Sermon preached at Eucharist on the Feast of the Conversion of Paul (25th January 2020) by Dr Paula Gooder, Chancellor
Dr Paula Gooder reflects on one of the most important of Paul's religious experiences - his radical conversion.
The term nominative determinism comes from the proposition by some psychologists that your name can determine what you do. It is certainly highly entertaining to observe those whose jobs fit their names, from Les McBurney the firefighter to Sara Blizzard the weather presenter; from Lord Brain the neurologist to Dr Toothman the dentist. In my own case the link is somewhat obvious. I was meant to be a boy and my father’s favourite character from the Bible was Paul, so you don’t need much psychological training to join those dots and be unsurprised that I chose the writings of Paul as my research specicialism. Nevertheless, today, I am especially enjoying the fact that I, Paula, a Pauline scholar am preaching at my own Cathedral - St Paul’s – on the feast of the Conversion of St Paul. You don’t get much more Paul focused that. I should confess to you also that, not only am I a Pauline scholar, my research specialism is the religious experiences of Paul and how they affect his theology. One of the most important of these experiences is, of course, his conversion – so get comfortable, we may be some time!
Today we gather to remember and to celebrate the events we heard from Acts just now. Where Paul on his way to persecute the disciples of the Lord, saw a light and heard a voice from heaven and as a result changed completely. One of the major questions raised about that iconic moment on the road to Damascus that we celebrate today is what we should call it. Some argue – and I would agree – that what happened to Paul cannot be a conversion in the technical sense of joining a religion because at that stage Christianity did not exist separately from Judaism. Paul moved from one type of Jewish adherence – Pharisaism – to another, following Jesus. Whether that can be called conversion is debatable – and I can assure you it is debated, and at great length. Another option is to call it the calling of Paul and to see in it Jesus calling Paul to a new vocation, a new way of life a little like that of the prophets. The problem with this is that it downplays the radical, affective change in Paul – there is no doubt that Paul was a different person as a result of what happened, something that he refers to on more than one occasion in his letters, this pushes us back to the word conversion in a less technical form – at his conversion Paul changed -- deeply, profoundly and irrevocably but why? What made him change?
This is the question that has fascinated me for years and still fascinates me today. The story presented in Acts 9 that we heard a few moments ago – and repeated in Acts 22 and 26 – gives us some important clues. A little side note before we look a these clues – the mildly confusing part of our celebration today is that we celebrate the conversion of Paul but here in Acts he is called Saul. It is popularly assumed that he changed his name when he became a Christian – this is a much later practice in the Christian church and very unlikely to have been something Paul did. Much more likely is the fact that Saul was Paul’s Hebrew name –after the great King Saul of the Old Testament; Paul would have been part of his three part Roman name – which if Acts is right about him being a Roman citizen he would have had. The change would probably be due to the fact that after his conversion he lived in the wider Roman empire rather than among Hebrew speakers, and if you put the Hebrew word Saul into Greek it means to mince or prance about which is not entirely flattering.
But back to the road to Damascus. The significance of what happened there can be focused on two key events – the flash of light and the hearing of a voice from heaven. Anyone who knows their Old Testament will know that when God appears in the Old Testament – two things happen. There is some kind of dramatic event – like earthquakes, wind, fire, hail, lightning, – and a voice from heaven speaks. Anyone who knows the tradition well – and no one knew it better than Paul did – would know that this was a sure sign of what is called technically a theophany – an appearance of God.
This is what happened on the road to Damascus but something was different. The light flashed, a voice spoke – but didn’t say what Paul expected. Paul’s persecution of those early followers of Jesus was, in his mind, an act of simple righteousness. They were wrong and liable to lead others to be wrong too. His attempt to wipe them out was an attempt to protect God and right worship of God. Imagine his confusion, then, when he experienced his own theophany – saw a light and heard a voice but the voice asked him why he was persecuting him. Paul’s answer ‘who are you….Lord.’ indicates the depth of his struggle.
The word Lord is vital here. No Jew would ever say the name of God – whenever it appeared in the scripture they said instead ‘Adonai, Lord. It was one of the many, many reasons the Jews struggled so much with the Romans who insisted that Caesar be addressed as Lord. For a Jew only one person had that title – God and God alone. For Paul to say who are you…Lord, tells us that he recognized whoever was speaking to be God but was confused. Jesus’ answer ‘I am Jesus’ is the final piece of the puzzle. God was speaking and Paul, in that moment, knew who Jesus really was. In that moment, everything changed. The rest of Paul’s life was spent making sense of this simple but overwhelming fact – that Jesus Christ is Lord.
What we celebrate today is that we like Paul still proclaim this. From the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord comes everything that Christians think, and say and do. As Paul went on to realize and to write about extensively if Jesus Christ is Lord, everything is different – the world is different, we are different and will never be the same again. It might, as it did for Paul, take a life-time to discover what this means in practice but I’m pretty confident that he would tell you that that would be a life-time well spent.