By John Bauerschmidt
“So that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith” (Acts 26:18).
Today is the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, a celebration that takes us back to the very beginning of the life of the Church and to one of its most important events. Saul of Tarsus encounters Jesus Christ, alive not dead, and turns from being a persecutor of the Church into a missionary to the Gentiles. He becomes Paul the Apostle, the most influential early follower of Jesus, and the rest of the Book of Acts is largely the story of his ministry.
Though it’s true that the author of Acts has his own story to tell, scholars also insist that the sermons and speeches in Acts preserve some very old material, going back to the apostolic preaching. It’s always good when scholars point you in the right direction, and here they are pointing us to the gospel proclamation itself. So when we come to the story of Paul’s call to serve Jesus Christ, to join in the Christian mission, we are hearing the groundswell echo of the ancient story. The words of Jesus to Paul on the road to Damascus set out the agenda of the Church, and our own agenda, very well.
First, “faith,” faith in Christ. Paul’s call begins with the encounter with Jesus Christ himself. This encounter is transformative, making the event a conversion that changes the entire trajectory of his life. But the encounter doesn’t overpower his will; Paul himself has to have faith in the risen Lord. Faith is primarily trust in God; and faith for Christians must fundamentally be faith in the One who has raised Jesus Christ from the dead. That is the God we trust: the God who has shown himself trustworthy, for this life and the life to come.
We’re invited, on this feast, to place our faith in Christ. He’s the One who has triumphed over death. There are so many challenges before us: challenges in the life of the whole human community, to every inhabitant of the planet Earth; and challenges as well in the life of the Church, the people of God. There are so many forces that act to pull us apart, to pull us apart from each other and to pull each one of us apart, but God’s message to us in Jesus Christ is that we cannot be separated from him. Death, the final enemy, will be defeated; death cannot tear us apart, so how can anything else? If we trust in God, and in the risen and triumphant Savior, we will find them trustworthy.
Second, then, “forgiveness of sins”: another groundswell echo of the good news. New resurrection life requires a new beginning now. God in Christ is declaring to all peoples, to all the nations, a new start through God’s free gift. We’ve messed up (no doubt about it), and we will mess up again: I’m absolutely sure of it. We will mess up the world and mess up the Church, and we will be messed up ourselves in the process.
But God gives us a second chance, a fresh start, over and over again. Forgiveness is inexhaustible. Forgiveness is how we find the power to go on, a power after all that only comes from God. The fact of forgiveness is a powerful one: just try to count the number of times the phrase occurs in the Book of Acts, and you will realize how powerful this reality was to our spiritual forebears. It’s powerful for us as well, if we will open our ears to hear the groundswell echo of the gospel words, and open our hearts to receive this truth.
Faith and forgiveness lead us to commitment, to belief. German scientist and satirist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg once wrote that “there is a great difference between still believing something and believing it again” (I’m grateful to W.H. Auden for the quote). Do you know what he means? Do you see what he’s getting at?
It’s pathetic to “still” believe something, but it is inspiring to believe it “again.” If we still believe something, it’s like the leftover bits of our life that we store in the attic or out in the shed; but if we believe something again, it is present to us and relevant now. It’s a part of our life, something we are using, something we are committed to, not a carefully preserved item that no one ever sees. But that is how we sometimes regard the life of discipleship: a thing we wrap in tissue paper and only take out occasionally, if at all.
I invite you, not to still believe, but to believe again. I invite you to put your faith in the risen Lord, and to believe in the forgiveness of sins and a new start. I invite you to commitment. We are in need of these things, faith and forgiveness, in the life of the Church and in the life of the world. It’s our opportunity for conversion: for transformation and new life. It’s our mission: to be called by God and to be sent by Christ. On this Feast of the Apostle’s Conversion, we can hope for no greater gift than to believe again.
The Rt. Rev. John Bauerschmidt is Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee.