Worship at the Crafton Heights church on 26 August included a chance to listen (again) to an old story: Paul’s recollection of his conversion as recorded in Acts 21:40 – 22:41. The other reading for the day came from I Peter 2:9.
Many of you know that I’m getting ready to head to the Chicago area, where on Saturday, my daughter Ariel will pledge her love and troth to a young man named Drew. I am excited about this change for Ariel and Drew, and eager to be in that setting with them. And it’s not just them, of course – family and friends from around the country will gather for a few days of preparation and celebration. One of the things I’m looking forward to is spending some time with people around the campfire, telling stories.
Friends, let me ask you this: do you know someone who loves to tell stories? Do you know someone who loves to tell stories so much, in fact, that they’re not above telling the same story more than once? Do you know someone who gets started on a story that you’ve heard a dozen times before and it doesn’t seem to matter – they just keep on telling the story, confident that it’s a funny or sad or powerful as it was the first eleven times they told it to you? No, I’m not talking about myself here… But my hunch is that you do know someone who is not afraid to tell, and re-tell, a good story. Those are the kinds of campfire stories I’m talking about here.
Paul the Apostle was a bit of a story-teller himself. In Acts 21, he had just arrived in Jerusalem, where he was to make his report to the home office about the results of his gospel ministry among the Gentiles. The other followers of Jesus are satisfied with the news, but as is often the case, not everyone is satisfied and somehow, before you know it, a mob had formed, accusing Paul of having left the true faith. Mobs being what they are, it’s not too long before the National Guard gets called in and Paul is in chains. He asks for, and is given permission to, address the crowd.
And what does he say? He tells them about the day he met Jesus. For people who knew Paul, this must have been the part of the day where they said, “What, this again? Is this where we hear about the light, the blindness, and the voice? Look, Paul, we get it. You were there…” The truth is that Paul simply could not shut up about the day that he met the Lord. It’s recorded for us three times in the book of Acts, and referred to in the letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, and Timothy.
Why does he do this? For me, when I tell a story more than once, it’s for one of several reasons. Maybe I think it’s a particularly funny or clever story, and so I want to tell it so that you think I’m funny or clever. Maybe I just want you to like me better. Or maybe I tell a story again and again because the story helps illustrate some truth about my life that will help you understand a little bit better what makes me the way that I am.
My hunch is that Paul kept re-telling the story of the day that he fell on his keister because it was an essential part of who he was and how he was called to be God’s person in the world. Paul kept on saying, “Let me tell you about the day I was converted” because that conversion became for Paul a defining moment of his life.
I’d like to tell you about my conversion (again) – but before we get to that story, I want to think for a few moments about the idea of conversion in our world. When you think about conversions, about people being “born again”, about evangelism in our culture, what is the motive, the reason, the purpose for that?
I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I got my plastic Jesus
Sitting on the dashboard of my car…
You can buy a Sweet Madonna,
Dressed in rhinestones sitting on a
Pedestal of abalone shell.
Goin’ ninety, I ain’t scary
Cause I’ve got the Virgin Mary,
Assuring me that I won’t go to Hell.
Maybe you’re more of a “Classic Rock” person, and you resonate with :
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s best
When they lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
Pop music not your thing? What about hymn #657:
Now I’ve a hope that will surely endure after the passing of time;
I have a future in heaven for sure, there in those mansions sublime.
And it’s because of that wonderful day when at the cross I believed;
Riches eternal and blessings supernal from his precious hand I received.
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul
When at the cross the Savior made me whole;
My sins were washed away – my night was turned to day
Heaven came down and glory filled my soul.
Or perhaps you’re not much on music or films, but you like to read. Two of the best-selling Christian books in recent years are 90 Minutes in Heaven and Heaven is For Real, each of which offers readers a glimpse into heaven and an encouragement to plan for the afterlife. As you think about those three examples of popular culture from the past forty years, do you see what they have in common?
Why do you become a Christian? So when you die, you can go to heaven. What’s the motivation for conversion? Getting right with Jesus so that I won’t go to Hell. In fact, if you look at a good bit of popular Christianity in the world and in the church today, you’d get the impression that Jesus doesn’t really care too much about what happens from the time you accept him as Lord and Savior until you die – the main point is to get right now and hope that you die right so that you’re in the clear for eternity. Religion is essentially a “fire insurance” policy. It’s a “get out of jail free” card that lasts forever.
Look again at the way that Paul tells his conversion story in Acts 22. He doesn’t mention heaven. Nothing about eternal life. I did a little digging in the books of Acts and found, not surprisingly, that it was full of conversions. Do you remember any of those stories? Who gets converted in Acts?
¨ Acts 2 – a crowd of scoffers becomes a body of believers
¨ Acts 8 – the Ethiopian Eunoch
¨ Acts 9 – Saul/Paul (the first telling)
¨ Acts 10 – Cornelius
¨ Acts 16 – Lydia and the Philippian Jailer
None of these stories of dramatic conversions have as their main point the idea of getting to heaven right away. None of them talk about spending eternity in the everlasting arms. Heaven’s not a bad thing – it’s just not the main thing in these stories.
So why was Paul converted?
According to Paul, here in Acts 22, it was so that he might know God, be a witness for God, and so that God could send Paul to the gentiles. God called Paul, not to remove him from the world, not to take him away from his pain and suffering – in fact, Paul had it a lot better before he became a Christian than he did after the fact. God didn’t call Paul in order to get Paul ready for heaven. God called Paul because God wanted to use Paul in order to take care of some of God’s business in the world. To put it simply, it wasn’t about Paul…it was about God.
Here is how God called me. As a young man, I didn’t like church. I had the incredible notion that church was boring. I hated youth group, but, alas, was born to a mother and father who didn’t really care what I thought, and so I was forced to attend both church and youth group. I did whatever I could to make life miserable for the pastor and the youth group advisors. I was the guy who smuggled contraband on to the youth retreats. In fact, at one point the advisors said to my folks, “You know, it’s all right if David doesn’t come to everything.”
And then one year, my dad was out of work, and we couldn’t afford to send me on the youth retreat. I’d be forced to stay home and play football with the Hultberg boys instead of hanging around with the religious nut jobs. But at the last moment, we got a call from a somewhat reluctant advisor. Turns out that someone at the church had heard about our situation and offered to pay my way to camp. Yippee. But it was on that retreat that I heard the message of God’s love for me for the first time, and I felt as though the message of hope and forgiveness was big enough to include me.
Since that time, I have understood my call as being to help others embrace the fullness of God in their own lives. Not surprisingly, much of this call has been oriented to young people – particularly to young people who think that God, Jesus, and Church are irrelevant and all pastors are boring and crotchety. And initially, I sensed that what God was asking me to do was to point people towards a personal relationship with God.
I still do that, but have seen in the past thirty years a broadening of that call to help people seek God’s purposes for their lives in every area. And that call has led me to be broken by the plight of God’s people in Africa, the fight for justice that millions of people in the world experience every day, and a general concern for the marginalized in our society.
Do I believe in heaven? I count on it.
Do I hope to spend eternity with the Lord? You bet I do.
But my salvation, my conversion is not primarily focused on sitting around and waiting until I die so that I can collect on my fire insurance policy. My relationship with God is not centered on what will happen when I die. It is centered on how I can be God’s agent in the world right now. That is the purpose for which God has called me.
Take a look at the bulletin and look at the sermon title. “Orienteers Wanted”. W’e’re already to the middle of page seven and you’ve not heard me use that term at all. That doesn’t bode well for those of you hoping to get out of here at five minutes before 11, does it?
Orienteers wanted. What is an orienteer? Orienteering is an activity wherein people use maps and compasses to move from one place in the woods to another place in the woods. Your map and your compass are used to orient you to your location in the world so that you can get from one place to the next in safety. Orienteers wander through the forest, looking for clues in the terrain and geography so that they can move from station to station along the course.
If you were a true orienteer, working your way through the Allegheny National Forest, the absolute worst thing that could happen to you would be to have me show up in a helicopter saying, “It’s all right! I’m here to take you to the final station. Hop in!” Orienteers know that they’re staying in the woods, and they’re working on making sure that they know how to use their tools to survive and move along.
Too many Christians and too many churches proclaim a message that sounds like this: “I was lost and all alone, and my life was just terrible. But then, God rescued me – God came and picked me up and took me away from pain and suffering. I used to worry about all sorts of problems, but since I found Jesus, my life is just perfect.”
The reality is, my friends, that I hope you have been found by Jesus. I hope you have been saved. But you’re still out there in the woods. Your life is not perfect. Like any good orienteer, you need a map and a compass.
God is calling you to a new place. It’s good news! You will finally, ultimately, be in a place of perfection, rest, peace, and comfort. That’s what heaven is like, we think. But you are not going there now, so far as I know. You are still on your way. Take the map of God’s word and the compass that comes from being included in the body of Christ – the church. And be a person who is converted. And still converting. For the sake of the people around you who have not yet heard the call of Christ in their lives.
So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it. Amen.