Conversion – a one-off drama and a daily transformation
Mary Copping, 26 January 2020
Acts 9: 1–22; Matthew 19: 27–30
Most of the churches in the Church of England are dedicated to one or more people. Some are dedicated to a single ‘patron saint’, such as St Peter or the Virgin Mary, or to the Holy Trinity. Others commemorate Christian events such as the Assumption of Mary or the Ascension of Jesus. And our parish is dedicated to St Matthew and to St Paul the apostle.
Today we mark the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, who then became known as Paul, and to us now as St Paul. He set out on the road to Damascus as a loyal Jew, with the intention of stopping what he saw as the Christian heresy, and went from there to become a Christian and to build many churches. Some see the converted Paul as the real founder of Christianity.
To be converted, to be changed, to be turned around – this was certainly Saul’s experience. For him it meant changing from being a persecutor to being persecuted, and it was a miraculous conversion. When the converted Paul arrived in Jerusalem and tried to join the disciples, they were frightened of him; they couldn’t believe that this man had changed so much. We’re told in Acts 9 that it was Barnabas, the encourager, who had to speak up for him. He told them all about Paul’s conversion and how Paul had preached about Jesus in that city. They did eventually accept him as one of them.
When I had a conversion experience in my thirties and became a believer, people weren’t sure how to treat me – ‘This person who used to be such fun, but now what is she going to be like?’ My husband was in the army at the time and one friend said to him, ‘Now she’s a Christian will she still speak to us?’ and then when we met, ‘Whoops, we’d better not drink alcohol, Mary’s here, and better not swear’. And even now, if people swear they say, ‘Whoops, sorry vicar’. People sometimes have a strange view of Christianity – one of perfection. Whereas we know that we are far from perfect and need the love and forgiveness of Jesus every day.
Conversion sounds exciting, dramatic and positive, and it can be. However, conversion is not the end of the story. ‘I’ve become a Christian; now all my problems will be solved!’ Of course not, far from it.
In fact, only then did Paul’s difficulties start as he faced antagonism because of his strong views about the Temple. Conversion is not an end in itself – it can even be seen as the precise opposite. And it certainly doesn’t mean an end to questions, difficulties or suffering – they continue. Indeed, as Paul later went on to discover, conversion and persecution can go together. Paul came to be regarded as a troublemaker, because he challenged the culture in which he lived. He suffered physically through being beaten and imprisoned, because he was seen as a threat to the authorities. And yet, all through it he would say, ‘I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’ (Philippians 3: 8).
But, you may think, what about me? I’ve always been a Christian, never had a conversion experience, not fair. However conversion, as I’ve suggested, is not just a one-off experience. Conversion is about being changed in our Christian lives from day to day. As Paul himself wrote to the Corinthian church, ‘All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord’. It is a challenge to think about what you would have been like if you had not been brought up in a Christian family, with Christian values and traditions; you might have been very different. So we thank God for his saving grace and his changing us from day to day to be more and more like him.
Conversion means being turned around – as an individual – but also within a family and community. We can be sitting praying and feeling the love of God and his peace and say yes, Lord, whatever you want me to do, I will do. Yet it is when we go out and relate to other people that we are really challenged in how we behave –especially in families, where we are confronted with deep and sometimes difficult issues. Families know us best of all and see what we’re really like; sometimes my family can challenge me, saying, ‘And you’re supposed to be a Christian’. Family are the ones who can show you your failings as nowhere else. And yet, as we are changed, all is done in the love of God – his love for each one of us, the reason he sent his Son to earth for us. God loves us whether we know it or not, whether we feel it or not. And in that love, we can be changed and renewed.
Sometimes, when we read the sayings of Jesus in the Bible, we may wonder exactly how he said the things he did. Was it with anger in his voice, or questioning, or in love and gentleness? When we read what God said to Saul on the Damascus road, that could have been a challenging, stern voice: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Or a gentle, loving voice: ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ You decide. I’d like to think it was the loving and kind voice of God, wanting to draw this man Saul close to him and enable him to be a power for good in his Church.
As we know, Paul went on to found many churches, but he had to keep moving on. He couldn’t stay too long anywhere to help them to grow and develop. But he still kept in touch, hearing about their concerns and sending the letters that we now value so much, giving them guidance and support and, through the Bible, now giving us guidance and support. He was always encouraging, but also not slow to challenge whatever they were doing. I wonder what letters he would send to our two churches.
In community we change, are converted gradually.
Here in our Christian community, we learn together about God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In community we change, are converted gradually. We learn to offer support, and to accept the help, love and prayers of others. We learn to rub along with each other and act in love and kindness. As a pilgrim people in a loving and caring community, we learn about growing in love and discipleship. And through this we learn more about each other, we help and support each other, we are converted as we work and worship together in the love of God.
From Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus: ‘I beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love’. Amen.