Friday, January 25, 2013

Sermon: Conversion of Paul

Feast Day of Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, Jan. 25
St. Philips In The Hills Parish, Tucson, AZ
The Rev. Vicki Hesse, January 24, 2013
For readings, click here
I speak to you in the name of One God. Amen

Driving to and from work, I like to listen to podcasts
of my favorite interviewer, Krista Tippett. 
“spacious conversation” about,
“…the big questions at the center of human life, …” 
The idea of the program is to hold conversations about
shared life and problem-solving within & across religions.
I find these fresh insights soften my heart.

Today’s Collect reminds us about our Christian
shared life and the problem-solving – one that
Paul experienced and about which he wrote. 
As we remember Paul’s conversion, the prayer asks,
help us, God to show our gratitude for Paul’s life
by following Paul’s holy teachings. 

What if Tippett did a program on Paul?
She might open by musing…

“How did Paul, a fervent Jew and persecutor of Christians
come to develop a healthy skepticism
that led to his ideological differences
with the powers and principalities of his time? 

How did Paul come to question the normalcy of civilization itself?
Today in our program we explore the person
who confronted the Roman Empire-centered
approach of peace through victory
by offering a Jesus-centered vision of peace through justice.

I imagine that Tippett would interview both Paul and Luke (author of Acts of the Apostles).

Through this interview, we may be able to hear fresh insights
about Paul’s holy teaching,
what is important about Paul, and
why this is relevant to us today. 

I imagine the interview might sound a bit like this:

T: Paul, did you have a religious background to your life?

P: Well, yes, Krista, I did.  I was a fervent Jew –
as you read in my letters[1]. And,
I was a zealous persecutor of the early church, as
I described specifically in Galatians and Philippians.

T: Luke, did you add anything?

L: Well, yes, Krista, I did.  I am a literary guy, you know, and
in Acts,  I felt it was important for the story
to capture the interest of the hearers. 
While it may not be exactly historically correct,
I wanted to tell folks how Paul was born in Tarsus,
trained in Jerusalem with Rabbi Gamaliel and
gained a sterling education in the law as a Pharisee. 

I felt it important to upgrade Paul’s status
as an educated and religious fellow. 
That way, his conversion would be dramatic.

T: Well, regardless of the perspective, do you both agree
that ultimately the thing which
he persecuted FOR God was exactly
that to which he was called BY God?

P+L together: Yes, that’s it exactly! 

P: In fact that was my inaugural moment –
I received a revelation directly from Jesus Christ – God –
who set me apart before I was born and
called me through grace.  I really did see Jesus! 
I became the least of the Apostles sent by God
through the revelation of the risen Lord. 

L: Well, I agree on most of that, but …
I felt it important to spice up the story and
include a compelling climax. 

So, not once but three times in Acts,
I wrote about Paul’s conversion. 
·    first in chapter 9, where Jesus asks Ananias to visit Paul,
·    second in chapter 22 where Paul is in the Jerusalem Temple and
·    third in Chapter 26 where we hear Paul’s defense to King Agrippa in the palace in Caesarea.

I felt is important to emphasize Paul was
a vitally important missionary, sent by Jerusalem,
but he was not an apostle – he never knew Jesus in the flesh. 

T: So while Paul believed he was an Apostle,
Luke understood him as an important missionary.
…Tune in after this commercial break to find out what Paul actually saw… 

What is important about Paul
What we do know is that Paul’s conversion experience
began his important mission. 

Important justice-seeking mission, because whether he was “called” by Jesus (as Paul said) or
“sent” by Jerusalem (as Luke said)),
Paul ministered to a previously invisible group of people.

Important reconciling mission, because in an ancient world
divided between Jew and Gentile,
Paul saw that this third, in-between group of pagans
were sympathetic to Judaism. 

Important serving mission, because we see him
not converting Jews, but
“unconverting” the pagan sympathizers,
toward a shared life in Christianity[2],
toward loving one’s neighbor as one’s self,
toward loving God above all other gods.

See, Paul lived and worked with several communities and
wrote about how they could live out their life in Christ.
These writings, his holy teachings, show
Paul’s deep sense of justice and equality for all people.

Paul emphasized that it made no difference
whether one entered worship or the faith community
as a Christian Jew or a Christian pagan,
as a Christian man or a Christian woman,
as a Christian freeborn or a Christian slave. 

All were absolutely equal with one another before God. 
That level of hospitality was radical.

By responding to God’s call,
Paul became Rome’s most dangerous opposition. 
Not with legions but with ideas. 
Not with an alternative force, but an alternative faith. 
Not in a powerful Caesar, but in the humble Christ.
– and this challenged the Roman Empire’s normalcy.

Why this is relevant to us today
Which made me wonder, how are we modeling
Paul’s justice, reconciling, serving approach
to challenge our own culture’s “normalcy”?

How is he relevant to us today, in our life at St. Philips?

By responding to God’s call, Paul is relevant…
As a justice-seeking community through
the work we do with border and immigration ministries,
food bag offerings to hungry people, and
supporting interfaith community services.

As a reconciling community through
civil conversations in leadership and small group forums
about reducing gun violence,
offering a haven for people suffering with mental illness, inviting voices of diverse perspectives.

As a serving community through
our food pantry,
the casa maria sandwich making, and
the many worship groups, such as Altar Guild.

Sure, there is more we can do.  Paul continues to inspire us.

Perhaps what is most exciting about Paul’s for today is this:
Paul’s stance of equality rocked
the Roman normalcy of power and might
Paul’s love of Christ informed his approach to living out God’s love.

Paul’s stance of equality can rock
our own culture’s normalcy of seclusion and consumerism
and our love of Christ can inform our approach to
God’s good news –

that all people are loved by God. 
that nothing can separate us from God.
that God works to convert us
in ways known and unknown,
to know the light of liberating Love.

We give thanks today for Paul’s conversion,
and his willingness to write to his communities
so that we can hear their shared stories and

And that holy teaching is the best program
to which we can listen and share. 


[1] Philippians (3:5-6), Galatians (1:14), and 2 Cor (11:22). 
[2] John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed, “In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom”, (San Francisco, HarperCollins, 2004)

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