Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle, 2017.
Today we remember and in some sense experience ourselves the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle. And while everything we do in our liturgical life is always in solidarity with our fellow Christians in the Catholic and Anglican traditions, and of course those whose life is ordered by the Episcopal Church, today we have particular bonds of affection with those churches whose patron is Saint Paul. He is the patron of this Holy House, this church in Pekin, Illinois. Within our diocese we celebrate with the Cathedral of Saint Paul in Springfield, Saint Paul’s Church in Carlinville, and Saint Paul’s Church in Alton. And of course we feel an affection with churches outside of the Anglican tradition also named for this apostle, such as Saint Paul United Church of Christ in Pekin, and Saint Paul Lutheran and Saint Paul Baptist in Peoria. Thousands of churches around the planet owe their patronage to Saint Paul the Apostle. And indeed we pray that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to God Almighty by following his holy teaching.
It is quite fitting to reflect on Paul’s conversion in this season after Christmas and Epiphany. It is fitting because in Paul’s conversion we have strong echoes of the mystical experiences of Blessed Mary, Saint Joseph, the shepherds in Bethlehem, the Magi from the East, and Saint John the Baptist. In these instances were profound experiences of revelation. In these experiences was glory unspeakable, glory beyond words. In these experiences God’s revelation provided new direction, provided guidance, provided a deeper level of truth about God and a deeper level of truth about the purpose of the lives of each of these people—truth, direction and purpose revealed to Mary, Joseph, the shepherds watching their fields by night, to the Magi and to Saint John. An encounter with God always changes the direction of our life, and always shows to us something about our self either unknown or denied, and continues to lead us to the very purpose for our creation.
Paul himself intimates that he had denied his own purpose. He writes in his letter to the Galatians that God had “set me apart before I was born.” He would only acknowledge that through a process of deep discernment—perhaps in those three years he spent in Arabia after his mystical experience and before actively joining the other Apostles—that looked at his life up to that point and saw that God, through the Holy Spirit, always had been present in his life and actively trying to guide Paul to the truth. Whenever we learn truth about God, we learn truth about ourselves as well. Jesus Himself intimates that Paul had been denying his own purpose when He says to Paul within the light brighter than the sun: “It hurts you to kick against the goads.” A goad is like a cattle prod. Jesus had been trying to direct Paul’s behavior and life, but Paul had been resisting, had been “kicking against it” because of his stubborn heart, his hardened heart.
Paul’s life up to this moment had been rooted in pride—in self-centeredness—and now he is made humble when Jesus revealed true reality to him. Humility means being reality-based. Being a pious Pharisaical Jew, that this happened at “midday” likely means this happened at the time of formal prayer at Noonday—standing and reciting formal set-prayers, which is the precursor to our tradition of Morning and Evening Prayer today. Yet Paul’s being slapped, you might say, in the face by his own sinful pride is represented in famous paintings of this experience, such as Caravaggio’s famous painting entitled “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” which shows Paul knocked off of his horse. There is no horse in the biblical accounts of Paul’s conversion, but the symbolism is clear. Paul’s realization of sinfulness—his separation from God, for that is what sin means—was profound, disturbing, but ultimately transformative.
Brothers and sisters, let us be ever-reminded that Jesus became incarnate for us, not only in order to change Himself into our flesh, but also to transform us into his Spirit. All of Paul’s holy teaching is written for that end: to teach us, to invite us, to exhort us towards the transformation of our lives given us to each and every one of us as possibility. To transform our lives by, through, and in the grace of God is the gift that has already been given.
So let us continue to respond to this invitation! Let us continue as much as we are able to let God into our lives—let him into our homes, let him into our neighborhoods, let him into our workplaces—yes, but still more, let him into our hearts, let him into our choices, and let him into our wounds. God loves us. God wants to heal us. God wants the best for us. He gave Himself as sacrifice so that we might become living sacrifices, that our lives might become unceasing prayer, and that being incorporated into His Body, we might be His hands, His eyes, His heart, and show forth His love in the world around us—that we might be agents of forgiveness—that the light of the Gospel will shine ever brighter throughout the world. Amen.
The cover image “Conversion on the Way to Damascus” by Caravaggio is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.