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Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul

“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind”

The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul more often than not falls within the scope of the Epiphany season. Paul’s phrase from Romans is part of the epistle reading for the First Sunday after the Epiphany [1]. It captures an important feature of the Epiphany and indeed of the nature of Christian life. Epiphany as teaching, as education, and as healing is also about epiphany as conversion.

But about conversion there is no end of difficulties. We have perhaps a rather skeptical if not negative view of conversion particularly in terms of religion. Paradoxically, it is really much more a feature of contemporary culture in terms of the ‘woke’ generation demanding that things be said and thought about only in one way and in complete contempt for any other way. We assume that it means a radical break from one position to another and as such retains a sense of opposition. We forget or overlook the more interesting and more comprehensive character of conversion. It really involves two moments: first, repudiation, and second, recapitulation. In other words, the apparent dramatic change from one position to another leads to a reappraisal and a recapitulation of the former position, a way of transcending simply the oppositional.

The story of the Conversion of St. Paul, the so-called ‘Damascus road experience’, is told by Paul three times in the Book of the Acts of the Apostles. In one sense, the story is personal and, in another sense, it is more universal. It belongs, I think, to the idea of epiphany as conversion in the sense of the break-through of the understanding. It is about coming to see things in a new and deeper way but that does not happen without a struggle, the struggle of the soul to grasp and understand. In other words, conversion is not a passive event, not something which just happens to us arbitrarily or inadvertently. It happens because of an intense struggle in the soul or mind. In this sense, conversion is an on-going affair. It belongs to education, to the constant transformation through the renewing of our minds, to use Paul’s pregnant, provocative and powerful phrase.

The word ‘transformation’ is literally metamorphosis, a radical change in our entire outlook and attitude of mind. That can happen dramatically or it can happen more gradually, it seems to me. Learning is about the activity of knowing in us that leads inescapably to changes in how we understand and see things. It means the willingness to see things differently, to challenge our assumptions and our attachments. This is wisdom; the realization of the problem about our attachments is a feature of the cultures of ancient Greece, of Confucianism, of Hinduism and Buddhism as well as a feature of the ascetic disciplines of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is intrinsic to the journey of the soul as a constant series of conversions of the mind to a deeper appreciation of truth. In other words, conversion is the dynamic of the mind’s engagement with the ideas that matter and which change us, the constant conversion to truth.

Oedipus in Sophocles’ great classic drama has to learn that his attachment to his way of knowing is radically incomplete. He is driven into collision with himself without which he cannot come to realize not only the truth of Teiresias via prophetic insight but that his own reason is only partial and dependent upon a more complete understanding, a kind of intellectus. It means transcending the opposition and collision between two apparent competing yet partial positions. It happens through the collision.

In a way, that is part of Paul’s story. He was Saul of Tarsus, a committed Pharisee who, as he says, “persecuted this Way unto death”. The Way is the term first used to describe the early followers of Jesus. Some see this term as being like the Tao of ancient Chinese philosophy, the Tao of Jesus, we might say, a way of thinking and being. It is important to realize that Paul’s conversion is not from Judaism to Christianity because the latter does not yet exist. At best it is coming into being and it is more than a simple rejection of Israel, more than simply repudiation. Already in the story of Saul who becomes Paul, the name change indicative of the profound shift in his understanding, there is the idea of an intellectual struggle within Judaism about the meaning of the Messiah. At issue is the question about human suffering in relation to God’s will and purpose for our humanity.

That question belongs very much to Israel, to the project of the Exodus and beyond, especially in terms of the vocation of Israel with respect to the Law as something universal and for all nations albeit in and through Israel. It is this point that both Luke and Paul, for instance,  come to emphasize in locating the significance of Christ within that perspective. The epiphany emphasis is on light, the light of knowing, we might say. On the road to Damascus in the heat of prosecutorial zeal, there is a break-through of the understanding that contributes to the later emergence of what will become Christianity. In the story, Paul is called to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.

It happens in the form of a vision, itself a way of talking about something in the mind, something which comes to be known. The form of this vision is instructive, a light above the brightness of the sun, something beyond. This is not unlike Plato’s great image of the sun as the child of the Good which is always beyond the grasp of our knowing and yet the principle of all and every form of knowing from the lowest to the highest. In that sense, conversion cannot be just about the privileging of one form of knowing over another but more about the gathering into one of the diversities of our being and knowing. This is a theme which Paul will develop about the human community of souls as participating in the life of the Spirit. “There are diversities of gifts but the same Spirit”. This is the counter to the zeal of the convert’s insistence about a narrow view about what is right.

The conversion of Paul is about being self-convicted by coming into collision with oneself ethically and morally. Only so can there be a change whether it happens dramatically or incrementally. Conversion in its fullest sense is continuous growth and change that is part of the project of sanctifying grace. It is about becoming more fully who we truly are in the Providence of God even in and through the forms of opposition and persecution that we inflict upon one another and which are inflicted upon us. It means transcending the oppositions and so being transformed ourselves. In this sense we may say that epiphany is conversion. We are changed by what we come to know.

“Be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind”

Fr. David Curry
Conversion (transf.) Jan 26, 2021