From early on in my life, I’ve heard the cries of the literal and figurative street preacher, yelling at passersbys to “repent and convert to Christianity” or something similar to that. I won’t get into if that is actually an effective ministry strategy or not. That’s a different blog entry for a different day. But whether it is the guy with the mic and loudspeaker outside of Union Station in Chicago, or even my former youth pastor constantly talking about salvation, forgiveness, and reconciliation, it’s been clear to me that conversion is a huge part of this Jesus thing. Christianity believes in the necessity of conversion. Yet many people have misconceptions about just what Christian conversion is. Today, I am sharing some thoughts with you on perhaps the most significant conversion in the history of this religion.
Saul viewed Jesus as a false messiah, and Christianity as a false and even dangerous movement. His persecution of early Christians led to the execution of Stephen, and the torture and imprisonment of many others in Jerusalem and beyond. This isn’t someone merely speaking out against a potential false messiah, but killing in the name of it. Hatred and violence justified by religious conviction. Yet a few days later, Saul becomes a zealous advocate of the very movement he had been working to destroy. “Seeing the light,” “stepping into the light,” or having “the lightbulb go on” are all phrases we use quite candidly. But in the story of Saul’s conversion, it is exactly what happened. And not a flash-bulb at night, but mid-day while the sunlight was already brilliant. I don’t think anything could have prepared Saul for the answer to his question of “who are you?” The man he thought was a dangerous heretic was in fact the messiah! The people he had been persecuting were in fact God’s people! Those people didn’t deserve to die. He did. The prisoner taker was being taken prisoner. One has to wonder what Saul was praying while he was blinded and fasting for three days. I can’t imagine it being anything other than mercy. I also can’t imagine fear that Ananias must have felt, being sent to the man who kills Christians. But in the truest form of the presence of God, any change can happen.
I can think of a dozen stories right off hand of God choosing the supremely unqualified to be His vessel. But even more simply than being a minister for Him, sometimes we cannot even handle Jesus wanting to love us. I know that I am constantly experiencing the tension of being attracted AND convicted to receive Christ at the same time, while at the same time feeling strongly averted to it. Contrast what Saul deserved and expected (judgment and death), to what he actually got (forgiveness and commission). Jesus chose his worst enemy to be His chosen instrument. Saul is the preeminent example that no one has been so sinful or wicked that God is unwilling to forgive them, or unable to transform them. The only thing that prevents God’s grace from doing the same for us is our unwillingness to receive it.
True conversion, salvation, and reconciliation come from the experience of grace in its purest, most powerful, and even most terrifying form. It’s something the street preachers need to learn. Show people the grace-filled Jesus; the love and forgiveness for the most wretched. Only then will the scales fall, and the blind will truly see. Let us never feel unworthy enough to embrace that.