arlier we sang a hymn composed by an Englishman who had been the Captain of a slave ship. He had been an enemy of the Christian faith and lacked moral restraint, leading a life of what he called debauchery.
Our scripture reading described a man who had assisted in the stoning to death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Saul became a leader in the effort to wipe out the burgeoning Christian movement. In our text we find him on the road to Damascus to arrest additional Christians.
The two men had a similar experience in common: Christian conversion. John Newton eventually became a beloved pastor, and Sauls name was changed to Paul as a symbol of his new life in Christ.
Newton expressed his feelings in the first line of Americas favorite hymn: "Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see." Converted through the preaching of George Whitfield, and the Wesley brothers, he is buried in the Methodist graveyard across from Wesleys Chapel in London. His tombstone epitaph sums up his dramatic conversion; "John Newton, clerk, once an infidel and libertine, a servant of slavers in Africa, was, by the rich mercy of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, preserved, restored, pardoned and appointed to preach the faith he had long labored to destroy."
Many of us here today can tell of similar experiences of conversion: Genuine turnabouts in our lives through the work of the Holy Spirit. Your preacher this morning is one who went through a marvelous conversion at the age of 21. I look back upon that rainy Sunday afternoon, the day after Valentines Day 1966, as a new birth, a new beginning, a new life. As with the Apostle Paul, my own conversion was accompanied by a clear call to preach. I put my hands to the plow that afternoon and have never looked back. That experience remains the pivotal point in my life. It is still the reason I am in the ministry. Sure, lots of water has gone over the dam, and sermons preached, degrees earned, ordinations attained; but, that one singular event has shaped my entire life, and is the cornerstone of my belief system today.
This leads us to see that the long term effect of personal conversion experiences, as critical as they are for the individual, are only fulfilled as one takes up the task that God faithfully gives to every believer.
Notice that Saul/Paul was directed by Christ to go on to the city of Damascus and to present himself to the leaders of the Christian fellowship. It was only after they received him that his sight was restored. After a period of serious study of Scripture, as an effort to re-thing theology in relation to the fact that Christ had come into the world, Paul immediately started his vast missionary journeys to the cities of the known world. Why did Paul go to the cities? Well, the answer is obvious, thats where the people were. As in fishing, if you are going to catch fish you need to find the place where the fish congregate.
Last weekend we were vacationing in Destin, Florida. The welcome sign at the city limits describes the city as, "The Greatest Fishing Hole in the World!" From the fishing activity and boats everywhere, the claim must be close to true. However, all the actual fishing that Marilyn and I did was in seafood restaurants.
What a sweet fishing hole we have here at the crossroads of the world in the middle of the capitol of the South! The-Big-A-Towns downtown has got to be a place from which we can proclaim the Good News from the rooftops. We are reaching over 60 thousand each week through our cable television ministry. The sun never sets of our ministry through the world wide web, and the Internet. What a sweet place to fish! Church growth experts agree that the future of the Christian Church into the next millennium will be heavily dependent upon the cities.
As with Paul in the first century, our mission is to reach as many souls as we can with the hopeful message of the possibility of new life in Christ. Once we have experienced such a phenomenal change of life, can we then choose to keep quiet. Fishermen sometimes do keep secret their favorite fishing holes; but a convert is one who wants to tell everyone where to find this "Amazing Grace."
The satisfied customer is the best way to find fish, even the fried kind. Our first night on vacation we asked the motel manager, "Where do the locals eat seafood in Destin?" "Harbor Docks!" came his reply. As we were leaving Harbor Docks that night a family of tourists stopped us and asked, "Is this a good place to eat?" "Sure is, the best!" Came our reply.
Two ladies were pushing shopping baskets at Kroger when one asked the other, "Where is it you-all are going to church, is the preacher any good?" "Sure is, the best in the world: Come check it out; in fact, well pick you up!" came an enthusiastic reply. So the family visited, and liked it, and the Spirit began to work on them, and pretty soon they asked to be baptized, and joined the community of faith--- all at the simple invitation over a shopping cart.
What if John Newton had kept his Amazing Grace buried deep inside his own little life? What if Paul had decided to just be a regular everyday believer and stay close to home? It is hard to imaging these two great leaders not responding to the Spirits call for we know it was in responding affirmatively to the call that they were mightily used by God. But sometime we just come and sit in church and think thats all that God requires.
a sermon synopsis
by C. Robert Allred, Th.D., Pastor