A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on May 1, 2022 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Acts 9: 1-20
One thing that 30 years as a priest has taught me is that almost every Christian feels inadequate about their faith; and especially their practice of faith. I’ve also learned to be pretty suspicious of those who don’t. There are various hierarchies – of those who can keep silent contemplation the longest, of those who have the most extensive and well-informed intercession lists, and of those who are most profoundly in touch with the world’s most terribly oppressed. One thing that’s very much on the list of hierarchies and of things people feel most inadequate about is how they came to faith in the first place.
Here there’s the most explicit of hierarchies. Right at the top is the person trading drugs and trafficking slaves and ill-using vulnerable people who suddenly has a transformative experience that knocks them down, shakes them up, brings them to their senses and triggers a personal encounter with Jesus. Up there near the top is the person that grew up in faith and then went wild, denying all they’d held dear, pursuing hedonistic indulgence and wayward prodigality, and then rediscovered truth. Right near the bottom is the person who went to church a bit as a child, liked the music, married a person with a background in the church, went along wanting to be helpful and ended up sticking around.
What this hierarchy tells us is how much we value drama, how much we expect God to do all the work for us, and how desperately we long for a single moment of certainty that can take away all our reservations. Which is why the conversion of St Paul in today’s first reading is the mother of all conversion stories. Paul was the number one enemy of the early church, with a mission to eradicate the movement and exterminate its adherents. But on the Damascus Road he was poleaxed by a blinding light, a voice saying, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,’ and instructions that told him how to find his future. This is the conversion we all want. Minus one part. And that’s all the horrendous experiences Paul went through for the rest of his life. We’d rather we skipped that part.
Throughout the history of the church people have looked back to the conversion of Paul and seen it as a model of how it’s supposed to happen. Augustine heard a voice telling him to pick up a book and read it. John Wesley spoke of feeling his heart strangely warmed. Charles Wesley described how ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee.’ John Newton sang of how he had once been lost but now was free. They’re all riffing off the score in this story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus. For what’s known as revivalism, the whole of Christianity is focused down into this one experience, and if you’ve had it, you’re saved, and if you haven’t, you’re not. Which makes it easy to see where the hierarchy comes from, because that leaves a lot of people spending most of their lives in the church waiting and hoping for such a knockout blow.
None of us, to be fair, like feeling second-class or well down the hierarchy. So it’s not altogether surprising that the focus on conversion has come in for a lot of criticism. Some of the criticism you can put down from envy, because the truth is, leaving aside Paul’s more agonising later adventures, we’d all like Jesus to talk to us in direct, unmistakable, memorable terms. But there’s a good deal of pretty damaging criticism.
One criticism is that conversion is all about the airport and silent about the holiday. In other words, Christianity is about discipline and resilience, faithfulness and restoration, failures and companions, growth and learning to walk through all weathers. It’s not about one moment that solves and settles everything and does all the work for you. Another criticism is that conversion is a way of making faith all about me and about my experience, and while claiming to be about the dramatic action of God, actually puts me in the centre of the story. It colludes with obsession that all that matters is my flourishing and my eternal life.
This connects to a third criticism, which is more subtle yet more damaging. A faith that’s all about my relationship with God, focused entirely on my personal experience of being the centre of God’s attention, almost inevitably obscures the details of what God requires for my social relationships. Notoriously John Newton went on holding slaves for another 20 years after his conversion, and was still doing so at the moment he wrote Amazing Grace. Utter focus on God can be a mask for total focus on oneself and complete disregard for justice in one’s relationships and society more broadly. Some even go so far as to suggest that a pietist Protestantism that speaks entirely to our personal relationship with Jesus and sees morality largely in so-called personal terms such as sex and gender roles is a deliberate construction to divert attention from more far-reaching social consequences. It’s not hard to see some truth in this.
Then there’s a fourth criticism that keys into our profound desire to fit in and to please and to conform and to belong. This sees conversion as a tactic of cultural imperialism, by which people are manipulated and coerced into adopting a faith position with which they do not truly feel comfortable by those who are using religion as a form of power, and who perceive somewhat rigid notions of what conformity entails. The most obvious contemporary version of this is the so-called ‘conversion therapy’ used to try to change people’s sexuality by a form of compulsion masquerading as prayer.
All of which amounts to a pretty formidable case against conversion. But I want to hold on to the notion of conversion despite all these reasons not to, and I want to explain why. I think we need to let go of the obsession with it being sudden and with all the fireworks and the need to impress people with just how ghastly a person you used to be. Instead we need to focus on three things that are much more central to what conversion is really about.
The first is that Christianity is a priceless blessing and a profound good. Through faith in what God has done it can heal the wounds of our past. Through hope in what God will do it can dismantle our anxiety about the future. Through the transformation of our past through faith and our future through hope it can enable us to love in the present. To say such things isn’t the clumsy or thoughtless imposition of an imperialistic agenda: it’s the humble sharing of deep truth. It’s not shouting, ‘You have to believe this to belong.’ It’s saying – ‘Try this, it actually works.’
There was a kind couple who used to have me for lunch when I was on my own and often discouraged. She loved church but he never wanted much to do with it. Relatively young she was debilitated by a distressing disease and couldn’t get to church, so he drove her there on Sundays and read a book in the car park till she was finished. Eventually she died, and the funeral was at that same church. A few months later, to everyone’s amazement, he started attending the church himself. People asked why. He replied, ‘It was the way you cared for my wife. I thought, I want to be part of a community that cares like that. And I want to discover what makes people care like that.’ That’s what it means for Christianity to be a priceless blessing and a profound good. That’s the discovery that Christianity actually works. That’s what conversion can look like.
The second thing that we mustn’t let go of is the deep and fundamental trust in the notion of change. When we pray for the heart of Vladimir Putin to soften, when we long for a person from who we’re estranged to get back in touch, when we work for the climate emergency to transform the world’s relationship to its planet, we’re putting all our eggs in the basket of change. There will always be some kinds of science and some kinds of religion that maintain nothing ever changes: but change is in the character of creation, and sometimes situations and people can change for the better. Conversion is the name for the way a person’s heart and soul and actions can change for good when they encounter the embrace of God’s ever-loving arms.
Some while ago I had a coffee with a man who’d been in prison. For him prison was a gift: it was a public humiliation and final visible statement to all who knew him that the way he’d been leading his life was wrong and unsustainable. While in prison he’d come to Christian faith and decided to live his life truthfully and selflessly. He found himself utterly alone; but it turned out he was alone with God. His life since prison has indeed been very different. He’d be the last to say he was now beyond reproach, but he’s certainly a very different character from the chancer and opportunist that got into such trouble before. He’s a changed man. That change involved humiliation, hardship and humility. But fundamentally the name for that change is conversion.
And the last thing we must hold on to is a conviction at the heart of Christianity: out of the deepest hostility the greatest good can come. Out of the exile came Israel’s new insight that the God that they thought was for them was actually something much better – a God that was for them. Out of the horror of the cross and the tomb came Christ’s glorious resurrection. Out of the threat-breathing plot-calculating life of Saul of Tarsus came the Apostle Paul who brought Christianity to the Gentiles and without whose work of converting the Roman world probably none of us would be in this church today. That conviction, that trust is perhaps the hardest part of Christianity to believe – but the most wonderful to behold. Through conversion the Holy Spirit takes the worst in the world, the worst in our society, the very worst parts of ourselves and turns them into the principal instruments of God’s kingdom and channels of Christ’s peace. That’s Christianity.
If you read the rest of Acts chapter 9 you see how in this story the two people who are crucial to Paul’s new discipleship are Ananias, who laid hands on Paul in Damascus, and Judas, in whose house in Damascus Paul stayed. Ponder the irony of those two names. Ananias the name of the most unfaithful of the early Christians, who withheld his money from the fellowship of faith. Judas is the name of the one who betrayed Jesus. It’s hard not to believe Luke had a chuckle when he wrote down this story. Somehow in those two names Luke conveys the power of transformation that’s at the heart of the Christian faith. Maybe Luke or his successor have a chuckle when he writes down your story. Maybe the person about to receive the blessings of conversion is you.