was not the message that he brought with him everywhere. The message that he preached was not himself but Christ crucified.

Prior to his encounter with Jesus, Paul would have stayed away from sinners. Now Paul realized that he was a  sinner. Although he appeared to be a devout Jew--he was the chief of sinners. Paul continued to wrestle with his sinful nature after his conversion but he no longer trusted in his ability to keep the law to save him.

There is a Judaizer living in each one of us. We see the guy down the street and think that Christ could never possibly save a guy like that and show that we trust our own works to save us and don't believe that Jesus came to save real sinners. We show our Judaizer every time we trust in something other than what Christ has done to save us--whether it's our personal testimony, a prayer we said, our ability to theologize, or membership in a particular denomination. We show our Judaizer when we think that others who confess Christ have only an intellectual faith and not true saving faith. Praise be to God that Christ has paid for all these awful sins!

We remember the conversion of St. Paul because it teaches us not to trust in our works but Christ-crucified!

1 comment:

Seth said...

Very good writing. I used to struggle with the lack of a Pauline conversion. It caused me to wonder about my relationship with God, and even if I truly believed in God and loved Him. It's a terrible thing to know God and then question your own belief. I even have struggled with not having met some of the established benchmarks for true relation with God, only to come to terms with the fact that the only true benchmark is following the commands of God: to love and to serve. I've always worked to keep those commands, and there is no better evidence of my love of God and relationship with him than my dedication to His commands. Having solidified my faith in myself, I can freely and fully seek God and His will for my life which allows me to preach Christ and Christ only. Glory to God!