A Sermon for the Conversion of St. Paul
“In your patience, possess ye your souls.”
A few years before his death, around the year 62 of the Common Era, Saint Paul wrote a letter to the Christian community in the ancient city of Phillippi, whom he had visited 15 years earlier. Looking back over his life, which had been filled with suffering and persecution, Paul tells the Philippians that it was all worth it, for the sake of the Gospel: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” he says. “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things…in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil. 3:8).
Paul, indeed, had suffered much. Soon after his conversion to Christianity—which we commemorate this evening—he set out across the Mediterranean. He took the Gospel to the Hellenic world. He helped establish Christian communities throughout the Roman Empire: in Rome itself, but also in Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Thessalonica, and other places. The letters he later wrote to those communities form the largest part of the New Testament, and they are the earliest Christian witness we have. But these journeys were full of peril. Years later, writing to the Christians in Corinth, he said this:
[...] five times I received forty stripes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods; once I was stoned; three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; in journeys often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils of my own countrymen, in perils of the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; in weariness and toil, in sleeplessness often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness—besides the other things, what comes upon me daily: my deep concern for all the churches. (2 Cor. 11:24-28)
There was a lot to make him anxious.
And yet, Paul says, “I have suffered the loss of all things…in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us to expect such things ourselves:
They shall they lay their hands upon you, and persecute you, delivering you up…into prisons, being brought before kings and rulers for my name’s sake…ye shall be betrayed both by parents, and brethren, and kinsfolk, and friends; and some of you shall they cause to be put to death. And ye shall be hated by all for my name’s sake. (Luke 21:12, 16-17)
“But,” Jesus says, “there shall not an hair of your head perish. In your patience, possess ye your souls” (Luke 21:18).
The challenge the Gospel puts before us this evening is whether we, too, are willing to suffer for the sake of the Gospel. Can you, with Saint Paul, say that “For his sake [you] have suffered the loss of all things…in order that [you] may gain Christ and be found in him…”?
You would be right to ask, “Why bother?” There are happier, easier, trendier, more popular ways of pursuing an ethical, moral life than what is proposed here.
But the conversion we commemorate this evening is not to a particular moral, ethical, or even intellectual way of life. It is, rather, a rejection of our vanities and ambitions and deceits, which lead only to division and violence; conversion is a movement away from multiplicity and disorder, towards unity and love, by which we bring all our thoughts and desires into obedience to what is Good and True and Beautiful. This evening in our worship we commemorate that moment when you turn around and discover the reality behind the shadows and images on the Cave wall with which you have been fooled your whole life.
This is what happened to Paul that day, as he traveled along the road to Damascus.
In the Lesson we read from the Acts of the Apostles, Paul says that before his encounter with the Risen Lord, he was already “zealous toward God.” But that very zeal was a cause of division and violence: “I persecuted this Way [that is, Christians] unto the death, binding and delivering into prisons, both men and women” (Acts 22:4). But when Paul encounters Jesus Christ, the arrogance and pride of his zeal is revealed to him; he is literally blinded by the Truth: his eyes are not accustomed to looking directly at the Sun, but only the shadows on the Cave wall. When his sight is restored, Ananias tells him to arise, be baptized, to “wash away [his] sins” and call upon the name of the Lord. Cast off your chains, and turn from the darkness towards the true Light.
That true light is none other than Jesus Christ, who is not merely some great guru or ethical or moral teacher, but rather the divine Word through whom—as Saint John says—all things are made. To turn towards Christ is a movement towards union with Being itself, the source of love and goodness, and the whole created order. Conversion is the restoration of our ability to know Truth and Goodness itself, to love it, and to live in union with it.
But how do we achieve this conversion and union? The Scripture this evening teaches us that it is given, not earned. It is a gift of God which comes unexpectedly and without warning; but we must be ready for it. Paul was simply traveling to Damascus that day when it happened to him.
“Why persecutest thou me?” Jesus asked him.
Paul could only reply, “Who art thou, Lord?” He could find no excuse for his way of life. Nothing could compare with the Goodness he had just encountered. His only desire was to find union with that Truth. “Who art thou, Lord?” he asks.
Saint Paul was willing to endure terrible suffering and persecution because the very principle and source of his being, was revealed to him that day. To deny it, would be to deny himself. He had, however, have to deny his pride, his ambition, and his arrogance, and instead choose to love.
His zeal was transformed by his encounter with the Truth.
The same thing will be given to us someday, as individuals, and as a community, in God’s good time. Truth and Goodness will make themselves known to us. The reality is that we will either condemn ourselves or be liberated from our sin, in that moment: it merely depends upon whether we are willing “to suffer the loss of all things…in order that [we] may gain Christ and be found in him.”
Will you give up yourself, your pride, and your ambition and choose Truth and Love?
Until that day, we wait upon the Lord.
“In your patience, possess ye your souls,” says Jesus.