Sermon by the Rev. Kate Ekrem for April 14 2013
Many years ago, I met a woman, a new member of the Episcopal Church, who said that what she loved about our church was that people were not continually asking her the date and time of her conversion to Christ. She came from a tradition – I can’t even remember what it was – where that was the norm, and in many churches it still is. My friend found the fact that we weren't so interested in her conversion hard to get used to, but refreshing, but I wonder if conversion isn't something we should think more about.
This morning we read the famous story of Saul, who was later of course called Paul, the author of most of the letters in the back of the New Testament. We read the famous story of how he turned from unbelief to belief in an instant that was like a flash of light.
How many of us really get struck by lightening like Saul? A few, definitely. But probably not most of us. So what about the rest of us? How do we get converted? Because we all do. That’s what it’s about, to live a converted life, to live a life that’s different that it would otherwise be because of your faith. We all have to be converted, converted away from our self-centeredness, into Christ-centeredness.
The Damascus road experience was an as an “abrupt stop” for Paul. Everything he was doing, on both a big picture level – living as a devout Pharisee – and on the little picture level – going on his way to Damascus to arrest some Christians – came crashing down around him in one moment. Everything he did before no longer made any sense. Sometimes that happens to people, they have an abrupt stop in their life. There’s no way to go forward unless you undergo a profound change, unless you give up completely what you are doing and turn things over to God. People who have overcome addiction sometimes talk about it that way. And when that happens to people we know, we sometimes call it a Damascus road experience.
However, few people have that kind of event in their lives. Saul’s experience was not even typical at the time. It gets a prominent mention in scripture because even in scriptural times it was extraordinary and unusual. Saul himself was an extraordinary person. Incredibly driven, a workaholic, just the kind of person who completely pours himself into whatever he is doing, who has to be right all the time. He though he was right, a good person, upholding his faith and cleansing it of heretics. Most of the Jewish leaders of that time, for example Saul’s teacher Gamaliel, thought that if they just ignored the Christians they would probably fade away. Don’t waste time on them was their point of view. Saul couldn’t do that. He was so driven, he had the arrest papers for people in Damascus in his pocket before he even got there, just in case. Perhaps God reaches out to him in a special way because he needs special help. Maybe nothing else would have really made him stop and consider what he was doing – causing the deaths of innocent people. God helps each of us, calls each of us, according to our individual needs.
Paul’s conversion is set next to the example of Ananias, whose house he goes to. Don’t you love how Ananias talks back to God? God comes to him in a vision and tells him to go see Saul, and Ananias is like, sure, God, but this Saul is actually a pretty bad guy, I think you should reconsider. Ananias seems very comfortable talking with God. Probably he did it from childhood. Probably he couldn't even remember a time when he didn't know God. He never had a bolt of lightening, just gradually grew into the understanding of Jesus and God that maybe a friend or neighbors or parents had shown him. A very different conversion experience than Saul’s. Not a lightening strike, but a life lived in a community of faith from the beginning.
What exactly is conversion all about? You know, earlier I said that Saul changed from unbelief to belief. But is that really right? Saul was a religious, believing Jew – just like Jesus, just like the 12 disciples. Saul certainly believes in God, he thought in persecuting the Christians he was doing exactly what God wanted. Saul has faith, but faith in what? When Jesus speaks to Saul there in the middle of the road, what does he ask him? He doesn't say, “Why don’t you believe in me?” He asks, “Why are you persecuting me.” [Just as Saul already had those arrest papers in his pocket, God already saw Saul s a forgiven person, forgiven for persecuting others, and reached out to him despite his breathing threats and murder.] Maybe Jesus is not so gently pointing out that saying that we have faith is not the most important thing, but how we treat others, the compassion that faith leads us to show the rest of God’s creation, that is where the rubber meets the road. Maybe this was what Paul meant when he wrote “If I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2)– he had a lot of faith in God as a Pharisee, but very little love.
Some people argue that Paul wasn't really converted, he just came to understand his own faith in God more clearly, more truly, more deeply. So I wonder what conversion, really is – for him and for us. Is it leaving behind the old completely and doing something new, or is it about growth and change, growing out of a childhood faith and embracing a deeper, clearer understanding of God’s plan for us?
In some churches, only adults are baptized because only adults can really know what it means to make a commitment of faith, only adults can really convert. But in our church, we baptize even the smallest infants who can’t even talk yet, who can hardly claim a conversion experience. That’s in part because we believe conversion is a life-long process, that should begin as early as possible. Baptism is not just a one-time event. It’s something we have to return to, reclaim again and again, as we fall short of the baptismal promises we make, as we grow in faith and understand those promises better. In the end is not about one time and date of conversion, but about a whole life and how it was lived. Saul who became Paul’s story is recorded in scripture, is told over and over again in the church, not because of what happened in that one moment, but because of the life he lived afterwards, from that moment on.
May we do such deed, both small and big, in our own lives, that our own stories of conversion may be an inspiration to others, as Paul’s is to us.
works consulted included:
works consulted included:
”Saving Saul” by Heidi A. Peterson The Christian Century,
11, 2001, p. 15
“I Am Jesus, Whom You Persecute” by Kosuke Koyama, Christian Century,
April 5, 1989, p. 347.