Conversion and Conviction

Throughout my whole life, I have suffered from migraines; if you, too, share in this somewhat unpredictable, inexplicable cycle of pain, then you probably know about all the ways in which migraines can rear their head into our lives. Whether it’s light or noise sensitivity, or ocular symptoms or auras, each migraine sufferer has a different set of usual symptoms. There is one, somewhat common migraine symptom that I have only experienced once in my life: an ocular migraine. An ocular migraine causes sudden blindness; it goes away with medication and rest, and although it is painless, it is incredibly disorienting. The one time I’ve experienced this, I was teaching in my Pre-K classroom, and suddenly I couldn’t see anything on the left plane of vision. At first, I thought something was in my eye or on my glasses, but as I began to try to rectify it, I realized that it was not going away. Gratefully, though I had never had an ocular migraine, after a brief panic, I knew what I needed to do to stop this temporary blindness.

       In our lesson from Acts, we hear one of the most dramatic conversion stories there is as Saul finds himself temporarily blind as well. Saul is perhaps the greatest persecutor of Christians in the 1st century; today we even hear that he goes and gets permission to bind and tie up Christians to bring them to punishment for their beliefs. Saul is essentially a blood-thirsty bounty hunter, spending his whole life in this violent search. Just before he and his partners get to Damascus, a bright light flashed all around him, as he is in the very presence of God. The Christ speaks to him and asks why he persecutes him, to which Saul is confused, as he has not been persecuting God, but only Christians. The light is gone, he opens his eyes, but he is unable to see, and his partners though they did not see the light, heard the voice of Christ, and together they went into Damascus. Rather than going on the planned rampage against those following in The Way, he sat for three days, unable to see and unwilling to eat or drink for shock.

       The story of Saul’s conversion is one that is key not only to Luke, who repeats it three times in the Book of Acts, but also to the history of Christianity. Saul, who would undergo a name change shortly after his baptism to become Paul – is the author of most of our holy scriptures in the New Testament. This is the hinge point for one of the greatest evangelists and pastors of the early church, but the story does not stop with Saul’s conversion. Luke goes on to tell us that after Saul’s Road to Damascus experience, God speaks to Ananias, a faithful disciple in this very town. The Lord tells Ananias to go to Saul, to lay his hands upon him and to heal him of his blindness. And in one of my favorite and authentic responses to God, Ananias kind of says, “thanks, but no thanks.” He, like all the other Christians in Damascus know not only of Saul’s reign of terror, but also his blanket permission to bind and capture all who profess Christ’s name. But the Lord tells him nonetheless to go, and so the faithful disciple goes. When he greets Saul, he greets him not with fear or anger, but calls him Brother Saul, a term of endearment and shared faith in early Christianity. Saul is healed, is baptized, and immediately begins proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ.

       In Christian history, this is often called the Conversion of Paul, but as I prayed through this well-known text, I was continually drawn not to Saul’s blinding conversion, but to Ananias’ hesitant faithfulness. It was this disciple’s faithfulness that welcomed Saul into his new life of faith; it was Ananias, who was so comfortable in his prayer to God that he was willing to articulate his own hesitation about where God was calling him. Ananias’ faithfulness is not as miraculous as Paul’s conversion, but it is his trust in God’s call that shines as bright as the light that blinded Saul. Ananias, not just willing to risk his life to place his hands upon Saul’s head, but also greets him by calling him Brother. And it is the faithfulness of this action that reminds me that sometimes when God calls us, it is to places we don’t want to go, and it is the humility of his willingness to greet someone who mere days ago wanted to kill him that makes me ask how I live out my own discipleship.

       And in this holy text, if Ananias reminds us that sometimes God calls us to places we don’t want to go, then Saul’s conversion reminds us that sometimes discipleship means giving up things that are important to how we navigate the world. So much of Saul’s identity was built around persecuting Christians, and though it is easy to vilify him, it is likely that he was doing these terrible actions because he thought it was the right path. God doesn’t explain why Paul is chosen or why Christ intercedes in his life in this way, but what we know from this story, and from Christian history is that Paul was indeed one of the leaders who spread the Good News. It is Saul and his intensity that show us that when God calls us, it might mean abandoning the things that we have found foundational in our lives when we realize that they don’t align with God’s love in the way we thought they did. It is Paul, and his willingness to sit with the unknown for three blind days to consider and pray on the things he heard from the Lord that ask us what might be standing in our own way in our lives as disciples of Christ.

       If Lent asks us to reorient ourselves to God, then Eastertide asks us to take seriously our discipleship and following of the crucified and resurrected Messiah. There is perhaps no better story than the conversion of Paul and of the conviction of Ananias to center our sense of discipleship during this early Easter season. A reminder that when we are attentive to God’s call, we might have to give up things that stand in our way or go places we don’t want to go. A reminder that in our life of discipleship we will have continual conversions back to God’s call and we will be drawn by our faithful convictions toward uncomfortable places.

       This story of conversion and conviction ask all of us who proclaim to be disciples of Christ how we might be changed by our willingness to follow God’s call to share the Good News. It asks all of us, not just metaphorically, but truly, how are you different because you follow Christ? It asks us how we might live into the abundant joy of Eastertide. It asks us to see where God might be calling us next. And this is my prayer, that we may hold Saul’s conversion and Ananias’ conviction as examples in our own lives of faith, because God might be calling us to give up things that stand in our way and to places we might not want to go, but when we go with God, we are always going were we are meant to go.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY on Acts 9: 1-20 for Easter 3C on May 1, 2022.

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