St. John's Episcopal Church

Sermon given Sunday, May 5, 2019

Third Sunday of Easter

The Rev. Carol Hancock


St. John's, Centreville
May 5, 2019
3 Easter C
Acts 9:1-20; John 21:1-19
     God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
     In our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Saul is on a journey of death and destruction to all who are followers of Jesus Christ, He is breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. We don't know why Saul feels so threatened by Jesus' followers. But he is out to get as many as possible killed or imprisoned. That is, until he has a dramatic conversion experience, an encounter with God.
     Saul is on his way to Damascus to route out Jesus' followers there. From out of nowhere, he is surrounded by a blinding light and a voice says to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Saul asks, "Who are you, Lord?" The voice replies, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city and you will be told what to do."
     Saul obeys the voice of Jesus and because he is now blind, he is led to Damascus by the men who are traveling with him. He is blind for three days and does not eat or drink. I wonder what Saul was thinking during that time. Would the blindness be permanent? What was he supposed to do? Was he in prayer? Did God continue to talk to Saul during this time? We can imagine that he was scared and confused. He was used to being in control, of spreading fear and threats and arresting followers of Jesus. Now he was at the mercy of others, blind and afraid, somewhere in Damascus.
     Then our story switches to Ananias, a disciple of Jesus in Damascus. God speaks to him in a vision and tells Ananias to go to Saul and lay hands on him, that at that moment, Saul is having a vision that Ananias will come to him. Ananias is shocked, to say the least, and responds with something like, "Are you kidding me? This guy is arresting your followers and throwing them in prison. I don't want to get anywhere near him."
     But God replies that God has chosen Saul to be a disciple, to spread the word about God's love for the Gentiles and to kings and to the people of Israel. So Ananias does what God asks him to do. He goes to Saul and lays hands on him and he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, Saul's sight is restored and he is baptized. After staying with some disciples for a few days, he begins to proclaim in the synagogue that Jesus is the Son of God.
     This is a wonderful and powerful story about the conversion of Saul, who becomes Paul, devoted follower of Jesus, who spreads God's words to foreign lands. This is Paul, who has written many of the letters we have in the New Testament, who went on at least three missionary journeys to spread the gospel, from whom we learn so much about how the church was established and the gospel spread in the first century.
     However, not many of us have a conversion experience like Saul had. And because we haven't, we are tempted to downplay our experience. When asked to share our spiritual journey, we may start by saying, "Well, I didn't have a Damascus Road conversion experience like Saul," indicating our experience is not as powerful or as authentic as Saul's.
     But the truth of the matter is that God calls us in different ways. For many of us, we may have less dramatic calls throughout our lives, calls to make changes in the direction our lives are taking, allowing the scales to fall from our eyes and see how we are really living our lives, calls to make adjustments from time to time in the way we are living.
     Saul's conversion is dramatic. He goes from going after Jesus' disciples and imprisoning them, to becoming a follower of Jesus, a proclaimer of the gospel. He turns around 180 degrees and goes in the opposite direction.
     Our calls to conversion may be more subtle, more low-key, but are significant changes in our lives - perhaps to be more compassionate, mor giving of our time, talent and treasure to those in need, to see God at work in our daily lives. Those changes, too, are conversion experiences. God stirs our hearts, God speaks to us. We listen, which is the key point in a conversion experience, and then we act on what God asks us to do, rather than what we want to do.
     Conversion experiences can happen in different ways. Perhaps we realize at some point, that we are on the wrong path, a path that leads to a dead end, a path that is destructive. Or we see a part of our life that needs to change. And in that moment of realization, which may come gradually over time, or suddenly like a light bulb that has been turned on - in that moment of realization, we have a conversion experience, a turning around, a change in direction. It may be a friend or co-worker or a spouse who points out our destructive behavior. It may be a sense of emptiness within ourselves that makes us see the need to get on a new life-giving path. However we come to the realization, we can be sure that it is God who brought us to that place of conversion. It is God who wants us to have a fulfilling, God-centered life.
     Emilie Griffin writes, "It is clear that conversion begins with a restlessness of the human heart which can find no resting place on earth. Often our disenchantment comes not from failure but from success. It is success that disappoints us because we had so thoroughly expected it to be the crown of life." When our earthly successes are based solely on what we have done and we have excluded God, it is not surprising that we are unfulfilled. Success in our earthly life does not mean that it is a fulfilling life. It is only by doing the will of God, of keeping God at the center of our lives, that we can find fulfillment in this life, no matter what kind of work we are doing.
     Individually, we need to ask ourselves, "Where is God at work in my life right now? Where do I need to take off my blinders and open my eyes to see the needs of those around me? What is God calling me to do? In what areas of my life do I need conversion? How can I see God in the people I meet every day, especially in those who are not like me?"
     It is when we look deep within ourselves, even into the dark crevices that we would rather ignore, that we find the places that need conversion. Those are the places that need to be brought into the light.
     The main character in Saul's and every conversion story is God. It is God who changes lives and hearts. It is God who turns us around, both individually and as a community of faith, if we listen and are open to God's presence.
     What parts of our lives need conversion? What parts of this community of faith need conversion? Where do we see God at work? What do we hear God calling us to do and to be?
     May we be open to the life changing and life giving love of God as God helps us transform ourselves into the people that God wants us to be. Amen.
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