Conversion and Community

Acts 9:1-31

As we continue following the adventures of the early church, I want to invite you to think this morning about what it takes to change your mind. One of the core ideas of our faith is that the way we are is not the way we have to stay forever. Change is possible for us. Conversion is possible for us. But how does it happen? 

This morning we are going to hear one of the most radical and well known conversion stories in the whole Bible. It’s the story of the conversion of Saul, who is later renamed Paul. We first heard of Saul when he was holding the coats of the guys who stoned Stephen to death. He then was part of the massive persecution that broke out against the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem and scattered them throughout the area. Saul was a zealous man and you’ll see this morning that just tracking down the Jerusalem Christians wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to spread a wider net. As we read the story I invite you to pay attention to what it takes to make Saul’s conversion happen.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the home of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan and escaped. 

When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.

Acts 9:1-31

This is the word of God for all people. Thanks be to God.

I fully admit that I am usually way more interested in someone else’s conversion than I am in my own conversion, and I think many of us are like that. We want someone else to change their mind, but we don’t want to change our mind. We are guilty of scrolling through search engine results until we find one that agrees with what we already want to believe. That’s called confirmation bias and we all do it. And then we take that information and use it as a weapon against other people. When we malign their character or their intelligence or their faith in God or their humanity, we are making it harder for them to convert, not easier. And it doesn’t matter what the conversion is. I’m not talking simply about converting to Christianity. I’m talking about anytime we are trying to change someone else’s mind. If we do it by ridicule, it’s not going to work. And even when we do it by what we think is rational argument, it rarely works. That’s because when humans make decisions, it’s a combination of head and heart. People don’t change their minds until they have had a connection at the heart level. That’s what we see in this story.

Saul knew enough about Christianity to hate it. He understood, cognitively, what the movement was about. He didn’t need more information. He needed two things: He needed an experience with the Divine and he needed to be accepted by people he had hurt in the past. For a conversion, any kind of conversion, to stick, we have to find a community. Our conversion doesn’t become real until we live it with other people. You’ve heard me say before that you can’t be Christian alone. You can pray alone, you can read the Bible alone, you can do Christian things alone. But to BE a Christian, to live in a fully Christian way, is to be in community. We have seen that over and over in the book of Acts. Community is key. Until you have a community, until you have relationships, it’s just in your head. 

And for Paul, the people he needed to be in community with were people who he had hurt deeply. You heard it in the story, they didn’t trust him and they were afraid of him. And with good reason. He had been persecuting them. Hunting them down, beating them and throwing them in jail. And now here he is saying he wants to be part of the community.

To this we say hallelujah, but that’s easy for us to say because we aren’t the ones he hurt. Imagine the courage and the grace, the GRACE, it took for those early Christians to accept Saul into their midst. Imagine the forgiveness they had to extend to him in order to welcome him into the community. And it happened because a couple people were brave enough to make friends with him. Ananias reached out to Saul, to pray for him and bless him. And Barnabas, which was a nickname that means Son of Encouragement, vouched for Saul and introduced him to the rest of the community. Someone has to be brave enough to accept the people no one wants to accept.

Conversion is not simply a mental shift. It’s a relational revelation. It happens when we have an experience, not an argument, with the divine. And it is cemented when we seek out and are welcomed into a community. So if you are trying to change people’s minds about something right now, take this story to heart. As your pastor, I ask you, are you praying for people or are you only posting arguments on Facebook? And are you willing to forgive and allow someone to change? God’s grace means that we are not defined by the worst thing we’ve ever done. Change is possible for all of us. 

That’s what we want to remember as we come to the table this morning. Because really, we all always have something that needs to be converted in us. I don’t know about you, but the stress of this season is bringing out all my judgmental tendencies. When we get stressed, we revert to our deepest defaults and for me that’s black and white thinking and being judgmental. I don’t want to forgive and welcome people. Or at least if I do, I want to punish them a little first and make sure they feel good and sorry before I accept them. But that’s not how God treats us and it’s not how Christians are called to treat others. 

So this morning, will you join me in a time of confession before we celebrate Communion? This ritual of confession is a reminder that we all fall short of God’s call to love our neighbor. When we confess that and receive a fresh experience of God’s grace, not shame and condemnation, then we can move on and hopefully make different choices in the future. We need to say we are sorry. We need to apologize, not simply for the good of the other person, but because it frees us. . . .

. . . My beloved gathered scattered friends, as our ancestors in the faith have insisted for hundreds of years, this is the joyful feast of the people of God, where people of all genders, all ages, and all races—people in every type of body—people from the east and the west, from the north and the south, gather wherever they are and affirm that Christ is the host at all our tables. Amen.

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