W E ALL HAVE A PAST. Something back then that was incredibly brave or daring. Something that was for the good of humanity. Something incredibly stupid. Something that hurt, wounded someone else. We might or might not be proud of our past.
The Apostle Paul also has a past. He’s not proud of it. But he doesn’t hide it. He mentions it in passing to Timothy. He doesn’t go into details just that once upon a time he was a bad person. Blasphemer. Persecutor. Violent man. You might know Paul’s past. If so, you understand his “worst sinner” comments.
He’s written about it before. His name originally was Saul. Saul had pretty much gotten rid of the Jesus followers in Jerusalem — arrest, death, beating. He takes off to Damascus, 140 miles to the north, to do the same thing. Saul is armed with arrest warrants for those of the Christian Way. On his way, a light brighter than the noonday sun suddenly overwhelms him.
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A VOICE INQUIRES: “Saul, Saul, why do you continue to persecute me?” Saul responds: “Who are you, Lord?” (The title “Lord” was used as a term of respect, he didn’t know who addressed him.)
The voice is identified as Jesus of Nazareth! The stunned persecutor is instructed to enter Damascus where he will be informed as to what he “must do.” Blinded by the light, Saul is led into the city.
For three agonizing days, he fasts and prays. Finally, Ananias, a messenger selected by God, arrives. He restores Saul’s sight and commands him to “arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins.” After a time, the former persecutor begins to proclaim among his fellow Jews that Jesus “is the Son of God.”
This is commonly known as Saul’s conversion. It is dramatic. It might cause us to be embarrassed by our own confirming Jesus.
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FOR ME, THERE WAS never a time I didn’t know Jesus. There was the Sunday that I stood before the church and acknowledged, confirmed, what I already knew and was living. I announced a commitment to be a follower of Jesus for the rest of my life. Rather common. Really that story is boring in comparison to bright lights, blindness, voices from heaven.
Don’t let the lack of drama in your conversion, make you think God was any less involved.
If we only understand this dramatic event as a conversion, we might well miss an important piece of what’s going on. If we read this only as a salvation story, dramatic as it is, we miss what is here for us — for anyone who has, at some point in the past, confessed that Jesus is Lord. I’ve already changed. Nothing to see here. Nothing for me.
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PAUL’S STORY IS PERHAPS more a story of calling than of conversion. We tend to imagine a change in his religion. From Jewish to Christian. But the fact is Paul was Jewish before this encounter and Paul is Jewish after his encounter with Jesus. At this time, just a few years after the crucifixion and resurrection, Christianity is not a separate religion. It is a small, struggling subgroup of Judaism.
Saul is not changing religions. He is, by God’s grace, given new insight.
■ What he once believed no longer holds true.
■ What he had been taught, Saul learns, falls short of God’s plan.
■ What he once upheld with violence, he now sees was destructive.
■ What he proclaimed with great arrogance; he now sees as ignorance. He was ignorant of Jesus; now he’s not. He took great pride in arrogantly fulfilling the countless requirements of the Law.
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THIS IS SAUL’S CONVERSION. And this might be the conversion we need. From set in our ways. From false belief. From violence. From hatred toward others, including Christians who don’t think like us. From living by rules instead of God’s love. From religion. From ignorance. Making ourselves available to God’s Spirit to change our hearts. To open our eyes. To see what we’ve not seen before. To humbly acknowledge we don’t know it all or have all the answers.
We all have a past. But the past is dead. Gone. We all have a present. Fresh and new. Conversion is not a change from a negative action to nothing. It is from negative action to positive action. From persecution to proclamation. From hate to love. From division to unity.
What’s the point of Paul’s conversion story for us? Paul is “appointed … to Christ’s service.” So are you. Each of us has a calling from God.
Christ’s grace has come to us, freed us and given us a mission for the kingdom. Maybe you didn’t know that. You thought just saying you love Jesus is enough. Your ticket is punched.
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PERHAPS YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN that Christ has appointed you to his service. Maybe you think that call of Jesus has run its course. Maybe your confirmation, your conversion, your first proclaiming Jesus, was so boring you think there can’t be anything to it.
By the grace of Jesus you have been saved. By the grace of Jesus you have been changed. By the grace of Jesus you have been converted. By the grace of Jesus you have been called to action. Jesus calls you.
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HERE’S THE GREAT THING: You are not just called to action by Christ. By the grace of Jesus, you have been given strength to carry out his mission. That is exciting news. That is good news. That is your life.
Pause and think fresh and anew how Jesus has encountered you but especially how Jesus has called you. What does it look like to listen to Jesus’s voice?
How has “the grace of our Lord overflowed” for you? That’s a story to tell. That’s a conversion story to share.