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A homily based on Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
by Rev. Tom Hall

Did you listen closely to that story about Saul on the Damascus Road this morning? It's one of those heavily colored highlighted stories; it’s one of the most recited, preached about, studied, and taught passages in the entire New Testament. I think one reason why this story has found such favor among Christians is because of the presence of a single word. The word doesn't even show up in the story but its presence is felt. It is a disruptive word--a word that intrudes into our life, a word that rocks our boat, threatens us with priority shifts.

The story about Saul on the Damascus Road is a conversion story. And we all know about conversion. When you turn that closet into an upstairs bathroom you could say that it is converted--changed in nature or character. And when that farm that houses thousands of cackling pungent chickens is turned into condos for hundreds of families and friends--we could say it's been converted--changed in nature or character. And this week I discovered that even vans get converted. That van rolls into the garage with few options and comes back out fully loaded, in wild colors, shag carpet, quad seating, a raised roof, and a really changed price tag. It's no longer just a van, but a "conversion van"--changed in nature or character. Conversion.

That's what this story is about. A change in nature or character. This story shows us that God reserves the right to break into our life unannounced with a persistent love that will not let us go, that pursues us through our life. Just talk to St. Augustine, John Bunyan, Charles and John Wesley, Finney, Leo Tolstoy, Albert Schweitzer, C. S. Lewis--all of whom had their personal Damascus Road experience. Not to mention a host of slave traders, lawyers, middle school kids, intellectuals, farmers, school teachers, rocket scientists, and perhaps yourself. All of these and more have found something in this very story that resonates with their own faith experience. So it's not hard to discover why this Saul on the Damascus Road story is one of those red-lettered, heavily underlined, yellow highlighted kind of stories.

He seemed to come from nowhere. And just in the nick of time. Just when the Sanhedrin thought that this Christian movement could not be stopped, he had stepped forward and volunteered to fight. Saul was one of their own, strong, young, and intelligent—and fiercely committed to the traditions of his fathers. And he had the nose of a blood hound. So he picks up the scent of Christian sightings up in Damascus. This young Colombo clutches the official paperwork and stalks off with other strong muscled marines to conduct investigations, make arrests, and hold court. He is determined to stomp out this Christian thing once and for all.

That is, until suddenly he lies in the sand near Damascus like a wounded animal blinded by the most brilliant light ever to hit his pupils. He's stone blind when he is finally pulled to his feet. This leader is now led by the hand--like a tiny tot clutching a matronly hand. The hand leads him into Damascus for the voice in the desert has told him to wait in the city for further instructions. So for past three days he has been a prisoner in his own room--sightless and hungry. He kicks a piece of shard so that it shatters against the wall. Why can't he see? Why can't he just do his job? And get on with life? Why this? What's happening to him? he wonders.

He senses a human enter his blackness, the warmth of human hands rest on his head and the words finally come: "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." As suddenly as the light had gone off in his life, it comes roaring back with the brilliance of stadium lights. He has never seen so clearly before. He really sees. He see the scriptures in that new light. He sees Christians in that new light. For the first time in his entire life--he really truly sees. His perspective changes. His commitment changes. His relationship with Christians change; in fact, he even changes his name from Saul to Paul. We might say that he has been converted--for God has come bounding into this young man's life unannounced with a persistent love so that Paul will never be quite the same again.

So there we have the story of conversion--a flashing vision of truth, humility, conviction of sin, forgiveness, and the ready acceptance of a new life of mission and service. Sometimes conversions are loud and bold affairs--much like Paul's. One of my friends, a law student with his sights set on an office in the Canadian Parliament, went to his father's parish one night with a friend. They had been drinking all afternoon. They now sat in the back of the church mocking everything my friend's father did in the worship service. And when the guest speaker got up to preach, they cat-called and muttered obscenities. But this speaker spoke about God's love that night in a way that my friend had not understood. They had come to church only to get thrown out but the words of this preacher started to get to him. At the conclusion of the service the evangelist gave an invitation and Terry Law, my friend, stumbled down to the front. Bawled like a baby. But after that night he would never be the same; I know I traveled with him for six years and watched him bring food and shelter, and hope to thousands of people.

But isn't that what's so stressful about Paul's conversion experience? So dramatic and all. What about the rest of us who haven't had those kinds of disruptive experiences? Conversion can take many forms. When the psalmist cries out "create in me a clean heart O God, he is longing for a chance to begin all over again--that's conversion. When Isaiah sees the majesty of God and responds by crying, Woe is me! For I am lost; he is describing a disruptive u-turn that conversion can take.

Take Toyohiko Kagawa, for instance. Though a Christian and bestseller author, his conversion began through a simple prayer: "O God, make me like Christ." That was it. That was the blinding light and heavenly voices that accompanied his conversion. Yet That was enough. He was an orphan, half blind, always sick, yet this little Japanese walked into the slums of Tokyo and became Japan's greatest slum reformer. He became as much like Jesus as anyone before or since his time. Six words changed Martin Luther's life: "the just shall live by faith." No amazing experiences or emotion--just these words that he wrote a year before the Reformer died: "Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates." Thomas Aquinas wrote over 10,000 pages of theology and then one day stopped abruptly. "How can you stop now?" a concerned colleague asked. Thomas replied, "I cannot go on...All that I have written is just straw compared to what I have seen of God and what God has revealed to me."

I was raised in a Christian home, my father a minister. My earliest recollections are of Sunday evenings at church. These people would sing and sing about heaven, about hope, about Jesus and getting saved. So I had been raised in the shadow of Christian faith all my life, attended catechism, received baptism at age 12. Yet I also discovered that so much religion can become counter productive. I found that though I had memorized scriptures, songs, choruses, the Lord's Prayer and the 23rd Psalm, my heart was not converted. Nor was my life during the week--if we mean by conversion a fundamental change in character. I tried everything everyone tried; laughed at jokes and cursed quite well. But then on Sundays I could always revert to the proper deportment of a minister's kid. No one knew about my double life.

I tried to change things myself. I would respond to invitations to come forward or to sign prayer cards or to do something to bring my life together. One day my parents gone, I sat down and began reading the Bible on my own. It was in a fresh translation. I discovered that something inside me happening. I found myself getting excited about what I read. Had been there all along, but this time it was different. No dramatic conversion, but some honest prayers and a new awareness that I had let God join me in my life. It wasn't until several months later that I realized that someone had been tampering with my report card--my grades had gone berserk! I had never been within three miles of an A or B before; but suddenly a few of these collector's items are popping up in my report card. I certainly hadn't gotten any smarter! But then I remembered that I had honestly asked God to take over my life, to guide me to a better quality of life. And grades let me know that God was truly working quietly but profoundly in my life. I found a devotional part of myself begin to search, imagine, pray and believe. And now as I look back over the years I notice a series of conversions. I do see God's gentle Spirit all along has been guiding, renewing, illuminating. And even after twenty years, I know God's Spirit is with me.

Conversion? Sometimes it’s as quiet as a mountain lake, other times our mighty persistent God breaks into our lives unannounced to disrupt and dramatically change our lives. But the story of Saul on the Damascus road does challenge us this morning: it challenges us to open our lives to this converting God; not to shrink in fear of what might happen, of how our lives might change. The tough new is this--the most miserable place to be is to be a Christian that's unwilling to be converted; and the Good News? Well, that in Jesus Christ God desires to renew us, change us for the better, to convert us--not once, or twice, but again and again. But whether dramatic or quiet--the bottom line is the same: a profound change in nature or character. That's where I'm headed. Hope you are too. Amen.