The Conversion of St. Paul – January 25th
Acts 9, 22, Acts 26
Most really know St. Paul as “explainer of the Jesus event”- the practical theologian who helped the first Christians figure out how to live their personal experience of the risen Jesus in community. But when someone asks, “Who was St Paul?” The answer that invariably comes to people’s lips is “Apostle to the gentiles!” Have you ever wondered, though, how Paul, a zealous and angry Jewish religion student with a first career of killing the followers of Jesus, became the apostle who took the Christian faith to the non-Jewish world?
The most Jewish guy* in Israel becomes apostle to the non-Jews
Jesus’ commissioned his followers before he ascended: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) What did the followers of Jesus do with all of that power to witness “to the end of the earth“? Answer: They stayed home. Or at least darn close in Jerusalem.
Persecution spreads them…but only to their own peeps
Eventually the followers of Jesus left Jerusalem and Judea-Samaria, but only because they were forced to leave by persecutions led by Saul, whose Roman name was Paul. “…those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. (Acts 11:19) The Jewish religious leaders presumably felt nervous over possible Roman reprisals from the growing Jesus movement. Even as they ventured outward sharing the story of Jesus, the witness was confined to their own people, other Jews.
Not cowed by pluralism’s call to silence
In the ancient world, as in Western culture today, it was bad form to proclaim preference between religions. Part of Rome’s conquest playbook was that upon conquest, Rome would embrace the gods of the vanquished into their pantheon of gods, and insist the vanquished nation return the favor. Roman religious persecution of Jews (and later Christians) flowed from, what was to them, the annoying Judeo-Christian habit of insisting that there was only one true God and that God wants us to drop all of our little “g” gods and worship “G” God alone. To the Roman it was unthinkable arrogance that a vanquished people would insist on the worship of their defeated deity. It was expected that Rome’s citizens would be broad and inclusive in their religiosity. Everyone was welcome to have their own way, just don’t tell anyone else who to worship – the intolerance of the tolerant is far from a new phenomenon!
The Necessity of the Unlikely Convert
What was God to do with disciples who not fulfilling the call to invite “the nations,” (Matt 28:19-20), a call that, contrary to popular opinion, was not just an New Testament imperative (Is. 49:6). God’s solution was to accost Paul on the road out of the country. He was traveling to Damascus with letters granting permission to take the persecution to those fleeing his pressure. You can read about it in Acts chapter 9, but the short version is: God finds Paul. Paul doesn’t know what to do with being found by God. He really cannot show up on the doorsteps of those he has been persecuting for help understanding his Jesus experience, so God sends a disciple named Ananias to find him (Acts 9:17). Over the next several years Paul grew in his faith as he circled from Damascus (9:23-25), where early attempts to preach got him into hot water, to Jerusalem (9:26-27), where the disciples were less than welcoming, to Arabia (Gal 1:17), and then back to Tarsus (11:25-26) where Barnabas locates Paul to get him to help teach the faith in a multi-ethnic, multi-social class revival that was occurring in Antioch. (13:1) The Antioch revival is of interest because it is in Antioch, that for the first time, “some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who…spoke to the Greeks also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 11:20) It is also the first time the followers of Jesus were called the pejorative title, “Little Christs” or “Christians.” The breaking down of the Roman social structure by the multi-class Antioch church was stunningly radical. So dangerous it needed to be mocked.
Paul becomes an Apostle
The church in Antioch decides that what God is doing in calling “the nations” to himself (Matt 28:19-20) was so profound that they set apart Barnabas and Paul and send them out to preach (Acts 13 and 14). On Paul’s first missionary trip two things become obvious: they should preach to everyone, because “the gospel is the power of God to all who believe, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Rom 1:16), and Paul was the gifted speaker of the two. By the end of the trip they move from being referred to as, “Barnabas and Paul” (13:2) to “Paul and his companions” (13:13).
It is the song that never ends
The story of Paul’s conversion occurs in Acts 9. But it is relayed twice more: On the steps of the temple in Jerusalem (Acts 21:37-22:24), and before king Agrippa (Acts 26: 1-29). God didn’t just stop Paul in his tracks. He replaced Paul’s murderous heart with a heart whose love for those who do not know the mercy of God would not allow him to remain quiet, even if it resulted in the loss of his own life. When God invades our lives we just cannot keep quiet. Happy news must escape the lips of those with happy hearts.
Evangelism, from the root “Good News” is the simple act of passing along that news. It seems to me that “Good Newsing,” has three facets: a coherent explanation of the faith, the Word of God, and the power of a personal testimony. Which is most important? The Word of God, of course. It is God’s word that is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.” (Heb 4:12) It is God’s word that “shall not return to me empty, but shall accomplish that which I purpose.” (Is. 55:11)
The power of a personal testimony
Although God’s Word is the living and active instrument of transformation, it is the power of a personal story that gives credibility to the Scriptures. It is our personal story that gives a picture of what it looks like when God is active in someone’s life. Personal story is a simple, yet profound thing. We see it in Acts 26:
I was…(verses 1-12)
Then God…(verses 13-18)
Now I… (verses 19-23)
I encourage you to…(verses 28-29)
Paul’s Story (in a nutshell)
I was…the one who rounded up Jesus’ guys and killed them.
Then God…stopped me on the road to Damascus. He spoke to me. He changed me.
Now I…am different. I cannot stop testifying to everyone, small and great!
I encourage you…“to become as I am…except for these chains, of course.”
Each of us who have been accosted by God has a story. Yours may not involve bright lights knocking you to the ground, but each of us who has been baptized into Christ (Rom 6:3, Gal 3:27) have been visited by the same Lord who called Paul to himself. What is your story? When have you sensed God’s presence? When have you been changed by God’s message? When have you been drawn by God’s Spirit?
I encourage you: Tell your story. Paul’s conversion was a gift that kept on giving. God has a few gifts for you and I to spread around as well. Let’s get to Good Newsing!