Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
True religious conversion has always been challenging for people. We simply don’t know whether the change is real or not. There’s the story of the old Irish man who was lying in bed, very ill. His son was sitting at his bedside, expecting the end to come at any moment. The old man looked up at the boy and said, “Son, it’s time for you to get me a Protestant minister.” The son was astounded. “But, Dad!” he protested, “You’ve been a good Catholic all your life! You’re delirious. It’s a priest ye should be wanting now, not a minister.” The old man looked up at him and said, “Son, please. It’s me last request. Get a minister for me!” The boy cried, “But, Dad, yee raised me a good Catholic. You’ve been a good Catholic all your life. Ye don’t want a minister at a time like this!” The old man managed to croak out the words, “Son, if you respect me and love me as a father, you’ll go out and get me a Protestant minister right now.” The son relented and went out and got the minister. They came back to the house, and the minister went upstairs and converted him. As the minister was leaving the house, he passed Father O’Malley coming quickly through the door. The minister stared solemnly into the eyes of the priest. “I’m afraid you’re too late, Father,” he said. “He’s a Protestant now.” Father O’Malley rushed up the steps and burst into the old man’s room. “Pat! Pat! Why did ye do it?” he cried. “You were such a good Catholic! We went to St. Mary’s together! You were there when I performed my first mass! Why in the world would ye do such a thing like this?” The old man looked up at his dear old friend and said, “Well, I figured if somebody had to go, it was better one of them than one of us.”
No doubt, there were many followers of the Way in Damascus, who were just as skeptical of Saul’s conversion. He was, after all, one of the most strident opponents of the early church. We first heard of Saul of Tarsus at the stoning of the bold deacon Stephen, the first martyr of the church. Saul was the young man who consented to his execution, and whose accusers laid their cloaks at his feet. How could the Christian followers in Damascus believe the sincerity of Saul’s conversion? It is the same question facing Christians with a difficult past today.
Of course, as the church we believe in the possibility of a road to Damascus experience, but deep inside we also struggle with them. Like the skeptical Ananias we wonder: Does anyone ever really change? Maybe, you feel the same about someone you know or love. You want to believe and trust them, but you can only see the footprints of someone’s past. You remember only the sorrow your husband brought you. You remember only the shame your son or daughter caused you. You remember only the anger your wife left you. You want desperately for the relationship to change, but you just can’t let go of the past.
In a favorite Peanuts comic strip, Lucy is seen leaning over to Linus, as she questions him, “Do you think anybody every really changes.” In the second frame Linus responds, I’ve changed a lot in the last year.” To which Lucy answers, “I mean for the better.” Yes, we all believe that people change, but do we believe that there is a possibility that they can change for the better.
My friends, as one who has known unlikely candidates for God’s kingdom who were converted by a chance meeting with Christ on a deserted way, I am convinced that lives can be changed, and I believe that in Jesus Christ, you and I have been offered such a possibility.
Let me begin by saying, that there was perhaps no more unlikely candidate to become an apostle of Christ than Saul of Tarsus. He was a Greek-speaking Jew from Asia Minor. His birthplace, Tarsus, was a major city in eastern Cilicia, a region that had been made part of the Roman province of Syria. Saul was sent from his home in Tarsus to Jerusalem to study the Jewish Scriptures at the feet of Gamaliel. This noted rabbi was a respected member of the Sanhedrin who showed gentleness and restraint when the Apostles were on trial. Gamaliel spoke against violence and persecution towards the church, and said that if this movement was not of God, it would ultimately fail, and if it was of God, the Sanhedrin had no right to oppose it. That is how closely the Way was associated with Judaism in the 1st century. The teaching of his mentor Gamaliel, however, didn’t temper Saul’s attitude towards the Way. Saul was convinced that it had to be stopped, so he went to the high priest and asked for letters to the synagogues at Damascus to arrest the followers of the Way. As Saul and his companions made their journey to Damascus, a light from heaven surrounded him. He fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
Now many Christians believe that Saul’s conversion like most conversions was from an immoral life to a moral life. But that wasn’t true for Saul. He was always a follower of God. As a young man, Saul had such a zeal to keep the community of Israel together that he made it his mission to trample down all threats to the Jewish faith. No, Saul’s conversion was from a false notion of a good and holy life to a true a health notion. Saul’s conversion was, rather, from a false notion that we are saved by our strict to adherence to the demands of the law, to a true notion that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Perhaps that it is he conversion needed in your life, or the life of someone you love.
I think it is intriguing that Saul was struck by light. The great 19th century English evangelist Charles Spurgeon wrote, “Conversion is not, as some suppose, a violent opening of the heart by grace, in which all will, reason and judgment are all ignored or crushed. The reason is not blinded, but enlightened, and the whole life man is made to act with glorious liberty which it never knew till it fell under the restraints of grace.” True conversion, you see, is about seeing your actions and words in a new light. It is moving from darkness to light. But beware, there will be nay-sayers who will doubt any real change for the better.
Even Saul who saw the light, understood the objections of those whom he had hurt. But that didn’t stop the Apostle from moving forward and it shouldn’t stop you. Saul didn’t cower in the shadows waiting for his past to be forgotten. Instead he offered a witness of how you and I can dare to be open to God’s amazing grace. Now, you can be changed for the better, but you will need to take charge of your life.
First of all, Saul reminded the church that his own healing did not take place in a moment or in the twinkling of an eye. When he was converted, he did not return to the scene of the crime in Jerusalem or even to the place of salvation in Damascus, and proclaim that I am a changed man. According to the Book of Acts Paul went out into the wilderness, where God could speak to him. He remained there for three years learning and growing in the love of God. Unfortunately today, we have this notion that pains and sorrows can be healed in instant. You shouldn’t wallow in your discomfort very long. As strange as it may seem, adversity can be therapeutic.
Lyle Schaller in his book “The Best is Yet to Come” writes, “The most effective change (in life) is incremental, not catastrophic. We have six children and I’ve said to my wife many times, one of the smartest things she ever did was to bring them home one at a time.” My friends, if there is to be a change for the better in your life, let God reveal his plan for you, the renewal of your love, the restoration of your trust, from a distance- one gift at a time. Then stand back so that you can see the outpouring of God’s grace.
Second, Saul reminded the church, that the true word of healing was not his own. He was not sent by his own authority or with his own approval. After three years in the wilderness, Saul returned to Jerusalem, and there he received the word of strength and confirmation from Cephas. Cephas is the Aramaic name for Peter. Here were two men who had both denied Christ. For 15 days they shared their faith journey. Together they confessed their regrets and failings, and together they encouraged one another to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Change, you see, is not of your own discernment but change is always recognizable to others.
Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher said, “Being powerful is like being a lady- if you have to tell people you are, you’re not.” The same is true of a Christian who has been healed and made whole. And yet how do you begin to affirm the change that has taken place in you? The way you live your life is the only true measure for others to see. Your life must, therefore, show visible markings or signs of transformation. These signs may be confession, searching, and a hungering for change.
Indeed, it may be easier to see the change for the better in someone else’s life than in your own. The great American industrialist Andrew Carnegie once compared human change for the better to gold mining. “In gold mining you literally move tons of dirt to find a single ounce of gold. However, you don’t look for the dirt- you look for the gold. My friends, if there is to be a real change for the better in your life and the lives’ of unlikely candidates, ask yourself are you searching for the gold? Perhaps, you’re being stymied by the dirt.
Finally, Saul reminded the church that many times you cannot return to the places you know best. Saul did not go back to Tarsus, Jerusalem or Damascus. Rather, God called him to new ventures and so, the hated and despised Saul, became the beloved Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles. In your longing for change, you must be prepared as well for something new. You may not be allowed to return to the relationships that once were. The pain and sorrow you caused may haunt you and the rumors of your past may arise and cause you to stumble. There are often consequences of our acts that cannot be undone. Saul knew this too. The gospel of Jesus Christ, reminds us of that if a Savior leaves you as you are and where you are, from what has he truly saved you? God’s salvation for you and the change for the better may be to move you to a new place where you will discover who God has called you to be. Accept the new possibilities and challenges God offers you. Be patient for the relationships to be healed, and trust that by God’s grace, those who have been hurt will glorify God because of you.
My friends, if you are living in the shadows of the past, believe in God’s possibility of change for the better. That decision is in your hands. For in the midst of distance, time and calling, God is making all things new for you. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.