In reading the ninth chapter of the book of Acts, I am struck by the words in the first verse that describe Saul’s (soon to be, but not yet Paul’s) demeanor. He is “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”
Before his encounter with Christ, he is a man driven by his hatred of what he perceives as a threat to himself and his heritage. Those who are following the way of Christ are deviating from accepted ways of knowing and relating to God. Saul is consumed with eradicating this blasphemous deviation.
Coercion, persecution, even murder, he is ready and willing to do whatever it takes to force his vision of life, God and acceptable human interaction on those who sense that God is doing a new thing in Jesus Christ.
Saul is “still” making threats of violence and harm. The way he feels at the beginning of the ninth chapter of the book of Acts is not new. He has been feeling this way for some time.
Watching Stephen be stoned to death for his faith in Christ, Saul was feeling this way. Going from house to house to imprison those who believed, Saul was feeling this way. He feels this way still, “breathing threats and murder,” as the story of his conversion begins.
Breathing is what keeps us alive. If we are not breathing, we are not living. We are dead. Saul is breathing murderous threats. Living on hatred, his breathing is obsessed with doing away with those who are following the way of Christ by any means necessary.
The diabolical air of hatred keeps him alive. He is no longer living to experience the joy and peace of God in his life; he is living against the life-giving encounter with God that those whom he persecutes have experienced. They breathe hope, joy and love, but hatred is his oxygen.
Saul’s threats are anything but idle. He is actively engaging in the task of ridding the world of followers of the way of Christ. Before he leaves for Damascus, he secures letters of introduction so that the leaders there will know that his activities are endorsed by higher authorities. He is meticulous as well as hateful.
Then he is confronted by Christ. Saul’s world, his life, even the air he breathes is changed forever. He is converted. He becomes a missionary, a planter of churches and a teacher of the way of Jesus. He becomes exactly what he formerly hated with such passion, obsession and energy.
All that Paul had done out of hatred did not keep conversion from happening in his life. All the good that Paul did was possible because of his conversion. To realize the power of conversion is startling. Can a life really be changed that dramatically? That completely?
The testimony of the life of Paul is that the answer is yes. There is comfort in knowing that a life that once breathed hatred is capable of inhaling grace and exhaling hope.
The mistake that we as followers of Christ sometimes make when we read this dramatic conversion story is that we think that conversion is an event that is confined to a particular place in time. Saul was converted on the road to Damascus. Where were you converted?
While it is true that conversion has a beginning point, conversion is not merely an encounter in a particular place and time. It is a state of being. Each day is a new day for us to inhale the love and grace of Jesus, and to be converted even more to the ways of Christ.
Ed Sunday-Winters is senior pastor of Ball Camp Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. He blogs at Just Words.
Ed Sunday-Winters is pastor of Greensboro United Church of Christ in Greensboro, Vermont.