Today’s story of the conversion of Saul has been incredibly influential in Christianity. Saul is so thoroughly turned around that he gets renamed Paul. He who was once a main enemy of Jesus becomes a main representative of Jesus. He who once wanted to wipe every disciple of Christ from the earth ends up writing over half of the New Testament to help others understand how to be disciples of Christ.
So it’s no wonder this story has been incredibly influential. And on top of that, it’s a great story –
Saul, breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do."
They lead him into Damascus blind and incapacitated, and God sends over an apprentice of Jesus named Ananias – one of the guys he’d been coming to Damascus to arrest. Ananias lays hands on him and not only is Paul suddenly able to see again, he is filled with the Holy Spirit, infused with divine power and life. They do a baptism right there in the house, and the rest is history.
No wonder this story has been so influential. There are hymns, movies, paintings, feast days, songs, t-shirts, all based on the Damascus road conversion of St. Paul. And I love Paul. I absolutely love him. The Spirit used him to put on paper – parchment, really – some of the most beautiful and deepest and most liberating truths that have ever been written.
But sometimes I wonder if Christian readers look to this influential story of his conversion and let the wrong part of it influence us. We pick out an aspect that is actually less important, and we ignore the part that is more important. What I mean here is this: you will sometimes hear people use this story as a model for how people “should” make a commitment to Christ. You will hear people say that unless you have had a Damascus Road experience, unless you can point to a time that, like Paul, you were dramatically turned from not having faith to having it, your commitment to Christ doesn’t “count.” But this is generalizing from the wrong part of the story. People commit to Christ in all kinds of ways.
Deacon Chris talked about this last week in her sermon on Thomas. Some people have been in an atmosphere of living faith all their lives, and can’t remember a time when they didn’t know Christ. They never had a sudden bright light strike them blind on the road to Damascus. They may tell you their faith journey is like the light in a room just gradually, gently getting brighter as if someone was turning up a dimmer switch.
Some find that their following Jesus is always a struggle. Questions and wrestling and doubt are simply a part of their relationship with God. If they ever do have a sudden bright light, things often look murky again a few days later. The connection to Jesus is there, but it’s not a simple before and after picture; it’s more like the light from a Tiffany lamp, refracted and multi-colored.
Those are different ways that a commitment to Christ looks. And there are probably others. One isn’t more right or wrong than another. They are just different. So we get in trouble if we try to generalize from one part of Paul’s conversion, the part you might call God’s technique. How God brought Paul specifically into new life in Christ. God isn’t going to use that same technique with everybody – he’s too smart, and too subtle for that.
So if we can’t generalize from God’s technique, the how, then maybe we should try generalizing from the what. What happens as we are converted? No matter how we turn to Christ -- whether it’s dark to light, or gradually like a dimmer switch, or back and forth with lots of colors and questions – what changes for us as we do?
Well, I’d suggest that one major thing that changes is perspective. As we follow Christ, whatever the technique God uses in our lives, we experience a change in our perspective on things. We see this very dramatically illustrated in Paul’s story: he comes into the story believing Jesus is evil, and the image for how off that perspective is, is that he actually becomes blind. He cannot see things as they are. He cannot see truth. And then as his sight returns his eyes are opened on the actual reality of the world. That is a shift in perspective.
Before you come to know Christ, you assess the world and set goals based on what seems good to you, you take advice from other people about what should be treated as most important, you think about how things affect you and your family and your country. And that’s automatically going to distort the way you view life, because life isn’t about you.
So with knowing Christ comes a shift, whether gradual or dramatic, into a more accurate, God-centered perspective. And you begin asking, in every situation you face: What has God said about this? What does God think is important? What does God say is good? Rather than trying to guess, you have a reference point which finally allows you to see life more clearly. So perspective always changes as a person is converted.
Another thing that changes, again whether gradually or dramatically, is your sense of purpose. When you think about that, it’s obvious. God created you, he designed you, and so he knows what you’re here for. If you don’t know what God has revealed, all you can do is speculate, guess. But as you turn to Christ, you get reliable information about your purpose. Paul had guessed that his purpose was to safeguard the religion he was brought up in and prevent anyone from changing it. Well, God had a really, really, different purpose in mind for him, and when Paul found out the truth, his life was transformed. So will ours be, as we learn and live out what we’re actually here for.
So you get a true perspective on life, and you get knowledge of your purpose: what is important, and what you are here for. Another thing that comes as we turn to Christ is community. Paul cannot get out of his dilemma alone. He has to receive help from another follower of Jesus. He has to be vulnerable and real and willing to connect with people who are not like him.
One of the biggest needs of our contemporary world is community. We are becoming a more and more fragmented, isolated nation: the family is breaking down, social institutions are breaking down, and people are starving for meaningful, in-person connections with others. There is an epidemic of loneliness, because we need to belong. Turning to Christ gives you that belonging, not in the sense of signing up with an organization, but of being adopted into a household. They say blood is thicker than water, but Christ’s divine life inside us is thicker than both. So as you turn to Christ, you discover what is important, what you are here for, and where you belong. And there are many more discoveries, but these are enough for this morning. Perspective, purpose, and community.
Now you may have had a dramatic conversion like Paul, you may have been walking with Jesus since you were a tiny child, you may be locked in a perpetual arm wrestling match with the Holy Spirit. Or you may be trying to decide what you think of all this. But as you turn to Christ, you will discover like Paul did what is important, what you are here for, and where you belong. In Christ you truly can find perspective, purpose, and community. Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel. Amen.