April 14, 2013

Acts 9:1-20
John 21:1-19

“Converted For Mission”

This week I was drawn into the story from the Book of Acts about Saul’s conversion to Christianity. Saul, the Pharisee, who was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus, who was making plans to arrest any he found who belonged to the Way… Saul was going along and approaching Damascus, when suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus. And to make a long story short, he was converted from a persecutor of Christians to one of the most influential Apostles of Christ, who brought the Gospel to the Gentiles and recorded the Good News in writings and letters for generations to come.

Early in the week, I invited folks, with whom I shared the story, to think about their own stories of coming to faith in Jesus Christ. I wondered if some might have a story as dramatic as Saul’s experience. I remembered someone telling such a dramatic story many years ago when I was in university. I was at a Christian gathering on campus and there was a young man named Stephen telling his story of coming to faith, giving his testimony.

Stephen told us about the challenges of his childhood and teen years. His parents split up, and he was not a very happy child. He didn’t think that either of his parents really loved him, so he got into all kinds of rebellious activities, desperately trying to get their attention. He started drinking, and then doing drugs. He hung out with all kinds of seedy characters and had a lot of one-night stands. He dropped out of school, stayed out late every night, and slept during the daytime. When his mother tried to lay down the law, he moved out and crashed on an older friend’s couch.

On the night Stephen hit rock bottom, he got so drunk he could hardly see, and then he decided to go for a ride on a friend’s motorcycle. It’s a miracle that no one was killed, but Stephen ended up driving that bike through the plate glass window on the front of a department store. He survived the crash and was rushed to hospital where he spent many months recovering from broken bones, lacerations, and a huge loss of blood.

And that’s the night that his life changed, when he finally realized that it had to change or he was going to die. Everyone said that he should have been killed, that someone must have been taking care of him, and he realized that he was getting a second chance at life, another opportunity to do something with the gift that he had been given. A friend of his father’s came to visit him in the hospital and told him about Jesus, inviting him to turn his life over to God, and he did. He became a Christian, a follower of the Way, and eventually a person who was ready to share his faith, to tell his story, and to invite others to conversion as well.

During the fellowship time following Stephen’s testimony, I remember someone coming up to me and asking, “So, when did you become a Christian?” At first I was confused by the question because I didn’t remember “becoming” a Christian. I thought I’d always been one. While Stephen was doing drugs and living a wild life in high school, I was going to school, playing my French horn, and singing in the church choir. I didn’t have a dramatic story of conversion like Stephen or like Saul, and I couldn’t remember a time when I didn’t believe in God.

When I asked some members of our church community this week about their experiences of coming to faith, most of their stories were more like mine and less like Stephen’s. They spoke of families that went to church, said grace at mealtimes, and even if their Christian education was somewhat hit-and-miss, there was a foundation of faith laid in childhood – that God exists, and God is love, and God has come to us in Jesus Christ. At various times on their journeys, our church members had experienced times of particular closeness to God, times of recommitment to following the Way, and some had especially experienced the presence of God in the midst of challenges and crises.

But as they paused to remember their experiences of coming to faith, I heard a lot of gratefulness. Like Stephen, who was so thankful to God for a second chance and for the opportunity to turn his life around, I heard gratefulness from our church members for families, church communities, teachers and mentors who taught them about God and showed with their lives what it meant to live the way of Jesus.

This morning as we remember the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus, I invite you to remember your own conversion… whether it was sudden and dramatic, or a slow and steady journey, whether you remember a moment when everything suddenly changed in your life, or you can’t keep track of all the moments of turning and returning to God who has been with you through your whole journey.

Just as Stephen remembered his father’s friend who first told him about Jesus during his long recovery in the hospital, I imagine Saul (or Paul) would always remember his experience on the road to Damascus and the disciple named Ananias who first prayed for him and shared his faith with him.

I know that I’ll always remember George who showed me what God was like in the way he loved and taught the children of my church when I was growing up. I’ll always remember Mike who prayed for me when I was going through a tough time as a teenager, and helped me to experience the comforting presence of the Holy Spirit in my life. And I’ll always remember Pauline who listened to me sharing a reflection in my church community, and helped me to recognize what God was calling me to do with my life.

What about you? Who are the people that you will always remember? I invite you to remember them now, to give thanks to God for them and the difference they have made in your life, in your journey of faith…

You know, Ananias was pretty hesitant about the whole idea of going to find Saul. God told Ananias to go and find Saul, to lay hands on him, to pray for him, and to heal him of his blindness. But Ananias had heard all about this man, and he knew this would be a dangerous mission. Saul was an enemy of the earliest Christian community. Ananias had heard about all the evil that Saul had done against the saints in the Jerusalem, how he had authority from the chief priests to bind anyone who invoked the name of Jesus.

But God said, “I have chosen Saul. He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel.” And that’s exactly what Saul (later Paul) went on to do. He was a leader, a teacher, a writer, and an encourager. He was an Apostle to the nations who had the most amazing impact on the early Christian Churches and on the Church through the centuries.

Ananias was probably surprised. Saul was probably even more surprised. But God is full of surprises… unlikely, outrageous, amazing things happen quite a lot when God is around… oppressed people are set free, rebellious people are forgiven and given another chance, sick people are made well, a boy’s lunch becomes a feast for thousands, and fishermen and tax collectors become preachers and healers. When God is around… angry people learn to love, people in conflict make peace with each other, excluded and forgotten people are welcomed and embraced, sad or lonely or discouraged people are lifted up by the joy of knowing God’s presence and love.

The Apostle Peter, of course, is another great example. He was an unlikely choice for a leader in the first place, but Jesus called the simple working man, Simon, to become the rock of his church. As Peter remembered his experience of coming to faith years later, we can imagine that he remembered the day Jesus showed up and caught all those fish. Simon was so astonished that he dropped his nets to follow the man he would soon declare to be the Messiah of God.

Although Peter’s faith seemed strong at first, he wasn’t as solid as a rock through the difficult journey of following Jesus through his betrayal, and arrest, and crucifixion by the Romans. In the midst of the crisis, Peter got scared and denied even knowing who Jesus was.

But the experience of conversion, the experience of turning towards God and changing the purpose and direction of our lives, is not something that happens only once for most of us. For Paul, there was that key moment on the road to Damascus when he was confronted with his own sin and pointed towards a new way of life. But for Peter the encounter with Jesus was repeated… another miraculous catch of fish, and another invitation to turn and follow Jesus with his life.

And I think that most of our faith journeys are like that. We can look back to remember and give thanks for moments of hearing God’s voice, of recognizing God’s presence, of beginning again and turning our lives more towards the way of Jesus. And we can look forward with hope and expectation because God will continue to come to us, to speak to us, to call us again and again to follow Jesus with our lives. No matter what mistakes we’ve made, no matter how many times we’ve drifted away, or denied our faith, or failed to follow through.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks you again today.

“Yes? Then feed my lambs.” Do what I did. Share my love. Care for my children. Spread my Gospel.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks you again.

“Yes? Then tend my sheep.” Look out for the lost ones. Pay special attention to the poor ones and the weak ones. Be a good shepherd like me, one who cares more about the sheep than about himself.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks a third time.

“Yes?” Don’t be upset that Jesus asks it a third time. Jesus will ask you again and again… inviting you again and again to declare your love not only with your words, with your “yes,” but with your life, with what you do and say and what you decide.

“Do you love me?” Jesus asks, “Then feed my sheep. Follow me.”