My friend Steve was brought up in a non-Christian family and had never had any real contact with the church. But he and I became friends when we were teenagers; we played music together, and after a while he started hanging out with our church youth group. He ended up sitting in on a series of confirmation classes, and when the classes were over the minister, who happened to be my Dad, asked him if he would like to be confirmed. “There’s a problem”, Steve said; “I’ve never been baptised!” “We can soon fix that!” my Dad replied. So a couple of weeks later I had the thrill of standing beside my best friend as he made a public commitment of his life to Christ in Christian baptism.
Like Steve, my friend Terry was not involved in church and had never been baptised, but he was a good friend of Chuck, who was a member of our church. But when he was in his late forties things started to go seriously wrong in Terry’s life – loss of a very well-paying job, and the breakup of his marriage – and he happened to wander into church one day. The preacher that day preached about the story of the lost sheep, and Terry said, “That was me!” So began a process that eventually led to his being baptised in our church.
Unlike Steve and Terry, Keith had been raised as a churchgoer and continued to attend regularly. He was in the oil industry; he had been brought up in a very competitive family where he had learned early on that love was something you had to compete for. He was a churchgoing Anglican but had never found anything especially personal in his religion. As an adult he gradually found that life was becoming too much for him, and through a long series of events he found himself on the edge of a breakdown. One day he went for a long drive in the desert by himself. As he drove he found himself both weeping and praying. In his prayer he said to God, “God, if there’s anything you want in this stinking life, then take it”. That was the beginning of a change for Keith. From that day on, he gradually discovered in Jesus a relationship with a God whose love he didn’t have to compete for. In his later life he had many successes and failures, but he always looked back to that day in the desert as the moment when his life as an intentional Christian began.
These three stories all have to do with what we sometimes call ‘Christian conversion’ – the process by which people come to a lively faith in Christ. Some people come to this experience gradually, as part of a Christian upbringing; they don’t have a ‘darkness and light’ experience, but nonetheless the presence of Jesus becomes real to them and they consciously identify themselves as his followers. Others come from outside the faith and the Christian community and have a definite experience of turning to Christ. The truth is that there are as any different conversion stories as there are Christians, and each of them is a little window into the way the Holy Spirit works in people’s lives.
Today in our first reading we heard the story of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus - better known to us by his Roman name of Paul – who went on to become the great apostle and write many of the letters in the New Testament. This story has often been used as an ideal with which to compare our own conversion – earlier generations sometimes talked about having a ‘Damascus Road experience’. But in fact, just like today, there are many different kinds of conversion stories in the New Testament. Some of them are sudden and some are gradual. Some are dramatic and miraculous, while some are prosaic and low-key. Are there some common elements in them, which we can also detect in this story of the conversion of Saul? I believe there are; let me point out two of them to you.
First, Christian conversion is not just about believing in God; it’s about our commitment to Jesus and our experience of Jesus. Let’s try to think ourselves back into Saul’s frame of mind before he became a Christian. To him, Israel was God’s chosen people, called to be faithful to the one true God in a world of false gods. Saul was looking for the coming of the Day of the Lord, the day when Israel’s enemies would be defeated and the nation would be set free forever. However, he believed that before that day could come, Israel must be totally obedient to the Law of the Lord. That meant observing all the rituals, keeping the Sabbath day strictly, and following all the laws about food you could and couldn’t eat. Above all, it meant avoiding Gentiles, and avoiding Jews who didn’t care about God’s law. He believed that on the Day of the Lord they would all be destroyed.
Saul’s picture of God definitely did not include Jesus; to him, Jesus was a dangerous deceiver. Instead of sending people to the temple to offer sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins, Jesus boldly declared that they were forgiven because of their faith in him. He ate with sinners and even accepted Gentiles and healed them. He said that observing the food laws wasn’t important since evil came from the human heart, not from unclean food. For all these reasons he could not be the true Messiah, and so his movement must be stamped out for the good of the people. For this reason Saul was on his way to Damascus to hunt down followers of Jesus and arrest them.
Then came the dramatic experience we heard about in our first reading. In the Old Testament, light is often a sign of the presence of God, and so at first Saul might have been excited that God was about to appear to him. But then he got the shock of his life. A voice from heaven asked him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (vv.4-5). Can you understand how decisively the bottom dropped out of Saul’s world at that moment? He was encountering the God he thought he had been serving all his life, and he found that this God spoke to him with the voice of Jesus! Far from being a dangerous distraction from God’s plan, it turned out that Jesus was right at the centre of God’s plan!
Does this sort of thing still happen today? Well, let me tell you Hugh’s story. Hugh was a child of a Jewish family who was sent to an English boarding school in the 1930’s. He had never read the New Testament and knew nothing about Jesus. Listen to what he says about his conversion at the age of sixteen:
I was sitting alone in my study…indulging in a rather pleasant adolescent gloom. I suddenly became aware of a figure in white whom I saw clearly in my mind’s eye. I use this expression because I am pretty sure that a photograph would have showed nothing special on it. I heard the words “Follow me”. Instinctively I knew that this was Jesus… it was an indescribably rich event that filled me afterwards with overpowering joy. I could do no other than to follow those instructions.
Obviously Hugh’s conversion was not just to faith in God in a generic sort of way; it was also about commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who is alive today and is still active in people’s lives.
It needs to be said that it is possible to be a religious person but not yet to have found this vital connection to the living God in Christ. Before Saul’s conversion he was a faithful follower of one of the most elaborate religious systems the world has ever seen; his commitment would have expressed itself in regular worship in the synagogue, keeping the Sabbath and the food laws and observing all the commandments. But what was lacking in Saul’s intensely religious life was a genuine encounter with the living God as he has been revealed to us in Jesus. On the Damascus Road, this was what he received. The God he had thought he was serving all his life came to him in the person of Jesus, who he had been persecuting, and this experience changed his whole life and outlook. And when Ananias baptised him and laid hands on him, he received the gift of the Holy Spirit, which meant God came even closer.
So Christian conversion is not just about believing in God; it’s also about our commitment to Christ and our experience of Christ. Secondly, Christian conversion is also about our relationship with Jesus’ family - his Church.
Some years ago I was in a home preparing some folks for the baptism of their children. The godparents were also at the session. It was obvious that they were devoted Christians, but when I asked them where they went to church they said ‘We don’t go anywhere; we just pray by ourselves at home’.
Statistics show us that this kind of isolated Christianity is on the rise, but when we compare it with New Testament Christianity it’s obvious that it’s missing something vital. In the New Testament, being a Christian always involves being in community with other Christians. There are two places in the story of Saul’s conversion where we see this.
The first is in the words of Jesus to Saul. Look again at verses 4-5:
‘(Saul) 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’.
Do you see how Jesus identifies himself with his people? Apparently, to persecute Christians is to persecute Jesus himself. And I therefore conclude that to separate yourself from your fellow Christians is also to separate yourself from Jesus; to reject them is to reject him. This community – this collection of imperfect recovering sinners - is his Body. He expects us to be part of it, and to love it as he loves it.
The second place where we see the importance of the community is in the role of Ananias in this story. Now presumably, since Jesus had already spoken to Saul directly from heaven, he could have said and done everything necessary without the help of a human messenger. But he chose not to. Instead, he chose to ask a scared human being to go visit Saul, to call him ‘Brother’, to baptise him, and to pray for him to be healed and filled with the Holy Spirit.
Many of you can probably think of an ‘Ananias’ in your life. After all, if you are a baptised Christian, someone did the baptising! Perhaps there was also a teacher or a preacher who made the Christian message clear and compelling and helped you come to know Jesus for yourself. Perhaps when you were feeling a bit shy about joining a Christian community, someone welcomed you and treated you like a brother or sister. These things are vitally important, aren’t they?
So Christian conversion isn’t just about a deeper relationship with Jesus; it’s about his people and our relationship with them, too. It involves a commitment to a life of learning to know and love our fellow Christians, a life of worshipping God with them and growing in Christ with them.
Christian conversion is about our commitment to Jesus, our experience of Jesus, and our relationship with Jesus’ family, his Church. Let me close with three brief words of application.
First, some of us here today have been on this journey of conversion for some time. We have experienced the touch of God’s love and his gentle challenge to a deeper commitment to Jesus and his family. For some of us this was a natural progression that began when our parents gave us to Christ. For others, it was a definite journey from a life without God into a deeper awareness of him through Jesus. If this describes us today, then God calls us to continue on this journey; as Peter says in 2 Peter 3:18 ‘Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ’.
Second, some of us are being called by God to play the part of ‘Ananias’ in someone else’s life. It might even be someone who looks hopelessly indifferent to Christ on the outside, but, all unknown to us, God has already been at work in their life pointing them in Jesus’ direction. If so, let’s not be afraid to love them, welcome them, speak about Jesus to them, and help them take a step closer to him.
Lastly, some of us may have realised today that our religious life has been entirely consumed by an institution called ‘the church’, but has not included a personal connection with Jesus. If this is me, then God wants me to understand today that Jesus is inviting me into this new life with him. I probably won’t see him as Hugh did, but nonetheless he is still inviting me, asking, “Will you follow me?” If I understand that this is what Jesus is asking of me, then the most eloquent prayer in the world for me is the simple word “Yes”. And if this is you, then at some point during this service this morning, in the quiet of your heart, why not turn to Jesus and say your “Yes” to his invitation?