Reading: Matthew 4:12-23 and the conversion of St Paul
Preacher: Revd Neil Summers
When I was younger, I sometimes felt a bit envious of those stories, whether told by well-known evangelists, or otherwise very ordinary people, in which they could relate in precise detail their conversion to Christianity: the date, the occasion, the place, even the time. Why was I envious? Well, it never seemed to happen to me, so I thought I was doing it all wrong, perhaps even that I might be beyond salvation!
Yesterday, the church marked the conversion of St. Paul, who left old attitudes of persecution and discrimination behind to embrace for himself the way of Jesus. His is, in some ways, the archetypal dramatic conversion: we still sometimes use that phrase, the Damascus Road experience, to talk about some radical change, or some new revelation, in our life. Despite that, I don’t think Paul’s encounter with Jesus was the sort that might take place at an evangelistic rally. His conversion was a lifelong process, as the journey of all who turn to God, by whatever name they know him, must always be.
Saul, as he was first called, was a student of the eminent Rabbi Gamaliel. He attended synagogue; he zealously observed the Jewish law. The impact on Paul – and on human history – of his experience on the Damascus Road, was momentous, but it is misleading to understand it as his conversion to Christianity. In the light of that experience – a light, by the way, which was, paradoxically, both blinding and illuminating – Paul was led to a radical reinterpretation of his Jewish faith, but it would be stating the case too crudely to suppose that when he left Jerusalem he was a Jew, but by the time he reached Damascus he had suddenly turned into a Christian!
To be sure, Paul changed his mind about Jesus. Jesus had appeared to him, and that appearance was overwhelming. In fact, Paul himself compared it to the appearance of Jesus to his followers after his crucifixion. What was now unquestioningly evident to Paul was that he had been wrong in persecuting those – all of them, as he was, observant Jews – who had seen in Jesus the fulfilment of the hopes of Israel. So he accepted baptism into ‘the Jesus movement’, one movement among many in first century Judaism.
Paul’s acceptance of what the first followers of Jesus claimed about him leads him – and this is all part of Paul’s continuing conversion – to conclude that the story of Jesus is good news for Gentile as well as for Jew. When Paul and Barnabas preach about Jesus in the synagogue at Antioch, some welcome his message, but others reject it. To the latter Paul says, ‘Lo, we turn to the Gentiles’. ‘We turn.’ The word ‘conversion’ is not found in the Bible, but the word that lies behind it, the simple word ‘turn’, is there time and time again. ‘I turn to Christ’ are the words said in the service of baptism, and we, the baptised, need to keep saying that every day of our lives.
Paul himself saw his conversion as a process. He knew that he must turn to Christ – and turn again and again to Christ – if he was to be his disciple. That was Paul’s personal testimony, voiced repeatedly in his letters to the early Christian communities. To the Philippians, for example, he says he must forget those things that are behind and strain forward to what lies ahead, pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. In other words, Paul’s testimony is of someone who knows that he has not got there yet. And it is compelling precisely because it comes from someone who, by his own admission, is deeply flawed. He knows he is fallible and that, like the rest of us, he only ‘sees through a glass darkly’, partially, not yet face-to-face. Paul doesn’t always get it right. Some of the things he said about women in his first letter to Timothy, for example, appal many of us today. Close to despair, Paul bewails his wretchedness when writing to the Romans. To the Corinthians, he describes his wrestling with his ‘thorn in the flesh’ – whatever that may have been. He recognizes that to some of his more sophisticated critics, the message he preaches is absurd and he, the messenger, contemptible. All of which makes the story of Paul’s continuing conversion all the more thrilling. This great saint of the church, whose message proclaims that we are saved not by our merits, but by the grace of God, persuades us, because we see it working in the life of someone who, for all his towering genius, is manifestly of the same stuff as we are.
Conversion sounds exciting, dramatic and positive and, of course, it can be. It is not, however, an end in itself – it is the precise opposite, for it is just the beginning of a lifelong journey. And it certainly does not mean an end to questions, difficulties or suffering. We cannot read or understand Paul’s story without acknowledging that fact, for Saul the persecutor would become Paul the persecuted. He came to be regarded as a troublemaker, because he challenged the cultures in which he operated. He suffered physically through being beaten and imprisoned, because he was seen as a threat to the civil and religious authorities which held power. Sound familiar? Well, it should, because it’s not so different from the story of Jesus himself, who similarly put himself at odds with the authorities, and who questioned the status quo, and the established ways of doing things – not least the religious ways.
I long ago lost my feeling of envy about other people’s conversion experiences. Why? Well, primarily because I long ago abandoned the idea that conversion is a one-off experience. I think the need for conversion, the need to be open to change, to challenges and – frequently – to turn around, is an ongoing process. Conversion is no magic wand which means ‘I’m all right now, thank you very much, because I’ve got God.’ The challenges begin when you ask yourself the question: what does my relationship with God mean in terms of how I live my life, how I respond to other people, how I face the often painful realities of the world, how I challenge myself, my culture and, yes, even my religion, as Jesus and Paul both did. Talk of conversion that gets stuck in the realm of personal salvation seems to me to be pretty pointless. It’s what conversion brings about that really counts. What might need to be left behind, and what might need to be embraced in the future in order for the Jesus story to root itself in our everyday lives?
Certainly, this morning’s Gospel, telling of the call of the disciples, makes it plain they left behind family, livelihood, and the familiarity and security they had known, to follow Jesus. It was a journey that would lead them into unknown territory. They would need to be willing to think, speak and act in ways they hadn’t done before, but the Gospel tells us they rose to the challenge of Jesus’ call without hesitation. Being open to the possibility of conversion – not just once, but continually, to keep on turning to the Jesus way – can mean taking risks. It may lead to unpopularity, rejection, being ignored, or considered unhinged, to self-sacrifice and even suffering. The quiet, safe life is obviously infinitely more appealing, but that wasn’t Paul’s way, and neither was it the way of the Jesus he encountered on the road to Damascus. The church is called to continue this ministry, but it can only do so if it – if we – continue to make ourselves open to conversion, and constantly turn to Christ.