This week’s reading from Acts is the story of Paul’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-6). It’s a story that has come to define Christian experience especially in Evangelical Christianity. It’s not just the importance of conversion but the importance of a dramatic conversion, a complete reversal. John Newton’s “Amazing Grace” describes it in one way, “I once was lost, but now I’m found.” In Evangelicalism, even that can’t describe how dramatic conversion is expected to be, a turnaround from a dissipate life to a life in Christ.
Luke describes Paul’s experience in these terms. There are two versions in Acts, the one in chapter 9 and also a version put in Paul’s mouth in Acts 22:3-16. It is from the former account that the interesting details come: the road to Damascus, the blindness.
Interestingly, Paul also gives accounts of his story. One of the most important is in Galatians 1. There, Paul offers a different account of what happens after the encounter than that given by Luke. More importantly perhaps, he also uses different imagery to understand his experience. For Paul, it’s not a conversion but a call:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles (Galatians 1:15-16)
Paul uses language that draws on call narratives of Hebrew prophets. Compare Jeremiah 1:5:
‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you;
Paul’s experience as constructed by Luke has shaped Christianity as well as popular culture. Christians have sought to understand and construct their experience to conform to the model of a dramatic conversion and if they’ve never experienced Christ in that way, they wonder whether their faith is truly authentic. And if they’ve never lived a dissolute life, if they’ve been raised in Christianity and consistently attended services, it’s pretty hard to have an evil past from which to convert.
Conversion is real for many people, but it’s not the only, nor even the normative category for thinking about the Christian life. If Paul understood what happened to him as God calling him in a new direction, so can we. There are times when Paul looks back on his past and sees evil but he can also boast about who he was:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: 5circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Phil 3:4-6)
This week’s reading, and Paul’s experience, invite us to think about how we understand our own lives in Christ and to explore imagery that helps us name that experience and invites us into deeper relationship with the One who knows us and calls us by name.
(I’ve previously reflected on Paul’s conversion here).