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Dear Friends in Christ,
I grew up in the country. Fields and pastures were all around where I lived. I got to understand the phrase “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” Cows had huge pastures to feed in. Yet they would try to stick their necks under electrified fences to get grass on the other side. Hey Mrs. Holstein, you have all that acreage behind you. That term, the grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence,” means that people are rarely content. We keep looking for something else.
Many of us have been guilty. We have a job. The company is in direct competition with someone else. The other company comes along and offers a higher paying job. We take it. Yet the grass is no greener. There are still problems with office politics, bad managers, and questionable policies. The grass isn’t as green as first thought.
Pastors do the same with calls to serve other churches. They get a call to another church where there seems to be all kinds of advantages. A pastor gets there and you know what? Sinners are there too! And sometimes churches can feel the same about wanting a new pastor. Yet when one leaves and another comes, the congregation finds that he isn’t perfect either.
As Christian people it is hard to understand why people turn away from Christ. It happens. It happens a lot. The Bible is filled with warnings against turning away. The side of the fence we stand on is as green as it gets. It doesn’t get any greener. The great expert on this subject is the apostle Paul himself. We have an opportunity to join him and reflect on the “Joy of Conversion.” To reflect and better understand 1) saved from; 2) saved how; and 3) saved for.
In the history of mankind there have been millions upon millions who have been converted to Christianity. Jesus gives all people who know him joy. Paul was particularly overwhelmed. He had been on the other side of the fence. Look what Paul had been doing. “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.”
This is what Paul had to be converted from. The word ‘convert’ is used only five times in the Bible. Four of the five are nouns as in a “convert to Christianity.” The other time it is used as a verb – to be converted. The concept means to be turned. That concept is used a number of times but the word convert is not used.
Every person born into this world has a sinful nature that is headed away from God. When someone is converted, they are turned toward God. Although Peter didn’t use the term convert, he writes, “For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” People are born like sheep straying away from the Lord who made them and redeemed them. At conversion they return. In the book of Acts there is a story about Christians from the island of Cyprus who went to the city of Antioch; they preached to Gentiles there (non-Jews). What happened? “The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” They turned to the Lord because by God’s hand they were converted.
For conversion to take place, that turn from God to God, the Lord is the one who makes it happen. That’s the way it is for everyone. That’s the way it was for Paul. Incidentally, he is called Saul here because that was his Aramaic name; Paul is his Greek name. God had to work a radical change in Paul and in all people to go from darkness to light, from death to life, from unbelief to faith. We can other aspects - from arrogance to humility, from thinking we know all the answers to someone who knows we need answers, from violence to love and gentleness. Paul and we need to be saved from ourselves and our follish thinking.
Paul was a man who was totally confused and misguided. He thought he was serving God by killing God’s people. Paul thought that he was loving God but was so full of hate.
I read a story about a very experienced park ranger who nearly froze to death in the middle of winter had his St. Bernard dog not been with him. The ranger was lost in a snowstorm and sought refuge in a mountain shack. The ranger fell asleep. Later, the ranger noted, "When you're freezing to death you actually feel warm all over, and don't wake up because it feels too good." That’s just the opposite of the way it ought to be. That’s the way it is when people are walking away from God. Good is bad and bad is good. Sin is fun and godliness is not. Paul thought he was doing God a favor by murdering; he was not. Sadly, as Paul marched towardDamascus, he was oblivious to his true spiritual condition. That’s what he needed to be saved from, along with everyone else – you and me included.
Yet the ranger said his life was saved when his St. Bernard barked and aroused him. In the same way, God uses people to rouse spiritual sleep walkers who are walking away from the Lord. He sends messengers to nudge and awaken with the Word. “As Paul neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” In his misguided passion Paul received a letter of permission to go 150 miles northward toDamascus to hunt down more people who were members of the Way. That’s what Christians were called before they were called Christians, people whom the Lord converted and knew Jesus as the Way, the Truth and the Life.
But the Lord stopped Paul…in his tracks and turned him around. Think about a couple of things here. Lots of people speak about the need to make his or her decision to follow Jesus. How much deciding did Paul really do to follow Jesus? Not a bit! The decision was the Lord’s to introduce himself to Paul. The One who shed his blood introduced himself to the one who was shedding blood. In other words, Jesus came looking for Paul, not Paul for Jesus.
Remember that yourself. You are here not here because you chose to love the Lord, but because God chose you and by his Spirit you were turned around to follow Jesus.
He humbled us so he could exalt us. Jesus once said, “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Now remember this and remember it well. Jesus wasn’t saying that humility is a trait that he loves and will reward us with heaven if we show it. Paul needed to be humbled; in fact all people need to be humbled so we all start looking up.
Paul needed to be knocked down, and that literally happened when the Lord took him off his horse. The Lord was very clear to Paul, “How dare you oppose me? How dare you murder someone who loves me? Those kinds of questions create humility.
While God humbled Paul, he reminded Paul as he reminds us that we can’t save ourselves. Instead of looking down on people like Paul did and is so easy to do, we need to start looking up…to the Lord of Calvary. That’s why Jesus’ journeyed there – to forgive us our arrogance.
But there is more to how Jesus saves? There are people who tend to think that all who will be saved must have an experience like Paul did – one that knocks you out of your shoes. Like a Jesus-takes-me-to-the-woodshed kind of moment. There is no doubt that Jesus definitely spoke to Paul one on one! He does speak! But he doesn’t usually knock someone to the ground and appear as a great light. He speaks to us in this book.
In it he humbles us. He convicts us of sin. He commands us to love with everything we have and never miss a beat when it comes to loving. Yet, if we are honest with ourselves we are driven to our knees. But look up! Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. That’s how Jesus saves.
He seals our salvation with baptism. Paul was baptized. Ananias baptized him and Paul never forgot it. He mentions baptism many times in the letters he wrote: In Galatians - “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ;” I Corinthians – “For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body;” In Colossians, “Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.” Sounds complicated but it isn’t really. Baptism joins us with Christ and all that he did for us. Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection all become our own when baptism joined us with Christ. The sinful nature we have died and was buried with Christ. As far as God is concerned it is gone. In baptism a new nature was born to live for God. That’s how we are saved. Baptism and through the promises of God’s Word!
For what purpose? To surprise people! That might be a surprising answer but it is true. The men who traveled with Paul were surprised. “The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus.” This strong, boastful, passionate man was changed. He was different. Children of God are different.
Another man who was a member of the Christian church was surprised - Ananias. Ananias heard about Paul’s reputation. He had a hard time believing that the former murderer of God’s people now was a member of God’s people.
When the Lord gave Ananias instructions to go and minister to this “tool of Satan,” Ananias objected. “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” In one sense when people are surprised that you are a member of God’s army is not a good thing. To live in a neighborhood for a good amount of time, to work in the workplace and no one ever knew you loved Jesus is not a good thing. Yet, for people to find out that the considerate person they have come to know, who is well educated and kind all because he loves the Lord, is a good kind of a surprise. For some they just might try Christianity because they are surprised how different we can be. That’s what we live for.
Yet there is one more thing. “The Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” There is the ultimate reason for the converted to live on this earth. We are here to do what Paul was called to do – proclaim the name of Jesus. “We are here to declare the praise of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We are called for the most important work anyone can be called to do. To let people know Jesus didn’t die and rise for only a few. Our joy is to love Jesus, live for Jesus and share Jesus.