Acts 6:9-21; Psalm 67; Galatians 1:11-24; Matthew 10:16-22
Good morning, and welcome to St. Paul’s as we celebrate our patronal feast. One of the things I had to learn about when I became an Episcopalian 18 years ago was our understanding of saints. As many of you know, I grew up as a United Methodist, so saints weren’t something I had spent a lot of time thinking about. Most of our Protestant brothers and sisters don’t have a formal way they think about the saints of the church. Certainly there are plenty of Methodist and Presbyterian churches (and probably other denominations too) that are named after various apostles—and they certainly use the “saint” moniker to name them—but they don’t have a system to elevate people to sainthood.
And, as often seems to be the case in our beloved church, the way we Episcopalians officially understand saints falls somewhere between the mainline Protestant way and the Roman Catholic understanding. Again, we find ourselves in the via media, or middle way. We do recognize saints—we start with those who were named saints in the Roman Catholic Church before the break between Anglicans and the Roman church in the 16th century—and that list includes the Biblical saints and also those of the early church. Then through an official process, first in the Church of England and subsequently in the Episcopal Church, a further list of saints particular to our denomination has been generated. In the parlance of our time, these are the Holy Women and Holy Men of the faith.
The Episcopal Church gathers all these names into a calendar of feast days, called A Great Cloud of Witnesses[i]. That document has a very interesting preface that tries to explain how we understand saints in our church. It reminds us that, as The Book of Common Prayer states, “We speak of the saints as “chosen vessels of [God’s] grace and the lights of the world in their generations.”[ii] That preface then continues with this very Episcopal statement: “Despite these affirmations of the saints as constitutive members of our baptismal community, the Prayer Book shows a great reluctance to define the term or to make specific identifications…. This ambiguity is appropriate to the range of theologies around sainthood and holiness within The Episcopal Church. While some Episcopalians actively venerate the saints, others hold positions proceeding from Reformation desires to reform the cults of saints…. the ambiguity [of the Prayer Book] exists for the sake of inclusivity, and maintains the Anglican tradition of a comprehensive approach to questions not decisively settled by Scripture and the teaching of the received ecumenical councils.”[iii] As ever, we stand in the middle.
So who is this man Paul? He was not one of the original disciples of Jesus—in fact, the Book of Acts makes it clear that he was more like their enemy, until his conversion. Of course, that conversion is what we remember especially today. Interestingly, most saints are remembered on their death day—that is, the day they are born into heaven. St. Paul, on the other hand, is remembered twice in our church calendar – he is remembered along with St. Peter on June 29. (As best I can tell they are remembered together because of their connection to Rome – both are believed to have died in Rome, although the Bible provides no record of their deaths.) He is also remembered each January 25 for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, which we have transferred to this day.
It is also interesting to note that the lectionary in these days after the Feast of the Epiphany has given us many stories of God’s call—and this one we read today outstrips them all!
Leave it to Paul to have the most spectacular call story. His is not merely a voice from heaven; no, his is complete with an extraordinary flash of light and, as we are told in another version of this story, ensuing blindness! I think this is at least in part to help us understand what a very special figure this Paul is. He is most certainly the most important character in the story of the Apostolic Age (that’s the period from the risen Jesus’ commissioning of the disciples around 33 CE until the death of the last apostle, believed to be in 100 CE). Paul, called the apostle to the Gentiles, is known to have been the one principally responsible for expanding the Christian faith beyond the Jewish circle of Christ and the disciples. We read in scripture that he founded several churches in Asia Minor and Europe. And fourteen of the 27 books of the New Testament have traditionally been attributed to Paul’s pen, with seven of those widely acknowledged actually to be written by him.[iv]
Paul’s letters contain the roots of most of the theology, worship, and pastoral life of the Christian Church; his ideas are at the root of the thought of Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and many other venerated theologians.[v]
The writer of the Book of Acts wants us to be sure we understand the importance of this apostle, so he presents this story not just once, but three different times in his record of the early Christian community. The prominent theologian Frederick Buechner unpacks the story for us:
“[Paul] was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some troublemaking Christians and bring them to justice. It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. ‘Saul’, it said, and then again ‘Saul. Why are you out to get me?’ and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, ‘I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.’”
Buechner continues, “We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the ax to fall. Only it wasn’t an ax that fell. ‘Those boys in Damascus,’ Jesus said. ‘Don’t fight them. Join them. I want you on my side,’ and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterward, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world.”[vi]
So we have a choice of which day we will commemorate as our patronal feast (sometimes called the Feast of Title)—do we remember his death, or this remarkable event? For my money, this story of Paul’s conversion is too good to pass up. It has a lot to teach us.
First, I am struck by the fact that God chooses to use this particular man to spread the Word throughout the world. Again and again in scriptures we see God calling the most unlikely folks. From the beginning in Genesis, when God calls the old and barren couple Abraham and Sarah to be the parents of a new nation; to Jacob, who essentially steals his brother’s birthright and blessing, to Moses the stutterer who is called to lead his people to freedom. There’s the unlikely king David, There’s Samuel who listened for God, and Jonah who tried to ignore God. There are most of the disciples, unlikely followers.… You get the idea. Here again we are reminded that no matter who we are, God can use us to make a difference in the world—in fact, it seems that God prefers to use flawed people like you and me!
Paul makes that point in his first letter to the Corinthians, when he says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”[vii] One writer has summed up this passage by saying, “God doesn’t call the qualified; he qualifies the called!” The story of Paul’s call reminds us that God can and will use each of us—not in spite of our flaws, but because of them!
Second, we are reminded by Paul and also in our reading from the gospel of Matthew that if we dare to strike out in answer to God’s call, we do not do so alone. Paul reminds us over and over in his writing that God is the source. In his letter to the Philippians he says, “I can do all things through [God] who strengthens me.”[viii]He understands the wellspring of his power and his words, and that understanding spurs him on to do remarkable things. We can dare to answer God’s call because God is with us.
And finally, this story tells us that if we will follow God’s call, we may well achieve spectacular results beyond our wildest imaginings. I am certain that Paul had no idea the influence that his acts of following Christ and proclaiming the Word of God would have on the world. Christianity probably continues to this day only because of the actions of our namesake. The example of Paul reminds us that if we dare to heed God’s call and dream big, we too can be instruments of God’s love for the world. I can think of nothing better, can you?
Today, as we remember St. Paul, and consider what it means to take him as our patron saint, I hope you will again consider what we can do as a community to say yes to the call of Jesus. My dream is that we will listen for God together, and that we will dare to step out in faith, all with the goal of being the hands and heart of Christ for the world. It may be bold; it may seem unlikely; God may strike us with a blinding bolt of light, or he may just whisper in our ear. Let us listen, and let us respond in thankfulness and in faith.
To conclude, let us pray together once again the Collect of the day. You will find it printed on the front of your green insert: Let us pray:
O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world: Grant, we pray, that we, having his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show ourselves thankful to you by following his holy teaching; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
[i] A Great Cloud of Witnesses, https://extranet.generalconvention.org/staff/files/download/13068.pdf#page=174, accessed 1/22/2018.
[ii] Preface for a Saint (1), BCP, 348/380.
[iii] A Great Cloud of Witnesses, op cit.
[vi] http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/5/6/paul, accessed 1/26/2018.
[vii] 1 Corinthians 1:27-29
[viii] Philippians 4:13