Let’s think a bit today about conversion. Friday last is a date kept by many in the church as the Conversion of Saint Paul, and because Paul was the man more than any other who took the Christian message out into the wider world, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is deliberately timed to coincide with that day - indeed, it always ends on 25th January. Paul was the man who had the original 'Damascus Road' experience; many others have had similar experiences of a dramatic meeting with Christ in a way that claimed them and shamed them and won them and changed their lives. Their stories are always a great inspiration to me. But at this time of the year we reflect on the story of how Saul became Paul; how the chief persecutor of the first Christians became one of the greatest of the apostles of Christ.
My own background is rather ecumenical, Anglicanism, Methodism and a dash of Presbyterianism were all part of my upbringing, and for some of my ministry I worked as an ecumenical officer over in Telford. I was of course an Anglican minister for over thirty years, but I would not choose or claim to speak now with the authority either of the Anglican Church or of the ordained ministry, but simply as a fellow pilgrim, as someone journeying along the same road.
And I'm certainly still on a journey; still discovering what God is calling me to, what he wants from me, who he is . . . and to discover and discern the answers to questions like that is to encounter and to meet with Christ. I've not had a Damascus Road experience; there has been no sudden, one-off conversion that brought me to faith. But I do understand and want to use words like conversion; for conversion is part of the experience of every Christian pilgrim.
For me as for many of us, conversion has been gradual, made up of small events, small discoveries of God's love - not the tremendous, one hundred and eighty degree turnaround of the Damascus Road. I have experienced my Lord chipping away at things in my life, nudging me from one path to another; but he couldn’t reach Saul - Paul - in that way. He had to break through, he had to be tough with this man. So let's think for a bit about that event, about what it was that changed Saul to Paul - what happened to him, and why it had to happen.
Our first meeting in scripture with Saul of Tarsus is as a bystander at the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Not that Saul was one of the people who threw the stones - in fact he was there to look after the coats, or so we’re told - but we’re also told that he thoroughly approved of what was being done. He was concerned, you see, for the purity of the faith. For the young firebrand Saul this Stephen was a heretic and an enemy of God; and his people, followers of the Way as they were called then, not yet known as Christians, were a huge dangers to the faith Saul loved so much; they were a scandal in the face of the God he was doing his best to serve.
A scandal that needed to be rooted out. Saul was determined to play his part in stopping these people polluting the faith. This was his duty as a Pharisee; this was his duty as a faithful servant of God. For let’s affirm this about Saul, even before his conversion: this was a man of immense and unswerving faith. This was a man who longed with all his heart to serve God and to please God. This was a man who had taken a firm pledge to live faithfully under God, to keep his commandments, to do his will, to do always what was right under the law. For you see, first and last, what you have in Saul is a righteous man. A man who was trying to be good.
A strange way of going about it, you might think. Well, I wondered, as I read again last week the story of how Steven was stoned to death - as this righteous man stood there watching Stephen die, did a small seed of doubt begin to germinate somewhere deep inside him? What he actually did next was to embark on an eager and thoroughgoing persecution of the followers of Jesus, with full authorisation from the high priests. But I wonder - was that his attempt to drown out a voice from deep inside himself that was already saying 'Maybe this Stephen was right.' After all, he had seen how Stephen died, forgiving those who were stoning him; so was Saul trying to stop his ears to the thought that such a man must have been a man of God?
I wonder. I’ve seen how some people, once they've decided on what they believe, simply can’t begin to consider any new evidence that might challenge that belief. I’ve heard of something similar happening in, for example, a criminal investigation: once someone's in the frame, evidence that might point in another direction gets overlooked or quietly shelved. And in religion the line between firmness of faith and narrow minded, intolerant bigotry can be a very fine one.
So here's how I picture Saul who became Paul. I think that somewhere deep inside himself he already knew the truth: I think that he already knew, at a deeper level than he could admit to, that Jesus is Lord, and that a man like Stephen and those like him must have been truly serving God. And yet Steven challenged all the things he held dear, the faith as he had been taught it from his youth up, the organisation he loved and served and was a member of. He refuses to abandon his upbringing and his heritage, and so Saul stops his ears to that voice within himself; there's a hard shell around this man as he goes zealously off to wreak havoc among the Christians in Damascus - a hard shell that nothing can break through.
Conversion is a continuing part of every Christian life, I believe. We are called to be disciples, and disciples are people who are constantly being changed - converted - by the things they learn. If we're already listening or at any rate open to the idea that God might have new things to say to us, conversion is a gradual process, a series of discoveries and disclosures for the person who is already searching. Often in quiet ways, sometimes catching us by surprise, the love of God, the good news of his love, breaks afresh into our lives.
But that sort of conversion couldn’t happen to Saul; for Saul was refusing to listen. I’ve heard people say that they’ve longed for a ‘Damascus Road experience’ - indeed, I’m sure I’ve said it myself: the one moment that changes everything. So it’s worth noting perhaps that the experience Saul had on the road to Damascus was in fact a terrifying event, something that quite literally knocked Saul for six. You know the story - he was thrown to the ground, he was struck blind, he was left so helpless that others had to lead him along. This was the only way God could break through to this faithful, stubborn man who was refusing to be changed. He wouldn’t open his eyes to the truth, so he had to be struck blind. He was proud of the power he had, so he had to be rendered weak and helpless. He needed to be put in touch with the things his own heart was already saying to him, except that he refused to listen. For this was the tragedy of Saul: he was a man whose one ambition in life was to serve God. But far from serving God, he was persecuting him.
Two quotes that came my way the other day. The first is something repeated by Gerard Hughes in his great and inspirational book “God of Surprises” - ‘Nothing so masks the face of God as religion’. The other is from the internet - ‘I have no problem with God, but I wish I could say the same about some of the members of his fan club’. Saul was a man full of religion, but he had yet to truly encounter God.
I remember years ago knocking on doors in preparation for a parish mission, and being told more than once by people sending me on my way that (quote) ‘religion is responsible for too much bad stuff for me to believe’. Sadly, there’s truth in that. Something of the same zeal that was there in Saul can be seen in young Muslim men going off to fight jihad, and in young American Christians training with their guns and honing their survival skills for the day of Armageddon. And for every wide eyed young zealot there are cynical political opportunists ready to exploit the power of religion for their own ends. Anything that people believe in strongly and without question can be distorted and abused for bad ends, with the name of God used in vain, while the true God of love and peace is left outside in the gutter.
So I thank and praise God that he did get through to Saul. And I praise him too for the experience of conversion in my own life and in the lives of others. God is like Jesus - or, as Paul himself would go on to write, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” In his love he never gives up on us, and that’s true even when we give up on him, when we wilfully go our own way. We may not find ourselves struck down like Saul was on the Damascus road, but there is a message for us I think in the blindness that left him so helpless that he had to be led like a child into the city. However the process of conversion happens to us, it is always about realising our own helplessness and resolving our own blindness. We can’t do it on our own, we need to discover and God's saving love, and admit our need for his presence in our lives.
And I do believe that all of life must then continue to be a conversion experience. Faith is as much about living with questions as finding answers. We don’t and we can’t know it all: we continue to be disciples, learners, approaching our Lord with open hearts and minds.
And of course, coming to him with the desire to serve. Paul's deepest desire when he was Saul the firebrand was to serve his Lord. That's why he was converted, and that desire never left him; and God certainly had a lot of work for him to do. Our own conversion and journey of faith may be more gradual, for nearly all of us it’s going to be a lot less dramatic - but the reason God is calling us and challenging us, the reason God wants to change us is not just for our own sakes but because he has work for us to do. The God Saul so zealously tried to serve was locked up inside the laws and rules and customs of his religion, strict Pharisee that he was. But the real God can never be contained in such a way; he is wild and free, he is the breath of the Holy Spirit abroad in the world like wind and flame, and he is calling us to get out there with him, to cross boundaries and sail seas like Paul did. The world still needs apostles: there still is a Gospel to be proclaimed, and good news to be told. And the work that Paul began, God is calling and arming his people to continue today.