Vicar Meagan McLaughlin
The Conversion of St. Paul
Texts: Acts 9:1-22, Psalm 67, Galatians 1:11-24, Luke 21:10-19
Grace and peace to you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
By all counts, Saul was the last person anyone would have expected to carry the news of Jesus. Of course, God has always been inclined to call unlikely people to be prophets and leaders. Look at Moses--he murdered someone and ran away, and then God called him in the burning bush to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt. Esther was a young, unknown Jewish girl called to save her people from a plot to kill them. And Jesus called fishermen and tax collectors to be his disciples, not exactly people of means and authority and high reputation. But Saul. Saul, unlike Moses or Esther or the disciples, was not merely unknown or disreputable, he was far worse. He had put all of his passion and energy into seeking out, torturing, and killing the People of the Way, Jews who believed in Jesus. It kind of makes you wonder, what was God thinking, calling Saul to be a disciple?
Ananias certainly wondered, and he asked God if he was really being sent to Saul, the one who killed followers of Jesus. He must have felt that he was being sent into the lion’s den. Saul was said to have been breathing murder as he walked the road to Damascus, and Ananias was, after all, one of the troublemakers Saul was planning to arrest! It was an incredible act of grace, going to proclaim forgiveness and healing to someone who wanted to kill him.
So, why Saul? Well, why not Saul? Because here’s the thing: Saul wasn’t really evil, although he certainly did some evil things. He did not set out to fight God, or torture people for his own benefit. The truth is, in all the time before Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus, he was absolutely, passionately convinced that everything he was doing was essential to preserve the Jewish faith that he loved. Saul believed he was right, and was doing exactly what God wanted him to do, and he had no idea how wrong he was.
Saul needed conversion. He was heading the wrong way, and needed to be turned in the right direction. When Jesus came to Saul on the road to Damascus, he showed him the truth of his own sin and his need for forgiveness. Jesus changed his direction, telling him exactly where he had gone wrong, and what he needed to do next. Saul needed to follow Jesus, and just to make his point perfectly clear, Jesus struck Saul blind so he would understand that without God, he would never find his way.
We all need conversion. No matter how sure we may feel that we are on the right path, every one of us have our blind spots, and in that blindness we move away from God and hurt those around us. We serve meals to those who are hungry, and leave people in our family starving for attention and love. We treat co-workers with respect all day, and cut off the driver next to us on the way home. We come to worship on Sunday and pray for peace in our community, and ignore the web of violence, fear, and unjust treatment that is a part of daily life for so many. We really aren’t so different from Saul. We all need conversion. In the end, we are all unlikely disciples.
If conversion were as simple as making a statement of faith or belief, that would be easy. But conversion is more than that. Conversion, as Saul experienced it, is a process of seeing the truth, changing direction, and following Jesus. And, because we are human and will never be perfect, conversion is not a one-time deal. Seeing the truth, changing direction, and following Jesus needs to become a way of life, and it is not easy.
God told Ananias that Saul would learn that conversion involves suffering. Oscar Romero describes sin as sore spots that hurt when someone touches them, and tells us, “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that. Believe in Christ. Be converted.” We see the truth, and it hurts. But as long as we stay in our blindness, refusing to see the truth and change, we will continue on the same path Saul was on before he met Jesus on the road to Damascus, hurting ourselves and others without ever realizing it.
The invitation of Jesus is a call to believe that change, even though it is hard and painful, is possible. No matter how far off the path we may fall, God can show us our sin and bring us back. God does this work through this community of faith. Hearing the word of God in scripture and preaching and music in our worship can help us see where we have gone wrong, call us to follow Jesus, and remind us of the grace and love of God. We can share the joys and struggles of our lives with one another, and learn to be humble, acknowledging that we are all human and none of us are perfect. We can practice conversion as a way of life, admitting when we have harmed someone and becoming willing to change. And, as Ananias showed us, we can be supportive of one another, offering truth, forgiveness, and grace when others struggle.
Conversion, then, is not a “way into the church.” It is a way of life that makes it possible for unlikely disciples like us to live out our faith in all areas of our lives. The faith that we share propels us into the community, calling for us to see the truth of how we have supported racism, poverty, and other forms of oppression, even if it is only by our silence. We are called to see the truth, hear the stories, and become willing to change and act so oppression ends.
As we go through our day, our faith opens our eyes to those that are too often invisible to us—the people in line with us at the grocery store, the server at the restaurant, the person checking us in at the doctor’s office. We see how easy it is to look through or past them, and offer only our frustrations and judgments, while never knowing their name. We respond to the call of our faith to treat everyone we encounter as children of God, first.
Our faith guides how we treat our parents, our siblings, our partners, our children. We open our hearts to see the truth of the ways we fall short in our relationships with the people we are closest to, and grow in our ability to love, support and forgive.
Saul’s experience on the road to Damascus changed everything for him, because it called him to act in new ways. As unlikely as it was that Saul should become a believer in Jesus, God made it possible. Our experience of Jesus should change us, too. It is not easy to see our weaknesses and acknowledge how we have hurt others, and become willing to follow God more closely, but this is what our faith is all about. We are not so different from Saul, after all. We all need conversion, so we can fulfill our call to live out our faith. The message of God’s grace, love, and forgiveness is much greater than our weaknesses, and in order to share that with the world, God uses even the unlikeliest of disciples.
Thanks be to God!