Conversion of St. Paul.C.22
Acts 26:9-21; Galatians 1:11-24
The Rev. Melanie McCarley
This morning we celebrate “The Conversion of Saint Paul, the Apostle”, the namesake of our parish. Today is known as our patronal feast day. In the Book of Acts Paul gives an account of his conversion as he speaks to King Agrippa. He says: “I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth”. And Paul goes on to detail the actions he took against believers in Christ. He says: “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them….I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.”
Paul goes on to explain that it was because he was pursuing believers in Christ that he happened to find himself traveling along the road to Damascus. Here he was surrounded by a great light and was confronted with the voice of the Lord.” This, for Paul was a life-changing event. But, I would suggest that the real proof of Paul’s conversion isn’t his description of this encounter—dramatic though it may be; it is his life, following his vision, which bears the real proof of his change of heart. Any vision—no matter how noteworthy it might be that is not accompanied by a consistent change of life does not a conversion make.
Following his conversion experience the trajectory of Paul’s life became dramatically different. No longer was he a persecutor of those following Christ, he became their advocate instead. Still possessed of zeal, intelligence and boundless energy—a converted Paul now puts these gifts to use on behalf of the Risen Lord and Paul’s newly perceived mission to the Gentiles.
Paul’s story, however, isn’t simply an interesting historical episode from the early years of the church. His conversion forms a model for us as we contemplate our personal stories of what has brought us to become followers of Jesus of Nazareth as well.
If I had to guess, I would say that the vast majority of us have not had an encounter with the risen Christ as dramatic as St. Paul’s. However, the real point of conversion isn’t the means by which one comes to faith—it’s the life a person lives after the moment they choose to follow Christ. This is what marks their experience as valid.
Take the case of one of the greatest thinkers in our Christian faith, C. S. Lewis. For Lewis, a happy childhood came to an abrupt end at the age of nine when his mother died and his father became volatile and remote. Lewis describes his loss of security likening it to “the great continent (sinking) like Atlantis.” For Lewis, there were now only “islands” of joy in the midst of a vast, unsettled “sea”. Sent to boarding school, and finding himself disappointed in God, Lewis entered the “atheist” phase of his life. How could god allow such suffering in life? He studied militant atheists such as Voltaire, Hume, Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and Sartre; and he became fascinated with the occult. Then came the moment, when embarking on a long train ride that Lewis purchased a copy of George MacDonald’s book Phantastes, a kind of fairy tale. And Lewis was surprised at what happened during his reading. Something came off the pages and (in his words) “baptized his imagination.” Although he couldn’t put this quality into words at the time, he later came to describe it as holiness.
Lewis continued to read, and found himself drawn to the writings of G.K. Chesterton; and he began to feel that “Christianity was very sensible ‘apart from its Christianity”; and he was compelled to read more—the likes of Spenser, Milton, Johnson and others.
Once while riding on a bus in Oxford, Lewis had the sense that he was “holding something at bay, or shutting something out”. He realized he was faced with a choice. He could either open the door or let it stay shut, but to open the door “meant the incalculable”. Finally, he submitted himself to God, and described himself as the most “dejected and reluctant convert” in all England. This was in 1929, but it was not until 1931 that he surrendered himself to Christ.
C.S. Lewis wasn’t converted with a road to Damascus type experience—he found his way to God through time, thought and the beauty of words, reason and grace. The most remarkable thing about Lewis’s conversion isn’t the drama of his conversion experience—it’s the dramatic changes in the man—and a consistency of life thereafter which bore the truth of what had taken place in his heart—a change which didn’t occur in a moment—but over the course of years. Still a scholar and a writer—Lewis now had a larger purpose in his life as well—to bear truth to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
All of which brings us to ourselves—and how we might experience conversion in our lives. Whether your journey to Christ has qualities reminiscent of Paul’s dramatic experience on the road to Damascus, or Lewis’s gradual discovery of God through the written word on trains and busses, it is your own—and, if lived into, it becomes life changing, not only for you, but for those around you as well. The purpose of conversion isn’t simply to change the heart of the converted, but to change the world.
We live in a culture which tends to see faith as belonging solely to the realm of the personal. We are taught that faith is private—nobody’s business but our own. And so, it shouldn’t surprise us that the consequence of this is that many of us are reluctant to share what we believe. We are aware how some people have been on the receiving end of conversion tactics which have seemed both manipulative if not downright brutal—and, heaven knows, few, if any of us want to be painted into that corner of the room. Perhaps we’re even afraid that we won’t represent Christ well—that our words and actions will fall flat—amounting to little more than an embarrassment to ourselves and our Lord. Whatever the reason, here is another way of looking at how conversion might play out in our lives. Consider that living into your faith in Christ is a matter of being true to who you are. It’s not about gaining extraordinary numbers of converts, waving placards on street corners and knocking on doors. It’s a matter of being unapologetically who you are; of being comfortable with your relationship with Christ—and willing, when the occasion arises, to live into the truth of who you are and who you believe God to be.
Consider that Paul, both before and after his conversion was a zealous advocate for God; C. S. Lewis, before and after his conversion, was an academic and an author. Choosing to follow Christ doesn’t change your gifts and talents—it enables you to use them on behalf of God. Consider your gifts, and then choose to live into the person God has created you to be. Allow your faith to change not only yourself, but the world in which you live. In Jesus’ name. Amen.