This week we have two amazing stories: Paul’s conversion and Peter’s encounter with the risen Jesus and their conversation. (RCL Acts 9:1-20; Psalm 30; Revelation 5:6-14; and John 21:1-19) Both these stories can lead us to reflect on the nature of conversion or spiritual transformation. Too often we speak of conversion as though it was a single event of decision making rather than a process of deeper and deeper conviction and connection with the divine and our own true natures, a transformation over time and distance.
The church in its wisdom has given us a season to explore Easter rather than just one day. That is both in acknowledgement that the original disciples had the fifty days between Passover and Pentecost in which to speak with the risen Lord and also because we need time to grasp the enormity of what happened and what resurrection means to us.
St Paul’s spectacular experience of conversion tends to sends thrill through all who hear. It may or may not remind us of experiences we have had or witnessed in others. But in some ways it can be a distraction or a hindrance if it used to suggest that there is only one type of experience that can be called conversion. It tends to leave out more people than it includes. I want to say that I heartily believe that conversion is a process, not simply a moment. A process in which there are many moments, many conversions if you like. It is not just that we all have different experiences but that for most if not all of us it is a life-long process of being converted or transformed at ever deeper levels. Like Peter we may believe that we have made our declaration only to find that we are challenged again to an even greater commitment and belonging.
Now some of us can remember a particular time and place where we made a decision to invite Jesus Christ into our hearts and to be our personal Lord and Savior. For me that was September 6th 1971 at a church youth camp at about 8:30pm which is now more than fifty years ago?! For all of us there are various moments in life that were pivotal in deciding and deepening our faith although for those blessed with being raised in families of faith there may never have been a moment when you did not know Jesus.
Even for Paul his conversion was a process. Firstly he was a zealous man of faith already. Then even his spectacular Damascus road event was several days long with several aspects to it. And then from his pastoral letters we can hear and discern that he continued to grow through his many mystical experiences and encounters with the risen Christ. Some of us may identify with Paul but I suspect that in many ways our experience is a little more like Thomas’ last week or Peter’s this week. That is we bumble along understanding one thing at a time, taking two steps forward in faith and then one to the side if not backward. The Way for most of us includes some curious and often unintentional side roads.
It is important to remember that Thomas and Peter already had an established relationship with human Jesus. They had spent three years with him and had the advantage of spending every day hearing him preach, eating with him, seeing him heal the sick, and then see him risen. We probably imagine that if we had all that exposure to the “real” Jesus that we would be truly converted and fully alive. But for those who knew Jesus in the flesh there was still more to experience and more trust to grow and insight to tap and capacity to love to develop.
And just as Jesus was patient, and maybe a bit amused, but definitely responsive last week with Thomas’ need to be engaged in the flesh with so too Jesus is very tender and responsive to Peter. The conversation between Jesus and Peter – “ ’Do you love me?’ ‘Of course, you know I love you.’ ” may have disturbed Peter for good reason. For by a charcoal fire in the courtyard Peter had three times denied he even knew Jesus. Now by a charcoal fire on the beach Peter is given three opportunities to proclaim his love. What is in the moment quite tortuous for Peter is ultimately healing and transforming as each of his failures become an opportunity for reconciliation.
For this man of faith – remember it is Peter who first recognises that Jesus is the Christ – his failures become opportunities of grace and conversion as deeper and deeper he declares his commitment. The response of Jesus is not just to forgive and accept Peter’s commitment Jesus takes Peter’s desire for reconciliation and converts his personal desire for reconnection with Jesus to a passionate commitment to the cause and therefore to others. So too for us. Our failures can become opportunities for grace and deep conversion. In God’s hands our worst can still be a channel for grace to flow to where it is needed, which is both in us and for others.
This ongoing conversion process is not just about making up for our failings and getting second third and fourth chances but it is about being led, sometimes not where we really want to go, deeper into the experience of God and relationship. The few like Peter are led to martyrdom. Many of us are led more deeply into the dilemma and pain and joy of ordinary life – into love relationships, trials of those same loves, into community, into quandaries and failures, and into wonder and joy.
Conversion is sometimes like the dramatic experience of Paul, sometimes like the painful process of Peter, and sometimes like the slow dripping of water on stone. And in a long life we are likely to experience many different occasions and forms of conversion. A question for each of us is what in us needs conversion? What fear, or judgment about self or others, what habit or what character flaw in us need conversion? We may in Lent have asked ourselves what we need to give up but conversion is more than just giving something up it is believing that everything, every aspect of ourselves, has some value and part to play.
Conversion includes everything and transforms every aspect of us and our lives. Conversion is like the old alchemists goal of transforming dross base metal into gold. So this story takes the dross of Peter’s failure and converts each act of denial into an affirmation of love and commitment. For Paul his former zealousness for the law and against the people of the Way is used to become a conduit for his profound insights into the limitations of the law and his passionate commitment to bringing the good news to those who were on the outside. Each former failure and limitation became an opportunity for deep internal conversion as well as an outward repentance, a turning around, a turning toward Christ.
So let us give ourselves over to the ongoing process of being converted encounter by encounter, transformed by our deepening relationship with the risen Lord, and challenged to grow in love. Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come and convert us until we are truly yours.