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Conversions Within

The Rev. Jennifer L. Adams – April 28, 2013 – Easter 5, Year C: Acts 11:1-18, John 13:31-35

Most of you probably know the story about the conversion of St Paul. We heard that story read as one of the lessons just a couple of weeks ago. It’s a story that’s foundational in Christian tradition as an example of how God interrupts life, turns hearts and changes the church as a result of individuals who themselves are changed.  I want us to have that story in mind as we explore today’s readings, so here’s a quick recap of Paul’s experience as told in the book of Acts:

One day, Saul (who would become Paul) was walking on the road to Damascus when a great light from heaven suddenly shone on him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.” The voice said this because Saul had been a violent and very zealous persecutor of Christians, the baddest of the bad as far as the disciples were concerned.  And when Saul asked that voice he asked what he should and the voice replied, “Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.”  Saul was temporarily blinded by that bright light, but with some help he got himself to Damascus.  He was baptized and through that whole experience was transformed from a vicious persecutor of Christians to “Paul, apostle to endless numbers of Christians and their communities of faith.” And his story tends to be one of the models for how we think of conversion.

But today we get a different sort of conversion story, it’s what happened to Peter and while I’ve mentioned it before, it’s not a story that’s told quite as often or held quite as centrally as is the story of Paul.  But I believe it’s the kind of story that needs to be told because this conversion story tells us not about people outside of the faith being converted to those within the faith; instead it tells us about someone within the faith being converted in order to open the doors to those on the outside.   And those kinds of stories matter too.

Peter was as faithful as they come and that’s an important part of who he was.  Actually both he and Paul believed deeply that they were being faithful people before their conversions – which is perhaps good reason for all of us to remain open to what else God might have us learn.  Peter was “The Rock” whom Jesus commanded to, “Tend and feed my sheep.”  (We heard that story a few weeks ago too.) As unpreditictable as Peter had been right up through the crucifixion, we’ve been hearing  from the gospel of Luke and all throughout the Book of Acts, that he didn’t missed a beat post- resurrection.  So unlike Saul who was vicious persecutor and obviously needed a conversion experience, Peter appeared to be the model Christian.  He was the leading disciple who passionately kept to religious law and preached and healed and fed and moved from town to town spreading the good word about resurrection and baptizing people into the faith.  Peter could have been the poster boy for the new movement that was the Church.

But then it happened to him too when nobody, least of all Peter himself, even knew he needed it!  A vision happened to him which tells me that God really needed to change Peter’s heart too.  Now Peter’s vision came to him when he was in Joppa, and we know from last week’s reading that while in Joppa Peter had brought a woman named Tabitha back to life.  And after that miracle, Peter stayed in Joppa a few days and Acts tells us that, “many believed” because of him.

Now you’d think that after having done that kind of work, after having performed that kind of miracle, the vision would have been one that was filled with affirmation or praise, something like a divine, confirming pat on the back that Peter could have then communicated back to the disciples.  It could have been a “proof that God is on our side” sort of vision to proclaim to the growing masses in order to gain their confidence.   But instead, God came to Peter in this vision and told Peter that he needed to change too. It wasn’t just the Saul’s of the world that needed to take a holy turn. In this vision God told Peter who was as faithful as he could possibly be that he needed to open his eyes and open his heart because God wanted to open the Church.

To Gentiles.  And there is no way to possibly communicate to you how big a deal that was. I’ve tried before, but let’s give it another go.  It compares on some levels to what we’re living through today with LGBT folks, and what we have lived through before with women, and what we have lived through before with people of color, and before that with slaves, and unfortunately there have been so many “befores” that I can’t include them all this morning.  And believe it or not, the inclusion of Gentiles may actually have been bigger than any of those movements, because the Gentiles were the “other” of all others. They were Unclean.  Unfaithful.  Un-chosen.  Gentiles were completely un-religious-law- abiding.  They were the “uns” with a capital “U”.

And remember (because it’s important) that while the move to include Gentiles obviously went against tradition, it also challenged the scriptures that were Peter’s holy scriptures and the holy scriptures of the disciples and the scriptures of the most faithful of that day.  Leviticus and other books were around then too. In fact to look at the details of Peter’s vision with the “large sheet coming down from heaven, being lowered by its four corners,” filled with “four-footed animals, beasts of prey, reptiles, and birds of the air.” And the voice in the vision saying to Peter, ‘Get up, Peter; kill and eat and then proclaiming, ‘What God has made clean, you must not call profane.’   All of that was a re-interpreting of the priority of the purity code, a major re-defining of what it meant to be holy and faithful.  With this vision, God was doing something huge, and I can’t over-communicate what a big deal it was.  In this vision sent to Peter, God was breaking with tradition and re-interpreting Holy Scripture in order to open the church to those previously deemed unworthy of the faith.

Which should tell us that God does things like that.  There is precedence, Biblical precedence for opening our doors to all those who hunger.  This piece of the Book of Acts tells us conversion is not always about people outside of the faith becoming those within the faith; sometimes it’s those within the faith who need to turn (or be turned) in order to welcome those on the outside.

And we can even take it one step further.  Since this particular story of Peter happened so early in the life of the church, it could be that the process itself, the process of re-interpreting, breaking open and including the “other” might actually be part of what it means to be church.  That process might actually be what they call “an essential part of our DNA.”  We forgive, we love, we heal, we feed, and we’re opened by God to those who begin as stranger, but who through visions or other forms of grace are revealed to us to be sisters and brothers in Christ.

“The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction between them and us,” Peter said.  What a simple and beautiful way to put it.  “The Spirit told me,” Peter said, “not to make a distinction between them and us.”  And then he continued, speaking with the wisdom and humility born of visions, “If . . . God gave them the same gift that he gave us . . . who was I that I could hinder God?”

And that’s the question of the day, maybe of every day this side of heaven.  Who are we to hinder God?  Who are we to get in the way of anyone who is thirsty and seeks hope?  Who are we to get in the way of anyone whose gifts and ministries can help build, expand and strengthen the church, the Body of Christ?  In fact, we should be out there looking for them whoever them happens to be, and inviting them over for a visit or a very long stay.

After all, there was God leading the way in the very beginnings, opening the church to those previously deemed unclean, un-holy, unworthy.  There was God, helping those kinds of conversions to happen too, helping us love one another more broadly, more fully, more Christ-like than we ever imagined possible.  And who are we, who is anyone to hinder God?