The Conversion of Saint Paul

22 January 2022

Today we celebrate the conversion of Saint Paul, who is known for his missionary zeal and his passion for preaching the Gospel.  He said, “Woe is me if I do not preach the Gospel”;[1] and, “I may be imprisoned, but the Gospel is never imprisoned”.[2]  We should never allow the Gospel to be imprisoned.

Before his conversion, Saul was a zealous persecutor, a very bad person.  He went to Christians’ houses to arrest and imprison them, and was involved in the death of Saint Stephen.  One day while doing this he had an encounter with Christ.  He thought the resurrection of Christ would be detrimental to Judaism, and tried to prove that it was false.  Jesus encountered and confronted him: “Why are you persecuting Me?”

What is conversion?

Conversion is commonly understood to mean changing from one religion to another: Christians converted the Roman Empire in the first to eighth centuries.  Saint Patrick was a Roman British youth who was captured by Irish raiders and brought to Ireland as a slave.  He served his master for six years, tending sheep.  While alone with the sheep, he received a divine call to escape from captivity, become a priest and return to convert the Irish people.

Conversion can be defined as turning or returning to God in repentance.  It includes a change of life, faith and obedience.  Saul was converted from being an enemy of the cross to someone who embraced and proclaimed the cross.  The prodigal son who had left the father returned to him.  

Conversion is an encounter with God’s grace, and His grace is the power that changes us.  You and I cannot transform our lives.  I have tried New Year’s resolutions, but they haven’t lasted long.  Certain things in our lives can’t be changed without the grace of God, and we need to let His grace transform us.

God’s initiative and human response

I’d like to share some thoughts about Psalm 80:1-3 from Fr. Patrick Reardon.  Psalm 80 is a prayer of Israel, who had been converted to be a Covenant people, had been enlightened, and had tasted the heavenly gift.  It’s also a prayer of the Church and of Christians.  Verse 3 occurs three times; “Restore us, o God…” may be paraphrased, “Convert us, o God”.  The face of God shines on those who have converted hearts.  It takes an openness to the grace of God and a willingness to embrace it, for His face to shine in our lives.  The sun shines, but not everyone sees it; God’s grace is present, but some cannot avail of it.  His grace has power to draw us, but we need to respond.    

Why do we need to be converted?  

Conversion is not a one-time event but a lifetime event.  Some say, “Once saved, always saved”; but where the Scriptures say, “Seek, and you shall find”, the meaning is actually, “Keep on seeking, and you shall find; keep on knocking, and it will be opened to you”.  Repentance is a process and a direction in our lives which takes a lifetime; it’s more than saying, “I sinned against God, and I repent”.  Salvation begins in Baptism, but we need to “keep on asking… keep on seeking… keep on knocking.”

C. S. Lewis said that if we claim conversion to Christianity, but it does not lead to a change from what we used to be to what we should be, most likely it is imaginary or illusionary.  If there is an encounter with Jesus, your life will change.  We encounter Jesus in the Eucharist, and it can be a transforming experience.  “Fine feelings, new insights, and greater interest in ‘religion’ mean nothing unless they make our actual behaviour better.”  You can go to a church that has great praise and worship, and your hair stands on end and you feel you’re floating in heaven; but if it doesn’t lead to transformation, it’s nothing – feelings come and go.  God is not finished with us yet; there are many things that need to be changed in our lives.  We were converted when we were baptised, but one day we need to have made that decision in our hearts.  Christianity has to do with becoming like Christ, that we might truly be children of God. 

The proclamation of the Gospel is nothing to the world until it has changed our lives.  There may be great and anointed preachers, but the world needs to see the power of the Gospel demonstrated in your life and mine.  Mahatma Gandhi said he read the Bible, and everything he read was good, but he refused to be converted to Christianity because of the lives of Christians.  We need to continue to be converted, because we’re not completely there yet.  God is doing many things our lives.  May we be a good witness of Christ to the city where we live. 

Paul said he was willing to lose everything for the sake of knowing Christ; that is our journey here on earth.  If you have made a decision to follow Christ, that’s great.  But sometimes the excitement is gone and you don’t want to come to church; you used to pray and read the Bible, but now it’s only when you have time.  Your personal relationship with Christ cannot be replaced by serving God; that’s why some people start serving in the church, but one day they’re gone.  Without personal devotion and walking with Christ on a daily basis, you will be gone.  You cannot replace an intimate relationship with service.  We serve because of our relationship with Christ: it’s a fruit of love for Jesus.  When you don’t feel like coming to church, praying or reading your Bible, or serving God, that’s when you need to do so.

Lord, I pray that You would not abandon us with Your grace, but continue to meet us where we are, in our solitude, loneliness and sorrow, or in our zeal to serve You.  Always meet us with Your grace and favour, and draw us closer to You.  Clothe us with a humble heart so we may always allow Your Holy Spirit to illumine our hearts and minds, the recesses of our soul, as to what needs to be changed: You are changing us from glory to glory.  Please don’t give up on us.  

I pray for those who are enemies of the cross, those who have abandoned Christianity, and those who are preaching against it: May You forgive them, and like Saul, touch their hearts.  Let them know You are the resurrected One, and may their lives be converted.

[1] I Corinthians 9:16b

[2] II Timothy 2:9

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