Sermon preached by Peter D. Thompson, Seminarian
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Conversion of St. Paul: Our Patronal Feast – January 26, 2014
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to thee.
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
In Disney’s latest animated feature Frozen, the protagonist Elsa struggles with her ability to freeze anything she touches. After an incident in which she harms her sister, her parents shut her away and tell her that she must learn to control her urges. The isolation, to a certain extent, works, and Elsa does not freeze much of anything for a period of years. But at the same time Elsa is so afraid of herself that she is barely able to live at all. In addition, her time of isolation cannot last forever, as eventually Elsa must take on public duties as queen. When Elsa makes her first appearance at her coronation, she is unable to restrain herself. Her powers show themselves and spiral dramatically out of control. Retreating to a mountain upon which she builds an ice palace, Elsa—voiced by Idina Menzel—bursts out in Oscar-nominated song, proclaiming, “let it go, let it go…couldn’t keep it in,” she tells us, “heaven knows I tried.”
I wonder if Paul on his way to Damascus may have felt a little bit like Elsa on that hilltop. For most of Paul’s life, he had been fighting against Christianity, just as Elsa had been suppressing her ability to create frozen things. Paul writes in Galatians about how he “was violently persecuting the Church of God and was trying to destroy it.” In Acts, he details how he persecuted Christian people—by arresting them and putting them in jail, by ensuring they were sentenced to death and by attempting to manipulate them into sin. Christianity was an absolute enemy for Paul, and fighting against Christianity was an all-encompassing task that occupied all of Paul’s energy and strength.
Then something happened: Paul saw a light from heaven, and everything changed. Paul experienced Jesus and accepted him, immediately aligning himself with Christianity rather than against it. “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy,” Paul quotes other Christians as saying. Whatever happened on that road, it caused Paul to abandon his previous opposition to Christianity and embrace the new movement wholeheartedly. Like Elsa, Paul made a radical reversal, accepting as blessing what he once treated as his enemy. It must have been an incredible relief—to be able to accept something one spent so much energy and so much time opposing.
In a post-Crusades and post-Holocaust world, it would be dangerous to see Paul’s conversion as primarily an acceptance of an exclusive religious truth. I don’t think Paul needed to be converted to Christianity for the sake of his soul, and my guess is that few of us in this pluralist age think we need to convert our Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or even atheist friends. But Paul’s conversion is still an experience that speaks to us, I would suggest, because it shows us what can happen when we let go of what we think we know and change our minds. In order to accept the new vision of God offered by Christianity, Paul had to change what he thought he knew about God.
He also had to get over his fear. Beneath the ferocity of Paul’s persecution of Christianity must have been an immense fear that Christianity posed a danger and a threat to his Jewish way of thinking and life. Paul’s conversion to Christianity is as much an overcoming of fear as it is the acceptance of a new idea. I was recently reminded of how debilitating fear can be while reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, David and Goliath, over my winter break. Part of Gladwell’s argument is that those who confront their fears and survive emerge as stronger because of what they have experienced. We are truly capable of achieving great things, Gladwell suggests, if we loosen the grip our fears have on us, if we are converted—like Paul is—from fear to courage.
As important as such a conversion may be, it can’t happen all at once. When I studied spiritual experiences in college, it was striking to me how often those who underwent conversion saw it as a sudden and radical introduction to something completely new and different. Often, these same people had been exposed to their new religion of choice at an earlier point and had been mulling over the new religion’s tenets for quite some time before accepting them. Conversion, in other words, wasn’t something that happened out of the blue. Certainly this is true in Paul’s case: he was no stranger to Christianity before his conversion; in fact, he had built his whole life around resisting it, like Elsa had built her whole life around not acting on her abilities. The important thing that happens on the road to Damascus is not that Paul is introduced to Christianity but that he chooses to accept it. Paul did not experience Christianity on the Damascus road for the first time; he merely changed his orientation towards it.
If conversion doesn’t begin with one event, it also doesn’t end with one event. It is not something that is finished with one definitive “a-ha” moment on the road to Damascus, but instead is a process that continues for a lifetime. In Acts, the Jesus Paul encounters sends him to testify to the things he has seen and to open the eyes of the people, and Paul engages in great endeavors and travels to many lands in order to fulfill that charge. The immense variety and scope of material in Paul’s letters demonstrate that Paul learns how to be a Christian gradually, over time. Paul may have discovered that he was a Christian on the road to Damascus, but it took him the rest of his life to figure out precisely what that Christian identity meant.
The task Paul struggled with is even something with which we still wrestle today. Christianity has continually been converting itself, taking on new shape and doctrine as it has made its way through two millennia, always trying to more faithfully witness to the divine. We who are gathered here this morning comprise just a small part of that larger story which Paul helped set in motion. If Paul were to time-travel to this moment and visit this parish which bears his name, he might not recognize or endorse everything of what he would find here, but he could be rest assured that what goes on in this parish follows his example of putting aside fear to recognize God in all of God’s forms and of continually being converted to newer, more faithful ways of life.
And there is still work to do. We still stubbornly resist the nature of things, and cling on to what can only hold us back. We still let our fears of a changed future get in the way of experiencing a truer, better reality. So today I ask you: what or who are you persecuting that you could embrace with open arms? What new life could you be a part of if only you considered your fears and preconceived notions and let them go?