In recalling the conversion of St. Paul we pay a visit to an event which has caused the church considerable discomfort over the years. It was plain from the start- and with some justification- that we found it hard to believe that such a venomous creature as Saul (as he was then known) could possibly have changed so much.
And even today just the mention of Paul is like a red rag to a bull where the cynics are concerned. For how many of us, if we`re honest, find ourselves inclined towards scepticism when it comes to our potential for change? Maybe we`ve given up on too many new years` resolutions for our own good. Maybe we`ve been disappointed by that loved one`s protestations that: “It`ll be different this time”. Maybe stories like that of Paul seem just too good to be true?
But here we are, all these years later still taking note of one of the great about-turns in history. As they said: All who heard him were amazed and said, ‘Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? (Acts 9.21a)
So what can we take from this commemoration?
Well I would like you to consider the simple point: the power of God to change. And I want to emphasise those words: `the power of God`. For what we recall today is most fundamentally the work of a gracious God. Both the moment of change- and the events leading up to it were in God`s gracious will for Paul. The initiative and the work is his alone.
Now, time and again, the frightened atheist is inclined to hurl the jibe at the Christian: “Have you come to convert me then? – and of course this is a complete misunderstanding. Conversion- change into at least a closer resemblance to Christ may indeed be the objective- but it`s most certainly not something that WE are responsible for.
No, again, it`s the work of God- and those of us who have been privileged to witness the more dramatic occasions, where lives have literally been turned around will pray today with much thanksgiving.
But it`s not only the dramatic change we recall. For this is where St. Paul has caused us so much angst. I mean, his experience has so often been presented as `normative`- and many of us have felt threatened; and if not threatened, then somewhat second class because our story is far less dramatic or impressive.
Paul`s experience has often been used or recounted in such a way as to leave some of us feeling that we`re less than authentic; not quite the real thing- or the `full shilling` so to speak. Of course, there`s a bit of pride lurking there- an impressive testimony gains attention doesn`t it? – And often this emerges as a defensiveness- and like the older brother in the story of the Prodigal Son we find ourselves prone to irritation or even anger with those who have been blessed with something startling to tell.
This is why it is good to remind ourselves- I say again, that what happened to Paul was the work of God. The God who chooses to carry out his work of grace- and of change- in ways that are unique to us.
And it`s this thought that leads me to invite you to ponder a little about the Season of Lent which will soon be with us. I know it`s early but I just want to question those two now somewhat automatic assumptions that emerge at this time of year. On the one hand we say that Lent is about `giving something up` or on the other hand it`s about `taking something on`. Now I`ve recommended both of these at various points and they have their value- but like Paul who was so overwhelmed by what GOD was doing could we not change the emphasis this year?
What I`m suggesting is that there might be some value in turning things around. Instead of approaching Lent with the notion that it will be a time concerned with `what I`m going to do or not going to do` could it not be a time when I open myself up to what God is doing and what wants to do in my life?
So in the next few weeks, perhaps we could begin to think about how we might put ourselves in a space where we might be open to the prompts and insights the Lord wishes to give us.
Now, this is not for the feint hearted. A lot depends on whether you really believe that he is on your side- and works for your good. And I wonder whether you`ll have the patience to let him work at his pace or indeed whether you`ll have the courage that will be needed.
I mean, imagine for a moment what it was like for Paul to go back to Jerusalem and explain to his former colleagues that he wasn`t persecuting Christian anymore. Imagine what it was like for Paul to meet the families of those he had ordered killed? Of course, they were all sceptical.
And sometimes it`s hardest to change in the face of our nearest and dearest- those who know us so well. Those who have seen our earlier efforts at reform founder at the first hurdle. And unlike the average resolution, the thought that they might think we`ve gone `all religious` has an extra edge to it. It`s an especially live issue for many married couples I`ve met and somehow quite threatening to the less committed spouse.
Whatever our circumstances- pray for this work of God. Pray for the grace to cooperate with it. It`s purpose is that we should become a blessing and more fully the people we were created to be.
Thanks be to God