Acts 9:10-20

John 21:1-14

I had a conversation once about “conversion.” Knowing that I was a Christian, my conversation partner asked whether I’d had a “conversion” experience, or how exactly I found myself as a Christian. I talked about being “converted” in the sense of discovering a new and deeper connection with God, but as I put it, “I didn’t fall off my donkey.” Saul, who became Paul, fell off his donkey when the Lord confronted him on the way to Damascus. Because the change seemed to be so dramatic, some Christians have looked at experiences like Paul’s as the only way to be changed. As I was explaining to my conversation partner, that hasn’t been my experience.

Conversion can be a more gradual thing, I think. There’s a Spirit working in our lives that is constantly changing us, making us new. It’s the same Spirit that works on the lakes around us. You who have lived here a while, you’re familiar with your favorite lake (Ely, Vermilion, Embarrass, whichever). Or I should say, you think you’re familiar with it. In reality, it’s not the same lake it was when you were growing up or when you first arrived. The water that was in there has flowed out, down the St Lawrence or into the Hudson Bay, and it might be floating in the air over Jerusalem right now. The water that’s in your lake now probably arrived in a rain cloud or out of the ground in a spring. God in her wisdom is always taking water away and adding more, to keep everything fresh.

What happens when the lake doesn’t get converted like that can be seen just downstream from where the disciples were fishing in our second reading today. Harry Emerson Fosdick described it this way:

The Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea are made of the same water. It flows down, clean and cool, from the heights of Herman and the roots of the cedars of Lebanon. the Sea of Galilee makes beauty of it, the Sea of Galilee has an outlet. It gets to give. It gathers in its riches that it may pour them out again to fertilize the Jordan plain. But the Dead Sea with the same water makes horror. For the Dead Sea has no outlet. It gets to keep.

That’s what we mean when we talk about stagnation, whether it’s salt or algae that choke off the life. The alternative is conversion: the long, slow conversion of the lakes around us being constantly drained and replenished.

That’s the conversion we read about this morning, in Ananias’ story from Acts. Like most of us here, he already calls himself a follower of Christ at the beginning of the story; this isn’t the dramatic reversal and name-change we see in Paul. But God has been working in Ananias’ life slowly, almost imperceptibly, to bring him to this point. He’s being converted, not from “bad” to “good,” but from one level of faith to another.

Just for the record, this really isn’t so different from Paul’s story. God was working in Paul’s life, too, from the very beginning. Through Saul’s early training as a Pharisee, God was building him into the passionate, articulate, and committed apostle we remember him to be. Even Saul’s time as a chief persecutor of the church planted seeds within him that would later sprout into a kind of humility (although I’ll grant that you really have to spend some time with Paul before you see any humility in him at all). So it’s not like Jesus came from somewhere far away and ambushed Paul on the road. Jesus had been walking alongside for years and years, replacing a drop of water here and a breath of Spirit there until it was Saul’s right time to recognize his change.

Not that Ananias knew any of that yet. What Ananias knew before his conversion was that Saul was a dangerous, violent, merciless organizer on behalf of the religious status quo. He had already heard the reports that Saul was on his way to Damascus in order to crack down on the Christ-following community there. So we can at least call it something of a surprise that he heard the Lord telling him to go seek out this enemy of the faith.

Even so, Ananias followed that voice. Maybe he had to sit and collect himself first, but he eventually got himself up to go over to Straight Street to find this Saul of Tarsus. Just imagine being on that way. You’re going because you know, in some inscrutable way, that you need to go, but you’re not at all certain what this will mean. If you’re wrong by even very much, it probably means prison, and that could mean far worse things. Not only that, but the vision that sends you out on the road can often fade a little once you start moving. So there was Ananias, turning right and left through the streets that were already ancient 2,000 years ago, guided by very little other than trust and something bordering on hope.

Well, you heard the rest of the story: Ananias laid hands on Saul and called him brother. Saul’s eyes were opened – a huge metaphor, whatever else it was – and the Spirit that had been breathing with both men all along filled Saul’s lungs so he could proclaim a new message. Ananias shared the two deep mysteries of Christianity with him – washing in water and sharing food together – and Paul became a new person. And I suspect that Ananias saw God present with him in a way that he hadn’t been able to before. I suspect that he was converted, made into a new person, even a little more that day.

It’s at the end of the road, through the darkness, that we see that God was with us all along. Sometimes the vision that sent us out on a journey fades, the Lord seems to turn into a memory, and we’re not sure just who is supporting us along the way. Those are good times for us to double-check our compass, but if the voice in our heart is still pointing us down the street, we’ll find where we’re going by keeping on the road. The presence you’re looking for may be just around the next corner, or through the next doorway. Even when it’s invisible, I know that presence is beside you, within you, even now.

Amen.

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