What is Conversion
A sermon on Acts 9:1-20 by Nathan Nettleton, 30 April 1995
An encounter with the risen Christ can totally reorient our lives and our perceptions of the world.
The church is so often perceived as an immovable institution that champions the unchangeable. Many church buildings look like fortresses where nothing changes - even the seats are bolted to the floor. The fact that the church is so often seen this way, and so often sees itself this way, shows just how totally Christianity has abandoned its roots.
You see, the foundational stories of our faith are stories of radical change, of reevaluating of traditions, of breathing fresh life into tired old structures. One of the major reasons the authorities wanted to killed Jesus was that he advocated such radical change in the way God and faith were perceived and that threatened the authority of the sort of people who bolt the pews to the floor.
The story of Paul's conversion on the Damascus Road is one of the favourite stories of evangelical Christianity because it speaks of the dramatic change in a vehement opponent of Christianity when he encounters the risen Christ. It is a story of extraordinary disruption, of sudden freedom and overturning of the certainties. And we evangelical Christians who claim that story as our own, have often been the ones who seem most anxious to get everything tied down, strictly defined, and permanently set in concrete.
Today we come seeking the God who breaks open concrete minds and breathes life into hearts of stone. We seek to celebrate the God who has converted us, and we to seek to open ourselves to the radical uncertainties of an ongoing conversion that will eventually transform us in the image of Christ.
This account of Saul's conversion is one of four versions we have in the scriptures. We have one written by Paul himself, and three by Luke in the book of Acts. They all differ in a number of details, but you would expect that because, as we said a couple of weeks ago, when you experience something as earth-shatteringly unexpected as personally meeting someone who was supposed to be dead, you don't tend to remember the details, just the results. This version from Luke is the most detailed and the best known, and it is so compellingly written that it has become the story of conversion. This is the one that Christians always refer to when they are explaining what they mean by conversion.
But I want to briefly point out something interesting about this very important story. I want to explain a little technicality in the interpreting of the story, because unlike a lot of technicalities, it actually has important implications for how we understand our own conversions and faith stories.
There are various different genres of literature within the Bible, just as there is outside the Bible. And often recognizing the genre of a story affects how we interpret it. For example we all know how to recognize a fairy tale without having to be told that it is one, and having recognized it as a fairy tale we interpret it differently from a front page news story. Similarly within the newspaper, if you read the headline Demons destroy saints, you would understand it one way if it was on the sports pages and another way if it was on the religious affairs page.
Now one of the problems we have with reading the Bible is that the various genres within it are not familiar to us and so we don't recognize them easily and that restricts our ability to understand all that the stories are saying. This story, the story of Paul's experience on the Damascus road, is a case in point. To the readers of its day, it was in a recognizable genre that helped them to interpret it, but the interesting thing is that although we always refer to it as Paul's conversion, it is not the genre of conversion stories. It is the genre of call stories.
When I first started the process towards ordination, the Baptist Union wanted to hear my call story. How did I come to feel called to go into the ministry? There are a number of call stories in the Bible. Several of the prophets, most notably Isaiah and Amos, have dramatic call stories. Moses' story of the burning bush is another very well known call story. Paul's story is modelled on these. The emphasis is not on Paul, believe in me and be saved. It is on Paul being the instrument God has chosen to bring God's name before gentiles and kings and God's people Israel.
I'm not saying that this is not a conversion story. I'm saying that maybe we can't talk very sensibly about conversion without talking about call. I started to believe in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour when I was fifteen. And to be honest it had virtually no impact on my life at all. I might as well have started believing that the earth revolved around the sun. That knowledge makes no difference to my life either. But two years later I had an experience in which I came to realize that God wanted some action from me, and that turned my life around. I realized that God hadn't called me to believe and set aside an hour on Sundays, but that God had called me to follow, to be a disciple, to be an active representative of Christ in the world. That scared the spit out of me, but that was my Damascus road experience, my turning point when I encountered Christ as a living active Lord, instead of as a nice theory.
What I would like us to do now is to reflect on three aspects of conversion in light of our own conversion stories, and on the extent to which they are all call stories - accounts of God calling us into active service. I've already talked about the relationship between conversion and call to action, and that is probably going to be the background to much of what we say about conversion. But it would be good to hear from some others.
The first thing that I'd like us to discuss is one of the favourite bits of jargon of evangelical Christians. Conversion is often referred to as being born again. It is interesting that it has become such a favourite phrase, because it rests on only one verse from the whole bible, and it is a verse where the original language is so uncertain that we are not even sure whether born again is the right translation. But regardless of that, it is a favourite phrase because it captures something real and important for many people.
So I'm interested to hear what it does mean to you. There is no right answer. What do you think of when you think about the idea of being born again? What is it about encountering the risen Christ for the first time that is like being born?
What is it about Paul's experience that was like being born again? (strong man rendered helpless, entering like a little child)
(people hitting rock bottom, being completely humbled before responding to Christ)
The second aspect of conversion I'd like us to discuss for a bit is the extent to which it is a one-off event, and the extent to which it is an ongoing process or a series of events. Think about it for a moment. You see, if you take your car in to be converted from petrol driven to LPG, it is a one off event. It goes in one way and it comes out another and that is all there is to it. But that is not the only way we use the word. I could also talk about my car being converted into a rust heap, and that is not a one off event. That has been going on for some time, and it will go on for quite a while yet.
Talking about Christian conversion can be either or both of these things. I can talk about having been converted as a one off event. There was a time before I was a Christian, before I had had any sort of conscious encounter with Christ, and then it happened, I encountered Christ and I decided to respond and then I was a Christian. But I can also talk about many more experiences, more or less significant, when I have encountered Christ again in new ways, and been converted more and more. In each experience I have opened new aspects of my life to the transforming influence of Christ. Look at Simon Peter in our gospel reading earlier. Simon Peter had believed in Jesus for a few years. He had been his closest follower. And yet in that experience on the beach at Easter, he was converted all over again. The moment of decision approached again. Simon, son of John, do you love me? O.K. Feed my sheep.
What about you? What has conversion been like for you - more of an event or a process or a series of events? Are you still being converted?
Finally, let's talk a bit about the relational dimension of our conversion, because this was certainly a big thing for Paul. Paul the proud Jew, the man who knew all the boundaries, and guarded them jealously, is called to be God's messenger among the gentiles, the unclean. He is called to recognize people he has shunned all his life and regarded as filthy pagans, his brothers and sisters. Before this Paul would have rather pulled out his own eyes with his fingers than sit down to eat with gentiles in their homes. But now it is his life mission. Who says God makes conversion easy for us? When the risen Christ encounters us he calls us to recognize the image of God in those who we have most despised. Jesus was constantly in trouble for accepting and affirming people who were considered unclean, beyond the pale. People whose behaviour proved them godless. He called on religious leaders to embrace prostitutes as their sisters in God's kingdom. Conversion is never a private affair. We are called to join a new community, how ever we may feel about the other people in it.
So what are some of the experiences here? What have been some of the social steps that conversion has meant for you? How has your involvement with other people changed? Where have you been stretched?
In Christ all are one. No male - female, Jew - gentile, slave - free, black - white, homo - hetero, sane - psycho, housed - homeless, rich - poor, sober - drunk.
Conversion - the moment is now, again and again.