Conversion: Peter or Paul?
In our first lesson for the day (Acts 9:1-20), we read about Paul’s encounter with the risen Lord and his response, and in the Gospel of John (21:1-19), we read a little about Peter’s response. In this one Sunday, we see the breadth of options and possibilities, and it is the very breadth of experience that is talked about that gives me hope. What do I mean by that?
Let’s look at the stories more closely, starting with Peter. Peter is a strong man, emotionally and certainly physically, but not always mentally. The number of times that he misses the point that Jesus is trying to make is staggering, considering that Jesus seems to have picked him to be a leader in this new group. He is not the disciple that Jesus loved, that is John. But still, wouldn’t you think that Jesus would pick someone who really understood what Jesus was trying to teach? Peter does not, and we do not, and there is the hope for me. In spite of all of the times that Peter misses the boat, including denying that he even knows Jesus when it becomes politically unwise to admit to that, in spite of all of that, Peter ends up preaching the good news in Jerusalem. When the equivalent of the Supreme Court hauls him up to ask him what the heck he thinks he is doing, he does not have a hot-shot lawyer there working to get him a reduced sentence, he boldly uses their authority against them. “We must follow the dictates of God, not men.” Which, of course, they have to agree with, except when they are the ones who think the dictates are just fine!
Another thing about Peter, his “conversion” was slow in the making. He spent lots of time with Jesus, and even so, it was not until he really encounters the risen Lord that he moves from being a follower of Jesus to being a firebrand on the streets. For those of us who grew up in Christian households, this is again hopeful. When I was growing up, the conversion of Paul was held up as the model. I didn’t have an experience like this, so I always felt not quite real. I didn’t hear about “conversion” as it related to Peter and how that might be a different model to follow.
So let us go look at the conversion of Paul. There are several important pieces in this story. First off, it is very important that we remember that Saul, which was his Jewish name (and remember, everyone had more than one name, it’s just like having a Japanese name and an English name), Saul was a very religious Jew. He took his religion very, very seriously. We might say he was a religious nut. Unlike Peter, who was also a religious Jew, Saul was highly educated, and could read and write in several languages, and unlike Peter, he was wealthy.
Saul could see the danger of this new sect and what it could do to Judaism. So, he did what he could. He went after followers of the Way and turned them in to the authorities to be punished. He was on one of these journeys when he got knocked down. Because he was well versed in things religious, he knew that when something that you cannot see that is strong enough to knock a man down, it has to do with God or angels, and that you’d better pay attention, now! So he does, in the same way that we would suddenly use the word “sir” to address someone that we are acknowledging is a higher rank than we are. He asks: “Who are you and what do you want, Sir!”
He receives the terrifying answer: “I am Jesus, (only it would have been said Yeshua) the one whom you are persecuting.”
Can we only imagine the internal panic? Everything that Saul had based his life on had just been turned upside down, the ground had just been turned to jelly, nothing that he had known was certain was for sure any more. He did not get back up on his horse. He could not see, both physically and metaphorically. He allowed himself to be led into town by the hand, like one leads a child. Now, because he had been well trained, he knew what to do next. He fasted and prayed. And waited. For three long days, like Jesus in the tomb.
While he waited, there was another conversion happening. In that town there was a man named Ananaias, a follower of the Way. He was a good man, no doubt with wife and family. He was also visited, and while he was not knocked off of a horse, the effect was the same. “You want me to go to whom? And tell him I am one of the people he is looking to kill? Are you crazy? God, did you not read the newspaper about this man? Really? You want me to leave my wife a widow and my children as orphans?” We don’t know, but we can imagine the terror in his wife’s eyes as he sets out on the mission the angel has given him, and the terror in his own eyes. But he goes. And he lays hands on Saul’s eyes, and Saul can see again. And then Ananias waits for the handcuffs to come out. But instead, in great humility, Saul asks for food and water, and to be baptized. He is ready to die to his old life, and to begin a new one, to live in this new reality. He brings all of his old energy and learning with him, but the focus has changed.
The fourth person whose conversion I want to bring into this picture is Thomas. Thomas is very important in another way. The early church expected the return of Jesus and the end of the world to happen within their lifetimes. When that didn’t happen, there was a crisis in the church, a big one. They had to rework a lot of their expectations on all kinds of levels. When many or most of the people who had known Jesus personally had died, they realized that they really didn’t know what “soon” meant in terms of the return of Jesus. They affirmed that you did not have to have known Jesus in the flesh to be a follower of the Way. The “conversion” of Thomas was how this was codified. The conversion of Thomas was very much like the conversion of Peter. Thomas had been part of the group all along. In fact, Thomas was pretty clear that Jesus was going to get killed if they went to Jerusalem, and when Jesus announced that that was what was going to happen next, his response was, “well, we might as well go and get killed with him.” This does not fit the typical image of Thomas. But Thomas also adds one more piece to the conversion puzzle. He does not just say “my Lord” when Jesus shows up after the crucifixion. He says “my Lord and my God.” This is profound. In Jewish thought, only God is God. This is part of the early church proclaiming that Jesus is also God. And, beyond all of that, it is very good for us to have a model for conversion that allows for doubt and questioning. We like that in the Episcopal Church!
So here are four different models for you to choose from, and you can mix and match! What is your conversion like? Was it a sudden realization of a new reality? Are you still not sure that you consider Christ as Lord? What would that mean? Do you have doubts and questions? Are you willing to step out in response to the angel’s call?
These are all huge questions, and next week we have the chance to say yes for ourselves as we bring baby Landyn into the fold, signing the adoption papers, as it were, of an already cherished child.
But here’s what is really important about this. I was going through the 16th St BART station the other day, and there was one of those preachers, complete with bull-horn, urging people to accept Christ, and, no doubt, telling them what would happen if they did not. I didn’t wait around to listen to the whole spiel, because I know too much of what will come next. If you don’t accept Christ as your Savior and Lord right now, you are doomed. Or, at least, if you don’t do it before you die, you are doomed.
This is really bad theology in my book. When someone gets in my face asking if I have accepted Jesus as Lord, I say yes, just to get them to leave me alone! However, it’s really the wrong question. Very wrong, because they make it sound like there is one decision, and that’s it!
Well, for someone like Paul, that kind of thinking would fit. Paul gets knocked down, and he makes a life-changing decision, and, as far as we can tell, never looks back. But for most of us, it does not happen like that, on either side. We don’t get knocked over, and we also don’t make one decision – we make a series of them. It’s more like changing our diets. When I was called in to help a nursing mother with a colicky baby, we changed her diet totally from one day to the next, and in 24 hours the screaming stopped. She was in a position to make that kind of total life-change because of the love for the baby in pain. But for most of us, it is better to change one thing, and then another, and then another. At the end of a year or two, we look back and realize that we are eating very differently than we used to. In that kind of situation, it is the small decisions that we make each day that make the difference in our health, not one big decision.
So the question is this: Is the Way that Jesus taught guiding your life today? If so, what does that look like? Is your relationship with Christ front and center, or off to the side? Judith Berling, a professor over at the Graduate Theological Union who specializes in Asian religious response, told us about her research with the village temples in Asia. There is a temple, and there is a central god, and then there are the lesser gods in the side altar areas. If one of the lesser gods starts gathering more devotees and proves to be more powerful, then that god is moved from the side altar to the central one. The problem with the Christians was that they were not willing to put their god on a side altar and prove that he was the most powerful, nor were they willing to leave the other gods on the side altars even if they were given the central altar position. If we let go of the exclusivist position for just a minute, I think it is interesting to think about the idea that Jesus coming into a new temple would be given a place to prove himself, to teach the Way (which of course translates as the Tao). While there are many similarities with Buddhism and Taoism, this Way of Jesus is not the same, and it is very powerful when it is taken seriously.
So one of the things we say is that your body is the temple of God. The question is: Who is sitting in the center altar? You get to choose, and we choose this each day. The more often you make the same choice, the more automatic it becomes, the more “fixed” that deity is as central to our existence.
So…who is sitting in your center altar?