The Road to Damascus

A sermon preached at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, by Christopher L., Webber on May 5, 2019, the Third Sunday of Easter.

When I was in college, I had some friends who were Southern Baptists. They were nice people in many ways, but they believed in a kind of Christianity I had never before encountered. They were fundamentalists. They believed that the world was created in seven days and that Adam and Eve were real people. But their faith made a real difference in their lives. They wouldn’t do homework on Sunday even if they had a test scheduled for Monday. And I remember one Sunday, that one of them came back from the service he had gone to upset at the preacher because he had never mentioned the cross. He thought it wasn’t a Christian sermon if it didn’t mention the cross.

Toward the end of my time in college these Southern Baptist friends arranged for a revival meeting on campus, and they invited me to come. I was interested in what they were up to so I went and at the end of the service the preacher issued an invitation to those who wanted to accept Jesus to come forward while we stood and sang verse after verse of “Just as I am” and he exhorted us to come forward. “Let’s sing another verse,” he would say, “I believe there are more of you who want to come, so please come, come forward now . . .” I held onto my chair and stayed where I was and felt very uncomfortable. They had all been converted and accepted Jesus as their personal savior and knew exactly when it was – and I didn’t. I just was a Christian – always had been and expected I always would be. But there hadn’t been any single, datable, magic moment of conversion; just a gradual growth in faith over the years.

Now, St. Paul, of course, did have a magic moment and we read about it this morning. When you get knocked off your horse and struck blind, you know something has happened. It makes a difference. The story this morning from the Acts of the Apostles is one of the most dramatic conversion stories you’ll ever find. If ever anyone was converted, Paul was, and he knew exactly when – twelve o’clock noon on January 25, 35 A.D. Of course, we can’t date it quite that exactly but Paul could. He knew; there was a magic moment. And to hear some Christians tell it, if there wasn’t a moment like that for you, you’re not really a Christian.

But let’s look at that story again. The brief excerpt we have this morning begins with Paul riding out from Jerusalem to the Gentile city of Damascus in Syria. Syria has been in the news a lot in recent years and there’s no way Paul could go from Jerusalem to Damascus these days. But in those days it was all part of the Roman Empire and travel was easy. So Paul was going to see whether there were any Christians there so he could arrest them and take them bound to Jerusalem for trial. Paul was a zealot. Paul would travel the world to convert people to his beliefs. And God struck him down. But God didn’t just stop Paul, God re-directed him. God apparently thought, “I could use someone like that.” So God struck him down and turned him around and he was baptized. And the rest of the Book of Acts tells how zealously Paul traveled the world to convert people to his new beliefs.

But in a very deep sense, Paul was not changed. He was in many ways still the same man he had been before: still zealous, still conversion-minded – only refocused, re-directed.

I think we should notice something else about St. Paul. He had grown up in the Jewish community. He had come to Jerusalem to study his faith at the feet of Gamaliel, the greatest teacher of his day. And Paul believed – or came to believe – that his faith in Christ was the logical completion of the faith he had always held. There wasn’t a certain moment when St. Paul suddenly came to believe in God. No, what we see happening if we read Paul’s story carefully, is a steady process of growth which had difficulty with one crucial point: the identification of Jesus as the promised Messiah. That was a problem for Paul. A crucified Messiah didn’t fit – at first. Paul didn’t want to believe it. He didn’t want anyone to believe it. But it nagged at him all the same. And suddenly, suddenly, half way to Damascus, he knew; the truth broke through, and he took a major step forward along the path he had been following all unknown ever since he was born.

But now let me take Paul’s story one more step. We know about Paul’s upbringing. We know about that moment on the road to Damascus. But then what? Was it twenty years or twenty-five years, perhaps, Paul spent as a missionary, teaching, preaching, traveling, writing – with no more change? Is that possible? Well, sometime you might read two of Paul’s epistles side by side: take the one to the Galatians, for example, and the one to the Philippians, and think about what you find. In the one to the Galatians, early in his ministry, Paul is angry. People have been disagreeing with Paul and he wishes they would all drop dead. He argues, he exhorts, he denounces. But then read the letter to the Christians at Philippi written many years later. Listen to him talk there about those who disagree: “Some,” he writes, “proclaim Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from goodwill. These proclaim Christ out of love, knowing that I have been put here for the defense of the gospel; the others proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but intending to increase my suffering . . . What does it matter? Just this, that Christ is proclaimed in every way, whether out of false motives or true; and in that I rejoice.” (1:15-18)

What a change from the early epistles! This is a different Paul. This is a Paul who had deepened and matured and grown in ways he himself might never have anticipated: He had grown in patience and charity and joy. He was still zealous, yes, but eager now for an even deeper experience of the joy that comes with mature faith and wisdom and understanding.

Now, I think what we can see in St. Paul’s story if we look at it carefully, is something that broadens our understanding of true conversion. Martin Smith, an Episcopal priest, points out that the word “conversion” has been taken over by people who see it in one dimension only. They define conversion as a dramatic, emotional experience and demand that everyone have that particular experience. But each of us is different; each of us grows in different ways according to the various gifts we’ve been given. Conversion, Smith suggests, is many things:
Conversion is “appropriation:” the process by which something we simply inherited becomes truly our own. Once it was something I read in a book, now it’s a part of my life. Conversion is “intensification:” something colorless becomes vivid, exciting, rich. Conversion is “transfiguration:” an inward transformation that becomes radiantly visible. Conversion is “maturation:” organic change; you can’t be a tree until you’ve been a seed and a sapling. The need may not be for a Damascus Road experience but just for a bottle of milk, a little help with the next step.
Conversion is “enlightenment, a word used in Eastern religions – but Christianity also is an eastern religion and sometimes conversion comes to us as enlightenment, a sudden “Aha!” that changes everything.
Conversion is “arousal”: it’s like waking up, like falling in love.
Conversion is all these things and more, and there may be a magic moment along the way and there may not. There may be what seem to us like setbacks as well as progress. It’s not always a straight line. It’s not just a moment but a lifetime. But what matters is the process – the process of change and growth and maturation – the emergence of a faith that draws us onward and outward and upward, that satisfies us and yet leaves us still unsatisfied, because we know there’s always more. That’s what matters. That’s what drew St. Paul on from the very beginning. I hope that’s what draws you.

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