The Festival of the Conversion of St Paul

Sermon text: Acts 9:1-22


Today we commemorate perhaps the most famous conversion in the history of the Christian Church. Saul, the murderous Christ-hater and persecutor of Christians, is transformed by the grace of God over a three day period beginning on the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. One of the most feared men in the days of the early church becomes one of the most faithful apostles and preachers of Christ crucified. Saul’s conversion is so spectacular, so unexpected that there’s the risk we focus on the wrong things. It’s very easy to view this conversion as kind of Jekyll and Hyde transformation. It’s true that evil is transformed here and that good flows from it. But there’s so much more going on that is significant for us still today.

From our perspective it’s easy to identify Saul as an enemy of the church. Arresting anyone who followed Christ, supporting their persecution and murder, and actively trying to break this growing movement. We can see his treacherous behaviour, but Saul didn’t consider himself an enemy of God. As Saul went above and beyond the call of duty in persecuting Christians, you get the feeling he actually enjoyed his work. He believed he was answering the call of God to wipe out this religious enemy of Judaism. It was Saul who watched on approvingly as Stephen was martyred; and it was Saul who had men and women dragged from their homes because they believed in the Lord Jesus. As we think about Saul’s conversion it would be easy to focus on his obvious sins of murder and hatred, but in so doing we fail to get to the bottom of his problem.

Along with all pious Jews Saul had bought into the lie that he could make himself righteous, that he could perfectly obey the Law of Moses. His persecution of the church was simply a part of this perverted way of thinking. Anything or anyone who threatened the way he saw things had to go – and those who followed Jesus were a particular problem because they taught that we could not make ourselves righteous, that our sin always stopped us from achieving perfect obedience. Saul was an enemy of the church because he murdered and persecuted those with faith in Christ. But he was also an enemy of the church because he wanted to trust in his own self-righteousness and not in the righteousness God offers us in Christ. In this way he was so much like many enemies of Christ and His church – all those who speak lies that encourage us to rely on our spiritual and moral power and strength, instead of relying on Christ alone.

So while Saul’s murderous activities set him apart, his underlying rebellion against God is no different than that which we all struggle with. The fight we have within ourselves between trusting in God and trusting in ourselves. But Saul’s outward behaviour makes it easy for us to identify his inner wickedness. This is a man we probably would’ve written off.

I wonder what the prayers of the faithful in Damascus had focussed on in the days leading up to his visit. Perhaps they prayed that Saul would be waylaid on his journey. Maybe they prayed that he would be thwarted in his efforts to destroy the church. But I doubt many of them would’ve prayed for his conversion. Because when you look at the figure of Saul in the earlier chapters of Acts it seems obvious that this bloke is a lost cause. His heart is completely hardened against Jesus and His people. He’s obsessed with wiping out the church and there seems to be absolutely no chance of conversion. So why bother wasting your breath praying for him?

That’s one of the most important points of this story. Despite his wickedness and hard heartedness, God does not give up on Saul. Instead He goes after him, breaking his self-righteous spirit and creating faith in Jesus where there wasn’t even a hint of trust. How? In the same way as God continues to grow faith in us: by confronting us with our sin through the Law, and by bringing us forgiveness through the gospel.

Picture Saul before the risen Lord Jesus appears to him on the way to Damascus. How confident and cocky this fella must have been. Striding toward Damascus, he had the authority to turn the town on its head as he rooted out the growing number of Christians. His own sense of importance and belief that he was an agent of God’s wrath must have driven him on with anticipation. But then it happens. The Lord is revealed to him and as Jesus speaks, Saul realises he’s put his trust in the wrong things. Everything he’s done against Jesus’ followers, he’s been doing against Jesus Himself. The Law crashes down upon him as he realises the sin that has consumed him. He’s now a shadow of the man he was. Blinded. Helpless. Utterly dependant on his companions. Saul makes his way into town and doesn’t eat or drink for three days. His entire world has been torn apart as Jesus’ words hang around his neck accusing him of the wickedness he has embraced.

If Saul’s story was to end here there’d be good reason for despair. After all every one of us when confronted with the word of God must confess that we find ourselves crushed by our sin. That’s the proper work of God’s Law – exposing us to the core and revealing our need for a Saviour. And that Law revealed Saul’s sin – his murderous activities as well as his misplaced trust in himself. But once the Law has done it’s work the Lord Jesus points Saul to the same source of comfort and peace He still points us to – to the Holy Gospel – the good news of forgiveness and life proclaimed in the words of God’s servant, Ananias, and enacted in holy baptism. Despairing of himself, Saul is revived and has his eyes opened to the grace and mercy of God through word and Sacrament. He is converted in the same way you and I were transformed from darkness to light, from unbelief to faith. His experience was different to ours, but the means God used were the same.

We rejoice today as we remember Saul’s conversion because this great enemy of the church, by God’s grace became perhaps the greatest apostle and preacher of Christ crucified. He is our apostle – the apostle to us gentiles – the one through whom the Lord clearly revealed that we are saved by grace through faith. But Saul’s transformation is not a Jekyll and Hyde story. It’s not about being changed from evil to good. As St Paul would later write of himself, sin remained a struggle for him as it does for all of us. No, this is a story about a change from trusting in our own self righteousness, to trusting in the love and mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ Jesus. It’s about the miraculous transformation that occurs as God speaks Law and Gospel into our lives, breaking down our false gods of self righteousness and good works, and lifting high the cross so that we might live as His redeemed people.

There’s a real temptation to simply preach some kind of moral lesson from this text: to remind ourselves that we are called not to write people off and trust in God’s ability to change even the most hardened enemy of the church; to point out that even the Osama bin Laden’s of this world have hope in Christ. And of course there’s abundant evidence of that truth in Saul’s story. But the good news of this text is not found in our loving acceptance of our enemies.

The good news is found in Jesus’ transforming love for all of us who were once His enemies. It’s found in the recognition that His Word of grace can break the hardness of our own hearts and create faith where before there was nothing but darkness and sin. If Jesus’ word of forgiveness and life spoken by Ananias can create faith in Saul, how much more won’t this word proclaimed in the church today work to reshape your life? If baptism can wash clean the bloodied hands of a Christ hating murderer, how much more won’t it wash your sins away? While the risen Lord Jesus may not have appeared to you in a dazzling display of light, He has worked in you in the same way He worked in Saul: forgiving you regardless the sin; loving you despite your unworthiness and recreating you so that you may join with Saul in confessing Him as Son of God and Saviour. Amen.