By Archdeacon Andrew Manning – Rector of the Parish of Umhlali
Today we commemorate the conversion of St Paul. A most important event in New Testament times for a number of reasons. One being that St Paul is the first great Apostle who was not an eyewitness of Jesus’s ministry – but received revelation from the Holy Spirt. His conversion is popular story of a miraculous turn around in someone’s life. For me, if you want to truly understand the Conversion of St Paul you must look to the event that initiated the road to Damascus journey. Acts Chapter 7 is one of the few full text sermons that we find in Scripture; and it is St. Stephen who preaches to the Jewish leaders with great conviction and faithfulness to the Gospel. Read it! Can you picture the Rabbi’s and Scribes and Pharisees listening to Stephen as he recounts their story of their Fathers, Abraham and Moses. Read it, (again) and see how Jesus is pointed to throughout the whole account. If you as a Christian read it, you can see God’s plan unfolding.
I think St Stephens audience must have been impressed with his words all the up to verse 51. Throughout the sermon the listeners would have seen themselves as the righteous in the story (we know this because we do the same). But when Stephen points out that we are the sinners of the story – they turn on Him. And stone him and St Paul (Saul) watches with approval. (Acts 8 :1).
Saul (St Paul) leaves there to go and continue his persecution of those who are deviating from the way of the Pharisees, who were devout followers of the Law of Moses. They were seeking to overcome years of the impact of the Exile on the Jewish way of life. As he walked away from there the face of Stephen and his word must have been heavy on His mind. Saul had been taught about the great Martyrs of Judaism, in the Old Testament and especially in the great persecution under the Romans, who had given their lives for what they believed in. The record of these is found in the books of Maccabees and referred to in Hebrews 11. (Read that great sermon about the faithful and note the similarities in what is being said).
As St. Paul marched along the faith of St. Stephen must have bothered him. His conviction must have bothered him.
My point is that the Damascus road experience did not come out of nowhere, it had a context – the context of the faithful witness of the truth of Jesus Christ and the call to repentance, preached by a faithful, passionate disciple of Jesus Christ.
Our lives need to have the conviction of St Stephen, if we want miraculous conversion of others. Our lives need to be a witness to the whole story of God and his people. We need to be convinced that Jesus is the way the truth and the life!
St Paul (Acts 26) speaks to King Felix about his conversion. I am sure that St Paul stood before Felix and remembered how St Steven had stood trial for the very same reason, and how he had given the very same explanation – “now I stand on trial because of my hope in the promise that God made to our fathers,” Acts 26:6.
Therefore, my brothers and sisters in Christ. As we are called to account for the faith that we have – and we are called to do so (1 Peter 3:15); remember that God has been at work since the beginning and our story of rebellion and God’s grace, is what leads us to conversion. As you go about your day intent on doing what you believe, may God shed light on your path and show all of us, our blindness and restore us. Recognise the Stephen’s, recognise the Ananias’s in your life that God is using to transform you. Daily into the image of His Son.
Conversion is not just a one-off experience, it is a daily recognition of our blindness and a reopening of our eyes, a reshaping, of our thinking. It is a transformation. As Jesus corrects and reorders our lives.
Every day we stand on trial before the world. Every day we need to thank God for the opportunity to speak truth to power (Acts 26:2); because someone speaking truth to us, provided the platform for the miracle of conversion. Be a Stephen. Preach in season and out of season, (use words if necessary) speak the truth of the Gospel, be a faithful witness to God’s mercy. I believe that God used Stephan to prepare St Paul’s heart. I believe that God will use you to prepare someone’s heart, to turn to Him. To recognise the Lord our saviour on the road of their lives.
Choose life – the way the truth and the life, and may the God of hope fill you with every good gift necessary for you to do His will.
Feast of the conversion of St Paul. 2023
Ven. Andrew Manning