The Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle, Diocesan Convention, Trinity Church, Clarksville

“God… was pleased to reveal his Son to me, that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16).

Stephen Hawking wrote in his book, A Brief History of Time, about singularities: that is, what takes place at the end of a star’s life, when space-time collapses and a black hole is formed; or what happens at the beginning, with the Big Bang, when the universe begins to expand. Both events posit a singularity: a point at which something new happens, a threshold or boundary which is crossed, which can’t be predicted on the basis of what’s gone before. It’s a singular event, in other words, not part of a series; and whatever takes place during and after is unaccountable.

The Big Bang at the beginning of the universe announces that something new is here, while the collapsing star not only heralds an end to what has gone before but also exerts a gravitational pull that carries other things along in its wake, including light itself. Singularity: the advent of something which makes everything else unpredictable from that point on; what’s happened before can no longer guide us in the experience of what comes after.

Our celebration of the Conversion of St. Paul commemorates just such a singularity, the point at which something new happens. We all know the story, mostly from the version in the Book of Acts, which tells the story several times, one of which we heard in our first reading today. Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian movement; while traveling to Damascus to arrest members of the Church he saw a light and heard the voice of Jesus appointing him to serve and testify to him, to be his witness to the Gentile nations. Saul, the persecutor of the Church, becomes Paul the Apostle, a missionary and a leader of the Church.

Our reading from St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians tells the story in his own words, and is probably the earliest account we have of this significant event in the life of the early Christian movement. We should notice how St. Paul tells the story. He recounts in Galatians his “earlier life in Judaism” (Gal. 1:13) as he calls it; he acknowledges that he was a persecutor of the Church. He was an advanced practitioner and was zealous for the traditions of the People. Then comes the singularity: “God… was pleased to reveal his Son to me, that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles” (Gal. 1:15-16). There’s the Big Bang that sets the universe in motion; there’s the implosion of the star that bends time and space and carries all away in its gravitational pull.

Please note that in this sequence of words by which Paul recounts the events and achievements of his former life, God’s act in Christ is a singular event. He doesn’t tell his readers in the Church in Galatia that he suddenly saw Jesus and received the call to apostleship. Instead he tells them what God was pleased to do, as he says; this singularity of God’s action stands athwart Paul’s life with all its massive force and with the evidence of its mighty impact. We’re no longer hearing about Paul and his life, but about God’s action in Jesus Christ.

After this the sequence of St. Paul’s life resumes, though now it is being carried in a different direction. He tells us how he went to Arabia and then back to Damascus; after three years to Jerusalem and then to Syria and Cilicia. His life has bent like space and time in the face of the unpredictable and unaccountable revelation of Jesus Christ. He becomes a missionary. What follows afterward is something new. The story of Paul’s life is being re-narrated by this singular event, acquiring a new trajectory and a new purpose.

Here we must be careful not to put the emphasis on the Damascus road event that we read about in Acts, as if that were the revelation he’s talking about. St. Paul doesn’t actually mention that experience at all in this letter. The “revelation” that St. Paul is given is not one particular to him, a singular event in that sense. The great singularity of Christian faith that is revealed to Paul is not the Damascus road event or some other individual word of revelation, but instead the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ itself.

St. Paul writes in the First Letter to the Corinthians about the appearance of the Risen Lord to the disciples, including himself at the end of the sequence: “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (1 Cor. 15:8). St. Paul is claiming the same revelation, the same appearance, in common with the other apostles. He’s not special; or at least what’s given to him is not special. What’s special, what’s singular, is what God has done in Jesus Christ by raising him from the dead. That is the word that Paul and the other apostles were given, to testify and witness to.

The Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac once wrote, “Real radiance is a centripetal force” (Paradoxes of Faith). The radiance he’s talking about is the revelation of Jesus Christ, the One who “draws all people to himself” (Jo. 12:32), as it says in the Gospel of John. The Big Bang of Jesus’ resurrection, the radiance displayed there, draws everything toward it. It has drawn the whole apostolic band, including you and me, in its wake; sent our lives off in a different direction and given them new purpose and hope. The feast of the Conversion of St. Paul that we celebrate today places that unpredictable singularity before us, and invites us to offer our own testimony, our own witness, to its mighty impact on our lives.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee