Today’s story of Saul’s conversion is one of the classic Christian stories. The wicked Jew who has been persecuting Christians is stopped dead in his tracks, sees the light, and is converted on the spot. Then he is healed and baptized by the nervous but very courageous Ananias and after some initial difficulties is accepted as an apostle.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul gives a slightly different version of the story. He says:
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem. (Gal 1:14-18a)
The first account from Luke-Acts focuses our attention on the supernatural, the sudden blinding light from heaven and the voice from nowhere. The second account in Galatians seems much more prosaic, ‘When God was pleased to reveal his son to me’.
Some people have road-to-Damascus style conversion experiences. They can say, ‘on this day I found a new life. It was as though I saw the light and everything became clear and I found Jesus.’ For others, and I suspect the majority of us here, our experience of God is much more prosaic. There is no clear cut moment at which we were converted. We were not suddenly translated from a life of wickedness to being Christian, but nonetheless God has been pleased to reveal God’s son to us.
In Luke-Acts it seems that as soon as Saul is back on his feet after his baptism he is preaching in the synagogues. Paul remembers it differently – he went to Arabia and back to Damascus for three years before going to Jerusalem. I can only imagine that during that three years he had to rethink the whole of his theology. He had had God’s Son revealed to him, and he had been baptized, but now he needed to work out what that meant.
If Paul was like us, that was something that would take the rest of his life. We may have been converted, we may have been baptized, but we can be sure that God isn’t done with us yet. After conversion, after baptism, comes the living of it, the process of becoming more and more Christ-like, of becoming more and more holy; the process of sanctification.
I’m always amused about the way the guys drive cars in old movies – it nearly always is the man who’s driving - and he’s moving the steering wheel back and forth in his hands, all the while looking at the woman sitting next to him and only occasionally glancing at the road. Perhaps the steering was very different then and you really had to keep adjusting it, but in today’s cars if you drove like that you’d be all over the road. On the other hand, you can’t just take your hands off the wheel. Even if you start dead center, going straight ahead, the road surface will eventually make you veer one way or another. Driving in a straight line requires endless small corrections.
The spiritual life is a series of endless small conversions. Most of them not terribly profound in and of themselves but gradually adding up to transformative, powerful life change.
There’s a teaching story about a boy who goes to one of the elders and says, ‘I have two wolves fighting inside me and I don’t know which one will win.’ The elder replies, ‘That’s easy. The one you feed is the one who will win.’
Peter had those two wolves – the one in this morning’s Gospel, who loved Jesus above and beyond everything, and the one who in the courtyard denied that he even knew him. Love and fear fighting inside him. The one you feed is the one who wins.
That is the spiritual life. There are two natures fighting inside us. Although we know we have been freed from our old nature, it continues to behave as though it is most horribly alive. Our job is to starve it by turning away our attention and interest, and to feed the new life by developing holy habits.
This is nothing less than a total reorientation of our minds and hearts, away from a focus on me to a focus on God and God’s beloved. As the current popularity of ‘The Secret’ shows us, we live among a hungry people. A people who are hungry for God, but have become jaded by their experience of church and have replaced God in their hearts by the worship of self-esteem and material wealth. It is easy for us to be lulled by the same tune and put material comfort and personal well-being above the search for God.
We are called to a completely different path. We are called to the path of compassion, the path of discipleship. This is not an easy path because it does mean struggling with the wolf. It means dying to self, being willing to hear God’s voice and make constant course directions. Having little conversions again and again. If you are not making constant small course directions as you identify places where you are not yet fully allowing God, you are probably not feeding your spiritual life very well.
Socrates said ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’, and certainly for those on the spiritual path, self-examination is vital. We are given the gift of self-awareness which is one of the main tools we use to bring us closer to God. Not an egocentric selfishness which wants more and more, but a humble, mature self-awareness which enables us to see the places where we need God’s grace.
Which wolf are you feeding? the wolf of self-interest or the wolf of God’s kindom? Whatever you focus your attention on will grow. If you focus your attention on yourself and your little world, there will be less and less space in your life for God. If you focus your attention on God there will be more and more space for God and you will find yourself being blessed in ways that you can’t even imagine, but as a kind of byproduct of your worship and service of the most high God.
One of the marks of Christian discipleship, one of the things that sets us apart from our neighbors, is our understanding of the power of praise. The second reading this morning depicts the heavenly court with all the angels and elders praising God. Praising God always takes us out of ourselves and feeds our Christ consciousness. That is, provided we are not using praise as a way of congratulating ourselves. ‘God I praise you that I am doing so well in my life and that I have everything I want’ is not praising God, that’s praising you. Praising God focuses on the person and the activity of God. We may praise God for God’s work in creation. We may praise God for bringing us into new life. We may praise God for all the ways in which God has worked and is working in our lives and those of our community.
Living as though God really matters means putting all we have and all we do into his service. It means feeding our spiritual lives through the holy habits of daily prayer, spiritual reading, worship with the community, tithing and Sabbath keeping. It means regular mini conversions as we are challenged to become more and more Christ like in the process of becoming holy.
Praising God is the best way to feed our Christ natures. I suggest that we all consider starting each day by singing the doxology, the traditional and familiar song of praise or some other hymn. Sing it in you heart, sing it in the shower, sing it in the car.
Let’s all stand and praise God in the traditional doxology.