1st EVENSONG OF THE CONVERSION OF ST PAUL
24 January 2018
Chapel of the Resurrection, Pusey House, Oxford
Readings: Jeremiah 1.4-10, Acts 26.1-23
Father: all those words and thoughts which come from thee, whilst thou bless them and make them fruitful. And all those words and thoughts that come not from thee but from our own vanity wilt thou forgive. AMEN.
When I first came into Chapel this evening I thought there was something wrong. We’re all in gold – the colour of celebration, and not the red for martyrs. Now, I am not accusing the Sacristan of not doing his job, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Today we are not commemorating a martyrdom as is usually the case when we have an “Apostle-Day”, but rather the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, when he, so to speak, was ‘made’ into the Apostle Paul.
While the exact details of his death are not entirely clear, most historic sources do agree that Paul was martyred by decapitation, and a large number of these sources claim that it was by the order of the emperor Nero. So, his martyrdom is celebrated on the Feast of Ss Peter and Paul on 29th June, and on the 25th January (for which we celebrate the first evensong today) we celebrate his conversion.
The Apostle Paul was, as many of you might know, a prolific letter writer, giving advice to the congregations of the early Christian Church, and he is still to this day considered one of the more prominent early theologians.
I have to admit that a stubborn person like myself can actually find Paul to be rather interfering (telling all those budding congregations what to do and how to live their lives), but in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles today we see a much more human side of him. He describes his past as someone who persecuted the earliest Christians, who then, when he saw “a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun” (Acts 1.13) – eventually was converted to Christianity.
Paul wasn’t only converted to Christianity, he was called to ministry – “to open their eyes, and to turn them from darkness to light and from the power of Satan unto God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and inheritance among them which are sanctified by faith that is in me (Acts 26.
As someone who is in the very initial stages of discerning a possible vocation to Holy Orders in the Church of England, I have, quite naturally, been reflecting quite a bit about both my faith and my possible vocation recently.
The calling from God to Paul, who in his former life as Saul of Tarsus, persecuted, imprisoned and even worked for the execution of Christians, seems to me as Scriptural affirmation of the twenty-sixth article of religion in the Book of Common Prayer – Of the unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament.
Now, I can feel the Fathers looking at me with worried eyes – please do not take this as me encouraging people to go out and be “evil men”, to quote the BCP, on the contrary. What I want to do is to point out that the calling Paul had, indeed the calling we all have as Christians, come from God and is not dependant on ourselves, but that we can only do it by His Grace.
Now, many Christians believe St. Paul’s calling, his conversion is like most conversions we know of, from an immoral to a moral life. But that wasn’t Saul’s conversion at all. His was from a false notion of a holy life to a true notion. He was a zealous follower of God. He had come down from Turkey to Jerusalem to study at the feet of the greatest rabbi of the age, Gamaliel.
As a young man, he had such zeal to keep the community of Israel together that he made it his mission to try to stomp out the heretical sect that was dividing Judaism and blasphemously claiming that a carpenter from Nazareth not only was the Messiah, but the Son of God and would destroy the holy Temple. That’s why he was hunting Christians down.
In the persecution of the Church, he was the furthest thing, for example, from Herod, who hunted down the baby Jesus in order to preserve his own privileges. Paul’s conversion was, rather, from a false notion that we are saved by our external adhesion to all the prescriptions of the Mosaic Law, to the true one that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. We are saved by Christ’s work, not our own. The culmination of the saving life of faith he wrote about in his letter to the Galatians when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ and the life I now live I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me” (Gal 2:20).
The true notion of holiness is to die to ourselves so that the Risen Christ truly can live within us, reign within us, sanctify and save us and make us his instruments to co-redeem the world. Holiness is union with God. Since we are saved by grace, and grace is not a thing but a participation as a creature in the life of the Creator, Christian conversion must be continual, because it’s based on a continued encounter with the Lord, as he seeks in us to form us more and more in his image with our free fiat. In St. Paul’s life we see that conversion was not a one-time thing but a continuous reality as he continued to grow in the Gospel that he was fearlessly and faithfully proclaiming.
Isn’t it apt, then, that this feast should be the finale of the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity? This week, or, well, octave as it was originally known, began in 1908, and was eventually blessed by Pope Pius X. This week was based on the prayers of Christ Himself: “Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that thou hast sent me (S John 17.20-21)”. It is rather fitting that this octave ends with the Conversion of St Paul, whom we can see in his letters condemning division and exhorting unity, for the churches in Corinth and in Rome, asking them to live this life of holiness to allow the risen Christ to truly live within them.
Let us pray:
Almighty and everlasting God who by thy holy apostle hast taught us to make prayers and supplications for all men: We humbly beseech thee to inspire continually the universal Church with the spirit of truth, unity and concord; and grant that all they that do confess thy holy Name may agree in the truth of thy holy Word, and live in unity and godly love; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.