Engage in ongoing conversion

The Rev Cynthia KR Banks; Easter 3—Year C; Acts 9:1-6, (7-20); Psalm 30; Revelation 5:11-14; John 21:1-19

So, instead of preaching today, I’d like to have each of you stand up, individually, and share your conversion story. That’s right, you get to share your conversion experience, but before we start, I just want to check-in, how are you feeling right now?

Now, I’d imagine that a few of you could actually get excited about this exercise, but I am guessing that most of you are thinking, “She’s lost her mind.” “There’s no way.” “Episcopalians don’t talk that way.” Nothing can strike more fear in an Episcopalian’s heart than being pressed to speak of their conversion.

OK. Breathe. I’m not really going to ask you to share your conversion story this morning, but why do a lot of us freak out at the prospect of doing just that?

Well, some of it has to do with how we understand conversion. Some of us get nervous because we can’t point to a specific moment, a specific experience where everything changed. I think it was William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience that first introduced me to the concept of “ongoing conversion,” that conversion isn’t a one-time event but is a lifelong process. When I learned that, it was an “ah ha” moment for me—that made sense to me because, at that point, I hadn’t had a sudden experience that changed me, but it had been a slow steady process of transformation—the kind of thing where you can look back and realize that you were once here and now you are here. That’s how conversion happens for a lot of us.

This is one way of broadening our understanding of conversion, but there are some other ways we need to rethink it too, and three characters from our scriptures this morning are our guides.

First, Saul. Saul of Tarsus. Persecutor of those early followers of Jesus. He was on his way to Damascus to round up some more people of the Way when boom, flash of light, Saul falls to the ground, struck blind. He has a profound conversation with the Risen Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Lord, who are you?” “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Pretty dramatic stuff. I think a lot of us can’t articulate our conversion experiences because this is what we think conversion is—sudden, dramatic, flash of light, struck blind, total life change.

Saul goes on to Damascus where he waits for three days until he is visited by Ananias who restores his sight and baptizes him. His conversion was so profound, his name even changes to Paul, and the rest of the story is history.

But let’s go a little deeper. It wasn’t just a conversion to Christ for Saul; it was a conversion to “the other. He was persecuting people. Saul saw those followers of Jesus as a threatening “other,” not as brothers and sisters. And any time we see another as completely “other, we can do profoundly awful things to them. Saul’s conversion was to see how deeply related he was to these very people he hated. And when Jesus made known that kinship, Saul couldn’t persecute them anymore. Saul’s conversion enabled him to get reconnected to the whole.

Have you ever persecuted another? Maybe not as dramatically as Saul, but have you ever dismissed another because you have somehow framed them as “other” in your mind? And have you ever had a conversion experience that gave you pause, that helped the scales fall from your eyes and see that “other” as a brother or sister? If you are open to it, this can be a profound experience of conversion.

Or Peter. Wow. Peter. Now Peter is a follower of Jesus, so his conversion isn’t about his belief in Jesus. His conversion is about his belief in himself. He was deeply converted to Jesus through having followed him for three years. But, as we well know after Holy Week, he denied what he knew three times. Can you imagine how truly awful he must have felt? And he’d encountered Jesus a few times since that first day of the week, but he was still all bound up—guilt and shame, they do horrible things a person. He goes back to the one place where he understood how everything worked—fishing—he knew how to do that, and when nothing else makes sense, that’s usually what we do. But it wasn’t the same. He’d lost the touch. That is, until the Abundant One called him back to life. And with incredible elegance, Jesus gave Peter three chances to profess the love he had three times denied. Jesus’ overflowing love and forgiveness made the scales fall from Peter’s eyes. Peter’s conversion was about getting reconnected to himself—shedding his guilt and shame and touching once again his first love.

Have you ever blown it in a tragic way, in a relationship, in a violation of your own integrity, in a forgetting of your first and deepest love? And have you ever had the grace of a profound experience of reconciliation or forgiveness or a finding again of that love or passion that you had lost? This, too, is conversion of a most profound nature.

And then there is Ananias. He, too, is already a follower of Jesus, so his conversion is also not about belief. His challenge is resistance. The Risen Lord wants him to go visit Saul. What?! Ananias knew Saul oversaw the stoning of people like him. And Jesus wants him to go to Saul and heal him? Ananias had Saul in a box, had him figured out, defined and labeled and with good evidence to back up his assessment of this man. He’s actually not too much different than Saul—he saw Saul as totally “other”—Jesus helped him see that Saul was brother. Isn’t it interesting how it doesn’t seem to matter what side we stand on—we can still box in the other, and Jesus is always reconnecting us to each other, showing us our kinship when all we can see are our sharp edges and differences, labels and definitions, that box us in.

Ananias’ conversion is about overcoming his resistance and releasing his certainty about who Saul was. Ananias has to allow for the possibility that even a man like Saul can change.

Have you ever defined someone right into a box, imprisoned another by your assessment of who you thought they were? And then, have you grabbed an opportunity, maybe not of your own choosing, to encounter them in a whole new way? Again, Ananias got reconnected to the whole when he found room to heal his enemy. The scales didn’t just fall from Saul’s eyes that day, but they also fell from Ananias’.

If today is any indication, conversion is much more about how we get reconnected when we have been rent asunder, from ourselves, from each other, from God, than it is about professing our belief. It’s not that belief is unimportant; it’s just that it is the fruit of transformation, not its source.

Our deepest conversion happens when we get reconnected to the whole. This is the conversion that Jesus lives for, this is the conversion that Jesus died for. This is the conversion that Jesus rose for, this is the conversion that changes our lives, this is the conversion that makes us, and the world, whole. Amen.

The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
April 14, 2013