The Conversion of Saul/Paul

Acts 9:1-20, April 10, 2016


We struggled with finding a word for what Saul/Paul experienced on his trip from Jerusalem to Damascus. It is certainly one of the most dramatic stories in the Bible. And all the more dramatic when one realizes who Saul was. Saul was a devout, pious, observant, obedient Jew. He had great credentials. Here’s how he described himself to the Christians in Galatia:

I’m sure that you’ve heard the story of my earlier life when I lived in the Jewish way. In those days I went all out in persecuting God’s church. I was systematically destroying it. I was so enthusiastic about the traditions of my ancestors that I advanced head and shoulders above my peers in my career. [Galatians 1:13-14, The Message]

He was so devout, he obtained letters from the leaders at the temple in Jerusalem giving him permission to look for, arrest and bring back to Jerusalem people in the synagogues in Damascus who belonged to “the Way.” [“The Way” is what the first Christian church was called. Originally it was a sect in Judaism.]

Now I have to say at this point, that Saul sounds a little like a Presbyterian to me. See he didn’t just want to punish those who followed the Way, he wanted to punish them in the correct way and with the proper authorization. He was no vigilante! He played by the rules. He knew the system. He knew what he was doing—protecting the faith.

Saul was in Jerusalem when Stephen, the first Christian martyr had been killed. In fact, the members of the mob that stoned Stephen, placed their coats at Paul feet. After that, while the disciples scattered, Saul began persecuting Christians, “entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” [Acts 8:3]

Damascus was a big city, about 140 miles from Jerusalem. Imagine the devotion of Saul. It would take him about a week to walk to Damascus, and he had other people with him. I’m thinking these others were his goons, the ones who were responsible for dragging the Christians back to Jerusalem.

And suddenly he had this…experience, that we struggled to name around the lunch tables. This sent one person off to do some research. And this is what that person wrote “Saul's epiphany and transformation was as profound and complete as was the last change in the polarity of the earth's magnetic field. No greater change was possible in either case.” No greater change was possible.

Saul went from a zealous persecutor of Christians to being its most important believer. Years ago I read one of those lists of the 100 most influential people in history—and Saul finished ahead of Jesus!

Imagine being poor Ananias, a follower of the Way up in Damascus, you know Saul by reputation—and Jesus appears to you in a vision while you’re praying and tells you to go to visit Saul. I think I’d have other plans. Ananias resisted, but the Lord said, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel….” [Acts 9:15]

And this was a pretty good choice, when you think about it. Saul was widely known as a persecutor of Christians, how surprising, attention-getting and even miraculous that it was Saul whom the Lord chose to spread the Good News.

I tried to think of people who changed as much as Saul did. I think all of you have had moments of insight and clarity and those are epiphanies, or mountain top experiences, what Saul had was more profound, a deeper transformation. I thought of three examples; that might help you grasp the magnitude of Saul’s change. Oh, and you may be wondering when Saul became Paul. He was always both. Saul was the name he used in Jewish contexts; Paul is its Latin equivalent. Paul’s father was a Roman citizen, so it was appropriate for Saul to go by Paul in those settings. He had status among Jews because of his devotion; he had status among Romans because of his citizenship which was his as a birthright.

Here are stories about three people who changed perhaps as profoundly as Saul/Paul did.

First is John Newton, the man who wrote “Amazing Grace.” John Newton was drafted into he British navy and after getting out he continued on his nautical experience by getting into the slave trade. He made three trips from Britain into the African interior before getting out. He was not an obedient sailor. Here’s what one biographer said of him, “In a culture where sailors commonly used oaths and swore, Newton was admonished several times, not only for using the worst words the captain had ever heard, but creating new ones to exceed the limits of verbal debauchery.” You’ve heard the phrase, “cursing like a sailor,” haven’t you? John Newton went beyond that!

After getting a job in Liverpool as a customs agent he stopped sailing altogether. He wrote what we know as “Amazing Grace” as a sort of spiritual autobiography. He realized his wretchedness after he left the slave trade. He became a minister and was continually amazed that God uses flawed people like David, Saul, and himself. He described God’s mercy as “undeserved and undesired.”

I’ve heard people say that they do not like to sing “Amazing Grace” because they do not believe anyone is a wretch. A predecessor in this pulpit even suggested changing “a wretch” to “someone.” While I understand the motivation, I believe John Newton intended to use such a strong word to show the contrast between his former life and when he was able to accept the grace of Jesus Christ.

Another story of transformation is much closer to home. At the end of 2007, the Fiss and Bills-Poklasny Funeral Home was planning a new facility on the west side and asked whether we wanted to buy their old building. I remember meeting with one of the Poklasny brothers and saying it takes Presbyterians a long time to make these decisions, but if it were up to me alone—and it’s not—I’d want to buy it.

When the Session first heard about the possibility there were three distinct camps: one group wanted to make the purchase; one group wanted to give it some thought and one group was opposed. One person in this camps said, “Downtown Oshkosh is dead. It looks like bomb went off down here.”

We had a lot of meetings. We had special meetings. We had a meeting for which we brought in outsiders to help us see from a different perspective. We talked. We listened. We gave room for the Holy Spirit to work. We listened some more. We formed a task force to deal with the legal nuts and bolts of making offers and counter-offers. The Ruling Elder who led this process was the one who was most strongly opposed to the purchase at the first meeting, but he was very knowledgeable about real estate. He would not say that fish scales fell from his eyes, but he did change his mind and was an essential part of that momentous event in the history of this congregation.

Another person who had a huge transformation is a man named Arno Michaeli. Mr. Michaeli was a white supremacist who turned from that mindset and wrote a book called “My Life After Hate. People who make changes like this are heroes to me. They are able to examine their lives and thoughts and see how destructive they are—to other people and to themselves.

He describes himself as a bully as a kindergartener. He was an angry, bored, unchallenged teenager who radiated hatred and had it reflected back to him constantly. He was lost and looked for a cause that would make him feel worthwhile. He found it in white supremacism. None of that is surprising, what surprising is how profoundly this man was able to change. He is now a leader in a group called Serve2Unite. He wasn’t ready to receive grace, forgiveness and acceptance as young man. Here’s what he said in an interview in 2012: “Black people, Jewish people, gay and lesbian people treated me as a human being even though I refused to acknowledge their humanity.” In that interview he talked with Pardeep Koleka, the son of president of the Sikh temple in Oak Creek. Mr. Koleka’s father was killed in that attack. And yet he talked with a former skinhead, Neo-Nazi about the impulses that drive some people to acts of terror and hatred. But terror and hatred do not have to be the last word. Grace is truly amazing. It can and does change people’s hearts and lives every day. We do not deserve it, and we often resist it, but it is real.

I’ll conclude with a quote from Arno Michaeli, which he shares when he speaks to students about his experience as the leader of a hate group’

“Forgiveness is a sublime example of humanity that I explore at every opportunity, because it was the unconditional forgiveness I was given by people who I once claimed to hate that demonstrated the way from there to here.”