Such amazing readings this morning it was difficult to choose what to say and do justice to both of those readings, the one from Acts and the one we’ve just heard from the Gospel. But I thought today maybe we would have a look a bit more at St Paul.
One of the great days in Christian History, in the history of the church is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The importance of this conversion is indicated by the fact that it is mentioned three times in the book of Acts in chapter 9, chapters 22, and 26. Paul often alludes to it many times in his Epistles. The conversion of this particular man became the pivot on which his life and the history of the church turned. In huge measure we are indebted to this man for what we know about God and about salvation because of his letters and how they provide so much information and instruction. Where would we be without Paul’s letters.
However Paul himself would probably say that it was not a conversion at all, he did not change from one faith to another but rather saw Christ as the culmination of his Judaism – the messiah that every Jew was waiting for, therefore not a conversion but a fulfilment.
Saul was quite a unique person‑by birth a Jew; by citizenship, a Roman; by education, a Greek; and by grace, a Christian. He was missionary, a theologian, evangelist, pastor, organiser, leader, thinker, statesman, fighter of truth, trail blazer especially for women’s ministry and at the same time, lover of souls. He spoke Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.
And he is great evidence of the fact that God can take the worst of the worst and make them the beSt of the beSt Nobody is ever too low to be unredeemable. I think there are times that we wonder whether the grace of God can be ever extended in certain cases, and that often becomes the exact time when the grace of God does its greatest and most glorious work.
Saul's home was in a town called Tarsus. Tarsus is located or was located at the corner where Asia Minor met Syria north of Israel. It was a city distinguished for its cosmopolitan interests‑ many people gathered there. The wharves on the Cydnus river were crowded with commerce. It was also famous for its university. Along with the universities in Athens and Alexandria, the one in Tarsus ranked in the top three. Those great universities were the Oxbridge of their day.
Saul's father was a Roman citizen. And Saul inherited from him that right from him which helped him in later years. His father was also a Jew and a Pharisee, so Saul could zealously match his credentials with any Jew.
In keeping with Jewish tradition, every boy had to learn a trade. One of the very large industries in the city of Tarsus was tent making. So the young Saul learned this trade. He was able to weave cloth from the black hair of goats into strips, and then tie the strips together to make tents. A skill still used today…..we have several times been rescued or healed by Bedouin in the desert and have been very thankful for the cooling shade these goat hair tents give…but those are probably stories for another day.
At the age of approximately thirteen, Saul was packed off to Jerusalem. In Jerusalem he sat under a great teacher by the name of Gamaliel. Gamaliel was called "the beauty of the law" because of his marvellous ability to teach. He was so revered that when he died, the people said that reverence for the law died with him. Saul studied under this brilliant man.
The course of his study would be memorisation of great portions of the entire Old Testament. He became scholarly in terms of his knowledge of the Old Testament. And he also would sit in question and answer sessions with his tutor. So he was very familiar with Jewish history and theology.
Since it is never mentioned in the Bible that Paul, that Saul or Paul - Paul is the Greek version of Saul although it is never mentioned that he met Jesus, although they were contemporaries, it’s likely that after having studied in Jerusalem he went back to Tarsus, and perhaps became a master teacher in a synagogue. But later on he did return to Jerusalem and in the bible we hear the story of the first Christian martyr Stephen. Jesus had already disappeared from the scene at this point when Saul confronted Stephen. Now, Stephen was dynamic, bold, dramatic, and powerful, and Saul found it difficult to compete with him he had met his match. The only thing he could do was get rid of him, so Stephen was killed.
From the time of Stephen's death, Saul became the leader of a persecution movement. Years later, in Acts 26:9‑11, he acknowledged this: "I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities”. Jerusalem wasn't enough; he chased them all over the land. According to Acts 8:3, "...he made havoc with the church."
Meanwhile, Philip and the Hellenistic Christians who have been scattered by a ravaging Paul, have gone everywhere preaching in Christ’s name (Ac. 8:4‑5). Saul's persecution led to wide spread preaching which led to salvation for many. Only a couple of weeks ago we heard the story of Thomas who established the faith and the church in India.
Meanwhile, back at Jerusalem Saul is still furiously persecuting Christians to incarcerate and kill. Eventually he accomplishes something of what he set out to do in Jerusalem and now he’s intent on seeking out little pockets of Christians elsewhere. He is really zealous‑‑it is not just a game with him. In his mind Christianity is heresy‑‑the defamation of the character of God and the traditions of Judaism. Apparently he hears that there is a group of Christians in Damascus, so he decides to go there and take care of that group. And we’ve just heard the story of Paul’s time in Damascus.
If you should go to Damascus today, well possibly not today, but hopefully sometime soon in the future you can still walk up Straight Street with its bustling shops, and go to the house of Ananias, the man Jesus asked to go and cure Paul of his temporary blindness, and where Paul stayed to for some time to be taught about Jesus and the Christian faith. You can still see the wall where the disciples in Damascus lowered Paul over so that he may escape persecution himself. Two thousand years is only recent history in the Middle East, it is all still there. A city still full of Christians, yes even today, who trace their ancestry back to pre-Paul, some of the very first Christians.
So what can we draw from Paul’s conversion today in our world. Well: firstly Paul was a fanatic, what we might call a fundamentalist, something that we are very familiar with today. We see untold amounts of murder committed in the name of Allah – just the Arabic word for God. Reports this week tell us that Christianity Is the most persecuted religion in the world at the moment - and the murder goes on even if we don’t hear the full extent of it. Two thousand plus Christians murdered in Nigeria,; many more in Iraq and Syria have lost their lives, there is a real fear that Christianity will disappear completely from the Middle East - the Holy Lands where it began.
And this is why we celebrate the conversion of St Paul: because his conversion gives us hope for other conversions. For if a man as certain as St Paul can be knocked off his high horse, can be forced to confront his mis-recognitions, can be called to conversion, then the same must also be true of others. And for this we must pray, we must pray at every opportunity, without ceasing for these fundamentalist, for these terrorist organisations - that God can make the same change in their hearts that he made in Pauls’. Don’t think it can’t happen because we can see it’s happened, we’ve read about it today.
And don't think that persecution wont come here, don’t let the fact that it is currently happening in far away places stop you from praying hard, don't think that we in the west are safe here, though we may not suffer from terrorism, from persecution, here in the same way, we are certainly suffering eradication by secularism. Pray: prayer is the biggest weapon we have, a weapon of peace but a mighty one.
And secondly, we see someone complicit in murder who becomes the founding father of Christianity – how many churches are named after St Paul? How many bible studies have you looked at studying the words of St Paul and those early Christian communities? communities that he himself established. If God can take someone like Paul and use him he can take anyone. How many times has guilt or lack of confidence stopped you from doing something you felt you might have been called to do? You see God knows you completely, he knows the thoughts of your mind, he knows your every action, your every good deed and your bad ones and yet He still loves you. He loves you with a love stronger than any human parent and He still wants you – each of you to work with him, despite of everything, all that he knows about you; and he still wants you on His side!
Today we read the story of St Paul, the fundamentalist who ordered the murder of many, and the reason we celebrate him is not just for what he became, but for what he was, a fallen human being, just a little bit worse than us, and the sure knowledge that God can use anyone if only we would let him. So what conversion will you allow God to create in your own heart today?