"A Converting Question"

You know the story of Saul’s dramatic conversion: one minute he is on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way, the next he is on the ground and the Risen Lord is rebuking him. He converts on the spot and spends the rest of his life as a missionary to the Gentiles!

The disciples examine the fresh wounds on Jesus's body after the resurrection

​Acts 9:1-20

May 1, 2022

Dr. Todd R. Wright You know the story of Saul’s dramatic conversion: one minute he is on his way to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way, the next he is on the ground and the Risen Lord is rebuking him.

He converts on the spot and spends the rest of his life as a missionary to the Gentiles!

 

It is a streamlined, simplified version of conversion… and I think it does us a disservice. To get at why, let me ask three questions: First, is this really the conversion experience we ought to expect and aspire to? Probably not. I know that certain types of Christianity expect you to be able to name the exact moment when you became a Christian and to point to how your life has changed from sinful to redeemed in an echo of this story, but many Christians are more like Ananias. They know the stories of God’s mighty deeds. They recognize God’s voice. They feel comfortable talking with God. They go, even when they doubt. They have grown into their faith. They couldn’t tell you when it happened. Who can say when a bud becomes a flower?[1] Even Saul’s conversion wasn’t as instant as we are often led to believe. Luke tells us that Saul waited for three days, fasting and praying, and being prepared. The poem, “Ananias of Damascus,” makes the connection to resurrection clear: “How like a dying child you look, your stomach caved in from fasting, lips blistered with fevered prayer. But I do as I am told. I lay my fingertips on your lids, and your eyes rumble like stones rolling from the grave. Brother, something like the scales of a struggling fish is scattering at my feet.”[2] And of course, resurrection is something no one should brag about. It is God’s doing! So let yourself off the hook. God is the gardener and brings faith to bloom in season. Second, is this really more of a calling story than a conversion? There are strong parallels between this story and Moses’ experience of the burning bush: Both are interrupted on the way, by an unusual appearance by the divine. Both are called by name, twice. God knows who they are. God seeks them out specifically. Both are introduced to a God who cares deeply about those who are suffering and commissioned to do something about it! That sounds like a call story to me! But let’s be clear, whether converted or called, Saul is an instrument that God chooses, the right tool for the job of bringing the message to kings and Gentiles – to the self-sufficient and the outsiders – those who think they don’t need God’s grace. That is God’s work and our divine gift. Third, is conversion an individual experience – involving just the person and God? In the streamlined version, Paul is alone. But Luke tells us that there were men with him when he was struck down, that he had to be led by them into the city, where he waited. Beth Scibienski wonders about them. What did they think happened to him? They had three days to muse about life with a blind leader. Did they think he would recover and continue with his mission? Or did they worry that he was finished, and they should look for another?[3] He was not alone. They looked after him. They kept him safe. I’ll bet they prayed for him. After three days, Ananias, a follower of Christ, living in Damascus, went and welcomed him as a brother. He laid hands on him, healed him from his blindness, and baptized him. Saul did not navigate the process alone. God used Ananias to embrace and bless him. God put a human face on his enemies and showed him an embodiment of their courage, and faith, and love. Most of us could name the people who have been Ananias for us.

 

So why does Luke tell us this story? And why do we need to hear it? That takes me back to my earlier gripe with the simplified version of the story: If conversion can only look like Saul’s, we dismiss people with a faith story like Ananias. If conversion is only about getting your soul right, we fail to ask what God wants us do after. If conversion is a magic trick on a one-person stage, we ignore all the people God works through. Those are all fatal flaws in any retelling of this story. So let’s tell the full story, as Luke does, and let that form our faith as community. Amen

[1] This metaphor is from “Saving Saul” a reflection on the text by Heidi Peterson for The Christian Century, 4/11/01 [2] By Tania Runyan [3] From her sermon, “Not just Saul’s story” 4/9/13
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