25 January 2015: The Conversion of St Paul
Acts 9:1-22; Ps. 67; Galatians 1:11-24; Luke 21:10-19
St Stephen Lutheran Church
The Rev. Maurice C. Frontz, STS
Even though today’s feast is called
‘The Conversion of St Paul,’
the word ‘conversion’ does not appear in our texts for today.
But it seems an appropriate enough word.
To ‘convert’ is to turn around.
You are walking one way,
and then you turn around and you walk the other way.
Oddly enough, St Paul did not ‘convert’ in this literal sense.
He was on his way to Damascus,
and then he kept going to Damascus.
But when he got to Damascus,
he began to walk in a new way,
in the way of suffering and witness,
in the way of Christ.
To walk in a new way.
We think that we know what conversion means.
We may say ‘he converted to Lutheranism,’
or, ‘she converted to Catholicism.’
Strictly speaking, these are not correct uses of the word ‘conversion.’
No one ‘converts’ to Lutheranism,
just as no one is baptized ‘into’ the Lutheran church.
For as St Paul himself writes in Ephesians,
‘There is one faith, one hope, one baptism,
one God and Father of all.’
When we are baptized,
we are baptized into the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.
One does not ‘convert’ to Lutheranism or Orthodoxy or Catholicism,
one converts to Christianity.
But what is the experience of conversion?
At first glance, we might not learn a whole lot about conversion
from St Paul’s experience.
He is struck down, blinded,
hears a voice,
has a strange man sent to him by Jesus.
I would venture to guess that none of you has had that experience.
If you have, it would be very interesting to hear about.
See me after church.
Actually, make an appointment,
it might take a while.
So if none or very few of us has experienced conversion
in the way St Paul did,
then what can we learn about our conversion from St Paul?
Firstly, notice that conversion is not a choice we make.
Many Christians talk about ‘coming to Christ,’
or ‘making a decision for Christ.’
or ‘opening my heart to Christ.’
This is not Saul’s experience at all.
It is Christ who comes to Saul.
He is walking in one way,
and he makes no decision to turn around
and walk in the other.
Rather, he is knocked down,
blinded, set on his feet, led, and met.
He does not change his name from Saul to Paul,
Christ changes his name.
He does not ‘convert,’ active voice,
he is ‘converted,’ passive voice.
As I say ad nauseam,
we want to make God the subject of every verb.
Paul does not convert to Christ.
Christ converts Paul, turns him around,
opens his eyes and gives him sight.
Such as it is with all of us,
whether we are baptized as adults or children,
it is Jesus who takes the initiative,
Jesus who comes to us.
Secondly, we do not have any record
of what Paul felt during his conversion.
Most likely, he was scared out of his mind.
When he heard the voice saying,
‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,’
his thoughts probably would have been
the first century equivalent of ‘I’ve had it now!’
But so many Christians believe that in order to be ‘converted’
one has to have an emotional experience,
such as one can get at a large revival or a Christian concert.
and can be manufactured.
Moreover, you can get the same emotional experience without religion.
Just watch those old Riefenstahl movies of the Nazi rallies in Nuremberg.
Conversion is a far different business.
Christ takes the initiative
in our conversion to him.
We need no certain feeling or emotional experience to be converted.
Thirdly, God uses ordinary means to convert us.
He uses the means of Word and Sacrament,
delivered through people.
Paul’s mysterious experience was confirmed by Ananias.
Ananias didn’t necessarily want to preach the Gospel to Paul.
But when Paul arrived,
Ananias preached the Gospel and administered the sacrament.
This is exactly how we are converted,
whether or not a mystical vision happens.
We hear the Word and receive the Sacraments
among the people of God.
and these are the instruments by which our blindness is turned to sight.
Despite his amazing experience,
Paul warned his churches not to depend on these experiences,
but on the preached Word of God.
This doesn’t seem very exciting!
But this is how the Holy Spirit operates.
God’s initiative, without a necessary emotional experience,
through the ordinary means of grace.
Fourthly, being converted to Christ links one to his suffering.
Ananias is told that Christ himself will show Paul
how much he must suffer for the sake of his name.
Our suffering does not have to be exactly like Paul’s.
But if we are being converted to Christ,
there will be some kind of suffering associated with it,
some kind of carrying the cross with Jesus and through Jesus.
It may simply be the suffering of puzzling through the questions,
the agony of living in faith,
having to consider how our faith divides us from the world we live in,
when and how to give witness.
We need not think that our witness must succeed,
or that we will be judged upon if our witness is sufficient.
But our witness will occur.
God himself takes the initiative in forming our witness,
it is not something we do on our own.
Christ converts us to himself;
this need not be accompanied by certain emotional responses.
The Holy Spirit is given to us by the ordinary means,
and we are participants in Christ’s suffering.
Finally, conversion is an ongoing process.
So many Christians look at conversion
simply as ‘before’ and ‘after.’
‘Before I was saved,’
‘After I was saved.’
Or we bring our children to baptism,
and we assume once we have done that,
God is done with us.
Salvation, however, is not a once-in-a-lifetime event.
After the wedding, one does not say,
‘I was married,’ but ‘I am married.’
In the same way, we should not say,
‘I was baptized,’ but ‘I am baptized.’
For baptism is not an event, but it is a way of life.
Conversion is a journey.
When Jesus was revealed to St Paul
on that Damascus road,
that was the beginning of his conversion.
Christ would reveal himself
again and again and again,
in Word and Sacrament.
And Paul would be a convert all his life.
He was constantly being drawn deeper into the mystery of Christ.
If the Church is divided,
and yet we are baptized
and have the Spirit of Christ,
this can only mean
that the greater visible unity of the Church
will come only
by a deepening conversion into Christ.
In Ut Unum Sint, St John Paul’s encyclical letter on ecumenism,
he writes of a call to personal conversion as well as communal conversion.
Ananias did not want to call the persecutor of the brethren ‘Brother Saul.’
It was Christ’s continual converting work in him
that enabled him to do so.
If we are to pray and work for Christian unity,
for the unity in truth and in love
for which Christ’s prayed,
then we are called to begin and end
by praying for our own deeper conversion to Christ.
Conversion as Christ’s own work;
as unencumbered by any preconceived emotional experience,
as accomplished through ordinary people administering Word and Sacrament,
as accompanied by suffering and the cross,
and as a lifetime journey of faith;
this is what we learn from the conversion of St Paul.
May God reveal himself to us.
May he turn us around, today and every day,
to walk in the life that Christ offers all of us
and to give him the glory and praise.