Today, January 25, is the Feast of the conversion of St Paul the Apostle. Among the churches celebrating this day are the Catholic, Anglican and Lutheran churches.
I have tried to imagine the Apostle Paul as a boy. Would he or his parents ever have known that Paul would grow up to rise to such prominence? Paul was born in Tarsus of Cilicia (Modern day southeast Turkey) into a strict Jewish family. At some point early in his life, Paul made his way to Jerusalem to study at the feet of Gamaliel, the famous pharisee and “doctor of Jewish law.” I can only imagine both the kind of convictions and connections Paul’s family must have had.
From Paul’s own descriptions of his education, once in Jerusalem he rose to the top of the heap and soon was noted by even the best Jewish teachers for his outstanding intelligence and equally strong convictions. What Paul learned was right. Paul knew it, and he was not budging.
From the book of Acts (9:1-22 and 22:3-16) we read that as a young man Paul became convinced that Jesus followers were so misled, they deserved nothing short of death. He acted on his convictions. The New Testament book of Acts tells us that Paul actually was on his way from Jerusalem to Damascus to find followers of “the Way,” as Paul called it, and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains. Paul had letters from Jewish leaders in Jerusalem endorsing his efforts.
On the way to Damascus Paul could only have imagined what was about to happen. As he neared Damascus, a great light shone around Paul, knocking him to the ground. Right then and there, Jesus – the risen Jewish Messiah — spoke to Paul.
In this encounter, Jesus told him to go into Damascus. The fiercely bright light that shown around Paul blinded him, literally. Paul’s companions had to lead him by hand into Damascus, where they took Paul to where Jesus had also told him to go when he came to Damascus.
Having arrived, Paul immediately met a devout observer of the Jewish law named Ananias, to whom the Lord had also spoken, telling him where to find Paul and what to say to him. When Ananias met Paul, Ananias said: “Saul, my brother, the Lord has sent me. Jesus who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here has sent me to you that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Paul later recounted that when Ananias spoke, immediately things like scales fell from his eyes and he regained his sight. He got up and was baptized, and when he had eaten, he recovered his strength.
Instantly, everything changed for Paul.
And well, the rest, as they say, is history.
Paul went on to evangelize large parts of the Gentile world, traveling extensively over a 25+-year career. He also wrote many letters to the churches he had started. Those letters are a major part of the Bible we read to this very day.
For me, remembering St. Paul today on the “Feast of his Conversion,” I am most drawn to his words originally written in a letter to the church in Philippi. Here is part of that letter where Paul tells the Philippians that he no longer has any confidence his own efforts:
4 Though I myself have reasons for such confidence.
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in[a] Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
To another church, this one in Galatia, Paul wrote essentially the same words but said it very succinctly: “May I never boast except in the cross of Christ.” (Galatians 6:4)
As I think about Paul’s transformation on this day set aside to celebrate his conversion, I give thanks for this early church leader, pausing to remember what Paul came to know and hoping that all of us, too, will come to know it:
In the end, there is but one reason to boast.