Lifelong Conversion

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church Bantam, Connecticut, on April 14, 2013, 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 also, they wouldn’t do home work on Sunday  even if they had a test the next day. 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  they 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 invited 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 magic moment  of conversion just a gradual growth in faith over the years.

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 – its been in the headlines this week and there’s no way Paul could go from Jerusalem to Damascus these days –  but he 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.  He would travel the world to convert people to his beliefs. And God struck him down.  God apparently thought I could use someone like that. So God struck him down  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 –  only refocused,  re-directed. 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 the greatest teacher of his day. And he 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 moment when St. Paul  suddenly came to believe in God or that calls people to worship and obey; Paul had always believed that faith had consequences. 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.

But even as Paul  rejected Christianity outwardly  in a strange way he was drawn to it. He knew what Christians taught;  and he was drawn to it; he had to hear more of it;  he couldn’t keep away from it. When they stoned Stephen,  Paul was there watching.  And you have to believe that that made an impression: here was a faith to die for.  It made him angry.  He 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,  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.

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 or twenty-five years, perhaps,  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:  the one to the Galatians  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!  What a transformation! If you want to talk about Paul’s conversion, talk about that. A friend of mine (the Rev. Daniel Hard) who used to teach at Cambridge in England was co-author of a book called “Jubilate” (Rejoice) in which he talks about  this change in Paul reflected in the letter to the Church in Philippi. He points out that Paul had formerly gloried in his “religion, (his) race, (his) zeal for the law and (his) moral  blamelessness, but (that) all that became worthless to him because of (what Paul calls) “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ . . . . It is not any intrinsic defect in what he has given up that is Paul’s point, but the transformation of self in trust and praise due to recognizing someone who is worthy of all trust and praise.” And then, this author goes on to point out  that even in this letter  toward the end of his ministry,  “Paul is aware how far he … has to go.” Paul writes, “Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own … forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” And the letter concludes: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice . . ”

This is a different Paul,  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:

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. Intensification: something colorless  becomes vivid, exciting, rich.

Transfiguration: an inward transformation  that becomes radiantly visible.

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 a bottle of milk, a little help with the next step.”

Enlightenment is a word used in Eastern religions – but Christianity also is an eastern religion  and sometimes conversion  comes to us as enlightenment, a sudden  “Ahal” that changes everything.

Arousal: like waking up, like falling in love.

Conversion is all these things 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  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 That’s what matters. That’s what drew St. Paul on  from the very beginning. That’s what also draws us.

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