“Almighty God, You turned the heart of him who persecuted the Church and by his preaching caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world. Grant us ever to rejoice in the saving light of Your Gospel and, following the example of the apostle Paul, to spread it to the ends of the earth.”
[Collect for the Conversion of St. Paul]
January brings new beginnings. That’s the general thought as the calendar turns from 2010 to 2011. A new year provides new opportunities. Perhaps there are plans for a change. We hear all about the resolutions: quitting smoking; losing weight; spending more time with family instead of at the office; being more generous to others. Many spend time planning new routines. Others may look at the change in calendar as just a chance to start over. There is the thought: 2011 can’t be any worse than 2010; the new year must be better.
Coincidentally, the Church Calendar provides opportunities to speak about new beginnings in January. There is the continued celebration of Christ’s Nativity in the first several days leading to Epiphany. Christ’s Baptism spoken of on the Sunday after the Epiphany touches that theme also. But even more so is the festival for January 25: the Conversion of St. Paul. Conversion brings a new start. It means to change completely. A new way of life or thought is given.
So it was for Paul. His story is known through the Scriptural record. Paul was a persecutor of Christians, believing them to be holders of a blasphemous, false faith. As a Pharisee, Paul was adamant in defending the truth of the Tanakh, especially its statements about the Lord’s identity and His Covenant. He had been involved in the stoning of Stephen, a leader of the Jerusalem Christians. Following that, he began to actively hunt down those who held the same faith as Stephen—that Jesus is the Christ: “And Saul approved of [Stephen’s] execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”(Acts 8:1-3)
Paul’s attempts to stamp out Christianity took him to Damascus in Syria: “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”(Acts 9:1-2) But on his way to Damascus, Paul was changed. The Lord intervened, taking Paul away from his career as a persecutor: “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”(Acts 9:3-6) Instead of being an opponent of Jesus, Paul would become Jesus’ apostle.
After entering the city, Paul was visited by Ananias, a leader of the Damascus Christians: “Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”(Acts 9:17-19a) That is the new beginning which the Lord gave to Paul. Instead of attacking the Way, Paul now was following in that way to forgiveness, life, and salvation.
Like Paul, you also have been given a new beginning. It is just as comprehensive as his conversion. You once were an opponent of Jesus, one who did not know Him. In fact, you opposed His way of life, even in infancy. No person is naturally born a believer in Christ, let alone any true knowledge of Him. The Augsburg Confession puts it this way: “Since the fall of Adam, all who are naturally born are born with sin, that is, without the fear of God, without trust in God, and with the inclination to sin, called concupiscence. Concupiscence is a disease and original vice that is truly sin. It damns and brings eternal death on those who are not born anew through Baptism and the Holy Spirit.”[AC II:1-2] Born without fear or trust in God and with the desire to sin, you were separated from God, at enmity with Him.
But like Paul, the Lord intervened for you. He accomplished what was necessary to bring you into His favor—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And He brought you to faith in Him and His work. Paul talks about his conversion: “When He who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal His Son to me, in order that I might preach Him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone. . . .”(Gal 1:15-16) There was a setting apart and calling of Paul to faith. And the same took place for you: “The Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.”[SC: Creed, 3rd Art.] Called, enlightened, set apart and kept: you experience the same as Paul did in his conversion. A new beginning as Christ’s followers and the Heavenly Father’s children is made yours.
So now you confess the same thing as Paul did: “And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’”(Acts 9:20) You do so because the Lord has intervened for you, bringing you new knowledge and a new identity. No longer is God foreign to you; He is your Father. No longer is His way strange or unfamiliar; it is your hearts’ delight. No longer is divine holiness and righteousness to be feared; they are your possessions and your hope. This is the conversion that has happened to you. It is your new beginning that leads to your new, eternal ending.