Saul’s (Paul) conversion to following Jesus provides an example that doesn’t resonate well with many in modern society. There’s no altar call, no sinner’s prayer, no accepting Jesus as lord and savior in one giant leap of faith.
Yes, he was blinded by a sudden flash of light, thrown to the ground, and heard Jesus’ voice demanding to know why he was running around persecuting Christians. It certainly got his attention, but he had to be led for basic instruction and baptism to the house of a stranger who didn’t want him to be there. Then it took him three years to figure out what it all meant before he was ready to begin his apostolic work, which was itself a work in progress as his understanding evolved with each step.
What’s more, as his faith matured he didn’t reap today’s promised rewards of a better life. Instead, he was beaten, jailed, shipwrecked, chased from town to town, and eventually beheaded. Along the way he founded new congregations, counseled existing ones, and discovered none of them seemed to get it right. He got into heated arguments with other apostles and some of those he evangelized. In other words, he was a failure by today’s standards, and by Caesar’s too for that matter. Still, he rejoiced at being among the most blessed.
Paul’s life isn’t the only example of discipleship, nor is it a model for you and me to follow, though it could be. For all of us it’s a cautionary tale about what following Jesus can demand as we each travel our own unique paths. Whatever path we’re on, there are some useful lessons to be learned about becoming a Christian in the Pauline way. It’s to take the time needed to learn what it means to follow where Jesus is leading. It’s to surrender one’s ego in exchange for the courage required to go on in the face of threatening odds and uncertain results. It’s to record for public consumption the evolution of one’s understanding. It’s to do all of that with no expectation of anything else, because there’s nothing more that could be better.
It’s not a way of being Christian that appeals to many, nor is it the way that’s sold to many. This morning at the gym my wife was stuck watching Pat Robertson. On his show a woman gave her testimony that following her acceptance of Jesus as Lord, her business got more clients, her marriage was restored to health, and she found joy in becoming a subordinate wife and loving mother. Good for her. It’s not a path to discipleship one finds in scripture, and it’s certainly not Pauline, but it may be the path for her. May her life continue to prosper, but may others not be misled into thinking that’s how Christianity works. The better guide for a Christian life is in scripture, the verifiable stories of “saints” throughout the ages, and most important, in the lives of those closest to us that have reflected what loving others as Christ loves us looks like. I can think of a handful. None of them would ever have been invited by Pat Robertson to give their testimony. A couple of them aren’t even Christian.