The Early Church All Over Again – Converting

Grace Lindvall
(Acts 9: 1-20)

Move 1

This past week I was in Indiana visiting my parents in their new home. My whole maternal family lives there as well including my Uncle Marquis, a sort of enigma of a man. He’s full of knowledge and stories and cares deeply and generously for everyone around him. It’d be an injustice to try and sum him up in a description but the important thing to know about Uncle Marquis is that he is full of good stories.

Uncle Marquis took me and my Dad and their dog Ringo for a walk around the neighborhood. I remember making this walk with him once or twice as a little girl and remembered these train tracks we used to walk on so I asked, “Uncle Marquis, do those train tracks still exist? Can we walk across them again?” “Of course!” He exclaimed. So we went to the bridge with the train tracks – me, Dad, Ringo, and Uncle Marquis.

As we walked, Uncle Marquis started talking up the trek of the train bridge, if a train comes we must start running to save our lives, run to the other side of the bridge as fast as you can, don’t look back! When we approached the bridge with the train tracks we saw a train at the station a little while back with its light on. We decided to walk along the bridge anyways. So there we go walking along the bridge with the train tracks when all of a sudden the train starts coming towards us, and confused I start running the wrong direction towards the train instead of away from the train! Ringo, the dog, sees this and knowing what to do, comes in front of me and the train and barks and barks until I realize what I have done and run across the tracks in the other direction to safety, narrowly escaping death by train, saved by Ringo the courageous Border Collie.

Except that is not at all what happened. We crossed the train tracks slowly, stopping on the bridge to take a picture, I think Ringo even sat down for a few minutes. We got off the bridge and walked a few minutes before we saw the train cross the bridge, a solid 6 minutes after we left the bridge and about ¼ of a mile off the bridge with the train tracks.

But that second story isn’t as exciting is it?!

Move 2

The conversion of Saul tells a beautiful and exciting story – the story of a man who greatly persecutes the church who on his way to committing heinous acts against these early followers he is struck down by God and moves quickly from being the great persecutor of the church to the great missionary of the church. Its fast conversion, its dramatic one moment he is a persecutor the next he is a follower, its exciting in a moment his life dramatically changes for the better.

And frankly, it may be hard for us to relate to! And perhaps not just hard to relate to, but perhaps makes many of us wonder – why has that not happened to me? Where is my Damascus Road experience?

I believe I have told you before about my struggle with this – “why have I not had an experience like this before?” ”Is my faith real enough or strong enough?” When I first heard God’s call on my life to ministry and seminary I was reluctant but willing. I went to seminary a bit dubious but nonetheless resolute in the sense of call.

A few weeks into my time at seminary, I went one evening to an opening worship service for one of the campus student groups led solely by seminary students just like me, but who I assumed surely had things a little more figured out than me. I sat in the pews of that chapel service, torn about whether or not it was God who had called me there or my own desires, was my sense of call really dramatic enough, was this whole thing a big misunderstanding? So as I sat there, insecure about all of these things, the preacher started to hand out little pieces of felt and I don’t know what she said before or after but she said, “we all have them, write them down, write down the reason you think you shouldn’t be here.”

How could she see so straight through me, to the very thing I was wondering, my greatest insecurity in seminary. So I wrote honestly on my little piece of felt while the people around me scribbled away. I hid my piece of felt with the writing under my hand so no one would see what I had written, “because my faith isn’t strong enough.” And then I walked up and hung my piece of felt next to the others. And there I was shocked, shocked to see that all those people in the pews who I assumed surely were more secure in their sense of call than me, and I looked and realized they had reasons too. People wrote all sorts of things about how they didn’t know if God had really called them.

Rev. Joe Harvard who retired from First Presbyterian Church in Durham calls this our “faith inferiority complex.” He writes about William Muehl’s book “Why Preach Why Listen” how Muehl suggests that when you look out at most congregations most of the people gathered in the pews almost didn’t come that day. And the reason many of them or many of us almost didn’t come that day, today, is because we have it in our heads that our faith does not measure up to the faith of the others in the congregation.

That somehow our story hasn’t been dramatic or definitive enough. That we don’t know well enough what we’re doing in church. And we assume, WRONGLY, that everyone else does, that everyone else is resolute and filled with faithful conviction and certain stories of their conversion. Our “faith inferiority complex.”

Move

As the church today we continue to struggle with these conversion experiences. We both want to experience them ourselves to overcome our “faith inferiority complex” and also are struggling with how to kind of “make” other people have them. Maybe not force them on others – but how do we convert other people to the church? How do we convince others to stop not coming to church and start coming to church?

I mean, let’s be honest – we want other people to join us in the pews. Worship attendance is dwindling – not just in our church but in mainline congregations across the country. The work of the church lies heavy on the shoulders of a few and we want to share the responsibility. We long for the days when this church – and many other churches – was bustling with new people and new ideas.

But the truth is that isn’t happening and hasn’t happened for a while. So how do we “convert” people to church? Or “convert” people to Christianity?

These Damascus Road like experiences don’t seem to be happening, what are we to do? How are we supposed to encourage people to come to church without Damascus road like experiences? How do we make sense of our own faith in light of these Damascus road like experiences?

Move

Author Emilie Griffin writes in her book Turning, Reflections on the Experience of Conversion, “Were it not for God, I cannot imagine how I could have made this transition. It is clear that conversion begins with a restlessness of the human heart which can find no resting place on earth.”

The story of faith for everyone in this sanctuary is a beautiful one. Some of us may claim a story where we were born and baptized in the church, raise in Sunday School classrooms, confirmed by loving mentors, sent off to college and returned to church because we remember the love shared here.

Some of our stories may include coming to church with a friend, easing our way into this idea of religion. Perhaps finding some comfort talking about God on a couch in a Youth Room with other people who had similar questions. Things slowly moved from curiosity to intrigue and then belief. Maybe never knowing when things clicked with this life of faith.

Our stories of course are different, thanks be to God, however we came to this life of faith, wherever we are on it, we cannot forget that this story continues. Our conversion is not one and done. We continue to have places and moments in our lives that we must turn from.

Not many of us are like Paul persecuting the church and “breathing threats and murder” against other people. But nonetheless we must remember that we all have places in our lives that we can turn away from to walk “in the way” with Christ. We have all been headstrong and stuck in our ways that are hurtful to others.

  • Maybe it is an unwillingness to compromise with opinions so starkly different from our own
  • Maybe it is an anger so deep and seething we cannot let go of it
  • Maybe it is a self-righteousness that bars us from learning new ways of life
  • Maybe it is a self-protection that keeps us from admitting our own feelings of love or hurt for others
  • And on and on, but each of us in different ways has or is experiencing a need to turn from one way of life and convert to a new way of life. To let of of the way things are and look to a new way of life

Its in these places that we ought to seek our conversions. The bumper sticker faith is true “God is not done with me yet.” God is not done with you yet, our stories of conversion continue to take place, our movements from old ways of life can be put to rest, and we can move into new life over and over again.

Move

Karl Barth is easily one of the most if not the most influential theologians  of the 20th century. His series, Church Dogmatics, will be read in seminaries for decades and centuries to come. Karl Barth tells a story about coming to the United States. In the middle of the 20th century he flew to the United States from his home in Switzerland. As he walked through the airport he was approached by a young evangelist. The young evangelist, completely unaware that he was speaking to the foremost theologian of the time, asked him “Sir, have you been saved?” A bit off guard Barth replied to the evangelist, “yes, I have.” To which the evangelist prodded a bit further, wanting to hear his testimony and the moment that Barth gave his life to Christ and changed his ways, asked “when, sir, and where?” Barth replied, “I was saved 2,000 years ago on a hill called Calgary.”

The only saving we Christians will ever need.

Now this story is dramatic and exciting, its not quick or fast but it is filled with the kind of drama of Paul’s conversion. This is the story of our own faith as well.

Our stories of faith need not be like Paul’s they only need to be our own, we have a story of faith that is filled with love and that is bold and dramatic. We have a story of a savior who loved the world so deeply, loved each and every person in the broken mess of a world that he died to save us all.

Conclusion

These are the stories of conversion the church needs to hear now. Stories of people of faith who have recognized their stubbornness, self-righteousness, selfishness, stuck in the mud-ness and have seen a new path forward. Dramatic and exciting or not mundane and boring. These are the stories the church needs to hear.

These stories of our faith – a faith that has saved us, claimed us, and loved us long before we ever knew we needed it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.