Conversion – 4/18/10 – Acts 9:1-20, John 21:1-19


I want to talk some about being converted. 

What it is that causes us to change our minds, and, in a spiritual sense, change our devotion, change the direction that we focus our energy, our desires, our relationship with God, our vocation.  These are key spiritual questions.

One of the publications that continually feeds my mind and my soul is The Christian Century and a January issue of this year carried an essay by Paula Huston called “Wake-up call: A midlife spiritual challenge.”  It’s a reflection on a conversion experience.  She starts the essay this way: “In my 45th year, I ‘came to my senses in a dark forest,’ as Dante says, without any notion of how I’d gotten there.  Somehow my life had once again veered out of control, though not in the usual sense: not morally.  In that sphere, I was finally looking pretty good.  I’d gone to grad school in my thirties and was teaching at a university.  I was a published novelist and short story writer, and after a challenging stint as a single mother of two, I’d made a go of it with a new marriage complete with stepchildren.  Most important, after a decade of deliberate, repetitive sinning, I’d repented and returned to the church.  I was bashfully pleased with myself and content with my middle-aged life.  Then disintegrative symptoms began to appear… I became, at least for a while, a baffling stranger to myself.”  I like that line.  Being a “baffling stranger to myself.” 

She goes on to describe the physical/bodily and relational strains that occurred over the next few years.  When her doctor welcomed her to menopause, she was relieved to have a biological explanation for some of what was going on, but had a sense there was also a strong spiritual current at work within her, the Holy Spirit directing her toward a more focused life vocation.  As she continues to describe her experience, she comes to call it “the third conversion.”  The first two conversions, what we more typically think of when we think of conversion, are 1) an intellectual breakthrough that leads to faith, and 2) coming to moral clarity about the way to live and not to live.  She says, “The third conversion, in contrast, goes beyond revelation (the intellectual breakthrough) and repentance (moral clarity) into the area of calling and vocation.”  She also says, “I’ve become convinced that we experience the most surprising spiritual wake up calls at the most inconvenient times.” (Christian Century, January 26, 2010, p. 30-33)      

Her story highlights what others have also recognized in their own spiritual journeys.  That we undergo multiple conversions along the path of life.

Jim Wallis of Sojourners has written about his second conversion experience as a young man when he encountered the black church in his home town of Detroit and was first confronted with the notion that Christian faith not only relates to personal salvation, but also social justice.  It was a conversion that has shaped him for his whole life.

Jonathan Wilson Hartgrove, who spoke to us last October, was one of the members of the Christian Peacemaker Team who traveled to Baghdad at the beginning of the US invasion in 2003 and has written a book called To Baghdad and Beyond: How I got born again in Babylon.  This is also the story of one who would have already claimed a conversion experience  – an evangelical having already been born again in one way – undergoing another transformative kind of re-ordering of priorities and devotion, this time as it relates to being hospitable people of peace in a violent culture of war.  In other words, getting born again, again.  

I don’t know if there are two or three or more conversions that happen throughout a life, but my observation is that we are constantly being converted and that the opportunity for conversion presents itself far more often than we actually recognize it.  Maybe we could even talk about a daily conversion.  And that what we are always being converted toward is the loving heart of God.  Converted into love, which is the only true conversion that just shows up in a thousand different forms throughout our life.

The two readings for today, speak of two different conversion experiences that cover a span of what all conversion involves.      

Paul’s conversion, as he is traveling on the road to Damascus to find and arrest people who were the followers of the Way, the first name that Christians had for themselves, has left a remarkable impact on Christianity as well as western culture.  His being blinded by the light, and then having scales fall from his eyes are images and phrases that we still use.  This is the classic conversion experience.  Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, finds the event important enough to include it three different times throughout Acts, recounting the same story, with only minor details changed each time.  The first time it is told it is narrated by Luke, the second time Paul tells the story to crowds who had wanted him arrested outside the temple in Jerusalem.  The third time Paul included it in his testimony to King Herod Agrippa, before he heads to Rome.

The piece I’d like us to focus on is the first half of his experience, which is the dramatic blinding light from heaven part when he hears the voice of Jesus.  What’s noteworthy about this part of the conversion is that it actually leaves him in worse shape than when he started.  Much worse shape.  This is not the full conversion experience.  This is the beginning, and the beginning, half way through, almost kills him.  Initially it looks more like he’s on his way toward losing his life rather than saving his life.

So I’ll read the text, the first account of the story in Acts.  It says, “NRS Acts 9:1 Meanwhile Saul (his Greek name), still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (The Way is what the first Christians were called.  Sect of Judaism.  Not such thing as Christians as a separate religion.  These were Paul’s people, he just strongly disagreed with what they were doing) 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.  For three days he was without his sight, and neither ate nor drank.”

OK, maybe you’ve heard that told before that that was Paul’s conversion.  He sees the light, hears the voice of Jesus, and this is his conversion.  Well, that’s the first half of the conversion.  He’s half way there.  And so far it’s not having too many positive effects on his life.  It stops him from going after the people of the Way in Damascus, but he’s pretty much a wreck.  He’s blind, he has to be led by the hand to where he’s going, and he’s not eating or drinking for three days.  In other words, he’s just about dead.  Has virtually no energy left and is almost completely cut off from the world. 

We have come to call this process in the intellectual sense, when one is undergoing an intellectual conversion, the process of deconstruction.  In order for something constructive to come along, a new paradigm of understanding the world, one must first undergo deconstruction.  A dismantling, a painful removing and even dismembering, if we can use that language, of the structure, the system, that had previously contained what we knew! to be true.  This puts us in a fragile, vulnerable place, but it is an essential part of growth, and an essential part of conversion.  It sometimes happens in those early young adult years but can happen at any point in life.  And it’s OK.  It’s really OK.  It doesn’t feel OK when it’s happening.  When all that you thought was true starts to fall apart and you aren’t sure where to stand anymore.  But it’s a part of being converted toward God.  Of being brought into a deeper sense of the truth.  And knowing it, owning it, for oneself.

So Paul’s conversion, the first part, is a falling apart of sorts.  A disintegration.  And it manifests itself in a literal way with no sight, no food, no water for three days, which has resonance with the three days of the journey from death to resurrection.  The pattern of conversion.  First the death, then three days, literal or figurative, then the resurrection. 

What this means for us is that the experience of undergoing a falling apart, a complete disorientation, a blindness, becoming a “baffling stranger to oneself,” can actually be part of a movement of the Holy Spirit.  It sure doesn’t feel that way when it’s happening.  It feels like death, which it is in a spiritual sense.  The Holy Spirit guides us along this path and it is the gateway to conversion – the first painful, but necessary half.  At the point where we are most unable to see on our own, most hungry, most thirsty and wondering if we’ll ever drink again, this is the point where we are given our lives back….as the story goes… When Ananias comes, calls us a brother or a sister, lifts us up by the hand, and offers us food and the waters of baptism and where God begins anew in us.  This is the second half, the full picture, the rest of the story.  

The reading from the Gospel of John focuses on the person of Peter, although a number of the other disciples are also present.  As it goes with the process of conversion, this story sort of picks up where Paul’s story leaves off, if we just take into account the first half of his experience.  This is that necessary constructive piece, that building back up, that re-orientation and the establishment of the firm center that will hold Peter fast and steady as he moves forward from this point.

There are a number of really interesting facets of this story that we won’t take time to focus on this time around.  I’ll just mention them in passing here.  There’s the fact that Luke records a very similar story that happens at the beginning of his gospel, positioning it as the initial call, rather than the final of the disciples.  There’s this note about Peter being naked in the boat before he puts on some clothes to jump in the water and swim toward Jesus.  Sometime I’m going to preach a sermon called “fishing naked.”  I’m not sure what the message of that sermon would be, but it would have a great title.  There’s the detail about the 153 fish that are caught and the note that the net doesn’t tear.  Scholars have had a hey day trying to decipher the code behind the number 153. 

The part we’ll focus on is this exchange that happens between Jesus and Peter after they’ve eaten the breakfast, which ends up being a conversion point for Peter.  The exchange is quite simple.  Jesus turns to Peter and asks him, “Peter, do you love me?”  Peter answers, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”  Jesus says “Feed my lambs.”  This happens two more times.  Peter, do you love me?  Yes.  Tend my sheep.  Peter, do you love me.  Yes, Lord you know everything.  You know that I love you.  OK Peter, Feed my sheep.

Here the three times could be connected with the three days of death of resurrection, but is more directly connected to the three times Peter denied Jesus during his trial before his death.  Peter, do you know this man Jesus?  No, I have no idea who he is.  Peter, I’m pretty sure you know this guy.  Never seen him before in my life.  Come on Peter, you’ve got the accent of a Galilean just like this guy.  And Peter cursed – which I won’t do – and again separated himself, cut off his connection to Jesus.

So Jesus asks him three times, “Do you love me?”

At what point in his life, would you say, that Peter is converted to Christ?  Where would you say it takes place?  Was it initially, back when he first left his profession of fishing to follow this barely known rabbi?  Or later when he confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah?  Was it when he was with Jesus on the mountain and Jesus was transfigured in front of him?  When Jesus washes his feet during the last supper?  Was it here, by the Sea of Galilee again, during this exchange?  Well, it’s pretty hard to say.  I imagine each one of those was a conversion experience of sorts.  Each one in some ways following this pattern of deconstruction and reconstruction.  Death and resurrection.  But I would have to say that this one is the climactic conversion, or the sum of all the previous ones. 

Because behind the question – Peter, do you love me? – is the recognition from Peter that he is deeply, intimately, unconditionally loved himself.  Jesus comes back to him in this persistent, unwavering fashion and again holds out to Peter this ultimate offer.  Love, Peter.  It’s about love.  That’s it.  You can boil this whole ordeal, everything we’ve been through together, down this one word.  Love.  Do you get it?  Do you finally see what I’m saying?  It’s love.  And if you love me this will direct you for the rest of your life.   

These are the words that follow this exchange:  “Jesus said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19

(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

It’s as if Jesus is saying: You are deeply loved and forgiven, but it’s going to cost you your life Peter.  If you have been fed in this way, you’re going to have to feed by lambs.  Love my people.  Feed my sheep.  They need love Peter.  It’s all that matters.  And you’re going to have to do it even if it takes you where you don’t want to go, because love is like that.

From deconstruction, the falling apart, to the generative gift, the building up, the clarity of focus.  Love.  Follow me.  Then to the path that this requires.  Our life.  All that we are.

It raises the question of whether this kind of conversion is something we actually want.  Do you want this kind of conversion?  You’re crazy if you do, but it’s a good kind of crazy.  The kind of crazy that brings hope and healing and good news into people’s lives.  So we do make ourselves available.  And we wait, and we watch.  And we receive the gift of conversion when it is offered.