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Sunday, March 7, 2010

The "Real" St. Paul - Converted (Acts 9:1-19)


Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might receive his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his lands on Saul, and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, regained his strength.

Getting someone’s attention can sometimes be a difficult task. There are so many things happening around us, it is so easy to get distracted by – hey, did you guys notice that one of the lightbulbs up there in the cove is burned out? Speaking of lightbulbs, do you know how many people with ADHD it takes to change a lightbulb? I don’t know, but who wants to go out and get ice cream?

Throughout the season of Lent, our worship focus is on the life and times of the “real” St. Paul. After all, this is St. Paul United Methodist Church, so wouldn’t it be a good idea to pause and reflect on his life? Who was he? Why is he important? What did he do that made people back in 1948 want to name a church after him?

We are looking at various chapters in his life, and today, we focus on his conversion, and we find that a man of violence is then transformed into a missionary of God. What does it take to get our attention? May we pray.

When we left off last week, St. Paul, who was then known as Saul, was no friend to the church. He was persecuting the followers of Jesus, breathing murderous threats against them, and throwing both men and women into prison. He has been traveling to nearby towns and working double-time to stamp out the Christian movement. But now, he decides to make a considerable journey to the city of Damascus to pursue the followers of Jesus there. In his briefcase, he has letters to the leaders of the synagogues there from the priests in Jerusalem, and a stack of blank arrest warrants just waiting for the names of Christians to be filled in.

I can imagine two different meetings that took place in Damascus on the night before Saul arrived. The first is a prayer meeting, the followers of Jesus called together somewhere secretly and quietly, to discuss the situation at hand and to pray. Can you hear what they prayed? They prayed for Saul to be waylaid on his way to Damascus. They prayed that the leaders of the synagogue wouldn’t cooperate with him when he got to town. They prayed for some sort of “accident” along the road that might take care of Saul once and for all. There were all sorts of things they prayed in order that Saul would be “dealt with” in some manner or other. The last thing on any of their minds was to pray for his conversion.

Another meeting also took place on that same night, also attended by devout religious people, also prompted by the visit of Saul. But the aim of this meeting was different. These people agreed with Saul and were praying for him to succeed. Perhaps they would be active partners in his persecution, but at the very least, they wanted to see the church stamped out. They didn’t care for the things the followers of Jesus were doing and saying, and they wanted it to stop. They prayed for the Christians to be “dealt with” in some manner. The last thing on any of their minds was to pray for Saul’s conversion.

It is not uncommon for people to pray for different outcomes for something. Last night, for example, arguably the greatest rivalry in college basketball played itself out on the floor of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and passionate people who wear two different shades of blue were fervently praying for one team to win over the other. I was over at Hal and Sara Kidd’s to watch the game, and it is surely a sign of the kingdom when an alumnus of UNC invites a Duke alumnus over to watch the game.

Devout people who hold different opinions often find themselves praying for a specific outcome, praying for God to do this or do that, praying that God will see things our way and act according to our wishes. But prayer is not a time for us to flex our muscle over God and make God do what we want God to do. Prayer is a time for us to humble ourselves, to ask for God’s presence and guidance, and to ask for God’s will to be accomplished in the world. Prayer aligns us more perfectly with God’s will, and we find our appetites and the things for which we pray come more and more in line with the will of God. Too often we treat prayer as the magic formula that gets our genie-God out of the bottle to grant us our personal and private wishes, when in reality, prayer is about being formed in the image of God so that the things we wish, want, and desire become more and more in line with what God desires.

Prayer is about God getting our attention, and on the road to Damascus, that happened to Saul. Saul was building his career on the church. In the persecution of Christians, he spared no effort to stifle the spread of the Gospel. He went beyond the letter of his job description. He worked overtime. No one was clearer about their mission than was Saul in destroying the church. Saul was confident, in charge, and not particularly curious about God. He already had his mind made up about God, and wasn’t interested in new revelation or experience.

Saul, confident in his mission and assured of his purpose, is riding his donkey toward Damascus. Suddenly a bright light shines around him, he falls to the ground, and a mysterious voice speaks. “Saul, Saul,” the voice says. Twice his name is called, reminding us that when God calls our name, God does so more than once. Twice his name is called, reminding us to pay attention because something important is coming.

Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” The use of the word “Lord” here is not a statement of faith, but rather a respectful address more in line with “sir.” The reply comes back, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Notice, Jesus does not identify here with the comfortable religious establishment. Jesus identifies with the outcasts, the suffering, those who are in pain and need, the abused, the friendless and the powerless. Jesus’ source of strength is found in what the world would commonly call weakness.

Saul gets up, and discovers that he is blind. Now, Saul was already blind before the bright light from heaven – spiritually blind. But, after this encounter with Jesus, he realizes his spiritual blindness. His companions lead him the rest of the way into the city where he waits, not knowing what is next.

There is something in Saul’s conversion that tempts us to believe this is how it’s supposed to be for all of us. Bright lights, voices, and the clarion call of God inserted into our otherwise mundane existence.

Too many people have focused on the story of Saul’s conversion as the normative and definitive way of conversion. In some places, extra points are awarded if one can name the time, date, and descriptive details of one’s conversion. The only problem is that there were no bright lights or a soundtrack from heaven, and that for most of us, conversion takes place as a process and not in one moment.

But, Saul’s conversion is extraordinary; it is the exception rather than the rule. In this country, there are important historical occasions that have shaped and formed us. If you were alive in 1963, you can probably name where you were and what you were doing when you learned that JFK had been shot. You can probably name where you were and what you were doing when you learned about the terrorist attacks of 9/11. We can name and remember these single, solitary moments, and yes, these moments are memorable and formative. Even so, these moments in history are extraordinary. They are the exception and not the rule. Any number of things of historic significance have taken place, many of them that actually have a greater impact on your everyday existence than JFK or 9/11, and you probably don’t remember where you were. For example, do you remember where you were when the Berlin wall came down or when apartheid ended in South Africa? Do you remember where you were when FAA regulations were changed that made it more difficult to fly and increased the lines in airport security? Do you remember where you were when credit cart regulations were changed?

Saul’s conversion is an extraordinary one; it is the exception rather than the rule. But I want us to notice some important details. For one thing, no emphasis whatsoever is given to the moment of Saul’s conversion. We refer to this story as “The Conversion of Saul,” but nowhere does the text tell us which moment was his actual conversion. Is it when the light flashed? How about when the voice spoke? Maybe it was his first words of reply. Maybe his not eating and drinking for three days had something to do with it. Maybe it was when Ananias laid his hands on him, or called his name, or called him “Brother,” or when the scales fell off his eyes and he was able to see again. But the Bible never pinpoints any single one of these isolated moments as the exact time and place of Saul’s conversion.

All these things create a composite picture of conversion. There is no single moment of conversion; there is the compilation of several moments that, when added together, tell us about conversion. At the same time, I don’t want to discount those important, shaping, memorable moments we have had with God. There are times when we have felt the presence of God in ways more acute than normal, times when we have heard God’s voice and glimpsed God’s glory, when we have known God’s call and leaned in God’s care, when we have searched inside to find that our hearts are beating with God’s.

Friends, I am so thankful for these moments of clarity, these sanctifying moments – moments in which the holy comes to us in new and profound and wonderful ways, moments that are important monuments in our spiritual journey, moments that serve as signposts along the road leading us closer to God.

Conversion, the path toward God, is not a one-size fits all approach. Our hearts are all shaped differently, and God does not break, bend, mold, and shape all hearts in exactly the same way. Conversion is not something that happens all at once. It is something that happens constantly. Consider a flower unfolding petal by petal over several days, how can you mark the precise moment at which the bud “converts” to being a flower? Likewise, watch the life of a Christian unfold – can you mark the precise moment at which a person received God’s grace, became Christlike, and was perfected in love of God and neighbor?

Conversion doesn’t happen in one solitary moment because we are called to constant conversion. We always stand in need of grace, and the more we grow in grace into the image of God, we realize how much further we have to go to resemble that image. Every day the conversion continues as I am changed by human encounters, the natural world, and countless experiences that provide new insight into the nature of God, and if I’m really observant, my own nature. I am not the same person I was a year ago, and thank God for that. I am constantly learning and growing and stretching beyond myself.

All Christians stand in need of constant conversion. The people who tend to concern me the most are Christians who claim to have arrived, who claim to have it all figured out, who already know it all, who are certain their way is right and that everyone else’s is wrong. Such people are often very vocal in their convictions; they want you to know how right and righteous they are, but I often find that the louder they are about their beliefs and the more they brag about how hard they’re working in the church, the more spiritually stunted they are. What I find is that the louder people shout, the more braggadocios, the angrier and combative, the petty and manipulative, the more they rely on their own abilities and agenda and the less they rest in God’s grace and pray that their mind and will would be conformed to God’s.

Friends, it takes a lot to admit that we still need to be converted. Saul certainly didn’t feel his need to be converted. He was a very religious person – working diligently doing what he honestly and sincerely thought God wanted him to do. But he was working in the wrong direction. And in his zealous work for God, he was actually destroying the church. He was working hard, but heading in the wrong direction, which is why it took such extraordinary means to get his attention. So it is with us. The means God uses to get our attention are directly tied to how hard it will be to get our attention. And sometimes, like Saul, we have to be blinded, called out by name, and knocked off our --- horse.

I’m troubled by how quickly some dismiss a story of conversion and experience with God that isn’t exactly like theirs, but then perhaps even more troubling, I am disturbed by how quickly I dismiss their story, wondering if I am doing to them the same thing I am upset with them about for doing to others. I am tempted to pray for God to deal with them, to eliminate them, to get them out of the way, to “take care of it” as my mafia friends would say. But maybe my prayer needs to change. Maybe my prayer needs to be for their conversion – for God to get their attention, to work in their life, to wrap them in grace, and to fill them with the Holy Spirit. When we come up against difficulty, maybe we all need to pray for conversion.

And such a prayer is a form of conversion – a conversion in our own hearts and disposition.

Saul’s conversion is not told as the normative faith experience – it is the extraordinary one. Even within this story, there is another model of the converted life.

Ananias was a convert to the faith, and a person who lived close to the divine. Unlike Saul, he had been growing in the knowledge and love of God over time, and when the Lord called his name he didn’t need to ask, “Who are you?” He answered, “Here I am.” He was well-versed in conversation with God. But, Ananias is about to be transformed as well. When he first receives his part in this drama, he is understandably doubtful. He protests. He knows Saul’s reputation – a reputation that is not only unsavory but downright frightening. Even so, he goes to the place where Saul is staying, convinced that this unsavory character might indeed be an instrument of God’s choosing. We hear the transformation in his mind and the softening of his heart when he calls Saul, “Brother.”

There are two conversions here, both significant. In one, a man of violence is transformed into a missionary for God. In the other, a man of God learns to love his enemy and pray for those who persecute him. God uses one of his own to bring healing and wholeness to his enemy, and really, this is the story of the Gospel. For once, we were all God’s enemies – rebellious and violent against God, but God chose to send his own son into the world to reconcile and heal us – God’s enemies – and make us friends. And not only friends, but heirs, and not only heirs, but partners in the kingdom of God. And the result in both cases is that we are, in the words of that Charles Wesley hymn, “changed from glory into glory.”

So, two questions for you to consider this morning. First, does God have your attention? Second, where is God trying to transform you?

God’s means are tailor-made. For some, it will take blinding light and a booming voice. For others with subtler personalities than Saul’s, people who are lifelong learners, they will come to know God by different ways because it is not as difficult for God to get their attention. But the lasting mark of conversion is not one date circled in red on the calendar, but the whole story of one’s life. In the end, Saul’s dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus is worth telling only because of what he did afterwards.

2 comments:

  1. Wait, you have mafia friends? Maybe I'd better be more careful how I respond to your sermons! ;-)

    FANTASTIC! LOVED IT! WONDERFUL! YOU'RE A SECOND SAINT PAUL!

    Kidding aside, this is a basic and powerful message. We who think we know what's up are those who most need to be changed.

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  2. Usually the most difficult conversions are within those who think they are already converted. Present company included!

    One of the things I love about the Christian life and experience is that it isn't static. It's fluid and constantly changing, and we are constantly growing. However, if our goal is to become Christlike, it would seem that none of us ever arrive fully at that place!

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