Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Conversion

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Acts 9:1-20:

There’s an old saying that says there are two types of people in the world, there are those who believe there are two types of people and there are those who don’t.  Well I’m the type who believes that there are at least two types of people.  There are those who like and admire Paul, who use Paul’s writings to support theology and doctrine, who see Paul as foundational to everything that we do as Christians, and there are those who think that Paul is a four-letter word, who think that Paul created and established a status quo that supported slavery and the subordination of women, and established political leaders with divine power that could not be questioned.  Howard Thurman, the great twentieth-century African-american preacher and theologian, said his mother refused to read any of Paul’s writings because of his statements, or reported statements, about slavery, which had been used to abuse her and her parents, her friends and relatives.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, I used to be one of those who didn’t like Paul for all the reasons that Paul normally cite about why not to like him, but I’ve come to change my opinion.  Not that I still don’t have some problems with some of the things he says, because I do, but much of this has more to do with how Paul has been interpreted and how he has been used by the church, and others throughout the centuries, than necessarily because of what he actually said.  What I have also found is that the more I preach, the more I find myself quoting and referencing Paul, and so for the next two months we are going to be working through Paul, who he was, why he was important and how he influences our faith life.  Hopefully by the end we will all have a much better understanding of Paul, and at the very least if you still dislike him you will have more reasons for doing so.

As I began doing research for this series nearly every book I read on Paul began by saying that besides for Jesus, Paul is the most important person for Christians and for Christianity, and those that didn’t start that way certainly said something like that later in the text.  Within the church, Peter has sort of been elevated, after all Jesus tells him that he is the rock upon which he will build the church, and he holds the keys, and it is St. Peter’s basilica in Rome in which the Pope preachers, but it really is Paul who influences us much more.  Out of the 27 books in the New Testament, Paul is reported to be responsible for 13 of them.  When you add in the Book of Acts, which is primarily about Paul, and then when we recognize that some of the other letters might also be seen to either be in dialogue with or in reaction to Paul then his importance for Christian scripture becomes even more important.  Paul infuses just about everything we think about our faith, for right and for wrong, and for most people that influence begins with the passage we heard from today of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus.

The story really begins a chapters before this as we are told of the persecution of Christians and the stoning of Stephen, the first martyr of the church, and we are told that Paul was responsible for this.  If you were doing the daily scripture readings in the insert than you read this story.  It’s not really clear why Paul is persecuting this group, but let me emphasize that Paul is not persecuting and killing Christians.  That is a term that we apply looking backward that did not exist at the time.  They are not a separate religion; they would have understood themselves as followers of Jesus but still would have considered themselves Jews.

Some have argued that it was because they claimed that Jesus was the Messiah, but that simply does not hold up because there were lots of people who claimed to be the Messiah whose followers were not persecuted, and in fact sometimes were supported.  Others have claimed that it was because the disciples were reaching out to gentiles and telling them that they could be followers of Jesus without becoming Jewish.  That will most definitely be an argument later, and one that Paul is in the middle of, but there is no indication that those arguments are yet taking place.  Some claim that some of the Jewish leadership wanted to let the Romans know they were loyal and to prove that wanted to persecute a group who were claiming allegiance to someone who had been executed by the Romans as a threat to the empire.

I’m of the belief that they were persecuted because of the scandal of the cross, as Paul later says.  This was a group of people who were following someone who was crucified.  Now crucifixion would not have been all that unusual in the ancient world.  There were at least two other people crucified with Jesus, and more than likely there were several more crucified the next day, and the day after that and the day after that.  If you remember the end of the classic film Spartacus; Spartacus and his followers, who are part of a slave revolt, are all crucified and left hanging on their crosses for miles on the road leading into Rome.  That is actually a true event.  Crucifixion was the empire’s way of setting an example saying “this is what happens when you challenge us.”

But, under Jewish law, as stipulated in Deuteronomy 21:23 it says that “cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree.”  So here are a group of people who are saying that not only is Jesus not cursed because of his crucifixion but that he has been raised from the dead which shows that instead is blessed by God, that he is the messiah.  As I have said many times in the past, there is not a single Jew before Jesus came who would have understood the idea of the suffering messiah.  All of the passages that we read that way were reinterpreted in light of their experience of Jesus.  It is the scandal of the cross that had to be offensive to Paul and to others.  In addition to all of that, the disciples were also calling Jesus Lord.  If you were here when we talked about Jesus as part of the trinity you might remember that the word Lord is Kyrios, a word that was applied in scripture and in usage only to God.  This had to be all too much for many people, including Paul, and so they set out to stop them.  And that is what Paul is doing when he is on the road to Damascus.

Paul only references this event in an off-handed way in two of his letters, Galatians and 1 Corinthians.  Why does Paul not emphasize it?  I think there are two reasons.  The first is that maybe he did not see it as being as important as Luke did, who tells this story three different times in Acts, although each is slightly different.  But, I sort of doubt that.  The second reason, and the more likely in my opinion, is that the communities that Paul was writing to already knew the conversion story and so didn’t need to be told about it again.  But in either case, something did happen on that road to Damascus that forever changed Paul, Saul at the time, and forever changed the direction of Christianity.

Paul, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples” is traveling to Damascus when suddenly a great light from heaven flashes, and Paul falls to the ground, and a voice asks him “why are you persecuting me?”  And Paul’s response? “Who are you, Lord?”  Remembering that the term Lord only applies to God makes it clear that Paul understands that he is having a mystical experience of God.  As a result of this encounter, Paul is blinded and spends the next three days without food or water, an amount of time which mirrors Jesus’ three days in the tomb.  While Paul is awaiting further instruction, Ananias, a follower, receives a vision and is called by God.  His response?  “Here I am Lord.”  This should sound familiar, from the passage we heard earlier this morning of the prophet Isaiah’s call.  While Ananias is the one being spoken to, it is really Ananias hearing Paul’s call message which he is to deliver on God’s behalf.  Ananias is told to go to see Paul, where he lays hands on him, removing Paul’s blindness, he was blind but now he sees, and then Paul is baptized and begins preaching and proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God.

We talk about this story as Paul’s conversion experience, but I think that is an improper attribution.  Paul was a Jew before this, and he remains a Jew after this.  He does not become a Christian because there is no such thing, that won’t happen for several decades at the earliest.  He was born a Jew, and, as we will find out, he will die as a Jew.  He also does not have his name changed from Paul to Saul at this moment, as is often thought, as Paul continues to be called Saul for a while longer after this, and then when the change happens the text simple says “Saul, who was also called Paul,” and then begins referring to him as Paul.  So, instead of seeing this as a conversion experience, a better way, and I think more appropriate way, is to see this as Paul’s call story.

In addition to it being similar to the call of Isaiah it is also similar to the call of the prophet Jeremiah’s.  God tells Jeremiah, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”  In Galatians, Paul says, about his acceptance of Christ, “God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the gentiles.”  God is calling Paul into a new mission and calling him to a radically new way of understanding God.  While we could spend weeks discussing this story there are two points that I want to highlight that apply to us today.

Paul was persecuting the disciples and Apostles because he thought it was the right thing to do.  He was convinced he had God on his side.  He had studied scripture, he was righteous and was absolutely convinced, absolutely convinced that what he was doing was right and just in God’s eyes.  There was no way he could be wrong, after all it was there in scripture, plus Paul, and all those with whom he associated, all believed the same thing, so how could they be wrong?   It was black and white; there could be no other way to think about it.  They were doing God’s will, except they weren’t.  How often have we done the same thing?  How often have we been convinced that we were absolutely right and have attacked, punished, persecuted, ignored, or pilaried, another group or person because we have been convinced that God was on our side and against them?  “If God is for us, who can be against us”, goes Paul’s famous phrase from Romans, but how often has this been more us wanting God to be with us then us wanting to be with God?  We are to approach God with fear and trembling, which does not mean what people normally think that means.  I believe we must always have a question in the back of our minds if what we are saying or doing is what God really wants, or if instead it is what we want, regardless of God, and when we are constantly asking that question then I think we would be a little less quick to judge, a little less quick to act, and a little less quick to be so assured that our position is right and that everyone else is wrong.

The second thing that I believe we should be taking from this passage is that this story of Paul’s calling has been used as the example of what a proper conversion experience looks like.  That we can be specify to the day, and even the minute, when we came to accept Jesus into our lives.  But this emphasis on this is actually a relatively new phenomenon.  Known as the experience of saving faith, it developed in the early 17th century with the rise of the enlightenment and the scientific process.  There are obviously denominations which still stress having a conversion experience and being able to name it as such.  On May 24th we remembered John Wesley’s own conversion experience in which he felt his heart strangely warmed.  He was to write in his diary after the fact that before that event he was not a Christian, which if you know anything about Wesley you know is patently untrue, but he was told that this is what had to happen, it was the way, the only way, that God worked in the world and so he sought to have such an event in his life.  Later Wesley was to change his opinion on the issue and believed that you did not need to have such an event in order to be a true Christian, that instead you could grow and deepen in faith and in your relationship with Jesus over the entirety of your life and that was just as meaningful and just as equal and as valid as having a conversion experience.  I suspect that this morning we have both types of people here this morning. 

But, regardless of our path, like with Paul, what we need to be able to see and articulate is the fact that Jesus has made a difference in our lives.  That we can say this is who I was before Jesus, or who I might be, and this is who I am with Jesus.  How has Christ changed our lives?  That is the question that we must answer for ourselves.  It is the question, and it is the answer, which make the difference for us in understanding our relationship with Jesus Christ, of showing us where we are doing well and of showing us where we have room to grow and to improve.  In thinking about this question for myself this week, I found lots of areas in which I found myself lacking, in which I could say that if other people saw me do that or heard me say that, would they think I was a Christian?  As the old hymn says, “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”  People know us to be followers of Christ not because we can say the right words, or because we accepted Christ in the right way, but because we do the right things because we model Christ to the world, we model God’s love to the world, we embody our faith in everything that we do.  Has Christ made a difference in your life?  Are you a different person because of Christ?

The story of Paul’s call is the beginning of his journey as an Apostle, as a follower of the way, and it is the beginning of our journey in looking at Paul, and I hope it leaves us all asking, when have we assumed that we were right, that God was on our side?  When have we refused to even consider the possibility that we might be wrong, that God in fact would want us to do something different?  And then we should ask how Jesus Christ has changed us?  How has our experience of the risen Lord made us different, made us better, and through us made the world better?  When we begin to answer those questions, when we begin to look deeply into our own thoughts, actions, beliefs and relationship with God then we have begun the journey so that we can truly say, “Here I am, Lord.”  May it be so my sisters and brothers.  Amen

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