The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

There are many many aspects to the conversion of Saul and the St. Paul comes into being by God’s grace. Let me offer a couple of very incomplete and tentative thoughts on two inter-related aspects of it. God’s timing and our timing along with God’s choosing and our choosing.

[6] I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and turning to a different gospel —
[7] not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.
[8] But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed.
[9] As we have said before, so now I say again, If any one is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed.
[10] Am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still pleasing men, I should not be a servant of Christ.
[11] For I would have you know, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not man’s gospel.
st paul conversion[12] For I did not receive it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
[13] For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it;
[14] and I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
[15] But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace,
[16] was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles,
I did not confer with flesh and blood,
[17] nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia; and again I returned to Damascus.
[18] Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas, and remained with him fifteen days.
[19] But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

The KJV says, “When it pleased God…”

Point One: The Christian faith is not about seeking knowledge of God. It is about receiving knowledge of God. That difference is not a matter of semantics. Not a matter of the collegial “well I see it a little differently” diversity. More than a little adjustment of attitude. It is a completely different matrix of reality. We do not grasp truth. We do not find truth. Truth finds us. We pursue humble openness and availability by the leading/drawing of a still small (and often misinterpreted) voice within. No one knows God until God is ready. And, paradoxically, He is always ready.

Point Two: When it DOES PLEASE GOD, to reveal Himself, we agree with what is revealed. We repent. We let go of what we had held as true and cleave to what we now know to be true. God’s timing and revelation is always pressing from the outside and the inside of us. But, salvation is not just a matter of God. It is a matter of us too. We have a part to play. Once again a paradox. The paradox is the interplay, synergy, between God’s choosing and our choosing. It needs to be affirmed that the characteristics of Divine choice and human choice differ in quality and quantity. It is not 50/50. Nor is our human choice limitless in influence or outside the arena of contingency. We choose within a context as contrasted with Divine choosing. It seems to me there is a danger to fall into one of two big chasms on either side of the road of paradox. One the one side is the illusion of the autonomy of human choice. On the other is the autonomy of Divine choice in the salvific journey. We can reduce either the Divine or the human aspect of the paradoxical dance of saving volition. It is important us, in the Church, to attempt to correct the over emphasis on human choice in conversion. But, it is also dangerous to do so in such a way as to reduce human choice to something less than what it truly is for the purpose of the correction. It is a narrow road, this road of saving choice.

Point Three: We continue in the truth with gratitude. We realize that the revelation is a saving one. “There, but by the grace of God, go I” is a famous proverbial saying. Legitimately, it means that except for the revelation and provision of God’s steadfast love I would suffer the now and to ages of ages torment of my own deluded self’s life-robbing leadings and behavior patterns. There is no line between salvation and sanctification. It is all a matter of salvation. Obedience is walking out in thought, word and deed, with gratitude, the missional fruit of the revelation we have repented into agreement with in union with Christ.

Obedience is part of my salvation not just a result of it.

Point Four: We do it together. Notice that St. Paul’s desire to assert that his new life was a matter of divine revelation does not exclude human interaction. He attempts to assert both in his reflection on it in Galatians. It is our life in Christ not just my life in Christ. Once again, paradox. Entering into a saving “personal relationship with Christ” is about all of us not just me.

And all of this began in God’s timing. All of this continues according to God’s timing. All of this will come to fruition in and according to God’s timing. AND all of this includes our choosing. Nothing in the story of St. Paul’s conversion and his reflection on it is a matter of human passivity or the relegation of human choosing to the sidelines. And, just as importantly, it is not a story of the comprehensive exaltation of the “decision for Christ.” It is all a matter of synergy — union — and the paradoxical character of it.

It remains for us to never compromise and live in the paradox. It takes massive amounts of ongoing conversation — conversatio morum. The conversation of salvation in which we dynamically address the extremes with love and appreciation for one another and the mystery in which we find ourselves and live out.

I, for my part, refuse to give in to the temptation to solve it one way or the other. I, for my part, desire to live into and out of the paradox and, in so doing, work out my/our salvation with fear and trembling and overwhelming joy and peace.

St. John Chrysostom speaks of this dynamic in this way:

Hot tempered, impetuous, Paul needed a strong brake if he was not to be carried away by his enthusiasm and ignore God’s voice. So God first of all reproved this anger; he calmed his wrath by afflicting him with blindness and then spoke to him. He made his unfathomable wisdom known to him that he might recognise the one he was fighting against and understand that he could no longer hold out against his grace. It was not privation of light that was blinding him but the intensity of light…

God chose his moment well. Paul was the first to acknowledge it: “when it pleased God, who from my mother’s womb had set me apart and called me through his grace, he revealed his Son to me” (cf Galatians 1.15f.)… So let us learn from the mouth of Paul himself that no one has ever discovered Christ on their own. It is Christ who revealed himself and made himself known. As the Savior says: “You did not choose me; it is I who chose you” (John 15.16). Source

Lets hear it for paradox and the “divine/human/human/created order” conversation of salvation it requires. Our life together is a conversatio morum –a commitment to journey together in the saving dance of conversational salvation.


2 thoughts on “The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

  1. What of our own affliction. How does it play out in our lives and what is its meaning in Christ? One of the many questions for the reader like me in this reading and address on Paul.

    • The Divine/human/created order union is a saving environment into which our circumstances — all of them including our afflictions — are “placed” and lived out. Every circumstance becomes — is viewed and engaged in as redemptive. This is why Joseph, Paul, and others throughout the Old and New Testaments can proclaim, using a variety of phraseology, “all things work together for good.”

      How it plays out is not formulaic but relational and paradoxical. The conversatio morum is the mysterious vow to conversationally/relationally faithfully persevere in struggling with the question in the environment of this paradox and live it out paradoxically.

      We tend (at least I am one who does so), I hasten to add, not to want to live this way. It is way too “uncertain.” We want an answer, a resolution that gives us permission to use the paradoxically approach as a strategy and then exit the paradox. Paradox is not a strategic tool. It is The Way.

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