a sermon on Philippians 3:4b-14 for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time
preached on October 2, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Conversion stories are everywhere in Christian literature. You know how they go – someone starts out living a terrible, horrible life, with all sorts of sinfulness and worldliness, then that person is radically changed through a dramatic experience and comes to faith. We have them in the Bible and beyond – it seems that so many faithful people have wonderful stories to tell about how God has intervened and changed things in their lives.
The apostle Paul’s story is one of the greatest of all conversion stories. The book of Acts tells it from one perspective, and Paul himself tells it several other times in his letters to churches around the Mediterranean that are collected in the New Testament. In today’s reading from his letter to the church in Philippi, we hear a little of that story. Paul was a very faithful Jew, properly circumcised and raised in the tradition, with the right ancestry and perfect lineage in the tribe of Benjamin. He studied the Law at length, and from this knowledge he became a Pharisee and attacked the early followers of Jesus because he felt that they misinterpreted the Law.
But then something happened to Paul. He had an experience that changed everything. He doesn’t recount the details here, probably because the Philippians knew his story very well, but from the other tellings of it in the New Testament, we know that it was a dramatic encounter with Jesus himself long after Jesus had ascended into heaven, an encounter that left Paul blind for several days and may have even given him some sort of lifelong physical affliction.
This conversion experience changed everything for Paul. As he says in these verses, everything that Paul once counted in his favor he now viewed as rubbish, garbage, nothingness. He suffered the loss of all things because of Christ, and this new emptiness gave him the space to gain Christ, not that he could claim all this by his own doings but rather that God could fill him and share with him Christ’s faithfulness and righteousness.
But Paul knew that he was not yet completely filled in this way. He recognized that he still had a long way to go to make this way of life his own, yet he kept on trying to do all this “because Christ Jesus has made me his own,” as he said. Paul put aside the ways of his past life so that he could move forward into something new and different and real and complete in the days ahead: “Forgetting what is behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
Like so many conversion stories, Paul’s story is an incredible one, a powerful witness to the transformation possible in and through the life of faith. While so many over the centuries have experienced this kind of conversion, many other faithful people have a less dramatic story of growing into the life of faith.
Take me, for example. I grew up in the church and never really stepped away from it. Conversion for me almost wasn’t even possible because I was grounded in the tradition from the very beginning – baptized as an infant,raised in Sunday school, active in the youth group and campus ministry, and a natural fit to go to seminary right away. If anything, I sometimes identify more with Paul’s life before his conversion than anything else! I’ve always felt connected to God and the community of faith and can’t really point to a single large moment of powerful transformation or conversion like Paul could.
For a long time, I wasn’t particularly comfortable with this, especially growing up in a culture in the deep South that insisted on a specific moment of salvation as part of an authentic Christian religious experience, but I’m grateful that someone once suggested to me the idea of a “nurturing conversion,” where we find transformation not in a single moment but rather over a lifetime of being nurtured into the life of faith. I know I’m not the only one who lives and feels like this – others too have spent a lifetime trying to sort out what it means to be faithful in their lives, building on the faith they have had for a full lifetime and seeking to walk with God along all the changes and challenges of life and living even though they have never experienced the kind of dramatic conversion that Paul describes. I’m grateful that our Presbyterian tradition welcomes all of us, both those who have experienced a powerful moment of transformation and those who have been converted through the nurturing life of faith, but I still feel like I’m missing out on something sometimes because I don’t share that transformative experience.
So what do we do with all this? How do we connect Paul’s incredible experience from two thousand years ago to our own lives today? How do we make sense of Paul’s conversion alongside our own faith journeys? What does it mean for us to give up the things of our lives and find our real and true value and worth in Christ?
For me at least, I think this all begins when we open our minds to the possibility of transformation each and every day so that we can live into the new life we have in Christ. Whether we have experienced a powerful moment of conversion or not, God can still work a new thing in us and through us and around us and in spite of us. Whether we can identify firsthand with Paul’s experience of conversion or not, God can transform our lives by the power and faithfulness of Jesus Christ himself and remake us more and more in the image of the one who comes to make all things new. And whether we are new to faith and life or have seen many years in life and the church, we all have to keep trying day by day to make this our own, to sort out the meaning of the cross and the resurrection for us and our world, to share that experience with others along the way, and to trust that there is still more in store for all creation.
But the good news in all this amidst such varied experiences of conversion is that we are not alone. Whether we can point to a moment of radical conversion or have been converted over the whole of our lives, whether we identify with Paul or someone else, whether we have walked many miles along the road of faith or are just setting out on the journey, we are one family, one people, one church, following our one Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ, gathering around one font and one table where we can know his presence even today.
So we are not alone. We are not alone as we sort out our faith in our lives. We are not alone as we figure out what transformation and conversion might be for us and our world. We are not alone in seeking God’s glory and promise We are not alone in struggling to make the cross and resurrection our own. We are not alone in giving up the things of our past and of our world so that we can take on a new and shared identity with all those throughout time and around the world who follow our Lord Jesus Christ.
So today as we celebrate World Communion Sunday, a day when we particularly remember that whenever we gather at this table we gather with sisters and brothers all around the earth, we gather at this feast of celebration, not alone or with a few of our choicest friends but with the whole company of the saints in heaven and on earth, trusting that here Jesus is with us and makes us his own and will never leave us alone as we press on toward the goal of new life in him.
Thanks be to God. Amen.