Growing up as a Presbyterian I had never seen an altar call until Billy Graham came to Chicago when I was in high school. The 1st Presbyterian Church of Evanston, where my family belonged was like Garrison Keillor’s description of the Lutheran church in Lake Wobegon. “We had no altar call and no organist playing “Just as I am” while the choir hummed. We were sophisticated, well educated Calvinists and we repented in the same way we sinned: discreetly, tastefully and at the proper time.” Then my mother became involved with Billy Graham and we were at the crusade night after night to hear the message and watch the streams of people walk forward, repent of their sins and to accept Jesus into their lives and hearts and to testify to their conversion.
This is the picture most of us carry in our heads when we think of conversion maybe not a tent with a slimy revival preacher in a shiny jacket, but a dramatic, emotional experience that you could mark down on the calendar and say this is the day, the hour, when it happened. I suspect that many of us here this morning haven’t had that kind of experience, Paul’s kind of experience that we read about in Acts. Perhaps this story makes you yearn for that kind of experience or maybe it makes you very uncomfortable or leaves you cold. Many of us are probably uncomfortable even using the word conversion. Maybe Paul’s experience was recorded for the Baptists but as for you, you’ll take the story of the eunuch’s conversion- -neat and tidy and somewhat intellectual.
As we look at the book of Acts, we see that the stories of the Eunuch and Paul are set in the midst of several stories about the Holy Spirit at work after Pentecost turning people to faith in Jesus. It’s challenging to see what is similar and what is different about these stories and to realize the diversity of ways in which God reaches out to us. Both these stories are models that can help us understand just what conversion really means and how people experience a change of heart.
The years immediately following the death and resurrection of Jesus were a surprising time. Sick people were being healed merely by a shadow passing over their bodies. Dead people were getting a second chance at life. The gospel was being spoken even to the gentiles. By the power of the Holy Spirit the church was taking shape, bearing witness in farther and farther corners to the grace of God revealed in Jesus. Day by day, the Bible tells us, the church added to its numbers.
Saul (whom we know better by the name of Paul, given to him after his conversion) was building his career on the church. Pastor Heidi Peterson describes him this way. “In the itinerant persecution of Christians he spared no effort to stifle the spread of the gospel. Saul was schooled by the moderate Pharisee Gamliel, but Saul was driven to excel in his duty. He was a worker who took the initiative and went far beyond the letter of his job description. Even before he entered the city of Damascus he had procured papers for those he wanted to have murdered. In choosing Saul to be ‘an instrument to bring my name before the gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel’ God chose an intense personality bound to work overtime in whatever mission he undertook. Saul knew his mission. But God knew Saul. God knew that Saul was confident, in charge and not particularly curious about God. Capturing Saul’s attention required drama.”
The tone and events of the story of Phillip and the eunuch appear in great contrast to the story of Paul. Phillip, an early Christian preacher, is simply told by an angel to get up and go toward the south. He is to travel a wilderness road. I’m not sure how many of us might know what it is like to have an angel speak to us but we do know what it’s like to be on a wilderness road—to find ourselves in new and uncharted places to feel insecure and unsure of the direction we are to go, to wonder what is in store for us next.
Phillip, while responding to the angel’s bidding comes upon the Ethiopian eunuch who was evidently a person of faith. The Ethiopian had come to Jerusalem to worship, and he’s returning home on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, spending his travel time reading the Jewish scriptures. The eunuch is at once exotic, powerful and pious, and dark-skinned African, the treasurer of the queen of Ethiopia. We don’t know if the eunuch was a Gentile convert to Judaism or merely a Gentile adherent to Jewish monotheism but he is presented as a pious and faithful man. Phillip catches up to the Eunuch and, seeing that the eunuch is reading from the book of Isaiah, engages him in a conversation about what he is reading, and the eager Ethiopian responds by asking three questions: How can I understand unless someone guides me; about whom is the prophet speaking; and what is to prevent me from being baptized? The eunuch was a man open and interested in knowing about Jesus and becoming one of his followers. As soon as the eunuch and Phillip came to some water , Phillip baptized him and they both went on their way.
What two very different pictures are drawn of encountering Jesus and having a change of heart. Saul, steeped in the Jewish faith , was a Christian adversary who violently opposed the faith. The eunuch on the other hand was a Gentile and a foreigner, trying to understand the message of the scriptures – open to what he might learn from Isaiah. The story of Saul is the story of an angry man with murder in his heart, seeking to preserve his understanding of God. The story of the eunuch is the story of a person seeking to find God in the pages of scripture. It took an event of dramatic proportions to get Saul’s attention and to be open to a new understanding of Jesus. The eunuch, already searching for understanding, had an experience that reminds me of a story about Helen Keller. Blind and deaf from birth, cut off from all hearing about Jesus until someone explained him to her, on first hearing of Jesus Keller said, “I knew there had to be somebody like that.” The eunuch didn’t need to be hit over the head. He too knew there had to be somebody like that, and when Phillip told him about Jesus he responded.
Gratefully these two stories show us that there are different paths of Christian transformation. Though many people might tell you that Saul’s change of heart is the normative faith experience, it is the extraordinary one. Rev. Peterson tells of an experience she had while working with Habitat for humanity. “On a rainy Saturday I stood on the front porch of a Habitat for Humanity house with a man I had never met before. We were volunteers who had come to unroll sod, plant bushes and sweep a driveway to make the front yard of a new house look more like a home that a construction site. As we waited out the weather under the shelter of the porch roof, he began talking. He observed that although the timing was inconvenient for the work we had planned, we sure needed the rain. Then, not bothering with a segue, he went directly to his main concern and asked me if I was saved. When I told him that I believed I was he asked for the date, time and description of my conversion. It is for moments like these that I think about making up my own version of the Saul on the road to Damascus story. But it wouldn’t be true. I was baptized as an infant, raised in a faith tradition I was taught to love and respect and gradually grew into the theological convictions I strive to live. Every day the conversion continues as I am changed by human encounters, the natural world and countless experiences that provide new insights into the nature of God.”
What these two stories do have in common provides us with a few things to remember as we seek to grow into a deeper relationship with God. First of all, we need to remember Paul’s own description of his experience on the road to Damascus. “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God- not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2: 8-9) God reached out to Paul and the eunuch with experiences that were life and faith changing. They did nothing to deserve it or acquire it or believe. It was a gift from God. “We love because he first loved us,” John wrote. (1 John 4:19).
Secondly, we need to remember that God reaches out to each and every one of us in any number of ways and invites us into a relationship with him that includes more than merely an intellectual assent. God wants all of us, body, mind and spirit.
Yet our lives are more like someone who decides she wants to travel and see the world to broaden her understanding and experience of the world. But instead of buying a tent and sleeping bag and having to haul water from a stream and cook over a campfire (that would be too difficult and different) she buys a motor home with all the conveniences of home. That way she can park on a cement slab, hook up to a water line, a sewer line and electricity. In a motor home she won’t have to deal with dirt or a sore back from sleeping on the ground or even being hot because she has air conditioning. In fact, she can go camping and never have to go outside. She has bought the motor home with the hope of seeing new places, of getting out into the world, yet she has decided to travel in a way that feels just like home. Nothing has really changed for her. She may drive to a new place and be in new surroundings but the newness goes unnoticed because she’s just carried her old setting with her.
A change of heart usually demands that the comfortable patterns of the old life are left behind. Sometimes it even means that people change their names…like Mohammed Ali or Malcolm X. Methodist Missionary Earl Stanley Jones told the story about an old African who changes his name to After immediately following his decision to follow Christ. He reasoned that all things had become new and different so he was going to reflect that new reality in his name as well as this thinking. Like Abram and Sarai or Peter or Paul – a changed name is a profound way of saying you are a new person. Abram and Sarai became Abraham and Sarah- parents of the Israelite nation. Simon the fisherman became Peter the apostle. Saul, the passionate persecutor of Christians became Paul the passionate preacher, teacher abut Christ. The change of heart God wants from us is a transformation from loving and living for ourselves alone to loving and living for others and God.
Thirdly, we need to remember that we do not come to faith alone. Faith is a team sport. Paul had his dramatic experience on the road to Damascus, but his faith took form and shape as he was cared for by others. The community of Christians in Damascus played a vital role, as Paul underwent his catharsis and for the next three years Paul studied and his faith grew as he lived in the midst of community. It was only after those three years that Paul began his missionary journeys. The eunuch also would not have come to an understanding of his faith without the help of Phillip who took the time to explain to him who Jesus was.
We are all much better at it when we pull together, when we learn from one another, when we interact with each other, when we reach out to others and experience their reaching out to us. In fact, most Christians will say you can’t be a Christian alone. It is simply impossible, for relationships are the basis of Christianity, our relationship to God and God’s relationship to us and our relationship to one another.
Trusting that God is always reaching out to us, that we love because he first loved us; willing to leave the old patterns of life behind and be transformed; and opening ourselves to the knowledge, wisdom and experience of one another, are the ways God is continually working out in us a change of heart. Conversion, that uncomfortable word, is simply and wonderfully the change of heart we experience when we give our lives to God as Jesus did. Amen.