Today the Church commemorates and celebrates the Conversion of St. Paul. It is one of those feast days that even made it into the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as a festival of major importance.
For many Christians, this feast focusses on Paul’s experience of Christ while travelling on the Damascus Road. We talk colloquially about a “Damascus Road experience” to mean a sudden and instantaneous change of heart and mind. But although Luke’s account in the Acts of the Apostles certainly gives the impression of such a change of heart, the story that Paul himself tells in the Epistle to the Galatians tells a somewhat different story – one of an extended period of re-evaluation in Arabia before his reemergence on the public scene. Like Jesus’ childhood, biblically this is Paul’s “hidden time,” and I want to suggest that, notwithstanding the dramatic story with which we are familiar, it is this more extended process that is the real “conversion of Paul.” It is what brings about the real change in Paul’s lifestyle and thinking. The Damascus Road experience is simply the trigger for the whole process.
This is, of course, slightly at odds with the thinking of some evangelical Christians who view “instantaneous conversion” as the norm and view any other type as either invalid or somehow inferior. (Fr. David Cloake writes a heartfelt piece about this here).
Paul’s account in Galatians goes on to describe two meetings he had with some of the apostles in Jerusalem. The first appears to have been to establish his credentials and a relationship with them, the second, some fourteen years later, to seek their blessing on his mission to the Gentiles. In both instances things seem to go well and the blessing is given, though subject to a caveat which is rather overlooked in some circles today:
They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor, which was actually what I was eager to do. (Galatians 2:10 NRSV)
Sometimes I hear some Christians say that the Church is not called to address poverty and social issues but to “preach the gospel.” For some evangelical Christians “remembering the poor” smacks of the “social gospel”, a phrase which is pejoratively associated with “liberal Christianity” in those circles. However, it appears from the New Testament that Paul, like Jesus and the other apostles, was concerned with not only the spiritual but also the material condition of those at the bottom of the social heap, those on the margins of society. The Jerusalem church, as shown in the early chapters of Acts, seems to have contained more than its share of widows and orphans, who were supported by the rest of the church’s members. And although nether Luke nor Paul seem to make much of a deal about it, it is clear from this verse that this same concern existed among the churches with which Paul was associated.
This is an aspect of the Gospel which I believe is something of a litmus test for the health of the Church in its teaching and praxis. It has been embraced by Catholic, Orthodox, Liberal and Evangelical alike, but has always needed those of strong minds to recall the Church to its mandate. St. Francis’ views were controversial within the church of his day, and St. Ignatius of Loyola’s in his. Wilberforce and Shaftesbury equally faced down opposition. However, it is not simply the holding of the views that is the really controversial bit.
The really controversial bit, the bit that gets people talking and stirs up the opposition, is actually living it out in practice.