In the reading from the Book of Acts this morning,
we have not one, but two conversion stories.
The first is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.
Saul encounters the last person he expected to meet on the road to Damascus:
the Risen Christ.
It is a powerful story of divine reorientation,
an abrupt encounter with a Light so brilliant that a man
is literally knocked off his feet, blinded, humbled, and turned so completely around
that he leaves even his name behind.
The second conversion story is less dramatic, almost to the point of being overlooked.
But we may learn more from it than from Paul’s story,
and for that reason, maybe it’s the more relevant of the two
as we consider the meaning of conversion in our faith journeys.
First, what do we mean by conversion, anyway?
It has to do with change or transformation, even rebirth.
A friend of mine once converted from listening to country and western music
to being a fan of opera.
A young baseball player might change from batting left-handed to right-handed.
A person might switch from one political party to another.
But mostly we think of conversion in religious terms,
converting from one religion to another.
Or, converting from no religion to a zealous commitment to religious faith...
like a person on death row meeting Jesus,
getting “born again,” and being transformed into a new person altogether.
If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creature.
I believe it.
But it is such a personal change, we can’t judge what it means from person to person.
I think about Boyd and Floyd,
the folk-singing twins I knew many years ago back in Virginia.
After I’d been out of touch with them for a couple of years,
I bumped into them outside the youth center where I volunteered as a counselor,
and I asked them how they were doing.
“We’re born again,” Boyd said. (Or, was it Floyd?)
“Yep. We follow the Lord now,” Floyd said. (Or, was it Boyd?)
I was curious what that meant for their music careers.
“Well, we’re going to sing only for the Lord now.
All our music will be for praising his name.”
I suppose that meant no more songs about romantic love,
the meaning of friendship, or just sailing on a silver lake.
I wondered then, and I still wonder now, what that means for other artists.
Does it mean that born again carpenters will only make pews now, and altars,
but no more beds or kitchen cabinets?
Or that a house painter must convert to painting only churches?
Then I realized I had no right to judge the way the twins had managed their conversion.
(or more to the point, how God was managing the twins).
Because conversion, new birth, spiritual transformation ... it’s an intensely personal thing,
certainly an intimate covenant between a person and the God who speaks to the heart,
and sometimes it’s quite a confusing thing to friends and families
who haven’t seen the vision or heard the voice
or otherwise met the Lord in such a dramatic way.
When someone we know undergoes what we call a “conversion experience”
sometimes we feel suspicious, sometimes puzzled, and maybe even jealous.
I wonder what Saul’s friends thought
when that Voice rumbled over the Damascus Road that day.
Saul was struck blind, and his friends were struck speechless!
I wish we knew more about what happened to his friends; but Luke focuses on Saul.
Saul is present at the martyrdom of Stephen.
Luke tells us that Saul approved of the stoning death of Stephen,
and that it was at Saul’s feet that witnesses laid their coats.
The most damaging words are in the third verse of Acts 8:
“But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house;
dragging off both men and women, he committed them to jail.”
Saul believes himself to be acting on behalf of the God of Israel
to rid the world of the followers of Jesus.
We can imagine the fire in his eyes as he enters a home, announces God’s judgment,
and physically ties up the occupants, hauling them off to jail.
When we come to the first verse of chapter 9,
Luke makes sure we have the picture:
Saul is still breathing threats and murder against disciples of Jesus.
He is the church’s number one enemy,
a man who thinks slaughter is the most effective way
to curb the growth of this sect of Jesus people.
Saul goes to the high priest for papers that would authorize a “seek and destroy” mission.
He recruits some strong armed helpers and sets out for Damascus,
eager to find anyone, even women, who belong to this group called “The Way.”
He’ll arrest them and drag them off to Jerusalem.
The only light in Saul is the zeal with which he rages against the church.
Until the God he thinks he is serving turns his world upside down and inside out...
as a sudden explosion of intense light surrounds the hunters,
and the sky, the road, every face is white with the blinding light of a thousand suns.
Knocked to the ground, unable to see anything, Saul hears a voice.
It calls him by name, “Saul, Saul.”
In days gone by, the voice had called,
But now, the voice says, Saul, Saul.
And then there is the question:
“Why do you persecute me?”
Do you hear the question Saul hears?
Not, “Why are you persecuting my people?”
but, “Why do you persecute me?”
You see, Jesus and his people are one now.
Inasmuch as you accuse them, berate them, push them around,
tie them up, and drag them away ...
you do it to Jesus.
Saul answers with a question of his own,
but he asks it as if he already knows the answer.
“Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus...get up...and go...”
Saul has new orders now, from the highest command,
and he has no alternative but to follow the orders he hears.
Eyes once filled with murderous zeal are dark now.
The man who breathed threats of slaughter has had the breath knocked out of him.
The man once so powerful and so feared is now helpless.
Once he gets to his feet, he doesn’t know which way to go,
and his speechless friends take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus.
He is entering the Kingdom of God as humble and dependent as a stumbling child.
He is as much as entombed for three days,
three days of darkness, hunger, and thirst.
Is he confused? Yes.
Is he converted? Not yet.
There is another conversion story that Luke must tell first.
We have no idea how Ananias first came to faith.
There is no record of how this man became a disciple,
or how this disciple got to be a leader in the Damascus church.
What Luke does tell us is that Ananias had a dream,
a vision that would upset his universe.
The Lord called him by name,
and he answered with the very familiar words,
“Here I am, Lord.”
And the Lord has familiar words for him.
“Get up and go...”
When the assignment is explained, Ananias balks.
Like other unwilling servants and prophets,
he resists the Lord’s call.
Imagine the absurdity of this scene.
Here is a disciple who is confronted by both vision and voice,
who recognizes that it is the Lord who is speaking,
and who has no trouble discerning the Lord’s will.
Yet, this disciple says, “Lord, you don’t know what you’re doing.
Let me tell you what I’ve heard about this man Saul.
He is bad news! “
Now, don’t you agree that this is our kind of disciple?
If we had the power to grant sainthood, wouldn’t Ananias be a great candidate?
Like so many of us, he says,
“Lord, I hear what you’re saying, but you’re wrong.
I know what you’re asking, but I guess you don’t.”
So much of what Jesus taught is so impractical here in the “real world.”
So much of what Jesus expects of us is so impossible here in the real world.
Blessed are the meek? Are you kidding?
Love your enemies? Feed all these people? Cast the nets here? Put away the sword?
The first will be last and the last first?
“When you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.
And you will be blessed.”
No, I won’t. I’ll be embarrassed…and broke!
Lord, I hear what you’re saying, and I’m sure you’re right, because you are the Lord.
But, you don’t know what you’re asking.
Or, maybe you don’t know whom you’re asking.
You’ve got the wrong person here.
Yes, Ananias is our kind of disciple.
Reluctant. Afraid. Half-hearted. Maybe even whiny.
But with enough chutzpah to tell the Lord where it’s at.
And the Lord, having heard the wisdom of Ananias,
responds, saying, “Go...”
Then, the Lord explains what Ananias apparently didn’t know.
And that is that the Lord is in charge, has a plan, and will work it out,
through Ananias, if he will just go and do as he is told.
Saul, it turns out, is the Lord’s vessel, the Lord’s instrument,
the Lord’s “way” of inviting Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel
to become followers of “The Way.”
Here is that more subtle conversion I was talking about.
No big flash of blinding light for Ananias.
Just a change of heart, a nod of acceptance, maybe just a deep breath, or a sigh.
The reluctant disciple is converted to a faithful servant with a key role to play.
And Luke says, “And Ananias went...”
And he did as he was told.
He laid eyes on the man who couldn’t see,
and laid his hands on Saul,
and called him “Brother.”
The enemy of the church is now a brother in the faith.
The man who breathed murderous threats is now filled with the Holy Breath of God.
The blind man (who has been metaphorically blind longer than a mere three days) now sees.
The persecutor of the baptized is now baptized himself.
He eats and regains his strength and for several days he is taught,
reoriented, born again.
An upsetting vision has set him right!
In the synagogue, he says the words that once deserved a death sentence:
Jesus is the Son of God!
That is now the creed of his new life.
So, there are the two conversion stories in this 9th chapter of Acts.
The subtle conversion of Ananias,
and the legendary Damascus Road conversion of Saul.
We don’t know anything more about Ananias after this.
But he played his crucial part in the drama of Saul’s conversion.
And in a way, I think of Ananias as the hero of this story,
even as he stands in the shadow of the story’s main character,
the archenemy of the church who became the author of much of its theology,
and the founder of many of its communities, the Apostle Paul.
For those of us born into the faith of the church,
I think it is the conversion of Ananias that speaks to our own need for rebirth.
Now and then, in flashes of insight or hearing old words that speak new meaning,
we experience a little resurrection of sorts, maybe just glimpse of new life,
or a fleeting reflection of the Kingdom of God.
We come to realize that God knows best!
Whether Saul’s vision or Ananias’
all encounters with God are God’s gifts,
not something we can engineer by wishing or yearning or praying.
Saul was knocked off his feet, suddenly and unexpectedly.
Ananias, I think, expected something, and opened himself to his assignment...eventually.
Either way, God approached in the light of the Risen Lord,
and that gift brought new life in Damascus and eventually throughout the world.
Every day, then, keep open to the possibility that
no matter how perfect or how flawed your life,
God may break into your day with some new, life-changing truth.
And that will be only the beginning of your new life.
In a little book of essays by William Barclay,
he speaks of what he calls the “threefold conversion.”
The first step is for people to be convinced of the wonder of Jesus Christ,
and to know that Jesus Christ can do for us
what we can never hope to do for ourselves.
“The second step in conversion is the conviction that this experience
brings both the privilege and the responsibility
of becoming a member of the fellowship of people who have had the same experience,
and who share the same belief.” [Barclay, In the Hands of God, p. 39]
Thus we are converted from being alone in faith
to oneness in the Body of Christ, the Church.
The third conversion is to loving, caring action in the world.
As Barclay says,
“The Church must never be in any sense a little huddle of pious people,
shutting the doors against the world,
lost in prayer and praise, connoisseurs of preaching and liturgy,
busy mutually congratulating themselves on the excellence of their Christian experience.”
Our conversion, our new life,
is expressed through as a great love for others, as we have for Jesus Christ.
Our new life is not for ourselves alone,
but for all whose lives we can touch with the love of God in Christ.
And that is why, when we do see the vision or hear the voice
or simply understand in a new way that God is in the process
of transforming us as God did Saul,
or changing our minds as God did for Ananias,
... that is why God will then say to us,
“Get up, and go...”
There are sheep to be fed.
There is peace to be made...
love to be affirmed.
The world to be turned upside down, upset and set right.
Get up. Go.
Trust that God has a plan and will carry it out...through you!