Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Our Conversion!

Today our reading from Acts is about the most famous conversion in the history of the church.
I must admit that I am generally uncomfortable with conversion.
The reasons are threefold.
First, I have been friends with people of just about every type of religion.
I have been friends with Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists, and Hindus.
I have never seen a reason to try and convert them.
It seems that they have a faith that suits them well a faith that works for them.
Who am I to tamper with that faith, or to insist that my faith would be better for them?
Second, conversion seems too small for God.
If all it is about is a onetime event when you suddenly realize that you have been wrong about something.
God to me is always at work in us.
God is always up to something, and we need to constantly pay attention to what God is doing.
Third, conversion seems to say that we need to make some kind of decision for not just God but the right kind of god.
I don’t think that I ever made some kind of conscious decision to be a Christian.
So this morning I would like for us to talk about conversion through the experience of Saul who became Paul.

The first thing to notice is that Saul is not switching to a new religion.
At this point in Acts all the people who call Jesus Messiah are Jews.
They continue to maintain all the Jewish laws; they are still following the prescribed Leviticus laws of kosher food.
All of Jesus followers continue to insist on circumcision as necessary for inclusion in the community.
In fact, at this point in Acts the followers of Jesus are not even called Christians they are simply called people of “the way”.
Saul’s real conversion is his misunderstanding that his mission in life is to persecute Jesus’ followers.
He comes to see Jesus as a rightful heir of the messianic promise in the Old Testament.
Saul’s revelation is that Jesus and he are on the same side.
Even more than this is that this story is also the conversion story of Ananis.
It is Ananis who needs to be converted to see that God can use even a scoundrel like Saul for God’s purposes.

From this angle Acts suggests that all of us are in a constant state of conversion, that those of us who grew up Christian need to see that God works through the unlikely of characters.
From this view point everyone is in need of conversion not just the ungodly or those who happen to be a different religion than we are.

Second, God’s purpose here is not merely to get Saul to join some new religion.
Instead, God is calling Saul to higher purpose.
“He will see how much he needs to suffer for the sake of my name.”
Jesus is asking Saul to follow him, and in the following Jesus will use Saul for a greater purpose.
Part of Saul’s problem was that he was following God in the wrong way.
It wasn’t worth his skills to be going around trying to kill followers of the way.
What was better was that he too became a follower of the way.
That is what God desires for all people regardless of religious affiliation is that we all become followers of the way.
God desires that our righteousness comes to exceed that of the Pharisees.
God wants us to become zealots for God’s kingdom of mercy, love, peace, and justice.
So this is not so much a conversion story as a call story so that Saul can become who God made him to be St. Paul.

Thirdly, notice that Saul has no say in the matter.
It is not like Saul had some sudden notion that what he was doing was wrong; Jesus had to appear to him for him to realize it.
In fact, Saul is on his way to find and persecute people of the way before God intervenes.
The same is true for Ananis who has no idea that God is about to invite one of his enemies to join him.
The people in this story are complacent in what happens to them.
Instead Jesus and the Holy Spirit make everything happen.
They are the ones that convert Saul into Paul.
They are the ones that tell Ananis that he should great Saul as a brother.

What does all this mean for us?
It means that we are to be a people on the way.
We are to people of the way.
We are to be followers of Jesus Christ.
And we leave the converting up to God.
In fact, instead of spending our time worrying about converting others into Christians, we should be on the lookout for the ways that we, like Ananis, need converting.
We should be on the lookout for the ways in which Jesus and the Holy Spirit are calling us to a higher purpose.
What are the pre judgments we make about people that keeps them from being welcomed among us as our brother or sister.

In the book of Acts people are being converted all the time.
But those conversions are always a two way street.
Both the person coming to understand Jesus as messiah and the church are constantly being mutually converted.
The Church would never look like it does now if not for those conversions.
The earlier followers of Jesus did not want to let Gentiles into the community because they did not follow the right dietary laws and were not circumcised.
That means that none of us would be here this morning if the early church did not go through that conversion.
We also know from Acts that the conversion was painful.
It did not go easy.
People who had grown up believing their whole life that God’s chosen people acted a certain way had trouble letting go of that to live in the new way Jesus Christ had brought.

I was thinking about my own faith journey.
I grew up my whole life as a Christian.
I was born into a Christian household.
I was baptized, confirmed, married, and I will die a Christian.
Not only that by my whole life I have been a Christian Lutheran.
I have learned about other faiths, other theologies.
And the thing is that for me every time I hear what Christian Lutherans believe I just feel at home.
I couldn’t imagine being something else, because this makes the most sense.
But what comes first for any of us.
Do I believe this because that is what I was raised?
Or do I believe it because this is the truth?
Perhaps it is a little of both.
But what I know for sure this morning is that none of it was my decision.
It was God through Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit that brings me to this point in my faith life.
And I know that I need constant conversion so that I may be able to widen the net of those that I call brother and sister, and so I may be constantly renewed in my faith.

I know lots of people that grew up their whole lives Christian who walked away from the Church because it was too narrow for them.
They thought of Christian as too small minded.
They too need a conversion to see that the Church is always too small minded, but thanks be to God that we are still on our way to a higher calling.
The Church’s story is one of constant conversion.

I know people that walked away from the Church for a long time in their lives.
But something brought them back.
Some event that happened that made them see their need again.
I knew a man who hadn’t been in Church for twenty-five years.
But then his mom died and he saw again his need for a spiritual foundation.
His story is a story of conversion equal to Paul’s.

I know people that get upset with others at Church and leave.
But then learn to forgive and come back.
That too is a conversion.
You see conversions happen all the time.
In some ways we are all on the road to Damascus.
We are all persecuting each other, and we need the blinding light of Jesus Christ to stop us and call us to our higher calling.
We all leave the street called straight for the crooked and narrow, and need to be called back to welcome in the brother/sister that we can’t imagine God has called too.

I pray today for your conversion.
That you may be on your way to following Jesus and welcoming even your enemy.
So that we all may be converted and be on the way.

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