Spectacular conversion of an enemy

Keith Anderson, 28 January 2018

Acts 9: 1–22; Matthew 19: 27–30

Paul’s conversion is one of the most momentous events in the Christian era. In the book of Acts it appears as one of a series of events that happened to individuals, each of which was significant for the development of the early church.

Luke, first in Acts, describes the foundation of the church in Jesus’ Ascension, the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and early public ministry, particularly surrounding Peter and the other apostles.

Paul’s conversion then occurs, along with a number of events that give direction to the emerging church, including the appointment of deacons. One of these, Stephen, is martyred, indicating the church as a suffering church. Another deacon, Philip, converts an Ethiopian eunuch, prescribing the beginning of the international church. Peter’s vision of and encounter with Gentile converts begins the universal ministry of the church.

All these events reveal a common theme. The nature of God is being revealed in them. In Paul’s conversion the central character is not Paul; it is Christ. Paul is the recipient of God’s initiative.

To appreciate this one must go back to Peter’s speech to the crowd after Pentecost. Peter describes the history of God’s work leading up to the resurrection. And then he proclaims words that no doubt appalled faithful conservative Jews, including Saul (who was to become Paul): ‘God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified’ (Acts 2: 36). One gets the feeling that for Peter, at this time, this was the completion of revelation. The church could have slipped into a kind of sentimentalism, remembering the significance of the earthly ministry of Jesus, but Christ does not allow that to happen.

Christ through the Holy Spirit bursts forth, beyond the twelve apostles. The deacons become servants of Christ’s initiative. Stephen at his stoning reveals to the violent crowd the vision of Christ standing at the side of God. Philip receives a command from an angel to address the Ethiopian, who had come to Jerusalem to worship. And Christ’s ministry beyond the boundaries of Israel begins.

Saul or Paul, again, is not an apostle, nor is he a Christian; he is an opponent of the church. Saul does not believe in the resurrection of Christ. Rather, it is Christ’s decision to approach him. Saul’s conversion is transformative for the world. The spectacular process of his conversion demonstrates where God was in the debate between Christian Jews and traditional Jews. In the conversion of a major enemy of the church, Christ is revealed.

We are celebrating that Christ’s love was such that he would take his greatest opponent and talk with him. Christ’s mercy was so great that he would forgive Paul his past. Christ’s faith was such that within Paul he could see the great leader of the early church. And Christ’s hope was that he would entrust to Paul the evangelism of the Gentile world.

We are celebrating that Christ’s love was such that he would take his greatest opponent and talk with him.

Paul did not become the perfect Christian; some of his old prejudices remained. He was far more affirming of women than many give him credit, but he still could not quite see them as equals, even though he wrote in Galatians 3: 28, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are one in Christ Jesus’.

What we celebrate is that if Christ has taken into the very centre of his kingdom Saul, the man who was destroying his disciples, there is hope for all of us. How do we handle it?

We can become Ananias. Today you and I need to develop the sensitivity of Ananias. I have little doubt that he struggled in accepting and approaching Paul, but he was close enough to the risen Christ to become aware of Paul’s needs and to recognise in him the working of God.

Most of us here at St Matthew’s are of a goodly maturity. We can be Ananias to younger people who have been touched by God and yet may be blind to the consequences of it. Patience, acceptance and encouragement is all that may be needed to give them the confidence to follow Christ and, who knows, perhaps transform the modern church.