January 27, 2019 – The Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle (tr.)
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service is available here.
When we moved here six months ago, I had to switch my auto insurance policy to a local agent. I sent him the details of my old policy, but, when he ran the numbers, he let me know that my premium would almost double. “Why is that?” I asked him. “Is there something wrong with my driving record?” “No,” he explained, “but moving to Fayetteville makes you more prone to accidents because so many of the people around here drive like college kids.”
Speeding. Following too closely. Running red lights. For an average driver, these would be a recipe for disaster, but those of us who have supreme confidence in our own ability to remain hypervigilant and avoid an accident (e.g. most male drivers who are 16-25 years old) are immune to the effects of such bad habits. As humorist Dave Barry once wrote, “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we ALL believe that we are above average drivers.”
No one thinks that she is a bad driver. Every parent I’ve ever met thinks that his kids are special. Everyone thinks that he or she deserves a raise. And no one believes that she or he is going to hell. We might be afraid of it from time to time, but no one actually expects to end up there. And maybe that’s right. In the end, hell may be completely unpopulated. Perhaps all paths really do lead up the same mountain. But, even if that’s the case, would we say that everyone’s religion is right?
Today we celebrate the conversion of St. Paul, but we aren’t celebrating his conversion from one Abrahamic tradition to another. Instead, we celebrate his conversion from the path of his own choosing to the path that God had laid out in front of him. We celebrate his faithfulness to God—a faithfulness that allowed him to let go of his own will for his life and be conformed to the divine will.
There is no doubt that Paul had always been devoted to God. In Galatians, he wrote, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors.” He was “a Hebrew of the Hebrews,” and his religious fervor is what convinced him that he was right. As he explained to King Agrippa, “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did.” Isn’t that always the case—that those who act in the name of religion always act with the confidence of certitude? Yet in the middle of his quest—in the center of his unwavering conviction—God showed up and turned everything around.
How is that possible? How is possible that the one who had been so certain that he was right—certain enough to murder people in God’s name—received a message from God that he was mistaken? Rarely do those who wield God’s name as a weapon against their adversaries even acknowledge the existence of another, conflicting truth. But with Paul something was different. There was more to him than blind hatred drunk on religious extremism. He was faithful in a way that made it possible for God to show him something new and unexpected. Although he was sure that he was right, he was faithful to God in a way that held open the possibility that he might be wrong. In other words, mistaken though he had been, he was faithful to God above his own need to be right, so, when God hit him over the head with a blinding light, he was able to listen. Is that the kind of faithfulness that we pursue, or are we, in the name of religion, actually chasing our own sense of right?
This weekend, an ugly argument arose on a Facebook group for individuals who are part of the Episcopal Church’s triennial General Convention. I learned a while ago not to pay attention to most of what people post on social media about the church. As in any online exchange, the gap between real people and their virtual presence is the space in which misunderstanding and hatred breed, and I love the church too much to pay attention to what people write about it on Facebook. But a friend of mine had screenshot the unfolding controversy and shared it, which drew me in.
In typical fashion, someone had posted a politically charged article about how the Vice President’s brand of Christianity was offensive, and many like-minded people joined in, sharing their likes and their comments about the closemindedness of others. One bold Episcopalian took exception to these depictions of a man whose politics and religious identity she admired, and she pushed back. She must have known what kind of response she would get in a General Convention Facebook group, but she was firm and clear and pushed ahead anyway.
This woman used some religious language about rebuking evil and the sharp two-edged sword of God’s Word that I generally avoid, but her responses, though pointed and uncompromising, were within the bounds of faithfulness. Nevertheless, she touched a nerve that sent one individual into a spiraling tirade of nastiness. He identified as having been hurt personally and deeply by Michael Pence’s policies when he was Governor of Indiana, and he lashed out at her with a vengeance. He used foul language, insults, name-calling, and even threats that don’t belong anywhere, especially in a church community. Many were sympathetic to his woundedness. Almost no one agreed with the woman’s posts. But there was something about the man’s demeanor—his unchecked anger that blurred with hatred—that left even the most sympathetic observer unable or unwilling to stand with him.
Paul, too, knew what it meant to be motivated by rage: “Since I was so furiously enraged at [the Christians],” he testified, “I pursued them even to foreign cities.” But the anger that burned within him was not from God. In fact, it was the very thing that confirmed his misdirected fervor. As Jesus said to him in the heavenly vision, “Why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” Our God is not a God of rage but a God of love, and those whose pursuit of God leads to anger or hatred or violence are not on the path that leads to the top of the mountain but to the summit of the hill of their own making. Which path are we on?
Today is about more than celebrating the blinding conversion of Paul on the Damascus road two thousand years ago. It is about pursuing the conversion of St. Paul’s—the daily redemption of all of us from our own determination to the path that God has set before us. We pursue a faithfulness to God’s will even and especially when we are convinced that we know better. Like Paul, we follow Jesus Christ not because he leads us where we are convinced that we should go but because we see in him and in his unconditional and indiscriminate love God’s best life for us and for the world. That is our true hope. That is who we are. That is our God. May that love be the goal of all that we do.