Thursday, May 2, 2019

One Story, Two Conversions

Much is made of the story of Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus recorded in Acts 9. Ever since, preachers have made a big deal about the one who persecuted the church becoming the chief apostle to the Gentiles. And they are right to do so. Even Paul himself wrote about the life-changing moment in several of his letters, emphasizing that his conversion was a pattern for others. On Sunday, we will hear at least part of Paul's conversion story, and those congregations in which the optional longer reading is heard will have a chance to see a second, perhaps even more interesting conversion--that of Ananias.

In the appointed passage from Acts, we read about Ananias, the disciple of Jesus who lived in Damascus. The Lord appeared to him in a vision and told him to go and find Saul of Tarsus and lay hands on him that his sight might be restored. But Ananias hesitated: "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." In other words, Saul was famous--infamous among the disciples of Jesus. Saul was known as the arch-enemy of Christ. He was responsible for arresting Christians and consenting to their executions. He was not only an enemy of the Way but represented and embodied everything that threatened those who followed Jesus. And God had chosen him "to bring [God's] name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel." And God had chosen Ananias to believe in that otherwise impossible reversal.

Of course, Ananias did what God asked him to do, but I think we undervalue the commitment to faith that he represents. He knew that Saul was a cold-blooded religious fanatic who took pleasure in killing Christians, yet, at God's command, he sought him out in order to bring God's saving work to him. He risked his life because he knew the power of God's salvation in Jesus Christ. He trusted that God's new life was possible even in Saul, the one who most fully represented a threat to that life.

What does it mean for us to be so filled with faith--with confidence in God's saving work--that we see within others that same possibility? What happens when we, like Ananias, recognize within our enemies the potential for salvation? How might the reign of God come even to places where it is hardest to imagine because those who follow Jesus trust that, in God, all things are possible? In the Episcopal Church, we don't talk much about conversions. For the most part, we trust that God's love is bigger even than a moment when the realization of that love hits us in what could be described as a conversion moment. But God is in the conversion business. God is changing death to life, lost to found, hopeless to hopeful, enemy to friend. Those who follow Jesus are the ones who can see it. Are we the ones who, like Ananias, see the possibility of that transformation unfolding even among the people and places we find least likely to receive God's love?

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