Historically, the conversion of Paul is one of, if not the most, ncelebrated conversions of anyone in the Christian heritage. Ifm you’ve had any connection to Christian education, it is likely that you’ve heard his story. Born to a devout Jewish family, trained by one of the highest regarded teachers of Jewish law, a member of the Pharisees. His zeal for purity of religion fueled his motivation for stamping out any semblance of blasphemy, leading him to actively pursue those who would claim that Jesus – the one who died a criminal’s death – was the Messiah and the Son of God. In his letter to the Galatians, he confirmed the rumors they had heard – he sought out followers of the Way, violently persecuted them, and even condemned them to death. On his way to confront the community of Jesus followers in Damascus, he was blinded by a light and heard a voice ask, “why do you persecute me?” This encounter with the Living God changed the trajectory of Paul’s life – instead of journeying to foreign cities to destroy the church of God, he took to the roads to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ.
For many Christians, Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus is the paradigm of Christian conversion – it represents the quintessential pattern of turning from sin to righteousness. And yet, I would suggest that to focus primarily on the Damascus event misses the deeper meaning of conversion because it limits both the range of human experience and the manifold ways that God continually invites us into deeper relationship.
If we zoom out on Paul’s story, if we take into account what Paul himself says about his experience, we see that his conversion was not confined to the Damascus event. Instead, we find that that event was a catalyst for a lifelong process of re-orientation. Paul’s encounter with the Risen Lord on that road set into motion a process of converting, or re-orienting, the entirety of his life toward the God who called him and commissioned him to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Paul’s story highlights what Sally McFague calls the “schema of conversion;” 1 a process that moves from orientation through dis-orientation to re-orientation. To illustrate this process, she borrows from Paul Ricoeur’s work on parables and the intended effects they have on those who hear them. Parables draw us in because they are easily imagined; they are realistic, descriptive of ordinary life and we can quickly and easily orient ourselves within the story. Then, an element is introduced that disrupts our ordinary expectation, causing a kind of dis-orientation in our certainties. That parabolic surprise points us, or re-orients us, toward a new perspective, a new reality that is often an inversion of our religious, cultural, social, and moral expectations.
McFague suggests that Paul’s Damascus road experience was an experience of disorientation, an encounter with God that challenged the certainty of his reality, that destabilized the foundation of his understanding of God, the world, and even himself. It was the jolt of surprise in his life’s story that shifted his perspective, exposing all of the ways that his zeal was founded not on the work and grace of God but on his own self-righteousness. Lest we think this was merely a mental exercise, we must bear in mind that the Damascus event was a revelation out of which emerged a vocation – a calling and commissioning. Jesus did not confront Paul merely to change his mind, but to send him out as a proclaimer of the gospel.
And it is in this that we begin to see the deeper meaning of conversion. The process of reorientation is not a simple change in our capacity to “think right thoughts” or to “believe the correct propositional truths.” Nor is it primarily a matter of turning from an immoral to a moral life. Conversion is far more comprehensive, much more risky, and often much more demanding. And it is impossible to “accomplish” on our own. It requires an epiphany, a divine manifestation that reveals the truth of who God is and in doing so shows us something of the truth of who we are. When God reveals Godself to us, it is always accompanied by an invitation to live into that knowledge of God – a vocation of the Christian life that acts as a sign to the world of the transformative power of God’s arresting love.
The process of re-orientation is a continual conversion of our perspective through which emerges an embodiment of our knowledge of God. We are called to live into the inverse reality of the reign of God – where the first are last and the last first, the poor are preferred, the oppressed and marginalized privileged. We are called to lean into the discomfort of disrupting the status quo, of threatening the stability and certainty held in place by systems of power that prey on the weak. Our conversion enlists us into the company of the sent who are to bear witness – with our words and with our lives – to the love of God in Christ.
The road of conversion does not lead to comfort, at least not in the sense that that word is often used in our context today. In our gospel passage, Jesus tells his disciples that they are being sent out like sheep among the wolves. That is a warning for us as well. If we are converted to the Christian life, if we embody our knowledge of God, then we will be destabilizing agents in our world. It is a path often filled with discomfort, ambiguity, and risk. Those who have something to lose in the disruption we embody will not take kindly to our witness, they will see us as threats and they will hate us.
And yet, Jesus’ words of warning are accompanied by a promise. He tells us that the one who endures to the end will be saved. On the one hand, this could suggest that the endurance needed to live into our conversion is something we must muster ourselves. But the witness of Paul suggests that our endurance does not originate in us; rather, we are empowered to endure the discomfort of conversion by the grace of God. Grace is not a divine commodity that we use
or consume; nor is it simply a disposition of God toward sinful people. Grace is God working in us and through us in a way that invites us to participate in the transformation that God offers the world. It is what gives us the capacity to re-orient our lives so that we might be open to receiving all that God has to offer, to remain vulnerable to God so that we might experience God’s call to deeper relationship, so that our eyes might see and ears hear the next epiphany that calls us to further conversion.
The process of re-orientation is ongoing in our Christian life. It leads to radical and revolutionary notions of justice and peace that we must chose, every day, to embody in the world in which we exist. It is a way of life that seeks courage rather than comfort, is willing to take risks rather than shelter in security. It is a way of life that requires vigilance and discernment so that we might courageously endure to the end, living fully into our vocations as ones sent among the wolves to bear witness to the good news that Jesus came to proclaim.
¹ McFague, Sallie. 1978. “Conversion: Life on the Edge of the Raft.” Interpretation 32 (3): 255–68.