Writer Flannery O’Connor said of Paul, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”
That statement is a reminder that we bring baggage to the hearing of this story. There’s nothing in the story about a horse. That’s a European addition – probably thanks to artists who chose this story as inspiration for paintings. They painted according to the world they knew. In that world, people travelled by horse! One of my courses when I spent a semester in Vienna, Austria, was art appreciation. We visited numerous museums – and saw this particular story illustrated by numerous artists. Someone finally asked me, “Is that the way they used to convert people? By walking horses over them?”
O’Connor brought that baggage of artistic interpretation. We also bring the baggage of a modern Christianity that often focuses on the need for conversion. “Have you been born again?” is a phrase often used as a litmus test for legitimate Christian faith. I remember being challenged years ago by Christian friends – friends who had not been raised in the church. “If you haven’t been born again, you’re not really a Christian.” There was a prevailing attitude that those who had always been in the church couldn’t possibly really be Christians because they couldn’t point to a moment of clarity – a moment when they had been born again.
We bring the baggage of our attitudes toward Paul. He isn’t an easy person to hear. And some of his teachings have been harmful to particular groups of people – at least in the ways they have been heard and interpreted.
We also bring the cultural baggage that has interpreted this as a complete change in who Paul was. We think of conversion as a movement from being a bad person to being a good person. Conversion is about morality.
So, we have to try to shed some of that baggage and let the story speak for itself. It is an important story in Luke-Acts. Paul’s experience on the Damascus road gets told three times. Here, the narrator tells it. Then Paul tells of it himself in Acts 22 and Acts 26.
But, his isn’t the only conversion story. It may have gained prominence through the centuries because of its drama – losing and then regaining his sight – but we’re told of other conversions as well.
The Rev. Anthony Robinson, a leader in church revitalization, suggests that in the book of Acts conversion is “not conceived of in narrowly moral terms,” but is, rather, “seen as coming to a new understanding.”
We have to remember that Paul (Saul) was a devout Jew. He thought he was doing what God required of him – as a good and faithful Jew. He was seeking to squash an emerging interpretation of the faith that he perceived to be a threat to God’s ways. He was not morally corrupt. He was – by all accounts – a righteous man, who lived according to God’s laws. And in the name of God’s law, he was going to force people back into God’s narrow way. God broke into his narrow faith and offered him a new, deeper, broader understanding – based on God’s grace in Jesus the Christ.
The other conversions are less dramatic (a reminder that we don’t all experience faith in the same way – thank you, God! and Biblical writers!). There’s another conversion within this very story. Ananias had to be converted from his judgment and fear of Saul so that he might pray for Saul and be part of God’s healing presence with Saul. In chapter 10, we have the wonderful story of Peter’s conversion from a good Jewish man who wanted to keep Jesus within the circle of Judaism to one who was willing to tell God’s story to a Gentile. Later, we have the story of the conversion of Lydia – a woman of faith.
Robinson points out that contrary to our modern understandings of conversion, in Acts, conversion is not moral, it does not focus on unbelievers and it is not a one time event. “If Acts is to be believed,” he writes, “the focus of conversion is as much on believers and ‘good Christians’ as it is on unbelievers or the morally reprobate. Moreover, conversion is not simply a matter of the heart or the emotions; it has a cognitive content and carries with it a call to service and action…a person is converted in order to be of use.”
The church is often guilty of reducing the faith to morality and a personal faith that has little connection to the world. I remember a colleague saying, years ago, that he found that his congregation wanted to hear how they should live. They wanted to know what the “boundaries” of Christian living would be. He preached a personal faith and a careful morality. His approach is a common one. Read church signs. Most of them have some little invitation to come explore how one should live. “Got worries? Bring them to church!” one church declares. “God wants to talk to you,” says another.
I’m afraid I can’t see the Biblical justification for such an approach to faith. It can’t be reduced to me and my God, to how to live carefully, within certain moral boundaries. The implicit promise is that if we live carefully – according to God’s morality – we will have easy and safe lives. God will reward us and protect us. “Come to God – and all your troubles will be over!”
Robinson says that the church has been highly influenced by our culture’s interest in the therapeutic – which focuses on the self. “How does this enhance or benefit me and my life? How does this work for me? How can this make my life better or more comfortable or more meaningful? Does this meet my needs? We’ve fallen susceptible to Martin Luther’s definition of sin: “The self curved in upon itself.”
Saul was called – and converted – for a purpose. Robinson points out that the book of Acts is focused less on Paul’s (Saul’s) conversion than on the purpose of the call. Yet, he had to be converted in order to fulfill that call. He had to recognize his blindness to what God had done through Jesus Christ and was doing through his followers so that he might see that he, too, was invited to participate in God’s redeeming work and presence. Robinson writes, “Saul’s conversion meant transcending the self-centered demands of the ego and sustaining the intrusion into his life of another reality, another being – the living Jesus.”
So, Robinson suggests, “Conversion in our own time may likewise entail an intrusion into and deliverance from our self-centered and self-absorbed – if also anxious – constructions of the self.”
Robinson suggests we consider a modern parable – actually, what I’ve always heard as a joke.
Two battleships were on maneuvers at sea. When a storm struck, one of the captains stayed on the bridge to oversee things. After dark, a lookout reported, “Light on the starboard bow.”
“Is it steady or moving astern?” asked the captain.
“Steady,” captain, the lookout replied. They were on a collision course.
“Signal that ship!” roared the captain. “We are on a collision course. Advise you to change course 20 degrees.”
A signal came back. “Advisable for you to change course 20 degrees.
The captain said, “Send: I’m a captain. Change course 20 degrees.”
The reply came. “I’m a second-class seaman, sir. You had better change course 20 degrees.”
The angry captain shouted, “Send: I’m a battleship. You change course 20 degrees.”
Back came the reply. “I’m a lighthouse!”
“Change course,” muttered the captain.
Saul thought he had all the answers. He set out thinking he was in charge and that he knew what should happen. He was like the captain. He encountered the “lighthouse”, Jesus, the Christ.
The problem with reducing conversion to a one time, one place event is that we forget that we are constantly in need of conversion. We are always in need of being encountered by the one who is the light in our darkness. We need to recognize our own blindness to the ways of God – and let our sight be restored or expanded.
Someone told me of a visit she made to her childhood Sunday School teacher – a visit that took place decades later. “It was sad,” she said. “The woman’s views hadn’t changed one bit. She was no different in her attitudes.”
How often does the church lift up consistency as a value? We are in danger that consistency can be a sign of our blindness to the ways and presence of God. A commentator noted Flannery O’Connor’s statement and said that, although she was wrong about the horse, she might have been right about the need to be shaken up – startled out of our complacency and consistency.
God calls us – beyond ourselves – to be a part of God’s redeeming, healing, and transforming presence in this world. If we are following Jesus, we are remembering and striving to emulate what he did – doing the works of the One who had sent him. Saul was told, “Get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The church exists, we are called, not for our own sakes – but for God’s service, for God’s mission, and for God’s work.