"A Spiritual; Repeal and Replace"
This morning, we’ll be sharing a story from the Book of Acts, sometimes called “the 5th gospel,”
as it is actually part two of Luke’s “good news” account. Most agree, Acts chapter 9 offers the
best-known “conversion story” in the New Testament. Months had passed since Jesus’ crucifixion,
resurrection, and ascension; maybe years. The followers of Jesus Christ, who called themselves “the Way,” were multiplying at an exponential rate. The movement was spreading from its epicenter in
Jerusalem to other cities and regions throughout Judea, Samaria, and Galilee.
As the Way gained momentum, so too did its opposition. Many saw this movement as a threat to
Judaism and felt genuinely called by God – in the words of a deputy named Barney Fife – to “Nip
it! Nip it in the bud!” Among this anti-movement’s leaders was a young man, consumed by his desire
to nip this Jesus movement in the bud. Here’s what he once said of himself: “I myself was convinced
that I ought to do many things in opposing the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And I did so in Jerusalem; I not only shut up many of the saints in prison, by authority from the chief priests, but when they were put to death I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in all the synagogues and tried to make them blaspheme; and in raging fury against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities.” This man’s name was Saul, from the city of Tarsus. He is better known to us as Paul the apostle. Here, then, is the story of Saul’s spiritual repeal and replace. (Read Acts 9:1-19a)
On that day, on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus joined a long list of odd and unlikely
characters whom God had chosen as vessels of God’s holy work. There was Abram, a wandering nomad; Jacob, one who had thought nothing of cheating his twin brother and lying to his infirmed father; Moses, a murderer; Rahab, a prostitute; David, a little shepherd boy, and later a conspirator who had whacked one of his most loyal officers in order to take his wife; Cyrus, a ruthless Persian king; Peter, a rough-cut, probably foul-mouthed fisherman; Matthew, a tax collector. We can’t help but be mystified at times by God’s choices.
I stand before you this morning, early in my 17th year of ministry at Central, as one who’s been
joined to that long list of odd and unlikely characters. While I’ve shared this story in the past, many
of you are new to this ministry and have never heard it. Now before your imagination begins to run
away with itself, I’ve never been convicted of a crime. I’ve never been unfaithful to my wife. I’ve
never been a Roman Catholic. And I’ve never been involved with the mafia (as some might suppose
since I’m Italian, furry, and from the means streets of Pittsburgh). What I have to share with you is a
conversion experience I had. Here’s how it happened.
On January 20, 1988, I was in my study on the 3rd floor of our old home in Coraopolis, Penna. I had
been successfully climbing the business ladder in the Pittsburgh steel industry for well over a decade.
In the latter years, I had been wrestling with a sense that God was calling me to do something. I had
an idea what that was, but I wanted no part of it. My work in the local church was significant as a
Ruling Elder, Chair of Evangelism, confirmation class instructor, Bible study leader, liturgist, choir
member, Presbyterian Men’s council member in Pittsburgh Presbytery. I seemed to be doing it all.
But when people would approach me and suggest crazy things like, “Did you ever think of being a
minister?, I would laugh it off and quickly change the subject. I mean me, a minister? I was almost
expelled from Geneva College – a Christian college – for being something of a “hell-raiser.” While at
Geneva College, the gang I ran with was, in hindsight, persecutors of Christians on campus. Sure, it
was all in good fun we thought; moving the contents of one student’s room onto the tennis courts
next to our dorm; convincing another to come with us to dinner, actually taking him to a redneck bar;
attacking a prayer group with shaving cream pies. Yet in hindsight, I came to see how mean-spirited
these so-called “innocent pranks” were, and how we fostered terror in the hearts of those students
who loved the Lord. The point is, how could a minister have such things in his history?
As a business person, I would practice my religion on Sunday, then go out on Monday evening
with clients for drinks and coarse conversation. One element of my job was to frequently stretch the
truth in order to undercut a competitor; in order to get a multi-million dollar contract; happily
drinking down the perks and privileges of high level sharp dealing. How could God use a man like me?
On January 20, 1988, there was no crisis in my life. On the contrary, I was happily married to a
lovely wife, two beautiful little daughters, living in the family homestead, ascending the ladder of
business success. What more could I have asked for or wanted? It was early evening. Vale was
working. Vicki, who was one year-old, was slumbering in her crib. Five year-old Liz was watching TV in the living room. And daddy was in his study. I don’t recall if I was reading, or doing paperwork or
what. But I felt a strange impulse to move from my study to the second floor, for no particular
reason. Nothing seemed unusual until I arrived in the darkness of my bedroom. As I reached the
side of the bed, I suddenly found myself driven to my knees. There were no flashing lights or voices from
heaven like Saul experienced. I saw no vision. But deep inside me, there was an eruption of emotion.
As I dropped to my knees, I began to sob uncontrollably, and while fear came over me, I didn’t feel
afraid. I didn’t know what was happening, or why I was weeping. Before I got to the point of thinking
I was cracking up, it became clear that within me was a powerful, new presence I had never known
before. And I somehow knew just who and what it was.
Like many Presbyterians, I had heard all the evangelical tag lines for conversion: “saved,” “born
again,” “filled with the Holy Ghost.” And like many Presbyterians, the concept was foreign to me, and
even threatening; just so much holy roller language, I thought. But there I was on my knees, crying
like a bambino, repeating over and again: “Yes Jesus! Yes Jesus!” And as I prayed, or praised, or
whatever it was I was doing, I felt what seemed like a heavy blanket being lifted from my spirit, along
with all my sense of guilt, unworthiness, self-doubt, and poor self-esteem. At the same time, I felt
something flowing into me; like warmth; like electricity; like peace. The best way I can describe it
would be an emptying and refilling simultaneously; a spiritual repeal and replace. I don’t know if this
episode lasted five minutes or an hour. Time seemed to stand still. But the next piece of this
experience was perhaps the most affirming. As I knelt there, my head on the mattress, I felt another
presence. I lifted my head and turned to find my little Liz standing next to me, looking quite confused
and concerned. “Daddy,” she asked. “Why are you crying?” Looking up into her five year-old cherubic
face, I remember my response like it was just yesterday: “Honey, Jesus just came into daddy.” Her
confusion and concern evaporated, and she got a big smile on her face. And we hugged, me on my
knees; she on her feet. I then stood up, and my life has not been the same since.
Have I become a saint since that day, perfect in thought, attitude, and action? Certainly not. Do I
continue to struggle with sin in my life? Daily. Do I still have a long way to go? You bet I do. But I am
converted, born again, saved, certain of my destiny in the fullness of the Kingdom of God – both now,
and yet to come? By the grace of God, I am; not because of my goodness, but because of God’s
Now why do I tell you this story about myself? For one thing, so you’ll better understand who your
pastor is, and where he comes from. But more importantly, to illustrate that as far as conversion, being born again, being saved, we who have given our lives to Jesus Christ all have our own stories, unique as each and every one of us is. There is no one size fits all where God’s call and claim on our
lives are concerned. God comes to each of us differently. Our stories may have similarities and
common elements to be sure. And the Author of all our stories is one in the same. But it’s not about us being center stage and lead characters in the story. It’s all about God being the lead character and
center stage. That, by the way, is the basic difference between what we’ve heard called “humanism”
and what we know as “Christianity.” It’s about who’s ultimately in charge. This leads into point one
of this message. I’ve heard evangelicals say things like: “You gotta get saved. Here’s how to go about
- Read this tract. Pray that prayer. Come forward. Be baptized the right way. And here is how it
should feel. This is how it should look. This is what you should experience to call it bona fide.” In
respect of the evangelical zeal to get everyone born again in response to Jesus’ great commission, let us understand that conversion, change of the radical kind we see in Paul’s life, is something Christ does, not something we do. We don’t “get saved,” as if it’s something we pursue, aspire toward, and attain. When the dust settles, as it did that day on the road to Damascus, conversion, salvation, born again into a new spirit, is ultimately God’s initiative and God’s doing.
Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t open ourselves to God’s movement in our lives, earnestly
seeking and desiring the gift of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. But God’s going to move at God’s behest,
not ours. Along those same lines, I’m irked when I hear a preacher say with hubris, “God’s going to do
this or that mighty act this morning or this evening.” How can he or she, or any of us, dictate what
God’s going to do? I’ve never understood that theology. Is it not more appropriate to humbly ask
God to do this or that mighty act, according to God’s will and pleasure? In the case of Paul, however,
Paul was as closed to Jesus Christ as anyone in recorded history. In fact, Jesus encountered him as he
was “still breathing threats and murder against disciples of the Lord.” Paul was in full persecuting
mode when Jesus moved into his life. So point one is that conversion is something Christ does, not
something we do.
Point two: Conversion, salvation, involves a journey from self-confident independence toward
child like dependence. This is where we’re most challenged, for who wants to be dependent? What
did Jesus mean when He said, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the
kingdom of heaven”? William Willimon has made this observation: Where God’s salvation is
concerned, “the one who knows so much must become the one who knows nothing;” must become as a child. Consider Paul’s conversion experience. He had to be led by the hand. Like a newborn infant,
he was without sight, and could not eat. When Jesus chose to move into Paul’s spiritual house, Paul
was driven to his knees in humbleness and utter dependence. As far as conversion, being saved [not
getting saved], being [not getting] born again, we progress by regression, and go forward by falling
backward. Willimon has also observed: “Such turning and helpless regression, accompanied by
blindness, confusion, speechlessness, hunger, and childlikeness is, for this peculiar faith, the very beginning of wisdom.”
Helpless as Paul was in that hour, he was still a very feared man. As the conversion story goes, Paul
was led to Damascus where a disciple by the name of Ananias lived. In a vision, the Lord gave
Ananias a strange and frightening task: Go seek this Saul of Tarsus; you know, the one who persecutes
Christians; this one who would threaten your life, for he is a chosen instrument of mine. After some
mild resistance, Ananias finds Paul where God said he would. Luke tells us, “He laid his hands on Saul
and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that
you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’” The story resolves with Saul, now Paul,
regaining his sight, being baptized in the name of Jesus and taking nourishment. From that time
forward, Paul’s life was never the same. And how delighted, and relieved, Ananias must have been to
discover the third point: In God is the power to transform the enemy into a brother. As we
discussed not so long ago, we can never count anyone out, or pull anyone up by the roots, because in
God’s hands, we are all a work in progress. And we never know when the converting and saving
power of God will enter a person’s life and change him or her into an entirely new creation. This is
the essence of the saved, born again experience.
How it happens in Paul’s life, or in yours, or in mine, depends entirely on God. Our conversion
could be in a moment of time, or it could be over the course of our lifetime. Of these three things we
can be sure: Conversion is God’s doing, not ours. Conversion is a journey from self-assured
independence to God-assured dependence. Conversion is God’s power to transform our enemy into a brother or sister. Although Luke never tells us that Paul was riding upon a horse, I would like to close with something (Mary) Flannery O’Connor once said of Paul: “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his high horse.” Lord, our God, it is You, by the power of Your Holy Spirit, and in the person of Your Son Jesus Christ, who calls us, converts us, and sanctifies us. May we be open daily to the movement of Your Spirit, acknowledging Christ as Source of our salvation. Father, this You accomplish in Your time, in Your
way, meeting each of us on the road of Your choosing. Keep us ever aware of Your sovereignty, and
Your love. Amen.