(Preached at Luther Seminary, April 18, 2013)
Grace, Peace, and Mercy are yours from the Triune God. Amen
The story that we heard in today’s reading is what is known as the conversion of Saul. What does it mean to convert? And who is this Saul character anyway? We know that he eventually turns into the man Paul and Paul is certainly the most prolific writer of the New Testament, but how did he get to this point? The Book of Acts was written as a companion to Luke’s Gospel with the overarching theme of belonging for all of God’s people. Salvation in Jesus Christ is not about coming from the right background or doing the right things. Or even being a good person. Because Saul is, to put it mildly, not necessarily a good guy. We hear him described by the writer of Acts as someone who was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” and who has a desire to bring followers of Jesus Christ, those we hear referred to as following “The Way”, bound to Jerusalem, presumably to interrogate them, persecute them, even execute them. Saul was a religious fanatic.
Yet while on his merry way to continue persecuting followers of Christ, Saul is struck down with a bright white light and in this incandescent theophany he hears, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord?” And the response comes, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Saul is then told to get up and enter the city and he will be told what to do next. He is blinded by fierce light at this point and entirely dumbstruck, so he needs to be helped into the city by the men who are with him. He literally cannot do anything different at this point. I believe this is what a conversion is. Being so overwhelmed by something outside yourself that you are literally drowned and brought back to life by God. When you are converted by God you are given a new heart and all of you is claimed. The good, the bad, and the ugly. But conversion is kind of scary, we have to give up the illusion that we are in charge. And Saul is certainly not in charge here. He is brought into the city, deposited in someone else’s home and is completely blind and unable to eat or drink for three days. The only instruction that he is given by Jesus is “you will be told what you are to do.”
But Jesus is already at work and has selected the man Ananias to assist Saul. Ananias is a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ, and this was not an easy life. Christian worship at this point was practiced in house churches, with a certain level of secrecy, because Christians were at risk of persecution by both the Jewish authorities and by secular authorities. Ananias would have probably characterized himself as already converted and since he was devoutly following The Way, not in need of any further conversion.
So too with many of us. We go to church. We give money to our favorite causes, we give canned goods to the food pantry every once in awhile. We pray. Maybe we do a morning devotion while we drink our coffee. But do we silently walk past the man or woman who asks us for spare change while we are on our way to church? Do we refuse to see the humanity in a person of another faith or nationality or political party in our attempts to make our convictions known? Do we spend so much time curving in on ourselves in self-examination that we miss what we are called to do in the world?
Saul is not the only person who undergoes a conversion in this text. Ananias does as well. Ananias is thrust out of what he believes to be true and forced to reexamine what it means to follow Christ. Ananias has Christ literally speaking to him in real time and can’t exactly ignore him. Ananias is called out of the relative safety of his home to go lay hands on Saul, a known persecutor of the Christians. Ananias responds, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem, and here he has the authority of the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” Jesus responds, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.”
But what if being converted was not an active decision that we make, but actually a letting go? A relinquishing of control? Far too often conversion is portrayed as an internal one-time act in which one “turns towards Christ” and makes a decision to follow him. We have all heard the grand testimonies of how people were on the wrong path, somehow found Jesus, and their lives were miraculously made far better than they ever could have imagined. The problem with this thinking is that it puts us in charge of making our own conversions happen instead of being converted BY Christ. This sort of thinking makes Christ entirely superfluous and assumes that if we are right in mind and spirit we will make the right choice.
But conversion is not a one-time decision. It is not a destination. It is a process that goes on in perpetuity in which we are blinded again and again by God and infused with new life by the Holy Spirit. It happens every single day. It doesn’t start with any action on our part, but occurred for all time with Christ on the Cross. It is something that is done to us and for us. The only thing for us to do is let go and be converted into a new creation by Christ.
Saul needed to let go of his hatred and contempt towards the followers of Christ. He needed to suspend disbelief. And when he was admonished by Christ for persecuting his followers, and by extension, Christ himself, he needed to let go of some pretty devastating shame.
Ananias needed to relinquish his sense of safety. To let go of the fear of persecution. To be called out of himself to be of service to another. To let go of fierce anger and call another man, “brother,” a man with whom he would choose never to associate.
Where do we need to relinquish control? Where do we need to be converted? Do we need to let go of feelings of inadequacy or fear or shame? Or do we need to let go of one-sided debates about belief and truly be present to and for our neighbor? To lay hands on someone who is hurting, call them brother or sister, even though we really don’t want to?
If this decision to be converted was left up to us, it wouldn’t ever happen. Human constructions of what is right and good and just, get in the way. But the promise that we hear in today’s text is that we have a God who is so much bigger than the box of human understanding. We have a God who transforms contemptuous individuals like Saul into Paul, the man with a unique capacity for preaching and missionary work and addressing pastoral concerns and is responsible for so much of the spread of Christianity. We have a God who transforms fearful Ananias into a man who boldly lays hands on Saul , who for all intents and purposes is his mortal enemy, and calls him brother and baptizes him. And we have a God who calls us out of ourselves and uses us to do good even when we are weary or fearful or confused. We have a God who claims every part of us, even those parts we would rather hide, and transforms us to fulfill our role in the world. So dare to let go, fall into grace, and be converted. Amen.