What do we mean when we use the word “Conversion”?
In contemporary parlance, we mean a number of different things. Some of the meanings are mechanical: we can convert a car so that, instead of running on gasoline, it runs on diesel. Some of them are electrical: my childhood television had a mystery device mounted on it called a converter (I knew nothing about it except that it allowed my family to watch channels that would otherwise be closed to us). Some of them are transactional: when you take a trip to Europe, you may convert American dollars into Euros or pounds. Some of them are sporting: after scoring a touchdown, you attempt to kick a ball through the goalposts, thus scoring a convert.
And some of the meanings are religious. Partway through life, a given person may choose to convert to Judaism or Hinduism or Christianity. Perhaps if you are new to this thing we call church, you might say, “I am a recent convert.”
Today we encounter one of the most famous conversion scenes – maybe the most famous conversion scene – to be found in scripture or across literature and history: Saul of Tarsus on the way to Damascus. Saul’s story suggests that, for the authors of the Bible, conversion is something different than what we mean by that word today. In a superficial sense, Biblical conversion refers to something less than what we might expect when we use that word today. And in a deeper sense, Biblical change is way more than what we mean by conversion today.
I’ll come back to that thought.
St. Luke (the evangelist who most scholars figure wrote not just the Gospel that bears his name but also the book that we call the Acts of the Apostles, so that you will sometimes hear scholars refer to “Luke/Acts” as a single unit) tells us the story this way.
Saul is heading down the road, fresh from the lynching of Stephen. Whether or Saul threw one of the rocks that ended Stephen’s life, that created the Christian movement’s first martyr, Luke tells us that he enthusiastically approved of Stephen’s death. After Stephen’s murder, Acts tells us that Saul participated in further persecutions of the people who were following the Way of Jesus, that he dragged people from their homes and threw them into prison. And at the beginning of the passage that we hear this morning, we hear this extraordinary turn of phrase, that as he goes about his day-to-day business, Saul is “breathing threats and murder.” Saul is a perpetrator of religious violence, a perpetrator of what today we would call hate crimes.
Now, having acknowledged Saul’s status as perpetrator, I want to be careful that we don’t paint Saul as a movie-villain, as someone who laughs maniacally and rubs his hands in glee while he sharpens axes and builds evil robots in his secret mountain laboratory. Rather, I’d like to suggest that Saul is someone who understands himself as a person doing the hard and necessary work of protecting his people and, in particular, of keeping them out of the danger that is posed by the followers of Jesus. Jesus’ followers are publicly declaring that Jesus is the Son of God, a title that, as you may remember, properly belongs to the Roman Emperor. And as such, they are putting the entire community in grave danger of bloody retribution from the soldiers of Empire.
Saul is less a movie-villain and more the soldier enforcing apartheid or the worker driving the bulldozer that knocks down a Palestinian home or the police officer turning the water cannons on the civil rights protesters or the agent water-boarding the prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. Few or none of these men would describe themselves as evil. Most or all of them, like Saul, would describe themselves as doing something necessary, as following orders. Many of them, perhaps also like Saul, would describe themselves as patriots.
Saul is heading down the road. And as Damascus nears, a light from heaven flashes around him. Imagine, perhaps, stepping out into the sunlight of summer after being in a dark room. Except it’s even brighter than that. In an instant, Saul is down on the ground, shielding his eyes, blind. And then this life-changing conversation ensues.
Saul. Saul, says a voice from heaven. Why are you persecuting me?
And Saul says, Who are you?
To which the reply comes,
I am Jesus. Whom you are persecuting. Get up. Get up and go to the city. There you will be told what to do.
And so Saul’s friends pick him up off the ground and lead him, now entirely blind, into the city. He sits in his personal darkness, neither eating nor drinking, for three days. The same length of time that Jesus spends in the tomb.
Across the city, another man has a vision: Ananias. In this vision, Jesus tells him to go to Saul, to help him. Ananias, understandably, is hesitant. Jesus is telling him to help the person who has been rounding up people like him and sending them to imprisonment and death. But Jesus insists. And Ananias, being a pious man, does not say no.
And so it comes that Ananias, one of the very people against whom Saul was breathing threats and murder just three days before, stands before Saul and – in an awesome act of forgiveness and reconciliation – calls him brother and lays his hands upon Saul. Again, the turn of phrase that Acts employs is extraordinary.
Immediately, something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes.
Saul gets up then and is baptised – again immediate, no checking of his qualifications, no test – and then, after spending some time with the disciples, he goes to the temple and does the very thing that he sought so zealously to stop. He declares to everyone who will listen that Jesus is the Son of God.
This is conversion.
Earlier I suggested the conversion in scripture is both less and more than what we mean by that word today. Let’s return to that idea now. Here’s how it’s less: after his conversion, Saul doesn’t change religions. I want to underline that point because it’s easy to make an assumption, to read something into the text that isn’t there, so that we imagine that, after this experience, Saul renounces Judaism and becomes a Christian, that he stops going to the synagogue and starts going to church. But that isn’t what happens at all. After Saul spends time with the disciples, he goes to the synagogues, to his own worshipping communities, and there he proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God.
Just like Jesus before him, Saul remains a Jew for the rest of his life.
In a sense, therefore, this story doesn’t tell us about a conversion at all. If Saul were to fill out the United States census before his experience at Damascus, he would give his religion as Jewish. And after his experience at Damascus, he would give his religion as Jewish. Nothing has changed, right?
Except everything – everything – has changed. The scales fall from Saul’s eyes and, in one of those moments in life where the literal and the figurative intersect, he sees. He sees. I once was lost but, but now I’m found. Was blind, but now I see. I think that there’s a song that goes like that.
Suddenly, this man who was so fixated on enforcing the rules, on keeping people behaving in a predictable and a safe way, on building walls to safeguard his tribe, this man who is willing to use violence if necessary to meet these goals, is utterly transformed. He begins to live in a way that is congruent with Jesus’ parables, he becomes a kind of living parable for the Kingdom.
Through his life, Saul begins to answer Jesus’ question, “Who is my neighbour?” He knows that the answer isn’t the people who look like me or think like me or believe like me. He knows that the answer is everyone. Through his life, he begins to answer the follow-up question, “Who is worthy of salvation? Whom will the Father welcome home?” He knows that the answer isn’t the people who are good enough or pious enough. Saul knows that the answer is everyone.
Maybe it should be no surprise that a good part of Saul’s post-conversion ministry is devoted to sharing the Good News of Jesus with people outside of Judaism. When the first followers of Jesus ask the question, “Is it appropriate to share the Gospel with people who aren’t Jews, with others?” Saul answers Yes, yes, yes! Saul answers,
What do you mean by “others”? There are no others. There are just us, the children of God. If God has love and forgiveness and hope and joy for someone like me – a perpetrator, a murderer – God has love and forgiveness and hope and joy for everyone.
Saul’s conversion is total, radical, absolute. It is so complete that he feels the need to change his name in order to symbolise the change in his heart and in his life. He is Saul no more. Now he is Paul.
Reflecting on Paul’s conversion, I would like to suggest to you that there is good news and there is hard news. The good news is that conversion is something that can happen to anyone, that in God’s time, it will happen to everyone. Even the soldier enforcing apartheid, even the worker driving the bulldozer that knocks down the Palestinian home, even the police officer turning the water cannons on the civil rights protesters, even the agent waterboarding the prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. Even they will have their hearts opened. And the day will come when they will understand and live with the joyous and freeing knowledge that there never was an enemy, that there never was an “other.”
The hard news is that conversion is something that can happen to anyone, that in God’s time, it will happen to everyone. That’s hard because it means that conversion might just come to people whom we may not believe deserve it or are worthy of it. And maybe even worse than that, that’s hard because it means that conversion might just come to you and to me.
Here we are in church. Just like Saul, we are faithful people. And what if, just like Saul, our conversion – or maybe we should speak in the plural, our conversions – are still to come? What will we do when Jesus speaks to you and to me? Most of us won’t have an experience as dramatic as Paul did on the Damascus Road. But Jesus does and will speak to us: through the voice of a friend, through a book, on a hiking path, maybe even in church.
What will you do when you are walking down the road – to Damscus or, perhaps, to Lloyd Center – and you hear the voice of Jesus? What will we do when we hear the words that change everything?