The Conversion of St. Paul
Matthew 19:27-30, Acts 9:1-22
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Those who should be hated are loved. If they are violent they are shown mercy. If they lie and gossip they are blessed. For those who should be punished for their sins are forgiven and those who betrayed God and chose the devil are counted as His sons. The last are first in the Kingdom of Grace. Executioners become midwives and the patriarchs are unseated by unruly fishermen.
Murder, despite the protestations of murderers, has never been committed for love. It is never the love of a woman that causes one man to murder another in the case of adultery. It is hatred and jealousy. Thus was Paul, before his conversion, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus Christ. It was not for the love of his false religion, but for hatred and jealousy. He would not tolerate the reality that Jesus is the God of Abraham. Maybe he wanted to be the God of Abraham. Maybe he just didn´t like the fact that the only way to the Father was through the Son. Whatever it was, Paul would not listen to Moses and the prophets. If he had, then he would have recognized the same Voice in Jesus. He was only pretending to believe in the Bible while hating and murdering those who did.
Thus from the road to Damascus to a street called Straight is a fearful place. It is a place of wrath and blindness where the truth cannot be denied or avoided. Persecuting Jesus Christ in His disciples has consequences. It is futile and painful in this life, kicking against the goads, but it has worse consequences to come. It may look on the outside like the martyrs, those tortured and killed for their confession, get the raw deal. But it is not so. It is the murderers and torturers who really suffer. That is why St. Stephen prayed for Saul. He did not have the peace that God won for him and wanted him to have. Saul was struck blind on the road and told to go into the city. He would be told what to do. For a time, he was left alone in his darkness with no promise of escape.
But there was a promise. Even though St. Paul had no direct word from God on the road to Damascus, he had the prophets. He had the entire history of his people. He had Job´s confidence, Ruth´s hope, Abraham´s faith before Him. He had Isaiah´s descriptions and foretelling, Micah´s prophecies, Solomon´s wisdom. And left alone in the darkness he waited for that Word to be fulfilled that he might be found by the same forgiveness that found the murderers Moses and David and know that peace that shone in Stephen´s face.
Then the deliverer Ananias, whose name means “The LORD is gracious’ came. He came not to cast judgment or demand obedience. He did not check the sincerity of Paul´s confession or repentance. He came at the Word of the Lord to set free the man who came to bind him and still might have. He removed the scales from the eyes that had stood against him and which might still betray him. He laid hands not in the violence which Saul had pursued against him but in holy absolution. He forgave Paul´s sins for Jesus´ sake. He removed his guilt. He filled Paul´s heart with the Holy Spirit that he had once denied and baptized him into his own family by grace. Paul saw and believed. He was cleansed and sanctified. He now knows that this Jesus is the Christ, the promised One greater than Moses, anointed to suffer and die and rise again for the sins of the world, to redeem mankind from damnation and rescue humanity from Hell. St. Paul is a new man by grace.
He abandoned the name of the witch lover who fought against the Lord´s anointed, King Saul, his fellow Benjamite, in exchange for a Greek name. It means “little one.’ His mother may have still called him by the Hebrew “Saul.’ St. Luke calls him Saul a few times in the book of Acts after his conversion. We are never told his name is changed like Abraham´s and Israel´ s. God doesn´t demand it of Saul. But that former Pharisee, once so proud of his pedigree, always calls himself “Paul.’ He is the apostle to the Gentiles. He is dead to the past and to bloodlines. His inheritance, his future and his past are all by grace. He takes a Gentile name for he would be last in the Kingdom of God.
The patriarchs must be unseated. The Law has been fulfilled. Yet it feels at times as though we have still to come to the street called Straight and have the scales removed from our eyes. We have been baptized. We´ve heard the Voice of God through the Scriptures and the preaching of His Word. We´ve felt the power of His love. But still we are in semi-darkness, uncertain of the future. Our conversion seems like a dream, like it happened to another. Its power and promise fade in our memories. It feels like we are alone in the darkness and we are embarrassed about the zeal of our youth. We are ashamed of how struck we were when we first believed. We don´t want people to laugh at us or think us stupid. Thus, we do not behave like saints. We grow angry and envious. We breathe threats and murder against our co-workers for the slightest offense, keeping perfect track of every little thing. We curse the drivers all around us. We mock and subvert those in authority over us. We bring sorrow and shame upon ourselves, complicate our lives, lie about our intentions, fake our way through everything.
There seems to be no end, no light in the tunnel. The sirens say: “Give up the vigil. Enjoy this life. It is not dark. It is light as light can be. This is the way it is supposed to be. I have a God for you, more like you. He will give you what you want: food that is pleasing to the eye and capable of making you wise. Throw away that oil of faith and come taste our delights.’
How can we endure? The Word of God is our only stay, our only weapon in this war, our only hope and confidence. But it is enough! It is enough to be a lamp for our feet and a light unto our path. It is enough to call light to be in the chaos, to shine forth upon the earth, to mark days and seasons, and to give life unto all the world. The Word of God cuts and divides, heals and builds. It will not fail. It does not lie. He shined in the darkness of our hearts and soon He will complete what He has begun. He will free you. He will deliver you. He will reward you a hundredfold for what you left. He will give you all His kingdom for He loves you. So this day, too, He provides. He gives His Word. He encourages and strengthens. He gives His Body and His Blood, this holy fellowship with God, with Saints Paul and Stephen, the holy angels, and all the true Church in heaven and on earth.
You are loved. Mercy is shown to you and you are blessed. Your sins are forgiven. You are a son of God by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the last are first.
In +Jesus´ Name. Amen.
Rev’d David H. Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana