It was one of those weeks were each congregation needed to hear a different word…..and it was in a different text no less. More work for me, better for you!
The story of Paul’s conversion in the Bible always fascinated me. Let me give you a little summary: Found in the Book of Acts, chapter 9, The apostle Paul, then known as Saul, was a major persecutor of Christians. He hunted them down and had them killed. Saul, walking alongside the road to Damascus, hears the voice of Jesus, asking why he persecutes him, and then is immediately blinded. After being helped to the house of Ananias, a Christian, Ananias heals him, restores his sight and Saul is converted – his name changes to Paul – who then goes on to spread the gospel of Jesus all over the ancient world. Quite a story: a dramatic moment of conversion. It’s almost too good to be true, like it was made for the movies.
I wonder sometimes, if perhaps that’s how most of us expect God to speak and work, and how faith works – it’s this dramatic thing, this huge divine conversion to faith. Some call it “getting saved.” The great American theologian and preacher John Wesley called it “the strange warming felt in our heart.” Altar calls, revivals….these dramatic conversions of the heart, people deciding for Jesus.
But I don’t know about you, I’ve never had one of those moments. And, if I asked each and every one of you what and when your “conversion moment” to Christian faith was, what would you say? Again, I wonder if while we expect conversion moments like these, the truth is most of us haven’t had one. And I feel like…..it makes this faith thing, this Lutheran thing seem….boring. And I know for me, and perhaps for you, I wonder sometimes if there’s something wrong with me, my faith.
But then we have this story in Acts today – the stoning of Stephen. Stephen, who in the verses before the section we read today was engaged in a major debate with certain Jewish leaders of his day – the debate whether this new following of Jesus was going to be accepted. And Stephen’s bold confession – that Jesus was the Messiah – angered the Jewish leaders….and it got him killed. Stoned to death. But the central figure of this story, I think, isn’t Stephen. Because at the end of our reading, the first half of the first verse in Chapter 8, “And Saul approved of their killing him.”
Yes: that Saul. The Saul who was converted and became Paul.
But I wonder, between verse 1a of Chapter 8 and verse 1 of Chapter 9 – what really happened? The text doesn’t really tell us, other than Saul/Paul kept on with his life of hunting and persecuting Christians. What was going on in his mind during that whole time….maybe, witnessing the events of Stephen’s murder and in the midst of his regular life persecuting Christians, it started to bother him, or at least affect him. And questions about Stephen, and about what he was doing and seeing….started to rise up for him. I wonder if gradually, a little at a time….Paul’s heart was being changed.
Some of you might be familiar with author John Grisham…he’s the one who writes all the famous suspense novels about lawyers. In 1998, he wrote a book called “The Street Lawyer,” in which the main character, Michael Brock, a lawyer at a rich firm, gets held hostage by a homeless man who made claims about a conspiracy in the firm’s dealings with the homeless. The man is eventually killed by police snipers. However, this event changes Brock, enough so that he starts to ask questions about the dead man’s claims. And in those questions, things come to light that bother him….bother him enough where he quit his job at the rich firm and becomes a “street lawyer,” working for the homeless, pro bono.
We see or experience things in our lives – news stories of neighbor squabbles, those parking lot accidents that turn into a full-blown fistfight, students getting bullied in school, large-scale tragic events that kills thousands of people at a time……we ask, “how did it get this way? Why did this happen?” All our questions….and no answers. All we can seem to do is cry out “Kyrie, eleison – Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.”
But I believe that is where our conversion happens. It happens in asking those questions with no answers. Conversion happens in our cry of Kyrie eleison. Conversion happens when we see and experience things that bother us, haunt us….and the thoughts don’t seem to go away. Conversion isn’t our decision, and it’s not necessarily a grand “one-and-done,” emotionally charged event that magically makes us do a 180 for the better in life. I wonder, if conversion is a gradual process…..and it’s something that God does – that Jesus does.
Martin Luther – that guy from the 1500’s who we Lutherans are named after – said, “remember your baptism.” And what he meant is that baptism is more than just a one-time event in which we’re converted or radically changed into Christians. Baptism is about a proclamation and a promise: a visible sign of what God does for us constantly and what that means for our lives. We’re claimed out of the waters of baptism because God loves us – in Christ we are found worthy in God’s eyes….God claims us because through the eyes of love, we have great worth. That’s the proclamation. And the promise is that our lives are changed somehow….but not perhaps in visible, dramatic ways. I mean, there’s really nothing different about us. We look the same, we probably get excited about and ticked off at the same things, the world doesn’t really change – I mean baptism doesn’t change the reality that the Vikings and Redskins will probably both be not very good this year!
But this news of God’s love and presence in Christ’s baptism…..something starts happening. Things and people we didn’t notice before, we start noticing. Things we see and experience on a daily basis that never bothered us – start to bother us. And we start to ask questions we never asked before. And then we start to hear that “still, small voice” of God….and gradually, in small steps – our relationships change. Our attitudes change. Perhaps our actions and routines change. By God’s love in Christ….faith is nurtured as a small spark, and we are changed.
As John’s gospel tells us today, this is the way of Jesus. It is this life lived in the proclamation and promise of baptism, a way of life as a gradual, ongoing process, a way of life…..a life of faith trusting in the proclamation and promise in what God does for us over and over in Jesus Christ. So hopefully all of us who have never had one of those big conversion moments like the apostle Paul….we can all rest easy. There’s nothing wrong with us, Lutheranism isn’t all that boring, and I won’t be making you do an alter call today. We just simply come – with our questions, our wonderings, just our plain, old selves……we come in faith…..and Christ and his grace and love that changes hearts and lives does the rest. Amen.