First Mennonite Church
November 29, 2020
Conversion: Improved or Completely Changed
Texts: Acts 9:1-9; Philippians 3:4-10
Today I want to conclude my sermon series from the book of Acts. We will start December with a short series for the month on the general theme of God’s light: A people walking in darkness have seen a great light (Isaiah 9:2).
One major event reported in the book of Acts of the Apostles is the conversion of Saint Paul. He became one of the most influential exponents of the gospel, interpreting and applying the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in the church’s life.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
4 even though I, too, have reason for confidence in the flesh.
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.
7 Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. 8 More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. 10 I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection . . . .
The story of Saul or Paul’s conversion is very well known to us. Saul was on a mission to apprehend and imprison anyone and everyone he found was a follower of Jesus. Saul was on his way to Damascus and there he had a life-changing experience we find here in Acts 9. From that moment on, Saul’s life was completely changed. He even got a new name, Paul.
On two occasions Paul gave the testimony of his conversion (Acts 22:6-16; 26:12-18). And although there are slight discrepancies between the account given here in chapter nine and those Paul gives in his personal testimonies, the story remains basically unchanged.
Today, I would like for us to take a moment to reflect on the meaning of these words: “conversion,” “transformation,” and “redemption.” These are words commonly used to describe the work of God in the individual with respect of God’s salvation. When someone speaks about having had a conversion experience, we understand the person is speaking about his or her personal encounter and new established relationship with Christ. We understand that person went through a moment of spiritual crisis which led to surrender his or her life to Jesus and in return received forgiveness of sins.
We have the same idea about the word “transformation.” When someone claims to have experienced a spiritual transformation, we understand that a radical change has occurred to that person. His or her life’s core values had been changed; thus, has a new outlook of life. The profound change occurred is even reflected in the person’s relationships and way of life.
The word redemption is very much related to the work of God’s salvation.
From Saul to becoming Paul, a radical change happened. Saul had not only an authentic Hebrew blood line, but must likely he also had a good upbringing. Saul was raised properly and had the best religious education with the best professor. Saul rose up to be well respected by his peers and his community. In Saul’s world, he was a blameless man. He was beyond a nice and decent person.
There are many people who are nice, well-mannered, and well-respected. There are some of them even among our relatives and friends. There are many nice and decent people in the world, doing very good deeds and being loved by many. Often times, when you meet these people you wonder how wonderful your church would look like if you have them in your church or how marvelous it would be if church people would be like them all the time.
Therefore, it is not off the trail if we ask ourselves, is the work of God merely a work of making nice and decent people? Can we judge/discern who is or is not a Christian by whether the individual is a nice or a decent person? Is the work of God only to help people make better choices, make them have nicer personalities, and sprinkle them with some Bible or religious knowledge?
You see, we Christians are often judged by the kind of choices we make or by our behavior, or personality or, even, the religious knowledge we have. And when any of these falters in us, people question the authenticity of Christianity or the effectiveness of God’s power in transforming us. We are often compared to “so and so” who is said to be the nicest grandparent in the neighborhood or the nicest parent of the local PTA. We are compared with those who are well-mannered, balanced, and well-respected.
So, how is it possible that some people who are not religious or have experienced God’s salvation have personal qualities that by nature are kind, generous, and good-natured, while others are harsh, unpolished, and sometimes even evil? How can it be that such good-natured folks can compare equally or better than we who are Christians, at given times? How can it be that some people despite the many years of being a Christian some still struggle with being snarky, quick-tempered, or prejudiced?
The life of Saul can help us understand some of that dilemma. As I said, Saul must have had a very good upbringing. He went to the best school of his time. Everyone loved Saul, therefore, he enjoyed the goodwill of his friends and peers. In other words, Saul had everything he needed to become the blameless and well-respected person he came out to be. And that is very much the same, to some degree, with the good people we know today. The environment of their upbringing made them mild, nice, good-natured, refined, and loved by many.
But think of, give him/her a name, who grew up in a dysfunctional family, who was always insecure, was bullied in school, who had to fight his way to get things he needed to survive, and thus, was distrusted by his peers. This person grew up thinking everyone is there to get him; therefore, he is always on the defense. Although he wants to stop reacting the way he does, he simply has a hard time overcoming his habit of biting back. He finds that his deeply embedded habit of bickering and sarcasm always beats his best efforts at being nice, even with his closest friends.
What we see between the good-natured Saul and the rough-edged person is that both of them are the product, in some way, of their environment—the natural world, plus some of their own making. They did not do much to acquire their personal traits. And it is here where the challenge comes, especially for those like Saul. They are tempted to believe that their good nature is something of their own doing. They believe their niceness is sufficiently enough that they don’t see a need for God to help them be good. Jesus said, “It is hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Although Jesus used the word “rich” primarily in the literal sense, it can also mean having goodness of personality. What they do not realize is that as long as they think their niceness is their own, they continue to be rebels before God. They refuse to surrender their will to the will of God. They reject everything God’s grace offers them.
With respect of those who are rough, ill-tempered, and broken, they realize their need, because they know they are poor, wretched, timid and scared, even of themselves. And as we know, from the very start Jesus was surrounded by people like them. Jesus called them blessed and was criticized for being their friends. That is the good news of the gospel. It is the poor in spirit who are more open to seek God’s grace. They have come to realize that it is either God’s power that will change them or they are completely doomed. These are the people who know they cannot be who they want to be and much less what God wants them to be. And we are them because we have come to understand our spiritual poverty. Therefore, it should not surprise us when at times our weaknesses, tempers, inclinations, etc. still show up some times. It when we drop our guard that those deep embedded habits resurface and betray our best intentions to live the transformed life.
Therefore, conversion, transformation, or redemption is not God’s attempt at making us better men, husbands, and sons, or better women, wives, or daughter. Conversion is God’s work in Christ at completely remaking us into the new man created in the likeness of his Son (Ephesians 4:13). This is our high calling, to become in the likeness and maturity of Christ Jesus. I, like you, am sure, know how much at times we fail awfully at this calling. Please remember that we might achieve this goal, to some degree, in the here and now. Let us not despair when we fail, but let us try our best at being what God wants us to be in Christ. And let us remember that even death is part of that transforming process. Let us remember what the apostle John says, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is” (1John 3:2).
Let us remember that God is still at work in us. Let us not despair when we fail. Yet, at the same time, let us do our best and allow God to continue his marvelous work in each of us. Amen!