Sermon preached by the Rev’d Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Conversion of St. Paul (transferred) – January 29, 2012
How did you get your name? Is there a story behind it? Many of us have one. For example, the name I was given at birth was not “Nicholas” but “Gerard” because my mother was having a difficult time getting pregnant and she prayed to St. Gerard Majella, the patron saint of maternity and made a promise to name her first child after him. I’m not sure what Plan B was had I been a girl.
Years later, when I converted to the Orthodox Church—and conversion is the term used when one comes to Orthodoxy from another faith tradition—I needed to choose the name of a saint recognized in that tradition because saints canonized by the Roman Catholic Church after the Great Schism of 1054 were not acknowledged by the Orthodox Church. I chose “Nicholas” because he was the most popular of saints in that tradition and it was the name of the church in which my parents were married. So, there you have it. The story of my naming—twice over!
Today we celebrate our patronal feast—the naming of this parish and congregation two hundred and seventy-five years ago. I suspect St. Paul was the patron selected because he was a missionary and this was truly mission territory for the Church of England in those days. Don’t forget, it would be many years before we would be known as “Episcopalians.” Two hundred seventy-five years later, the choice of Paul as the patron of this community still makes good sense. Paul was the “Apostle to the Gentiles,” the Jewish convert who became a disciple of Jesus and who made his principal mission work among the gentiles, “the outsiders” and today we continue to proclaim God’s radical welcome for everyone—no matter how alike or different they may be from any one of us.
And if we want to talk about names and the stories behind the way we get them, we need look no farther than the reading from Acts this morning where we see how our patron was known as “Saul,” and re-named “Paul” after his conversion from being a rabid persecutor of the followers of Jesus to one of their most passionate and strongest supporters and teachers.
Paul’s conversion dramatically changed the course of his life. Through his missionary activity and writings he eventually transformed religious belief and philosophy around the Mediterranean Basin.
His leadership, influence and legacy led to the formation of communities dominated by Gentile groups that worshiped the God of Israel, adhered to the “Judaic moral code”, but relaxed or abandoned the ritual and dietary teachings of the Law of Moses, that these laws and rituals had either been fulfilled in the life of Christ or were symbolic precursors of Christ, all on the basis of Paul’s teachings of the life and works of Jesus Christ and his teaching of a New Covenant established through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
That said, he’s a real enigma to many church historians and theologians and some might say that he was a fanatic or just a major pain in the…neck. His violence and rage targeting the followers —he was one of the people who killed St. Stephen, the first martyr, by stoning him to death—his violence and rage seems to have been channeled into his religious zeal and fervor as a believer.
Paul wrote some of the most amazing texts on grace and he fought for the inclusion of the outsider in the life of the church yet he also wrote some of the most awful stuff about marriage and the place of women in the community of faith. One might say that, in that latter regard, he simply lost his head and, in fact, that’s the way he died—being beheaded in Rome in the year 67 AD. As one of our participants at our weekly Looking for the Good News observed “With Paul, we should watch for the gems and ignore the oddities.”
Recall, too, that Paul is the only witness who testifies to the fact of the dramatic event that occurred on the road to Damascus, the light and voice from heaven and his commission to go and preach to the Gentiles. Those who were on the road heard some kind of sound but did not hear the voice of Jesus. And the encounter left Saul blind—with scales on his eyes—until he went to Damascus as he said he was told to do. There, after three days, he received his sight back.
But in the letter he wrote to the Galatians, Paul says that he spent three years in a kind of isolation—what we might consider a retreat from the world and from what at that time was the “institutional” church, albeit in its infancy. The play on the three days he spent in Damascus and the three years that he went into isolation is interesting. I wonder: did Paul get converted immediately on the road to Damascus or when he visited the home of Ananias and his sight was restored or did it take three years of soul-searching before he was ready to “come out” as a believer in the Jesus whom he encountered on that road and begin his work to spread the Good News of God’s love, forgiveness, and reconciliation to “the different,” the outsiders.
I’ll bet Saul had no idea what was coming his way that day he embarked on the journey to Damascus. He was just plodding along, convinced, as he says that he was on the right track. Isn’t life just that way? Take for example your average Sunday morning at St. Paul’s. We probably think about it as a time centering, prayerful contemplation, and peace—for many, perhaps, the only time in their week when they can enjoy a respite from the world and find a little peace.
Then we hear God’s Word read and we hear it preached and we might think to ourselves, “Wait just a minute. This isn’t what I came here to listen to today. How can I use any of this to get me through the next week?” The reality is that when God speaks through the prophets, the disciples, and through Jesus—things can get surprising and sometimes even disturbing. You may even, like Saul, meet the God you didn’t expect and you may be summoned to do something you never thought you could or would. That’s conversion. We are all, like Paul, a work in progress—not our progress, but the progress of the Holy Spirit. God is a living, speaking, abundantly revealing, intruding, sometimes disruptive presence who sometimes through a sermon besets us like Jesus did Paul on the road to Damascus, wrestles us to the ground, blesses us, and directs us to go out and live the Gospel.
Methodist Bishop William Willimon, former Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells the story of the night a campus fraternity invited him to give a talk, a requirement of all Duke fraternities. The topic was “Character and College.” He thought, “Lord, thou hast delivered them into my hands.” I can’t believe that they are dumb enough to invite an old guy like me to talk to young guys like them about “character.”
He went to the frat house and knocked on the door. It opened and he was greeted by a young boy of about nine or ten. “What is a kid doing over here at this time of the night?” he thought to himself. Surely there were rules against young children in the dorm this late. “They’re waiting for you in the common room,” the boy said. “Follow me, I’ll take you there.”
The fraternity was gathered, glumly waiting for his presentation. As he began his remarks, Willimon noted that the little boy climbed onto the lap of one of the frat brothers. Shortly, he fell asleep with his head on the shoulder of this college kid. Willimon hammered them for the moral failures of their generation for about half an hour. When he finished, he asked if they had any questions or comments. Dead silence. So, he thanked them for the honor, and made his way out.
He heard the college kid say to the little boy, “You go on and get ready for bed. I’ll be in to tuck you in and read you a story.” When they stood just outside the door, the frat boy lit a cigarette, took a drag on it, and thanked Willimon for coming out. “Let me ask you,” Willimon said, “Who was the kid there tonight?” “Oh, that’s Darrell,” he said. “The fraternity is part of the Durham Big Brother program. We met Darrell that way. His mom’s on crack and having a tough time. Sometimes it gets so bad that she can’t care for him. So we told Darrell to call us up when he needs us. We go over, pick him up, and he stays with us until it’s okay to go home. We take him to school, buy him his clothes, books, and stuff.”
“That’s amazing,” Willimon said. “I take back all that I said about you people being apathetic and irresponsible.” “I tell you what’s amazing,” the frat kid said as he took another drag on his cigarette, “what’s amazing is that God would pick a guy like me to do something this good for somebody else.”
And there’s not much more I can add to that except to say that you and I and Paul and millions of others know that God does exactly that.