The encounter or the experience that we call conversion is about seeing and being seen. It is about being named.
First, seeing and being seen.
My vision fell off a cliff around the time that I turned 12. This is not a metaphor. In what felt like just a handful of days, but I suppose what must’ve actually been a handful of months, I went from being able to see at distance pretty well to blackboards turning green and vague and even stop signs morphing into red clouds on sticks.
I remember the day that I put on my new set of glasses. And, well, it was revelatory. I had never noticed or, I guess, I had forgotten how much texture there was on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, how there were veins in the leaves of the trees, how our cat was something other than a diffuse blob that moved around the house, periodically meowing.
Conversion is like that. Meeting Jesus is like that. In conversion we understand something, at least in part. But there is more than a new set of glasses going on, more than clarity when we meet Jesus. Because in conversion we realise that the clarity is mutual, that it is reciprocal. To turn around Paul’s language a little, in conversion we know and are known.
Now, I don’t mean that, in conversion, God sees us for the first time. God has always seen you and me. As Jeremiah proclaims, God has known you since before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Rather, I mean that in an encounter with Jesus, we understand, we know that we are seen by God.
This experience of being seen is powerful, it is transformative. If you have had a great teacher in your life – and if you have enjoyed any kind of success, any kind of happiness, I predict that you have had several great teachers – then you will know what it is to be seen. What is amazing about a great teacher is that, in order to free you up for the profound wonder that is learning, they don’t need you to be anyone other than who you are. A lesser teacher wants and maybe needs you to be just like them. They know how they learn and they want you to fit within their model. A great teacher, by contrast, wants and needs you to be utterly, freely yourself.
Jesus sees you as you are and wants you to learn and thrive and grow as you are.
Second, being named.
Sometimes when we encounter the holy, we get a new name. Some of us come out of the sacrament of marriage with a new last name, all of us come out of the sacrament of baptism with the new name Christian. And there are other sacraments, ones not named in the prayer book, where we get new names too. For some of you there was a day when you received the name Mom or Dad, or Grandma or Grandpa, Uncle or Aunt, Brother or Sister, or Friend. Hearing that name applied to you was maybe a little startling and a little beautiful all at the same time.
If we live long enough, we will receive other names, too. These names are harder. But maybe, maybe they are not less holy. To stand in a hospital corridor, for instance, is sometimes to be handed new and unwelcome names, names such as Next of Kin or Survivor or Widow or Orphan or the Bereaved.
In joy and in grief alike, we receive these new names. These names are outward and visible signs of our encounters with God.
In a way, it’s weird that the lectionary has paired this reading from Acts alongside this reading from John, that it has paired Saul along with Peter. After all, Peter is one of the very first of the disciples, he has followed Jesus from the very beginning, he was there long before the crowds, when absolutely everyone listening to Jesus’ words didn’t even add up to a dozen people. And Saul, well, when this story starts he is an ethnic cleanser, a supporter of the death squads. He is, Acts tells us, breathing threats and murder against the disciples.
But at another level, the pairing of these two people and these two stories makes total sense. Because Saul and Peter are both folks whose lives have been damaged by violence, whose lives have been shaped and distorted by the hatred of mobs. They are both folks, as a consequence, to whom Jesus comes – as Richard Rohr says, Jesus always goes towards the pain. They are both people who see Jesus and know that Jesus has seen them, they are both people who get new names after meeting God. Saul becomes Paul, and Peter (remember way, way back at the start of the story when his name is Simon), gets this new name, Peter, which means the Rock.
And they are both people who, in the stories that we hear today, are converted.
Clearly, the story from Acts is the conversion of Saul. And I’d like to make the case that the story from John is also a conversion story, that it is something like the second conversion of Peter.
Okay. I’ve just shared a whole lot of ideas in a row. Let’s see if we can unpack them a little bit. And let’s start with violence.
It is, I would venture, obvious how Saul has been distorted by mob violence: he is someone who is participating in and celebrating the Ancient Near East’s answer to lynching. And while, clearly, Peter has done no such thing, he does remain someone whose very understanding of himself has been shaped and shaken by the violence of a crowd. Because Peter at the last supper, remember, is the guy who says that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to death, that he will never deny Jesus. And he is the guy who, when confronted with the horror of the crowd’s violence, with the horror of the cross, denies Jesus three times.
So both of these men come into these respective tales having been profoundly diminished by violence, having had their understanding of themselves and of the world bent by violence. It’s fascinating to notice, by the way, that Peter starts this story naked. His very body is a metaphor, it is an outward and visible sign of how everything has been stripped away from him in the crucifixion.
Both Saul and Peter begin with this inability to see. Saul abruptly becomes blind. And Peter, like the rest of the disciples in the boat, can’t quite figure who it is on the shore in the early morning light who is calling out to them. As Paul Nuechterlein, whose work really shaped this sermon, says, the words, “Who are you?” are on the tips of all of the disciples’ tongues. But somehow nobody on the lake that morning dares to spit out that question, because – and how enigmatic or paradoxical is this? – they all know that it is Jesus.
Saul actually does ask the question, “Who are you?” And Jesus replies, fascinatingly, wondrously, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Not, I am Jesus, and you are persecuting my disciples, but I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Here, from the risen and ascended Lord, is an echo of the Beatitudes: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me.
Saul, now groping about in darkness in the middle of the day, is lucky enough to meet some people who are kinder than he is, and he is led further into Damascus. He finds his way into a room where, lost, he devotes himself to prayer. And this disciple, Ananias, comes to him. Ananias who is afraid of Saul with good reason, but who trusts Jesus more than he fears Saul, and who goes and lays hands upon Saul – Brother Saul, he even calls him. He says, Jesus has sent me so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit.
And something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes. And after he gets his strength back, he begins to proclaim everywhere that Jesus is the Son of God.
Peter meanwhile swims to the shore. (I love the weird detail that he puts on clothes to jump into the water – that’s the opposite of what most of us do. I love the even weirder detail that the net that he and his buddies haul in the incredibly specific number of 153 fish.)
And there, for the second time in not very long, he stands around a charcoal fire.
Remember that Peter is standing around a fire in the cold of the night when he denies Jesus. In the resurrection, in this moment of conversion, that scene is inverted or reversed. Jesus, wondrously, gives to Peter the chance to reverse his actions. Much as there were three denials, Jesus now gives Peter three opportunities to say, I love you.
The scene is amazing enough in translation, in English. It is a picture of resurrection, of forgiveness, so beautiful that it might just put you on your knees. But it is even more amazing in Greek. Because in John’s original language, there is a fascinating discrepancy in Jesus’ words and in Peter’s. The Greek has multiple words for Love, and so what Jesus asks Peter is Do you agape me? And Peter responds, Yes Lord, I philio you. And then a second time, Peter, do you agape me? To which Peter says, Yes, I philio you.
What happens the third time? Does Peter finally get it, does he finally use the right word? That’s what we might expect. But it’s not what happens. Jesus says:
Peter, Do you philio me? In other words, he sees Peter right where he is, he uses his language, he names him right where he is, he joins him right where he is.
This is what happens in conversion. For Saul, for Peter. For you and me. This is the moment, however fleeting, when we see Jesus and we know that he has always seen us, when we are given new a name, a name like Disciple, like Christian, like Beloved Child of God.
Jesus himself stood among the disciples and said to them:
Peace be with you.
They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them:
Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?
Look at my hands and my feet;
see that it is I myself.
In the Gospel of Luke, the resurrected Jesus visits his disciples twice. Jesus first comes to them in the story that we call the Road to Emmaus: two friends, rocked by the injustice and the trauma of the crucifixion, are walking away from Jerusalem when they encounter a stranger. This stranger says to them: How come you guys are sad?
The friends are in disbelief. It turns out that they have just met the only person in the world who has not heard about the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, about the last meal and the washing of feet, about the betrayal in the garden, about the trial before Pilate, about the cross.
And so they tell the stranger the story as they walk. And when they reach their destination and the stranger makes to keep on going, they invite him in to share a meal. It is in sharing a meal that they understand that it is Jesus who is with them. And then Jesus is gone.
The two friends run back to Jerusalem to tell everyone else what has happened.
The friends’ story ends with word that we sometimes say or sing here in church.
The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread.
Immediately after they get back home, Luke tells us the story that we hear this morning. Indeed, Luke makes it clear that the Jesus’ two appearances are consecutive not just in the text but they are also consecutive as the disciples experience them. The one happens right after the other. The lectionary cuts off the opening words that we find in Luke: “While they were talking about this.” While they were talking about what had just happened in Emmaus, “Jesus himself stood among the disciples.”
Luke tells that these two stories, these two appearances of the resurrected Jesus to his friends, are interconnected, that we are to understand them together.
In the story that we hear today there is, as on the Road to Emmaus, confusion. And this time there is the additional element of fear. Jesus says, “Peace be with you.” But peace is not what his friends feel. They feel something more like panic. They reckon that they are encountering a ghost.
But then something wonderful and strange happens.
Now, I have seen enough action movies and read enough fantasy novels to know that when you think that a beloved character is dead but they really are not, what that character generally does when they reappear is to explain how they avoided the avalanche by hiding in a cave, how they escaped the villain’s laser beam by using the mirror hidden in their shoe, how the bullet was stopped by the Bible in their pocket.
The hero’s friends say: We thought that you were dead! And the hero replies: I’m just fine. See?
But when Jesus’ friends say: We thought that you were dead! Jesus replies:
You were right. I was dead. Look at the mortal wounds on my body.
And somehow, it is in seeing the wounds that they understand that they are not looking at a ghost but, rather, that they are talking to their teacher and friend.
Is there an equivalent to the end of the Emmaus story here? The disciples knew the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread. And the disciples knew the Lord Jesus…
in his woundedness and pain.
What do these consecutive stories in the Gospel of Luke tell us about who Jesus is?
Let’s try out an answer or two to that question. This won’t be – this can’t be – an exhaustive list. The resurrection of Jesus pushes the boundaries of our understanding, of our imagination, of our faith. The resurrection always contains more meaning that we could hope to define. But here is a beginning.
Knowing Jesus in bread and in hurt means that God is to be found in the peak and the pit of human experience. Bread – in Jesus’ time and ours – is a symbol of celebration. Right now, we live in a ritually impoverished time. But we still understand that a necessary component of marking a big occasion is food. It would be odd to have a birthday party without cake, to have a wedding in which you sent everyone away without feeding them. We understand that breaking bread marks a joyous occasion.
Sometimes we stand on a mountaintop (be it a literal or a figurative mountaintop) in which we encounter God, in which we reach out and touch God’s face. And when we come down from the mountain, we say, “God was with us.” And we’re right.
Sometimes we have a near miss in a car or we dodge some other kind of disaster and, as we sit shaking under the streetlight, we say that God was with us. And we’re right when we say that.
Jesus in bread tells us that God is present in these moments. But Jesus in his woundedness tells us that Jesus is with us in what the psalms call the pit as well. Jesus is with us when the other car doesn’t miss, when it hits us square on and the metal crumples, when our lives change or end in an instant. Jesus is with us on the day that we start the chemo. Jesus is with us when we sign the papers finalizing the divorce. Jesus is with us when we get the phone call that changes everything.
A second way of reading bread and hurt – and I can’t decide if this is contradictory or complementary – is that Jesus is present not just in the peak and the pit but also in the everyday. There is nothing more normal, more daily than sitting down for a meal. We name this normality in the Lord’s Prayer: give us today our daily bread. A kitchen is where life happens. The resurrected Jesus says that God is with us not just in the peak and the valley but also in the valley when we are wandering around buying groceries or working on our taxes or vacuuming.
And if bread is everyday, so is hurt. There is nothing more normal, more daily than suffering. To live any kind of life is to know pain, to know disappointment, to know injustice, to know grief. All of us are coming here wounded. And Jesus is with us in that too.
Whether we are talking about peak or pit or valley, in the resurrection, we see holy confirmation of what we see across Jesus’ life before he went to the cross: that Jesus shares with us in everything; that the promise of Christmas is true and Jesus really is Emmanuel, God with us.
Maybe another way of expressing God’s steadfast presence is to say that knowing Jesus in bread and in hurt means that God’s great qualities are not so much power and might as they are vulnerability and solidarity. God is willing to risk sharing with us in our joy and our pain. In the resurrected Christ, we see proof that Jesus knows life in its hard and beautiful fullness. Jesus breaks the bread and he shows us his wounds and he says: I know life completely. I have risked sharing it with you, and I have celebrated and suffered as a consequence. There is nothing so mundane that you cannot say to me: Lord, you know what this is like. There is nothing so awful or unfair that you cannot say to me: Lord, you know what this is like.
I wonder. I wonder if the solidarity and vulnerability of God are what we are talking about when we use the word communion.
The late author and theologian Nancy Eiesland wrote extensively about her understanding of faith as a person with a physical disability. Eiesland tells the story of leading a Bible study with a group of people with spinal cord injuries, more than one of whom were operating their wheelchairs with a sip-puff, with a straw that allows the person in the chair to control its speed and direction. Eiesland says that she asked the gathered group of people:
How would you know if God was with you and understood your experience?
After a long pause, a young man replied: If God was in a sip-puff, maybe God would understand.
Eiesland suggests that when Jesus shows his wounds to us that he is demonstrating that this young man got his wish. Jesus says: Look at my disability, look at what the new normal is for me. In the bread, Jesus says that he is with us in our joy. And in his woundedness, Jesus says that he is with us in our pain.
I am here in the sip-puff. I am the one being waterboarded in the secret room. I am the one being evicted with nowhere to go. I am the one being deported to a country he doesn’t know after 20 years in America. I am the one who is gunned down in the school shooting.
The vulnerability and the solidarity of the resurrection are an embodiment of what Jesus teaches us when he says: Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.
God is not watching from a distance. God literally has skin in the game. And as a consequence, God is deeply and personally invested in healing, in justice, in creativity, in love, in reconciliation.
Jesus breaks the bread.
Jesus show us his wounds.
See that it is I myself.
Imagine that you are on a road leading away from a city and toward a town. Here on the road you are in neither place, neither city nor town, neither where you came from nor where you are going.
You are in between.
The road beneath your feet is made of packed dirt, the dust that you kick up from it is deep into your pores, it saturates your shirt and your shoes. You will be washing it out of your skin and your clothes for days to come.
Or maybe that’s not right.
Maybe the road is made of crushed gravel, each step a percussive crunch under your sandals, thousands of tiny pieces of rock shifting with your every step. Or maybe that’s not right either. Maybe the road is brick laid down by the Romans, or concrete poured by the Germans, or asphalt baked onto the earth by still someone else. Maybe your soles slap on it like anemic applause.
In the text that we have received, the city from which you walking is called Jerusalem. And the town towards which your feet carry you is called Emmaus.
But in your story, the city and the town are called by different names.
In the city whose name you know, you endured the greatest of hurts, the greatest of griefs. Something happened there that changed everything, that rocked everything, that destabilised and maybe even broke everything.
It has been only three days since the event. But it feels as though a chasm of time lies between you right here, right now on the road and who you were before the event happened.
You wonder if the person whom you were before is gone.
While the road is lonely – you haven’t seen anyone coming the other way in forever, you haven’t been overtaken by anyone running or riding a horse in just as long – you aren’t alone on it. A friend walks with you, a friend who was there with you in the city when the event happened. The two of you talk about the event and you and walk and the great earth rolls beneath your feet. As you travel, the two of you try on the word “trauma” to describe what you have experienced. It is not a word that either of you is accustomed to applying to yourselves, that either of you wants to apply to yourselves.
Do the two of you weep as you walk? Are your words interrupted by chest heaving sobs? Or are you out of tears? Do you speak to one another from a numb, flat place?
Abruptly a third person joins you. When you remember it later, you won’t be sure where he came from, how it is that he came to walk beside you on the road between the city and the town. It is like a dream. But it’s not a dream. He is as real as the sky above your head, the ground beneath your feet.
He asks you and your friend:
What are you guys talking about?
That simple question stops you like you have hit a wall.
How can anyone not know what happened? After what changed and got broken a few days ago, the idea that anyone wouldn’t know borders on the disrespectful, on the perverse. It borders on the disrespectful, on the perverse, that anyone’s life could continue as it did before, that after what happened people could be going to work or school or the grocery store as they did before, that birds could sing, that the sun could rise in the morning.
How can you not know?
But when you look at the man beside you on the road, your anger melts away. And so you tell him the story.
You have told this story more times that you can count over the past few days, you have spoken it out loud and replayed over and over in your head. This is the story that propels you down the lonely road. This is the story that keeps you awake in the night. But notwithstanding its the repetition, notwithstanding all the times that you have wished that the story were banished from your psyche, that it were not true, telling it to this person on the road feels…
Well, it feels like before. When you and your friends were travelling on other roads and the crowds traveled with you. It feels like freedom, like possibility. Like home.
Telling the story to him is like putting down a burden. Your step is lighter for the telling.
He listens without interrupting. And come the end, you are surprised to see that he is smiling.
How foolish you are, he says,
How slow to believe.
And as the three of you walk, he begins to explain. Everything.
When you get to the village at the end of your road, your companion makes like he is going to keep on going.
Wait. It is almost evening. Stay with us.
And so he stays.
The three of you sit down together for supper. The meal is simple. But it is enough. He takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to you.
And your eyes are opened.
Somehow, every meal that you ever shared with him is here in this instant. The meals on the mountainside, on the plain. The meals with the tax collectors and the sex trade workers and the priests. The meals where the wasn’t enough and then, somehow, there was abundance. The last meal with him in the room on the last day.
And then, as abruptly as he came, he is gone.
You and your friend look at one another in wild wonder. And while what you say next is framed as a question, it is actually something closer to a statement. It is the naming out loud of something that both of you know in your bones.
Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road?
Are not our hearts burning still?
And so, even though it is almost dark, the two of you return to the road. This time you do not walk – you run. You run back across the road, back through the inbetween place, back from the town to the city whose name you know. You run back to the place where it happened. Back your friends. You burst into the room. And just as you are about to tell them the news, they tell it to you first.
Alleluia! Christ is risen.
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!
For the rest of the night, the room is filled with jubilant storytelling. Stories about the empty tomb, about his appearance to the women and then to Simon Peter, stories about him walking with you on the road, stories about how he has broken the bonds of death. Stories about how he was made known to you in the breaking of the bread.
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?