The Conversion of St. Paul
January 25, 2001 A+D
Acts 9:1-22; St. Matthew 19:27-30
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
It is not in the least bit a stretch to say that St. Paul becomes Saint by the effectual working of St. Stephen’s prayer. Paul was there at Stephen’s confession, at his martyrdom. You remember, of course, that he watched the cloaks of the murderers so that they could murder without worry of their personal property. But Jesus was there too. And by His inspiration, full of grace and truth, with stones pummeling his body, before the last breath passed through his lips, Stephen prayed, “Lord, charge them not with this sin.”
And so it is that some time later Paul’s soul is shaken to the core of his being. The Lord appears to him, and says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?” And Paul knows that this is the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the Almighty, the only living, the only true God. He addresses Him by this Name. This is the God he claims to worship and He knows it. Thus he asks, “Who are you?” Meaning, “How am I persecuting You, my own God?” And then He is told, “I am Jesus.” This is more terrifying than the light. And what is left for Paul to say, but, “What am I to do?”
But this is Jesus, whose Name means, “the LORD saves.” He has come to make for Himself a people, to be their God, to turn their hearts, to forgive their sins. The sins of Paul, in accordance with Stephen’s prayer, are not charged to him. They are charged to the One he persecuted, who died in his place. Paul goes free, clean, pure, without blemish, shame, guilt, or past. He did not choose God. God chose him. There is no working of Paul’s reason or will in this conversion. In fact he was set on persecuting God’s people. But, he was converted. He was converted, as all who are converted are, solely by Divine, undeserved and unprompted Grace. He was dead, but now he lives. He died. He is with us no longer, wherever his dusty bones may be, but he still lives. Stephen’s prayer was answered. They, Paul and Stephen, now rejoice together, brothers as they were meant to be!
Free at last Paul goes forth unencumbered by the law. He cannot hold it in. He loves to talk about the joy that is his in Christ Jesus, about the love and peace and hope he knows. His suffering has only begun, it is true. There will be prisons, torture, rumors, and a mysterious thorn that is not removed. Finally, like Stephen before him, he will confess his faith in the face of death and die the martyr’s perfect death. But along with this beginning cross and suffering, his joy begins also. And the former is not worthy of comparison to the latter, nor to the glory that will be revealed. He will be hungry, cold, and tired. But his soul is, at last, as souls were meant to be, at peace.
We do well to relate to this account. For it is our own. Not only because St. Paul is our apostle, but because we too have had our Damascus Road. We were dead in trespasses but brought to life in the waters of Holy Baptism. We could not choose. So God chose us. He worked against our rebel wills, broke into our dying flesh, and made us His own, that we might bear His Name. And still He comes to us in a Voice that only those who were blind but now see can hear. He speaks to us in His Word. He tells us His Name, the Name of Grace. And that scene from the Baptismal Road to Damascus plays out again and again. The old man in us is cut low. He trembles in fear. But the new man is given sight, comfort, and consolation at the Words of acceptance, in the scars that heal those who dare to gaze into them. He meets us here in a mystery too profound for human eyes and ears in the bread and in the wine. He calls us back, and then answers His own call in us. Grace is added to grace, faith to faith, and we are strengthened and encouraged for the work He has called us to do.
Converted again, changed, renewed, restored, reinvigorated, and sent. That is what happened on the way to Damascus, in accordance with Stephen’s heartfelt prayer. That is what happens to us in the Divine Service! It is not only Stephen, but also Paul and all the saints who have gone before us, who pray for those still fighting, still suffering, still waiting. They cry out before the throne of Grace and pray, “How long, O Lord?” They pray, dear friends, for you. And the prayer of a righteous man availeth much.
Thanks be to God! In +Jesus’ Name. Amen.
Rev’d David H. Petersen
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana