This sermon was preached by Dr John Stephenson in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service on the occasion of the Conversion of St Paul, 25 January 2022. The text is Acts 9:1-22.
Saul of Tarsus went so far in his war against the Church that the Lord took matters into His own hands. As a rule, the God of the universe, the First Cause of all things, works through so-called secondary causes such as angels, ministers, people, ansd creatures in general. Luther follows scholasticism in describing this as the ‘ordered power of God’, the potestas Dei ordinata. Of course, Almighty God is infinite, free, subject to no creaturely constraints. So there’s no interconfessional disagreement about what we might call God’s Notwithstanding Clause, His absolute power, the potestas Dei absoluta. Today we remember and celebrate and take comfort from a startling instance of the Lord’s use of this His divine prerogative.
Had any Christians been interceding for Saul, thereby loving an enemy and praying for one who was most bitterly persecuting them? Perhaps Stephen in paradise had been doing this very thing; after all, as he died, he prayed for his murderers, who included the man who watched over the garments of the execution squad.
The turnaround of Saul of Tarsus was and is the biggest shot in the arm of the Church’s mission, which in our day seems like Sisyphus condemned to roll a great stone uphill, only for it to roll back on us every time. If this hardest of all nuts can be cracked, Richard Dawkins is not safe in his atheism, nor is Satan exempt from setbacks. If Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah, so might Toronto through the witness of the lowliest of Christians, lay or ordained.
The Second Book of Maccabees contains a narrative that seems to prefigure what happened to Saul on the road to Damascus. Heliodorus, a minister of the Seleucid monarch, was heading into the Temple to confiscate funds from the treasury, and the high priest Onias and his devout flock were praying for help. It is reported that Almighty God appeared on horseback, armoured, sword in hand, with two angels on either side, stopping the robber in his tracks. At the intercession of Onias, Heliodorus’ life was spared, and he went on to testify, like Nebuchadnezzar, that there is a God in Israel.
Holy Christendom right now is groaning for just such a divine intervention as we read of in Second Maccabees and supremely in the ninth chapter of Acts. But the Holy Spirit immediately douses the fire of sensationalism by pointing us back to the ‘ordered power of God’, to good old secondary causes, to what we call the means of grace. Yes, at a certain point in his future ministry Paul will spend time in paradise, the third heaven, hearing things that may not be uttered. But from the moment he gets into Damascus, stunned and blind, he has to lament his sin for three days, bereft of food and drink, and then like every other Christian he needs to hear the word and get baptised, things he can’t do for himself, and for which he must rely on Ananias, who might well have been the first bishop of Damascus. Indeed, Paul receives the Holy Spirit not directly from Christ in the vision but through the laying on of Ananias’ hands.
A journalistic wit once versified ‘How odd of God/To choose the Jews.’ By the same token we might wonder why Almighty God once stepped outside His own regular bounds to call Paul. We may not proceed far on this speculative path, since the mystery of divine election is an abyss into which only a fool would pry. But by conscripting precisely this first century Jew, the Lord tells the whole world precisely what the Old Testament is all about: the key that unlocks its mysteries is a crucified man! He doesn’t prefer one ethnic group to another, nor is holiness in the unaided power of man like the thermostat that determines how warm or cold your house is going to be. There’s no reason to think that Saul of Tarsus ever brandished a sword against the Pax Romana, but in all other respects he was a zealot, in the line of Phineas the priest and of the Maccabees whose exploits were still less than two hundred years old. Yet precisely this Paul was to be the one who would dot the i’s and cross the t’s of the speech that got Stephen stoned.
And we marvel at the providence of God who saw to it that the proudest of Jews grew up bilingual and bicultural, looking down on those unclean Gentiles and yet supremely equipped to think the thoughts and hence to reach the minds of the brilliant philosophers who had turned Tarsus into such a glittering centre of intellectual life. Don’t think for a moment that Apology, the drive to connect with educated people of good will in order to present the Gospel to them, started with Justin Martyr in the second century. To the contrary, it was up and running and at full blast in Paul and Luke already.
Paul didn’t have to wait to arrive in Philippi, Caesarea, or Rome to become a prisoner for Christ Jesus. No, the Lord graciously took him into custody on the Damascus road, so that from that point onward he was a prisoner or and for Christ for the sake of his own truest liberty and that of many others. As we rejoice today in Paul’s fellowship in the communion of saints, and as we continually converse with him by reading and processing his letters, we do so not in terms of any divine Nothwithstanding Clause, but according to God’s ordered power. As Ananias preached to Paul and catechised him, and confirmed him even before baptising him, it would make no sense for the Christian initiation of the Apostle to the Gentiles’ to lack its crown. So Luke surely has the Holy Eucharist in mind when he writes that, ‘When Paul took food, his strength came back.’ We remain in active communion with our father and teacher Paul through the Blessed Sacrament, which links age to age and place to place and above all eternity to time.