Acts 9:1-20, John 21:1-19
A woman sits quietly at the back of a church. She’s come a few times before. Her heart and spirit are agitated. She fights back tears for a while, then gives in to them and lets them run down her cheeks. Maybe she feels loved for the first time. Maybe what she’s hearing at last makes spiritual sense. Maybe she feels forgiven. Maybe she feels she can forgive herself. When the pastor later invites forward all people who want to commit themselves to Christ, she comes down the aisle, trembling inside.
A man is watching a televangelist on TV. He’s sitting in his living room; the hour is late. He has health problems, but the TV preacher is saying that they will go away if he just accepts Jesus into his heart. He’s been a churchgoer all his life, but something about the man in the suit on the TV makes him wonder if the instant healing he would like might truly be possible. “Put your hands on the TV screen,” the televangelist says. Glad that no one can see him, the man bashfully gets up from his couch, kneels before the flickering screen, puts his hands on it, and then he feels it—a surge of spiritual power. He’s never felt anything like it. “This must be what it feels like to really believe,” he thinks. “This is what I’ve been missing. I became a Christian today.”
A young man hikes up a trail to a beautiful view of the Appalachian Mountains spread out all around him. He sits to rest and to enjoy the vista. He’s worked hard in recent months to make sense of his life, to understand some painful losses, to find meaning in a friend’s death, and to discern his professional path. He’s been lonely in it all. The morning is cool and bright. Patches of fog have yet to burn off in some of the hollows below. The scent of the evergreens around him is beautiful and pungent. His heart starts to tingle; all his senses come alive. He is present on that rock by the hiking trail and yet he is not. His spirit is on fire. His mind is ricocheting forward. He suddenly feels that he understands everything. He suddenly understands what to do with his life and how to live it. He has no details for it, but he knows. And he knows down to the depths of his soul that all will be well, that God is, that God is love, and that God is in charge. “It’s about God and not me!” he says aloud. “It’s about letting Christ into my heart!” After some time, he descends the hiking trail to his car. He feels that he is a very different person from the man who walked up.
A man of faith and practice, an authority, one who has committed himself to bold public acts in defense of that faith, is making a business trip. He’s halfway to his destination when a blinding flash of light literally knocks him to the ground. “Who calls out?” he asks -- who would do this to him? —and the voice that answers says “I am Jesus.” He is physically and spiritually disoriented for a few days, he’s stumbling and mumbling about, but then with the help of another man he decides to believe in Jesus, be baptized, and join the small community of his followers.
This man’s conversion, included in the Holy Bible and so revered by us, well known to us, has become something of a template for us for what conversion ought to be like. It is instantaneous. It is definite—it is a moment we can point to in our lives, whether in church, in front of the TV, on a hike, before which there was one period in our lives and after which there is a very different one. Numerous churches encourage their members to identify just such a conversion episode, and if they can not, to seek one out eagerly. It can be intimidating to those, like me, who grew up in the church, can perhaps identify periods of special religious fervor or growth (for me at the ages of about 14 and 23), but have never had a “falling off the horse” moment. (The Bible, incidentally, doesn’t say that Paul was on a horse.) Is our faith less authentic if it has percolated slowly but naturally from childhood onward? “Have you been born again?”- a woman in my church during high school used to like to ask me and anyone. Without being flip I wanted to say to her, “Well, it took the first time. I drew my first breath on July 1, 1962, and I’ve been moving forward ever since.” I knew what she was asking, of course, I just wasn’t able to articulate that, thanks be to God, I was quietly and regularly renewed by the Spirit, sustained, claimed by Christ, re-educated, and redirected, and it was gift enough for me.
One biblical scholar has written helpfully of various characteristics in New Testament accounts of conversion. For my own (perhaps selfish) purposes, I’m glad for the reminder that for every divine flash before Paul, and before the apostles at Pentecost, and for the blind Bartimaeus there’s a Peter, someone who comes to faith not in a “bam!” moment but gradually, and with many stumbles along the way. He “arrives at last”, if you will, in our gospel passage from John. He knows, and he will never forget, that Jesus is Lord. In a short time he will die for that faith. If you are someone who has been part of following Jesus from the beginning—your beginning, if you have sometimes understood him well and sometimes been mystified, if you have had lapses of faith and done things you regret to promote or save yourself, if you just keep coming back to learn more and understand better, if you are a work in progress, Peter is your man.
In every conversion account in the New Testament, conversion is portrayed as a turning, and never the end of the story. It can be a dramatic turn or a gentle one. It is a redirection, a launching into a new direction. The conversion is only part of the story. What’s really important is what comes next. It’s the sharing of the gospel, the good news. It’s the testifying and witnessing to God’s new kingdom—the new heavens and new earth. It’s bold prophesying and work for justice. Simply experiencing conversion is not the point, and it’s not enough. Have you come to faith? Great. What are you going to do with it? Conversion accounts in the New Testament are about beginnings and about vocation. It may not mean an actual change of job or profession, but it always means a change of calling and purpose in it.
And like Peter, even Paul and those with extraordinary interventions by Christ, the Spirit, or God remain in a process of conversion. They may not falter at all in their new faith, but it’s never a closed book, never a done deal, only a newly-planted sapling. And always, conversion is about what Goddoes. People may be unsuspecting, or people (like Peter) may be doing their humble best to be faithful, yet it is God who effects the conversion of the heart. If you’ve ever tried, you know you can’t manufacture faith, force epiphanies, or make the Holy Spirit come to you. We can, however, be open and willing to receive God. Saul got the kind of dramatic intervention he required in order to believe. For those of us who seek faith, our only job is to be open and vulnerable to receiving it.
I’ve been thinking of a variety of conversions this week. There is the purely religious conversion of which I’ve been speaking. There are others that issue forth from whatever faith we have. The anniversary of the Virginia Tech killings this past week prompted me to reflect on our deep need for conversion from our violence. We will not address the violence within and among us without a truly spiritual conversion, I believe. We who are Christian need to examine ourselves—our consciences, our faith, our priorities. We need to examine scripture and the lives of the saints—the canonized saints but also those many humble folks who have gone before and risked their very lives to end, or to present a living alternative to, violence, who have said no. We need to examine the spirituality of the worth we ascribe to other people so that we can not violate them. We need to become new people. In this way, we do need to be born again. Violence will not end until we have spiritually undergone conversion.
Similarly, the same is true with our relationship with the environment. Next Thursday happens to be Earth Day. All this next week the various ecologically-focused groups on campus will present events to spur people’s attention and efforts towards sustainability, towards more thoughtful energy use and more environmentally healthy energy sources. Action for the environment is sometimes derided as a hobby for privileged people, people who have no more pressing concerns than worrying about flower beds and tree cover and whether the Japanese have a taste for whale meat. Of course environmental activism is equally about the health of human communities—about the rising sea levels that threaten to turn hundreds of millions of people into refugees, the poison in the air and soil and water that’s poisoning human beings, and the climate change that threatens the basic food supply of the world’s already most vulnerable people. For some people, these arguments for justice for humans is enough to prompt participation, but not for all. I’ve come to think that, on every level of engagement, a spiritual conversion in how we relate to the environment is the only thing that will prompt lasting change. Those who understand humanity as the crown of creation need to be converted to knowing themselves as part of creation. Those who relish the idea of humanity’s having “dominion” over the rest of the created order need to experience the conversion that teaches them that domination over any living entity or community or group is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We need to revisit and revision our understanding of what it means for humanity to thrive within the natural world and not at its expense. Beyond our intellectual and emotional capabilities it is conversion on the spiritual level that is our only hope of ending our violence and our environmental degradation.
Let me end where I began, with stories of conversion. A woman is sitting in church, and as she reflects on the crucifixion of Jesus her heart starts to thump. She gets it. We are called to radically non-violent ways of living. Jesus died to show her what true love is, what it endures, so that no one’s body, mind, or spirit would be violated again. She leaves the church transformed.
A man is watching TV. People are being gunned down in the movies. He changes the channel. Blood-stained sidewalks in Kabul are being shown on the news. He changes the channel. A detective is trying to solve the case of a serial killer on a popular network show. He reaches out and touches the TV with both hands. His heart begins to tingle and he feels a surge of power. He lowers one hand and with it he turns off the TV. He gets it. This is not the way we should be treating one another. God must be weeping, he thinks, at the way we violate the priceless members of the human family. He sits back on the couch transformed.
A man has hiked up a trail to a lovely vista. There is much of life’s challenges and stresses on his mind. As he looks out over the low mountains and valleys he gets it. He realizes his oneness with all that God has made. He feels not smaller, not diminished, only more cherished. He knows better both who he is in the cosmos and whose he is. He knows himself to be part of a story so much greater than his own, a part of a plan for the salvation of all creation, a story as big as the heavens. He descends the trail converted, ready to play his own part in ensuring the flourishing of all things in the natural world, so that indeed, allmay flourish.
William H. Williman, Acts, Interpretation Series, Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988.