A few weeks after Easter we find ourselves in conversion story territory. The first few chapters of the book of Acts tell us how the band of disciples, the chosen few, quickly became a movement after the death and resurrection of their radical leader, Jesus of Nazareth.
Belief in Jesus as the Messiah was spreading like wildfire, in those early days. (These followers of the risen Jesus called themselves simply “the Way,” because no one had thought up the name “Christians” yet.) The Way was gaining momentum as more and more people came to believe that Jesus was really who he claimed to be: the Messiah.
But something really weird was going on. The new converts included some… well… unexpected characters.
The list of new members of the Way included:
- Samaritans (who were a despised religious minority),
- Hellenistic Gentiles, that is, non-Jews, who didn’t know all the rules of being Jewish;
- a woman householder named Lydia and her slaves and employees(here’s where it gets even more strange):
- a Ethiopian eunuch (court official of a foreign Queen and a sexual minority),
- a Roman Centurion (a soldier for the colonizing Empire and thus the embodiment of military power)
- and of course, a bit later, the artist formally known as Saul, an ex- Pharisee and general enemy of the followers of the Way.
… and that is just to name a few!
All of these people were joining the movement of believers in Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of God. These and other conversion stories were being celebrated and circulated among the house churches as evidence of the power of the gospel.
The new converts to the Way came from all over, from all kinds of racial and cultural and religious backgrounds, and from every level of society: rich, poor, slave, free, well-educated, illiterate. Not only that, but they included religiously unclean minorities, sexual outsiders, soldiers of the hated and feared Roman army, and people who were, according to Jewish law, barred from worshipping the God of Israel in the temple.
As Paul himself would later say: “Scandalous!”
To Saul, before his conversion, this was so, so, so wrong. It represented the total breakdown of a very carefully constructed religious identity. Jews were supposed to be Jews, and Samaritans were supposed to Samaritans, and Romans were supposed to be Romans; you get the picture. What was this – suddenly anyone could worship the God of the Jews, through this so-called Messiah? Hello, are there no rules anymore? Worshipping the God of Israel was supposed to be a members-only kind of thing, but this new Way seemed to let anyone join. No wonder Saul was so dead set against this new “Way.”
But then comes the road to Damascus, when Jesus cries out, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Notice Jesus’ words: why are you persecuting me? In other words: when you hurt my people, Saul, you hurt me. They are in me, and I am in them.
In his conversion, Saul suddenly sees that this Jesus Christ has brought everyone into the salvation of God. In a flash (literally) Saul goes from believing in the narrow exclusivity of God’s worshipping family, based on ethnic and cultural criteria; to insisting on to the radical openness of God’s family, that all have been brought near in Christ. In fact, this becomes Paul’s core message.
So profound was Paul’s change of heart that he would later write in his letter to the Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek … slave or free … male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” That is one of the most radical statements of inclusivity in the entire Bible, and it was written by the same man who was once obsessed with the distinctions of the law.
The new church’s willingness to welcome everyone who knocked on its doors must have come as a shock to Paul. He learned the hard way on the road to Damascus that the community of God is for everyone, not just for insiders; and that in Jesus Christ outside and inside have been made one. In Jesus Christ, the doors to God’s household were flung wide open and no one who wants to come in shall be kept out.
Now, you are probably wondering: all of those Jews and Greeks and Romans, Samaritans and minorities and Romans soldiers, men and women, slaves and free, rich and poor – – that is quite a mix. Did they actually get along all the time? Umm… no… not really. Especially not at first.
The early church had to learn to love one another with the love of Christ, week by week and day by day. That’s why Paul had to write so many letters to the early churches: because again and again and again he had to remind the new communities of the truth at the very heart of the gospel: All have been made one in Christ Jesus. And when they forgot, he had to remind them: yes, you are actually called to love one another. Not just put up with one another; not just co-exist with a minimum of grumbling; not just tolerate one another… but love one another, just as Christ has loved us; for by our love, and only by our love, will others will know that we are on the Way.
This brings me to the second part of Paul’s story that speaks to us today, and that is Paul’s willingness to be changed: changed by his encounter with the living Christ and with the new community of his followers.
Before his conversion, no one was more sure of his own opinions than Paul. He was a headstrong, passionate man; a fierce debater and a ruthless opponent. He was so sure he had all the right answers! He was even ready to impose his ideas on others through the use of coercion and force. He was not only persuasive, but even violent towards his enemies, the new followers of the Way, because he didn’t like their ideas. He was ready to exclude, yes even to persecute his fellow Jews because of their beliefs.
It takes a lot for a zealous and stubborn man like Paul to see the error of his ways and allow his opinions and ideas to be changed. In fact, it took an appearance of Christ himself, crying out: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?
I will say this about Paul: over the course of his three-day conversion experience, Paul completely changes, inside and out. Paul submits to being transformed and made new by the presence of the Risen One. He lets God happen to him. The man who sets out for Jerusalem is not the same man who arrives in Damascus.
And when the scales fall from his eyes he not only sees again, he sees differently. His perspective has been changed. His ideas, his positions, his theology, his heart, his life, his mind, his attitude: nothing about Paul has been left unchanged by his encounter with the living Christ. That’s why he gets a new name: a new name, for a new man. As Paul himself will say in 2 Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he or she is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!”
Can we say the same about our encounters with God and with one another? Will we be changed?
Are we ready to let go of our need to be right, in order to have our vision transformed by God? Will we be changed?
Are we ready to learn from one another with humility and openness? Will we be changed?
Are we willing to allow our hearts to be opened by Holy Spirit so that we can be changed to our core and made like Christ?
I don’t know about you, but I want to be changed!
And Paul’s story fills me with tremendous hope that bit by bit, the scales are falling from our eyes, too. Bit by bit and day by day we are moving forward into God’s blinding light and being transformed by it. As Paul says elsewhere in Romans, we should “fare forward in a life entirely new” (Rom 6.3-4). As the Church of Jesus Christ we are faring forward into a life entirely new!
This brings me to the final aspect of this story that still speaks to us today, and that is that Paul’s conversion is a conversion into community. You could easily mistake Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus for a personal, individual religious experience: it was just between Paul and Jesus, wasn’t it?
No, it wasn’t. The entire conversion could never have happened without the community of new believers. Christ actually leaves Paul by the side of the road: blinded, confused, vulnerable, terror-struck. This would actually be a really mean thing for Jesus to do – kind of the anti-good-Samaritan, to leave Paul there on the side of the road – except Jesus has prepared the community in Damascus (who are, as you recall, part of Christ’s very body and self) to care for him. “Get up and enter the city, and there you will be told what you are to do,” he tells Paul. In other words, although your direct vision of me is now over, you will continue to encounter me in the love and forgiveness extended to you by your brothers and sisters on the Way.
Jesus has dramatically interrupted Paul’s life, yes – but only for a brief moment. And he has left it up to the community in Damascus to do the rest: to heal Paul’s sight, to feed and nourish him, to teach him to walk the Way, and to anoint him for his mission to preach the Gospel to the nations. The brothers and sisters in Damascus embody forgiveness and reconciliation as they dare to welcome and bless their former enemy.
Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes the entire Christian community to make Paul the great evangelist of the good news, missionary to the gentiles. It is God who kick-starts Paul’s conversion and call, but it is the community who affirms it and makes it real. Paul is converted in and into community.
Few of us have had a dramatic vision of Jesus on our Way, but in other ways, we have all had an encounter like Paul’s. I don’t know about you, but I have had the experience of scales falling from my eyes as I learned to see new truth made known to us in Jesus Christ. I, too, have had the experience of learning how radically inclusive is the Way of the Messiah, and just how wide open are the welcoming arms of God. And I, too, have had the experience of being drawn into community, of learning in humility from each from of you, and of being profoundly and deeply changed by God and by the people of God.
Let us pray:
God of new beginnings, we ask you to meet us on our journeys. Interrupt our lives with the light of your living truth. Teach us to bear witness to the inclusiveness of your household. Transform us from individuals to a community. And make us ready to be changed. Amen