In the reading from Acts today we get the famous story of Paul’s Damascene conversion. This is one of those core Bible stories that we tend to first encounter in primary school or Sunday school and that we then continue to encounter sporadically throughout our life with the church. The problem with this story is that it’s always thought of as “Paul’s Damascene Conversion” but in reality the only thing accurate about that sentence is Damascene – it’s Saul, not Paul who has this experience, and conversion is also tricky as Saul/Paul in order to convert, would need to be converting from one thing to another. What exactly is he converting to?
Saul, from what we know of him is a very well educated Jewish scholar – he has studied extensively and sat at the feet of great rabbi’s. He describes himself in Philippians 3:5 as “circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; and in Acts 23:6 says “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees”. You get the picture – Saul’s credentials are perfect. This is an important part of the Saul/Paul narrative – he knew his scriptures incredibly well. His Hebrew was impeccable and his knowledge of jewish custom and law, second to none. So that when at the end of today’s reading he is found in the synagogues saying that Jesus is the Son of God – we are meant to see this as a dramatic change.
When I think of the word conversion (which even now is a source of consternation) I tend to think of someone moving from one thing to another. In the New Testament, when we talk of repentance – the word in the original language literally means to turn and face in another direction. So if you truly repent, you aren’t going down the original path you were on, you are now going a different way. Conversion though seems more dramatic, something more than just turning and going another way – but almost like being airlifted onto a completely different road in a different location.
The mistake that we make with Saul is that his conversion is one from Judaism to Christianity – but this simply isn’t possible. We’re not talking about a process where someone is convinced intellectually of the merits of an alternative worldview but a moment where everything you have known and relied on is now up for question. I have had numerous upheavals in my life where I’ve found myself making dramatic and significant changes and where I have converted to something new. This then isn’t a single conversion but simply one of many – a life of continuing conversions.
Think of the occasions when you have had upheavals in your own life. Things which seemed fixed and obvious are no longer the case. There are times when this is gradual, but there are also times when it isn’t. When I was a teenager I became disabled essentially overnight – the life I had dreamt, planned and mapped out was suddenly not possible, or at least not possible in the way I thought. I had to relearn things which I had taken for granted and learn a bunch of new skills and strategies for a very different life. That moment didn’t feel to me like a series of gradual changes but one of conversion – I was now on a different path in a different place.
For me, one of the key moments in this passage is the line “though his eyes were open, he could see nothing” When Saul has this moment of conversion – everything doesn’t suddenly fall into place. It takes him some time to adjust to the new reality. His eyes are open – but he doesn’t see. He needs the people around him to support him and help him find his way. Ironically the person who helps him is one of the people Saul has been trying to persecute – sometimes the help we need comes from the most unlikely places.
This in the end, feels to me very similar to my journey with Christ. Everyday I see the world in a different way because of my relationship with Him and then I look back and wonder how I didn’t see things that I can now plainly see. Everyday I encounter people who also help me see the world in a different way and I am constantly grateful for their help.
This though is the heart of our walk with Christ – that we need to be open to the constant conversion of Christ as we draw closer to Him each day. Our connection to Christ is not a singular moment but one which is constant. I hope to have many more conversions as I continue upon the Way.
- What moments in your life would you describe as moments of conversion?
- Who are the people in your life who help you see more clearly?