Life Together.4-Conversion

by admin on May 24, 2011

Reflection for 22 May 2011
Acts 9:1-20

When it came to religion I took the traditional mainline Protestant option—which was to sit in your assigned seat on Sundays and not give it any serious thought. Then one fall evening during my freshman year in that small conservative evangelical college I got religion real good. Went to a youth rally and got saved. You know, stood up, went forward, cried my eyes out, felt exhilarated, came home and told my parents who were immediately concerned I had gone off the deep end.

That moment was just the beginning as I went forward at least a dozen times of more in those four year all hoping that the experience would last or that it would finally take hold.

Conversion. When does it happen? Does everyone need it? Is there really such a thing? I believe that we ignore conversion at the peril of losing the essence of church. Too much mainline Protestantism focuses not on conversion but on accommodation, adjustment, the quiet admonition as C.S. Lewis once said: mild mannered people exhorting mild mannered people to be more mild mannered. (He was calling out preachers on that one)

Change, turning, conversion is the Christian lifestyle. It’s what Jesus invites people to do. When St. Luke was writing to his buddy Theophilus, presenting him with both his gospel story and the book of Acts he was giving his friend stories of just that, all with the hope of a new heaven and new earth. This morning let’s talk about the most notorious conversion of all.

A new section of Acts opens with this story: the call of Saul/St. Paul. He will emerge as the central character in the rest of Acts. He becomes the apostle to the Gentiles and carries Jesus message to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).

So we have the transformation of persecutor to apostle; from detested enemy to a brother in Christ. There are many similarities to other “call stories” in the Bible—Jeremiah and Isaiah come to mind; Luke recalls this conversion twice more in Acts in two of Paul’s speeches. (22:1-16; 26:9-18).

Vv1-2 There is precedent for letters of extradition in Judaism, as per Maccabees, but we don’t know if that applied to Diaspora Jews, specifically to those who had joined up the Jesus movement. But Paul was acting on legal precedence: seek and destroy the Christians.

“The Way”—earliest self designation of the Jesus movement; also what the members of Qumran community called themselves. It recalls John the Baptist’s preaching: prepare the way of the Lord. We will talk more about this later.

Vv4-5 Saul was Israel’s first king. Flannery O’Connor: “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.” No other passage in Act known better than this story, yet no more misunderstood and really not read closely – no horse! What’s happened is this becomes the paradigm for evangelical conversions. Paul never describes it either.

Why are you persecuting me? Who is speaking? That kind of formal address—Lord—will soon have life altering significance.

V7 Saul’s buddies don’t get it: they hear but do not see. This points to the individual and personal dealings of God with a convert.
V8 Blindness is symbolic of inability to perceive Jesus himself.
V10 Ananias—more about him in a bit.
V13 Saints: used of believing community; frequently by Paul
V15 he will be my chosen instrument—clay pot; linked to suffering and death for the sake of my name—the gospel.
V19-22 Saul’s initial proclamation: Jesus Son of God and Messiah, He meets with same mixed reaction as Jesus in Luke 4. This is first time “Son of God” is used in Acts. It is the early Christian message expressing Jesus unique relationship with Father, and in which disciples share. This is significant—it’s really what Paul said about Christian life of discipleship. Not information, but a way of life. Way more about that later, too.

Then Saul’s story breaks off for a reprise of Peter’s conversion. Which is really the larger context here: the so what?

1) Why this story here? Larger context is movement of and significance of conversion. Acts 2—Peter’s Pentecostal preaching; Lord adding daily to the number; Acts 8—Ethiopian eunuch; here is Saul’s story, followed by dramatic shift in Peter’s attitude in following chapter. Not until 11:25-26 do we even hear about Saul’s earnest mission once he’s got his paper all signed and sealed. NB with each subsequent “conversion” story the details become more dramatic as the Jesus movement expands further from the Jerusalem nucleus.

Saul’s introduction is at Acts 7:58 where he watches and approves of Stephen’s martyrdom. He is casted as a violent, active, resourceful persecutor of the young Jesus community. Luke is setting the stage for this story—the conversion of the bottom of the barrel notorious guy.

What does this story NOT tell us? Details about Saul’s inner psychological struggle. All speculation is conjecture. As the plot thickens here we know that as St. Stephen dies he cries out in prayer: Lord, Do not hold this against them. So the question now emerges: how does the Jesus movement (aka church) deal with its enemies? How do you deal with yours?

2) One thing church does not do: act according to labels. Four scenes answer this.

One. Saul takes initiative in search/destroy he is enemy.

Two. En route there is great disruption. Into the middle of his personal mission comes the question: why persecute me. NB this action into the middle of your plans, mission, your decided upon path…there comes a life turning question. That’s usually the way Jesus works: questions. (I think we will have a message series on that this summer)

Double vocative ensues—Saul, Saul. Persecute: Paul’s hallmark: nearly every occurrence of the word in Acts is associated with Paul! The nature of this change happening is striking: Saul is helpless.

Three. Ananias. Here am I another scene from Biblical call story: Samuel, Isaiah, Jeremiah. He does what anyone would do: object. The voice does not argue but commands. This enemy will become “my instrument.” The call of Saul is not just to believe something but to become a chosen instrument who will carry my name.

Four. Ananias does as told. Shift from “this man” to “brother Saul.” Alien becomes part of the family.

3) I’ve said that this story has become a paradigm, a model, almost an insistence that everyone must have some Damascus Road experience, like fall off your horse. We look only to Saul for that, but this story has wider implications than that. Here are three wider implications:

• Conversion is what Christ does. Saul joins the other reprobates chosen by God.
• Conversion is a journey from self-confident independence to child-like dependence. The one who is Mr. Know it all, now knows nothing he has to be led by the hand. It is progress by regression. Conversions are stories about beginnings and vocations. Anyone who thinks it’s religious graduation is to be run away from. There are no spiritual high achievers in the Jesus movement.
• Ananias is the hero here: he is converted, too. And that means to be open to God’s surprising activity of transforming enemies into friends and even co-workers.

Here at Nova we always save the best till last. Now What is our way to tease out a Bible text with implications. If we are not interested in real conversion but accommodation instead we don’t bother with this idea. We are not interested in accumulating knowledge and information about God and Jesus to fill up a notebook and put it kindly on some shelf. How is this business about conversion going to be lived out today, this week, in the weeks to come? —given that Harold Camping missed this one.

1) Verse 17 on the road by which you came. Perhaps Luke really means: on the road by which you were coming and will continue to travel. It is a direct recall of verse 2: the early followers of Jesus were called “The Way.” On the way to do in the followers of The Way, Saul was turned around and set on a new way himself.

The Way. Religion as a whole regards converts as pilgrims, wayfarers, embarked on journey towards a new plane of existence.

(Think of literature from this vista: Pilgrim’s Progress, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek)

Zen Tao, Hebrew halakhah (rule, literally: the going) depict spiritual life as eventful path toward Truth. This is the heart and soul of Nova’s mission. Toward the Truth a new place where we could not go without God’s call and leading. That Truth place is filled with knowledge of miracles, astonishments, surprises. What’s your journey on the way look like?

2) We can notice steps of the conversion process.
• Detachment from former patterns of identity. Sounds like “repent” to me. Abandon your attachments. What might they look like? This entails more than sitting in a church meeting.
• Time of meaninglessness; rootlessness and confusion.
• Dramatic transition from darkness to light, from chaos into meaning. Not all of a sudden but a gradual dawning.
• Faith community supports and accepts the initiate into life together. Conversion is not individualistic attainment or personal possession. Conversion moves one into the care and nurture of a body of believers.

Dallas Willard’s advice to new believers: do the next right thing you know to do. This will always mean being around people who will help you figures that out!

NB. No one every graduates. No one is ever immune from divine surprises. Conversion never stops; the community is always and constantly being converted.

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