Conversion: bolt of lightning, or a slow wearing down?

January 24, 2014

Tomorrow (Jan. 25), we recall the Conversion of St. Paul. He is struck down on the Damascus road and blinded by a heavenly light. Jesus, the light of the world speaks to him out of that divine brightness. The story is in Acts 9. For Jesus, the systematic oppression of Christian believers is more than an attack on the righteous. It is personal. Paul is attacking the Anointed One that had been so earnestly anticipated.

He travels on to Damascus where a disciple named Ananias had a dream in which the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” (Acts 9:15-16) That is some fine recruiting technique. Forget about the fringe benefits and golden parachute. Come to work for me and suffer. Paul, or course, goes for the deal. What is he supposed to do? The man who will soon deliver the good news to the Gentile world is now convinced that Jesus is the son of God and the Messiah.

There is a little business here about God’s choice. As usual, the divine selection appears absurd. The Almighty gets a kick out of disproving human presumptions by picking out the most unlikely people. God chooses the smallest insignificant nation, the younger brothers, and the least powerful in order that he may draw attention to the unknowable wisdom that resides above the small-minded human perceptions of how things should be. Taking this into account, there is no more qualified spokesman for God’s wonderful plan to bring all mankind to himself than the preeminent tormenter of God’s people.

Laying hands on the blind man, Ananias.pronounces God’s healing. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened. (9:17-19)

Ananias has two objectives; physical healing and imparting the Holy Spirit. If we follow what happened here, it may tell us something about the conversion experience. First of all, the would=be persecutor has accepted the core of the gospel message. Jesus is divine and he is the one who will save us from the fallen state that has separated human beings from God. Now, follow the verbs. Paul regained his lost sight. Paul, being justified by faith, is now restored to the proper condition for which humans were created.

Paul rose and was baptized. Perhaps this is a bit too ambitious of an interpretation, but the connection of baptism and rising is too obvious to be ignored. Baptism represents our death to sin and resurrection to eternal life. One sets aside the old man and becomes a new creature in Christ.The believer puts away the past failings and is directed to the heavenly city. Baptism is  typically associated with the Holy Spirit. He is the “seal” of our inheritance in that eternal kingdom. (Eph 1:11-14)

God provides the daily bread, the strength required for ministry. We have human bodies and reside in a material world. The creator knows the strain of living in the real world. In order to be “strengthened,” it is important to deal with the spiritual and material requirements. Readers of the Acts text are told that Paul spends time being instructed by the disciples in Damascus, and readers of 2 Cor 12 understand that, at some point, Paul receives a vision of heaven. We do not know if these events happened in the same time frame. Afterwards, Paul begins preaching to the local congregation. Yes, it would be unusual for such a new believer to take on such a big responsibility, but the special circumstances speak for themselves.

Paul’s conversion is dramatic and very much different from our experiences. It is, however, similar in the elements. We are called, believe, are justified, receive baptism and the Holy Spirit, and are equipped for the ministry of Christian living. For those who personally witnessed Christ’s earthly workings, conversion was surely a process. One of the apostles demands to see the risen Lord’s crucifixion marks up close. Peter and Paul are still squabbling after Pentecost. (Gal 2:11-14). Struggle is part of being human.

For Paul, the experience of being slammed against the roadway worked well. He has the correct background and education (Phil 3:4-8) to recognize his own misunderstanding of the scriptures. Despite his own bloodthirsty rage against followers of The Way, this man turns out to be the perfect candidate for an important mission.

The rest of us have questions. We suffer from a lack of knowledge, which leads to a faltering faith. Which one of us has not already sold out to modern life and the presumptions of material “success?” Does the American Christian really desire commitment to a “turn the other cheek,” and “give all you have to the poor” kind of religion? Remember that Paul, having been knocked to his knees, took the whole deal, including the suffering.  For the rest of us, this will require a little working through.

O GOD, who, through the preaching of the blessed Apostle Saint Paul, hast caused the light of the Gospel to shine throughout the world; Grant, we beseech thee, that we, haying his wonderful conversion in remembrance, may show forth our thankfulness unto thee for the same, by following the holy doctrine which he taught; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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