This was one of those weeks that in the middle of sermon writing, I came across something that said what I was trying to say much better than what I was cobling together. As I read Frederick Buechner’s entry on Paul in his book “Beyond Words,” I knew I had to share it with you. Now, I don’t think it is totally the fact that Laura is gone and I was squeezing in sermon writing during naps and after bed time, because I did have most of a sermon written by Thursday. But when I read these words, I deleted most of what I had down and started over. I’m also not going to read Buechner’s entire entry on Paul, just the first portion about who he was and his Damascus Road experience. And if you want to see his entire write up on Paul, I’d be happy to get you a copy. Now, let me share with you what Buechner had to say about Paul…
So, what does Paul’s conversion story say to us today? First and foremost, when we have an encounter with the Living God as found in Christ, and that encounter can take place anywhere and anyplace, we come face to face with who we are and who we are not. We realize that we are not God and that we have failed miserably in the eyes of the living God. Paul laid there in the dirt waiting for the ax to fall. Paul knew what he had done. In persecuting his followers, Paul was persecuting Jesus.
But the ax never fell that he deserved for what he had done to Stephen and to Jesus. The hand that reached out of that bright light at Paul wasn’t a hand of condemnation, but a hand reaching out in love. God reaches out to us in Christ not to condemn us, but to embrace us, to make us his own. As Buechner says it, Jesus was saying to Paul, “I want you on my side.”
The other thing we learn from Paul’s conversion is that it was noteworthy. But it was noteworthy not because it is something that we expect our conversion and walk with Christ to look like. It is striking precisely because it was not typical of the way most people become converts. It was how Christ got Paul’s attention. Flannery O’Conner says, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”
No horse is mentioned, but O’Conner’s comment points to the main character in this and every conversion story: God. Whether your story is, “I grew up in the church and lived my entire life as a Christian” or you had some major epiphany about Christ over a bowl of cereal one morning, it is God who has changed your life, it is Christ who has been molding you, and it is the Holy Spirit who will continually form you into a child of God. The change either happens slowly and incrementally or with huge mountain top experiences, but the main thing to know is there is no one religious experience that fits all. Just like you have a different relationship with those sitting on your left and right, God in Christ has a unique relationship with each of you. Jesus wasn’t done with Paul on the Damascus Road, and he isn’t done with you either.
And know that your story isn’t only your story. Your faith journey isn’t just for you. It is for those sitting on your left and right. Did you hear how Buechner’s reading ended? Christ reaches out to Paul and says, “Join me” and Paul turns to all those towns and churches and to us today and says, “Join him.” Paul’s faith story and conversion are for you. And your story, your walk with Christ, is for all those who are here and not here today, for your children and grandchildren and generations still to come. Your story and experiences enrich the community of faith and they matter. The church wouldn’t be complete without you and your story. Friends, may God open our eyes as Christ opened Paul’s to the new reality created in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is a vision that he shares and we are called to share to bring others into the light of God’s love. And however the Spirit reveals that vision to you, it is not meant to be private affair, but is meant for sharing the love of Christ with a broken world and for building up his church. Amen.