26 January 2009

The Conversion of Saint Paul

Patrick Comerford

Monday, 26 January 2009 (The Conversion of Saint Paul): Jeremiah 1: 4-10; Psalm 67; Acts 9: 1-22; Matthew 19: 27-30.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

The Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul is traditionally celebrated on 25 January but has been moved this year in the liturgical calendar to 26 January. It recalls the Conversion of Saul of Tarsus while he was engaged in the brutal persecution of the early Christians.

This momentous event has inspired great works of art and music, including not one but two paintings by Caravaggio (1571–1610) and great choral and musical compositions.

In popular conversation, this event means that when people talk about a “Road to Damascus” experience, even outside the Christian context, they are talking about a sudden conversion of heart or change of mind.

As our reading from the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9: 1-22) tells us this morning, while Saul was on the road to Damascus to persecute the Christian community there, he was blinded by a brilliant light, fell to the ground and heard the voice of Christ saying: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? ... I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Saul is taken by the hand and led to a house in Damascus, where he locks himself away for three days while he is without sight, neither eating nor drinking. But there he is visited and attended to by Ananias, who lays hands on him and prays that he should be filled with the Holy Spirit and regain his vision. Saul’s sight is restored and he is baptised; Saul of Tarsus becomes Paul the Apostle, and he goes on to be one of the principal founding figures in Early Christianity.

Given the magnitude of Paul’s transgressions and his violent attempts to completely eradicate Christianity, his dramatic conversion experience teaches us that no sinner is beyond forgiveness, no matter how terrible those sins may appear to be. It calls on us to be constantly aware of the challenges and calls from God that we will receive throughout our ministry and mission, those calls to new journeys and pilgrimages even at times – especially at times – when we are too confident and too self-assured, when we pretend to ourselves and others that our blind prejudices are religious certainties rather than accepting that they may be tearing the Body of Christ apart.

For over 100 years, this day has also marked the end of the eight days of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, running from 18 January to 25 January.

The two early promoters of this week were both named Paul: the Anglican Father Paul Wattson, co-founder of the Society of the Atonement, or the Graymoor Franciscan Friars, and the Roman Catholic AbbĂ© Paul Coutrier of Lyons, who has been called “the spiritual father of ecumenism.”

The Apostle Paul constantly tells us that there is only one Lord, one Faith and one Baptism (Ephesians 4: 5). He tells us that in Christ “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3: 28; see I Corinthians 12: 13, Colossians 3: 11).

This day – the Conversion of Saint Paul – constantly calls us to new and ever-renewing conversions, to abandon our old prejudices, and to work constantly for unity of the Body of Christ.

And now may all praise, honour and glory be to God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This address was given in the chapel at the Eucharist on Monday 26 January 2009.

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