The following sermon was preached in CLTS Chapel by Dr Thomas Winger on Friday, 25 January 2013.
Dear brothers and sisters of our risen Lord Jesus Christ: Today we celebrate “The Conversion of St Paul”—but we could as easily observe it as “The Call of St Paul” or “The Ordination of St Paul”. Precisely what is it that happened to him on the road to Damascus? Our adjunct prof, Dr Keller, once published an article on “The Conversion of Saul as Religious Experience”. He went so far as to dig up the opinion of Sigmund Freud, who saw the event not so much as a “conversion” but as a psychological reaction to the impossible legal demands of observant Judaism. Paul cracked under the pressure, so to speak—and Dr Keller remarks that Freud was not entirely wrong. Paul himself later wrote that his zealous attention to every detail of the OT Law was an abject failure. He couldn’t keep it perfectly, despite his credentials as a “Hebrew of Hebrews”. But Freud was wrong if he believed that Paul’s experience came from the inside, as if it were perhaps just a lightning storm that blinded him temporarily and made him reassess his spiritual direction. Both Paul the apostle and Luke, his Dr Watson, are adamant that it was Jesus Christ, the Lord, who appeared to him on the road to Damascus. Jesus called him to repentance for his vicious attacks on the disciples, which were, indeed, attacks on Jesus Himself: “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:5). Those words must have wounded Paul deeply. As he spent three days in utter darkness, refusing to take any food or drink, he must have wrestled feverishly with the consequences of that revelation. He had been wrong. Jesus wasn’t a false teacher, but the very Son of God. What had he done?
This is the very definition of μετανοία “repentance, turning of the mind”. It wasn’t his idea, but something thrust upon him. He looked with horror on his own life. The Lord whom he’d rejected and persecuted grabbed hold of Paul with His Word and Spirit and turned him round to face the consequences. He led him through a three-day spiritual death and then raised him to life in the waters of Holy Baptism. Romans 6 arose from Paul’s personal experience. He knew what it meant to die and to rise with Christ. And the Lord also gave him the gift of blindness. A few years ago, preaching on a related text in Ephesians one, I noted the remarkable parallels between Acts 9 and John 9. In the Gospel Jesus met a man born blind and opened his eyes with water. He made mud from spit and clay and rubbed it on his eyes. He sent the man to the pool of Siloam to wash it off, and through the washing of water he was made to see. But more important than his newfound eyesight was the gift of spiritual seeing. He saw Jesus as the light of life, his Redeemer, the true Messiah. When the Pharisees excommunicated him from the synagogue for this spiritual crime, the man who’d been healed remarked with delicious irony that they were the ones who were truly blind. Their physical eyes were blocking the vision of their hearts. Though they could see the man Jesus, they couldn’t see their Messiah. And so Jesus told them that their guilt remained. “Blind guides”, they were. Those who wished to be the spiritual leaders of Israel couldn’t even find their own path to God.
Perhaps Jesus wanted Paul to think of that event when He struck him blind on the road to Damascus. Paul, the Pharisee, needed to be laid low. He needed to know that he was walking entirely in the wrong direction, heading away from God, persecuting his own Lord. Even the action of the disciples leading Paul away by the hand seems to be rich in meaning. He was totally helpless, unable to find his own way, needing to be brought to the Lord. He needed Ananias, the reluctant and terrified prophet, to come to him with the simple gift of the laying on of hands, the Word of promise and forgiveness, the washing of holy water that removed the scales from his eyes and let him see His God. Paul looked back on that event as a spiritual miscarriage, calling himself “one untimely born” (I Cor. 15:8), as we euphemistically translate it. He was killed in order to make him alive. He who had persecuted his Lord, he who was “the leastest of all the saints” (Eph. 3:8), was redeemed. And this, too, is μετανοία. This is conversion.
But another thing happened to Paul on that road to Damascus. He was given a mandate from the Lord Jesus, who said to him:
I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and bear witness to the things in which you have seen Me and to those in which I will appear to you, delivering you from the people and from the Gentiles—to whom I send you to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me. (Acts 26:16-18)
In “light” of Paul’s own conversion experience, his marching orders as an apostle are full of double meanings. He whose eyes had been opened was to open the eyes of the Gentiles. He who had been forgiven for the most heinous of crimes was to proclaim forgiveness to the rebellious peoples of the world. He who was a Hebrew of Hebrews was sent to the Greeks. He who had disbelieved was to proclaim faith.
We cannot play off Paul’s conversion and his call into the apostolic ministry, as if we could have just one or the other. The faith he had received was the faith he was to hand on. And so it is also with you and me. Although Luther once quipped that the Word and sacraments would retain their power even if the devil stood in the pulpit and at the altar, we try not to call and ordain the devil’s servants. The conversion of St Paul is a remarkable tale of redemption that gives hope to the most rebellious sinner with its promise that God can call and forgive even such a one. But the story also teaches those of you who seek the office of the holy ministry that there are no spiritual shortcuts into the pulpit. Without discounting his immense intellect, his knowledge of the Scriptures, and his direct call from the risen Jesus, I think it’s fair to say that Paul’s own spiritual experiences deeply affected and moulded his proclamation of the Gospel. Justification by the very grace of God, through faith alone, apart from any obedience to the Law that we can muster, was for him an autobiographical reality. Is it also for you? Have you, like Luther, learnt the foolishness of self-confidence? Have you stopped trusting your own eyesight, and allowed the Word of Christ to expose you for what you are: a helplessly weak creature who desperately needs God’s help, who needs your heart opened to know that unfathomable power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead (Eph. 1:18-20)? If the Lord wished to use parrots in the pastoral office, he could have done so. But instead of automatons who merely say the words and deliver the goods, who know the liturgy by rote and can say mass in fifteen minutes flat, He wants men who have been St Pauled, who have had their pride pierced and their eyes opened to see Him. This is why these daily services of Word and Sacrament are at the heart of the seminary’s life and aren’t merely vocational training. We want you to know deeply the faith that you would proclaim. As the airplane safety drill tells the parents to put on their own oxygen masks before helping their children, as the pastor studies the Word of God and prays upon it before he dares preach it, as he communes himself before he communes his flock, so you must first be nourished by God’s gifts before you can presume to offer them to others.
Whether or not you are headed for the pastoral office, the Pauline pattern is for you. Although there will never be another St Paul, and there will never be a story quite like his, we don’t commemorate his conversion as a wholly foreign experience. You, too, have been struck blind by the light of the Lord’s glory; and you, too, have been given sight by the power of His Spirit. You, too, have died with Christ in your Baptism, have lain three days with Him in the tomb, and have risen to new life in Him. Arise, then, take food, and be strengthened (Acts 9:18b-19). Amen.