This week we read the story of Saul of Tarsus taking the first steps toward becoming the Christian apostle whom we know as Paul. You’ve probably heard the story before. The Pharisee who hated Christians and hunted them down encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus in a blinding flash of light and a voice from heaven. Sudden. Dramatic. Out of the blue.
Saul was on the road to Damascus so that he could arrest Christians and put them on trial for their lives. Right in the middle of that murderous rage, Jesus knocked him down to ground and took away his sight. The fact that he was blind and helpless is probably the only reason that any Christian would get near him, and only one did – a man named Ananias – and he only did it hesitatingly, even after God directly told him to do it.
Those earliest Christians were scared to death of Saul. They were as afraid of talking to Saul as I would be of talking to a gang member in Atlanta or New York. Yet this man before whom believers shook with fear went on to found churches throughout the Roman empire and become the most significant voice of that first generation of Christians.
We love stories like this, and for good reason. They are inspiring We tell them over and over to remind us what God can do, and to invite others to believe. If God can save the murderous, self-righteous Saul, he can save you, too.
When I lived in the northern suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina back in the early 70’s, a man named Nicky Cruz lived in Quail Hollow subdivision near my home. Quail Hollow was the quintessential middle-class suburb. Two-story brick homes. Nice lawns. Quiet streets.
You would have never guessed how Nicky Cruz came to this place. This is Nicky’s own story from the web site of the organization he leads.
Nicky was only 3-1/2 years old when his heart turned to stone. As one of 18 children born to witchcraft-practicing parents from Puerto Rico, bloodshed and mayhem were common occurrences in his life. He suffered severe physical and mental abuse at their hands, at one time being declared the “Son of Satan” by his mother while she was in a spiritual trance.
When he was 15, Nicky’s father sent him to visit an older brother in New York. Nicky didn’t stay with his brother long. Instead, full of anger and rage, he chose to make it on his own.
Tough, but lonely, by age 16 he became a member of the notorious Brooklyn street gang known as the Mau Maus. Within six months he became their president. Cruz fearlessly ruled the streets as warlord of one of the gangs most dreaded by rivals and police. Lost in the cycle of drugs, alcohol, and brutal violence, his life took a tragic turn for the worse after a friend and fellow gang member was horribly stabbed and beaten and died in Nicky’s arms.
As Cruz’ reputation grew, so did his haunting nightmares. Arrested countless times, a court-ordered psychiatrist pronounced Nicky’s fate as “headed to prison, the electric chair, and hell.”
No authority figure could reach Cruz – until he met a skinny street-preacher named David Wilkerson. He disarmed Nicky – showing him something he’d never known before: Relentless love. His interest in the young thug was persistent. Nicky beat him up, spit on him and, on one occasion, seriously threatened his life, yet the love of God remained – stronger than any adversary Nicky had ever encountered.
Finally, Wilkerson’s presentation of the gospel message and the love of Jesus melted the thick walls of his heart. Nicky received the forgiveness, love and new life that can only come through Jesus. Since then, he has dedicated that life to helping others find the same freedom.
He reaches today’s youth because they relate to his background, trust his peer authority, and respond to the message of hope he delivers with both passion and conviction.
Today, Cruz leads an organization dedicated to reaching urban youth with the life-saving message of Christ.
Damascus road experiences. That’s what we call stories like this. There are others whose Damascus road experiences have shaped the life of the church.
Augustine of Hippo
Way back in church history, there was a man named Augustine from the Roman North African town of Hippo.
Born to a Christian mother and pagan father, Augustine decided being a pagan was more fun. When he was still very young, he became quite a ladies’ man, we might say. He later moved from North Africa to the Italian city of Milan, where he gave up on paganism and became an agnostic. His mother Monica kept praying for him, though, and Augustine started talking to a bishop in Milan named Ambrose. All of this prepared Augustine for what happened next.
Augustine began to sink deeper into spiritual and emotional despair. In his darkest moment, he heard a child’s voice in a sing-song voice call out, “Take up and read.” Augustine picked up a Bible, read one single verse from Paul’s letter to the Romans and the light went on.
“No further would I read; nor needed I: for instantly at the end of this sentence, by a light as it were of serenity infused into my heart, all the darkness of doubt vanished away.”
Augustine gave away his inheritance to the poor, started living a devout Christian life, entered the priesthood and eventually became a bishop. His leadership saw the church through the very difficult days at the end of the Roman empire and his writings influence the church to this day.
When Augustine told the story of his life in a book called Confessions, he wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Augustine may have lived long ago and practiced a form of Catholic Christianity that most evangelicals would have a hard time understanding, but we understand what he is talking about. Our hearts are restless until they rest in God.
God sometimes just reaches out and grabs you and turns your life around.
He did that for the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, the intellectual Augustine of Hippo and the gang warlord Nicky Cruz.
What I would like for us to consider, however, are the stories of how God makes Christians in ways that are not nearly so sudden and dramatic. Many of you may have listened to stories like those of Paul, Nicky Cruz or Augustine and wondered, “Where’s my Damascus road? I’ve gone to church all my life. I’ve never been a violent person or a thief or a drug-abuser or run around on my wife. How is this my story?”
Does God, in fact, only have one pattern for making Christians? Are all of our stories cut like paper dolls from the same material?
Damascus Road in Paul’s Writings
Paul himself doesn’t think to think so. This is one of the greatest conversion stories ever told, but surprisingly, Paul only mentions it twice in his letters.
In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul talks about the centrality of Jesus’ resurrection in the gospel story. Paul recites the ancient creed:
that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures,
that he was buried,
that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures,
and that he appeared (1 Corinthians 15:3-5)
Paul then lists himself among the witnesses to Christ’s resurrection:
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:7-10)
In Galatians 1:11-17, Paul describes his experience as a call, the source of his apostolic authority:
I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.
In his writing to other Christians, then, Paul did not frequently make arguments based on his conversion experience. His experience is evidence of Christ’s resurrection, Paul claims, and the foundation of his ecclesiastical authority. Paul never says, however, that his own experience is a model of what every Christian should experience. In fact, Paul’s description of himself as “abnormally born” in 1 Corinthians 15:8 suggests the opposite.
Damascus Road in Acts
Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, doesn’t appear to think all Christian conversions follow Paul’s model, either. In the book of Acts we find, for example:
- Acts 2 – A large crowd of devout Jewish pilgrims who came to Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival became curious about why the disciples were so boisterous. After Peter preaches to them, 3000 of them became Christians.
- Acts 8:26-40 – An Ethiopian government official was reading the Bible on his way home from worshiping in Jerusalem. God sent Philip to him to explain that Jesus fulfilled the scriptures he was reading. The Ethiopian became a Christian.
- Acts 10 – A Roman centurion who practiced aspects of the Jewish religion without converting – and who was kind to the Jewish people – prayed to God. God sent Peter to him to tell him about Jesus. The centurion and his family became Christians.
- Acts 16:11-25 – In the Roman colony of Philippi, a textile merchant named Lydia went to worship God at the riverside with some members of the Jewish community. There she met Paul, who told her the story of Jesus. She and her family became Christians.
- Acts 16:16-34 – The supervisor of the jail in Philippi panicked after an earthquake because he believed the prisoners had escaped. One of the prisoners happened to be the apostle Paul, who reassured the jailer that the prisoners were still there. The appreciative jailer then asked Paul what he must do to have the salvation that Paul talked about. Paul invited him to believe in the Lord Jesus. The jailer and his whole family became Christians.
For some of these folks, coming to faith in Jesus completed or fulfilled what they already believed and lived. God didn’t so much turn them around as lift them to a higher level.
There are no second class Christians in God’s kingdom. It is the wonderful work of God that grabs a Saul of Tarsus or a Nicky Cruz by the scruff of the neck and says, “Hey, guy, you’re going the wrong way. Let me make your life what I meant it to be.” It is also a wonderful work of God that takes a Christian who was reared in the church, attended Sunday School all his or her life and says, “Here is the truth of the faith you professed all your life.” That’s more like my story. Maybe it’s more like your story as well.
Baptism and the Church in Acts
So, then, there is not just one pattern in the Bible by which people become Christians.
Or is there?
Let’s look again at this story of Paul’s conversion. As it turns out, this is a two-part story.
Paul’s friends led him to Damascus, blind and dazed. As a result of what happened on the road, Paul could not see and he did not eat. The voice from heaven set the stage for Paul’s conversion, but did not complete it.
In the second part of the story, God sent a man named Ananias to Paul to confirm and explain what happened, and to unite Paul to Christ and his church in baptism.
As Luke tells the story, he takes 7 verses to talk about Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus. He takes 12 verses to talk about Ananias and Paul in Damascus. Both parts of the story are important.
Ananias had to be brave to even get near Paul. Did he really want someone like Saul in his church? Could he be trusted? Maybe he was just trying to trick the church so he could find more Christians to persecute.
You know, I bet that there are times that Christians don’t tell others about Jesus because they know they might get stuck with them. “Well, sure, I want him to believe in Jesus. I just don’t want to have to deal with him if he joins my church!” Deep down, we know that there are two parts to this thing we call conversion. We get pretty excited about the first part; we don’t get as fired up about the second.
Amazingly, as I took a look at the story of the other conversions in the book of Acts, the pattern is the same in almost all the stories. Baptism into Christ in his church is part of the process of conversion.
The pilgrims who heard Peter preach on Pentecost:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. Acts 2:41
The Ethiopian to whom Philip explained the scriptures:
As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. Acts 8:36-38
The god-fearing Roman Centurion whom Peter told about Jesus:
Peter said, “Can anyone keep these people from being baptized with water? They have received the Holy Spirit just as we have.” So he ordered that they be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they asked Peter to stay with them for a few days. Acts 10:47-48
The Jailer in Philippi to whom Paul proclaimed the gospel:
then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God—he and his whole family. Acts 16:33-34
Everywhere, the pattern is the same. God reaches out to people in all sorts of different circumstances with the good news of Jesus Christ, and then they are connected to Christ in and through his church!
God’s extraordinary actions and the church’s ordinary life go hand in hand. Whether you get knocked to the ground on the Damascus road to stop you from killing Christians, or you quietly find Christ in a riverside worship service, the church has a role in your conversion.
Acts 2 is especially important because it tells what happens after new Christians are baptized into Christ:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. Acts 2:42 -47
Listening to the word of God together, praying together, worshiping together, eating together, sharing their possessions together, living their life together. This is the consequence of being baptized into Christ, and it is part of the ongoing conversion that is a part of every Christian’s life.
In the Small Catechism, Martin Luther said this about baptism:
It means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, in turn, a new person daily come forth and rise from death again. He will live forever before God in righteousness and purity.
Conversion really is a life-time process, and we need the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ
Damascus Road, No – Damascus, Yes
So does God have one pattern for becoming a Christian? Are we all supposed to have a Damascus road experience? No, not a Damascus road experience with blinding flashes of light and a voice from heaven. God reaches out to people in many different ways. But a Damascus experience, yes. God sends the church not only to tell the story of Jesus to everyone, but to unite those who believe to Christ and his church, so that they can live their lives in the context of that relationship.
Two men heard the Lord call their name. Jesus called out Saul’s name, and Saul cried out, “Who are you, Lord.” The Lord called out “Ananias,” and Ananias replied, “Here I am Lord.”
Two men saw visions. Jesus appeared to Saul, and Saul’s spiritual blindness manifested itself as physical blindness. Ananias had a vision, too, that led him to seek out his enemy Saul and lead him to faith in Christ. That is a vision that human eyes cannot see.
However we come to learn of Christ, we all need an Ananias. We need our brothers and sisters who know God’s voice and and understand it in ways that we do not; we need our brothers and sisters whose vision is not clouded to help us see God’s purpose for our lives.