25 January 2008

The Conversion of St. Paul

Today we thank God for the conversion of St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles. Not only does his conversion story show that God can convert even the worst of sinners, but also that He can and does recruit and use just about any kind of person for the proclamation of His Gospel. Much can be said about St. Paul, his conversion, and his subsequent ministry of preaching and teaching the Truth of God in the Flesh, our Lord Jesus Christ, but here I'll simply give some reflections on the readings given for today's feast in Lutheran Service Book (p. xxii)

Acts 9:1-22
What an amazing miracle! God converts a persecutor and murderer into a believer and apostle! He who persecuted Christians - and thus also Christ Himself - is now turned around by God's grace and mercy to proclaim Christ crucified and risen for sinners. Yes, persecuting Christians is tantamount to persecuting Christ. However, God can change those who persecute His people. This gives some added insight into Jesus' command to pray for those who hate us and persecute us. After all, God still wants them in His kingdom too, and God even uses them to promote and extend His kingdom. What an amazing miracle!

And what a miracle for Ananias as well. I can't even imagine the horror he must have felt, when God told him to go to Saul. After all, he knew Saul's reputation as a persecutor and murderer. If he went to this man, would he, Ananias, be summarily arrested, handed over to the Jewish leaders, or even killed? Yet Ananias also shows the miracle of God's grace: trust in the Savior, even in the midst of perilous circumstances. And God used Ananias as His earthen vessel to proclaim the Gospel to Saul. Humanly speaking, Ananias brought the soon-to-be Apostle Paul into God's kingdom via the laying on of hands and Holy Baptism.

As a result of being filled with the gift of the Holy Spirit, St. Paul - his new name meaning "little one" - proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God. The miracle we celebrate today is this: the man who persecuted the Church became one of its greatest proponents and Apostles. If God can do such great things for St. Paul, He can certainly free us from our pasts, no matter how sordid or shady; He can certainly liberate us from the sins and death that blinds us to His goodness and forgiveness; He can certainly use us, with all of our weaknesses, faults and foibles, to proclaim His Son and His forgiving mercy. What an amazing miracle!

Galatians 1:11-24
Here St. Paul relates more about his ongoing conversion, if you will. The amazing miracle of Acts 9, the divinely given revelation of Jesus the Son of God, is followed by yet more learning and growing. The Apostle was certainly called by God's grace, but I would sure like to know what he did and learned when he went away into Arabia. What did the Apostle learn and study for those three years before he went up to Jerusalem to visit Peter? I'd like to think it was a time of prayer and study on how this crucified Jesus truly is the Son of God, the King of kings, the Lord of lords. Whatever happened, the great thing about Paul's conversion is that "He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy." Because of this, God was glorified!

Matthew 19:27-30
On this day when we thank God for His gift of a persecutor turned Apostle, we also get to hear what our Lord told Peter about leaving all to follow Him. When Peter wanted to hold on to a little something that he had done for Jesus - leaving everything and following Him - Jesus reminds him, and us, that "everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life." We need not fear losing all this side of eternity, because we have already received all of eternal life in our Lord Jesus Christ.

St. Paul's own words explain this truth quite well: "Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own tha tcomes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith" (Philippians 3:7-9). What an amazing miracle to lose everything in this world and yet to gain everything in Christ Jesus!

Collect of the Day (LSB):
Almighty God, You turned the heart of him who persecuted the Church and by his preaching caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world. Grant us ever to rejoice in the saving light of Your Gospel and following the example of the apostle Paul, to spread it to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout th world: Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (The Book of Common Prayer)

O God, who didst call Saul, the persecutor of the Church, to be the Apostle Paul, and to proclaim the gospel of thy Son Jesus Christ to the Gentiles: Grant that, as thou hast called us also, we may be true to our calling, and count everything loss for the gain of knowing Christ Jesus as our Saviour; to whom with thee and the Holy Spirit be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen. (Church of South India; quoted in For All the Saints: A Prayerbook for and by the Church, v. III, p. 1298)

Hymn Verse:
Praise for the light from heaven
And for the voice of awe;
Praise for the glorious vision
The persecutor saw.
O Lord, for Paul's conversion,
We bless Your name today;
Come shine within our darkness,
And guide us on our way.

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