Conversion of St Paul 2009 (am)

Parish Communion, St Mary's Church, Barton-on-Humber
Sunday 25 January 2009 at 09:30
[Conversion of St Paul]
Written and delivered by David Rowett, Priest-in-Charge

While the rest of the world was glued to the inauguration of President Barack Obama last Tuesday, I was not only televisionless, but also reliant on the Yorkshire Post for all my information about what had gone on. Now I wouldn't want to say the the Yorkshire Post is a little provincial, but on the same page as the news of the inauguration was an article about a drunk driver on the A180. Not quite as bad as the alleged local newspaper which printed news of the outbreak of WWII under 'other news', but not exactly the BBC either.
When I got back home to all the back issues of The Guardian I was at last able to begin to piece together what had been said and what had been enacted in the first few hours of the presidency. Having never really been able to square in my mind how an allegedly Christian-inspired administration had been so happy to turn a blind eye to torture, the various announcements about hidden jails, Guantanamo Bay and the rest made me - and probably millions of others - feel that a new day might be starting. But that's just the point President Obama made. It might be a change of direction, but it has now to go somewhere (and the serious work has to begin).
When we look at the story of Paul's conversion, there have probably been two ways of responding to it. One has been to regard it as the classic tale of someone becoming a Christian, and - sometimes - looking down on any believer who hasn't been through such a dramatic experience. It's the conversion tale of John Newton the slave master and it's the stuff of many a personal testimony, especially in the nonconformist tradition.
The other has been to see Paul as an exception (as he perhaps sees himself with his self-description as 'an untimely birth') and to stress how for most Christians it's simply not like that. There's no such thing as a moment of conversion, just the pilgrimage of faith from baptism onwards, and Paul is a peculiarity.
Why is it no-one seems to read the full story? How the falling-off-a-donkey business isn't the total of the conversion tale. And - of particular importance to those who only read Luke's glossy account in Acts - Paul's own description of his conversion in Galatians makes it a long and drawn out affair, including what looks like a withdrawal into the Arabian desert, and a three year delay before he meets the Jerusalem apostles. The intial conversion may have been as sudden as throwing a switch - but it is years before Paul as we like to think of him appears properly on the Mission stage. And all of a sudden, Paul's conversion becomes more like the common Christian experience and less like being hit with the cosmic baseball bat. And this is important.
When we tell the stories of the saints, we - perhaps inevitably - tell of their extraordinariness, of the things which mark them out as different. But there is a real down-side to dong that, in that their ordinariness is perhaps what ought to be speaking to us, the fact that we share common experiences with them. And in this business of conversion, perhaps we need to take this closer look at the story of Paul as he tells it.
For Paul's own tale is not of a once-for-all conversion, but of an event which leads him into continued conversion of life. His feet are set on a new path on the Damascus Road, but that is the beginning of the conversion process, one which will take him through being instructed by those better soaked in the faith than himself, and this enigmatic stay in Arabia, where there must have been precious little to evangelise and therefore which must surely have involved a period of reflection on what this strange experience might mean.
It's interesting to know that in the early church, the time which elapsed between someone being converted and them joining the faith as a full member could be several years, during which that first enthusiasm is nurtured and fed and the faith deepened. Only then is someone exposed to the very real risks and challenges of full membership of the Christian faith (and indeed, in the second century, to full participation in worship). The ancient pattern, into which Paul fits well, is of conversion of faith followed by conversion of mind and of life.
Conversion isn't some once-and-for-all process, over in a blinding flash, not even for the Pharisee from Tarsus. It is a life-long process of deepening and learning which may begin in one moment - with or without a donkey - but then requires working out throughout the rest of our lives, and in the company of other pilgrims.
In the Rule of Benedict, the only pecking order permitted in the monastery, after the officers, is that of time since joining the order. First the conversion, but then comes the learning, the growing, the deepening, and it takes time, and there's a good chance that the newest member has something to learn from the others. Just like Paul does at the hands of Ananias, the one who restores his sight. And what's good enough for Paul, and for the Benedictine order is probably good enough for us.


David Rowett (web page by Adrian Worsfold)