Faith Acts (VII): The Promise of Change
by Louise Westfall
The photograph featured a number of yellow and black caterpillars, munching on bright green leaves. My sister posted that she’s been cultivating milkweed in her yard because that’s the only food these caterpillars eat…to nourish their journey from worm to chrysalis to Monarch butterfly. She added that the knowledge of this journey filled her with hope and delight.
Nature has a way of doing that! Built into the intricate design of the universe is the reality of change. The breathtaking (and Divine) wisdom of evolution. The turning of seasons; the ebb and flow of tides that mark the ocean’s boundaries; the wind and water that shape the geography of land–-even the massive Rocky Mountains are eroding at a rate of a quarter- inch every year. We observe the human life cycle by celebrating births and birthdays, marriages and retirements. As Christians we speak even of death as impermanent in the light of resurrection (in fact one image of new life is breaking through the tomb-like chrysalis into the glorious beauty of a butterfly).
But change itself???? Well, someone has said no one really likes it…except a baby with a wet diaper. Individually, we resist change at times, for fear that the loss that’s always part of it outweighs what may be gained. Institutions can seem immovable, illustrating the joke about how many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb? Change? Change? Who said anything about change?
The morning text is perhaps the gold standard of personal spiritual change: in what’s come to be called the conversion of Saul. It’s a terrific story with lots of drama, and I invite you to picture it in your mind’s eye as a Netflix movie. Use your imagination to go beyond the story line to understand motivation, conflict, resolution. Who is Saul and what really happens to him? What prompts Ananias to respond, despite his initial resistance? How does conversion work in both their lives…, and maybe ours too? A reading from the ninth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, at the first verse. Listen for God’s Word to you and me.
Take a look at the bulletin cover this morning. Our church administrator, Kathleen Eckert, selects these covers each week and searches public image files far and wide to find just the right one. When I first saw this one, I was…underwhelmed. I guess I was expecting something that mirrored the drama of the Biblical text–you know: the bright light, Saul knocked to the ground, perhaps gazing heavenward in shock and awe, the utter surprise of his entourage…
…instead we get…a road. Nothing exceptional. Could it intend to cast us in the role of Saul’s cohort, just getting started on our terrible quest to round up the followers of Jesus and bring them to their just deserts? And then it struck me: the road is always before us. That’s why we speak of the Christian life as a journey, not a destination. We can have an encounter with the living God in the most ordinary places and times. The narrator makes a point to describe the believers as those “who belonged to the Way,” and surely that suggests that faith is as much about where our feet take us as it is about what we believe in our heads. A road stretches before us. We stand at the trailhead, and wonder where it will lead… to destruction, enlightenment, nowhere, or our heart’s true home.
And maybe that’s part of what it means to be “converted”–a willingness to take a step. Some people make that step out of a dark night–or many dark nights of the soul, experiences of trauma or pain that drive us to a different way. And sometimes the light flashes suddenly and like Saul, we are enveloped in epiphany, a clear and shining moment. But far more often the road is plain and ordinary with no lightning strike and no Divine voice. To keep walking the way takes faith and discipline and hope.
Because here’s the thing, friends. Conversion is an act of God. It’s not something we can manufacture or manipulate. I’m sure the voice of Jesus was the last thing Saul expected to hear. And I’m sure the followers of the way hadn’t mapped out a strategy to get their sworn enemy converted. That was God’s idea. And yet God invites us to participate by extending healing hands to one another. Saul’s enlightenment wasn’t complete until Ananias came to him, spoke to him, opened his eyes, baptized him, and joined him in a strengthening meal. It wasn’t only Saul who got converted that day. Ananias too moved from fear and resistance to acceptance and brotherly love. Both experienced the power of God to change hearts and minds and direction.
Conversion is an act of God. It’s not something we can manufacture or manipulate.
Conversion is about change. For Saul, it meant a whole new life; a new vocation as the missionary apostle who took the good news into ever-wider circles–Jews! Gentiles! Rulers! Slaves! Men! Women! He had amazing adventures (some of which we’ve explored in the sermon series this summer). He also suffered imprisonment, ill health, beatings, threats to his life, and ultimately martyrdom. There’s no promise that conversion will produce “success” at least in the world’s eyes (makes you realize proponents of the so-called “prosperity gospel” need to go back and read the Bible). But through it all Saul–renamed Paul–could write [from prison!] Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say rejoice…and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. [Philippian 4:4-7] Conversion produced a radical shift in Saul’s perspective evidenced by changed behavior, redirected purpose…and unalterable joy.
Conversion is change. But change from what to what—or rather, from whom to whom? It’s easy to see the change in Saul–from a fire-breathing persecutor to a fire-breathing preacher. But let’s be clear about the nature of that change. The created essence of Saul was good. He was God’s beloved child right from the git-go, and that never ceased. Conversion is not repudiating our original identity and choosing the new and improved 2.0 model. No, conversion helps us see who we really are, and invites us to live according to that identity. In a way it’s like the difference between “guilt” and “shame.” Guilt says “I did wrong,” and shame says “I am wrong.” Friends, we do well always and often to admit our responsibility for selfish behavior and hateful, destructive attitudes and actions. But hear me on this: God never, ever shames us—or demands that we feel shame. Conversion shines light on the totality of our lives and helps us see the broken, sinful things for what they are: distortions of our true selves. But in that light, we are also helped to see what’s underneath: that we (and all people) shimmer with the image of God imprinted on our souls. You are very good, declared God from the very beginning. God could see even within murderous Saul, God’s chosen instrument of peace.
Larry and Barb and their family were members of a church I formerly served. They were the kind of people you immediately liked: warm, thoughtful, great hosts. They lived in a beautiful home, traveled, and from all appearances had a near-perfect life. Until it fell apart one day when Larry was arrested for fraudulent business practices in the construction company he owned. Despite good legal representation, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months at a minimum security prison downstate. A humiliating fall from grace, right? Except Larry didn’t see it that way. I know God has forgiven me, he told me when he was released. I want my life now to show that I believe it. In retirement, he has volunteered his considerable financial skills to the church and a number of non-profits. And they have been received with gratitude.
Friends, conversion is not a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but a process of being formed and reformed and transformed over a lifetime by the grace of God. We will be changed. Likely we will be surprised. Are you ready to be converted? It only takes a single step…