Scripture: Acts 9:1-20; Acts 10:1-23
Victor Torres moved to New York City from Puerto Rico with his family as a child in the 1950s. Even though his family hadn’t been especially poor in Puerto Rico, it hard to ignore the siren song of New York, promising opportunity for all of them. But once they got there, opportunity wasn’t quite what they found. The only place they could afford to live was Brownsville, one of the worst neighborhoods of Brooklyn. Their apartment was infested with rats and cockroaches and violence was rampant on the city streets.
Victor spent time on the streets by himself while both of his parents were at work. He quickly learned that he had to be tough to survive. One day when a man harassed him while he was trying to make some money shining shoes, he stabbed him with a pocketknife. When he was a little older, he got recruited for a gang called the Roman Lords. He saw it as his “entrance into the world and manhood,” a “chance for security and identity.” From there he worked his way up the ladder until he was one of the gang’s leaders. He fought people, stole things, and eventually got hooked on heroin. Multiple stays in the local hospital’s detox program didn’t help him.
But then one day in November 1963, Victor walked in the doors of a place called the Brooklyn Teen Challenge Center. There he met Nicky Cruz, a man with a very similar story which you might know from the movie The Cross and the Switchblade. He also met some of the people who had been instrumental in Nicky Cruz’s own conversion to Christianity. There, he didn’t get any of the medication that the hospital had given him to help him detox. There, his only hope was prayer and the Bible. Almost as soon as he arrived, he tried to leave. But he was stopped by some of the people who worked there. As they stood in front of him, Victor began to cry, and he began to ask God for help. The next time he went back out onto the streets, it was as a witness for Christ.
In a lot of ways I think I grew up thinking that that was what a conversion story looked like: bad guy meets Jesus in a sudden moment of clarity. The worse the guy, the better the story. That was conversion.
And sometimes it is. A few weeks ago we read in Acts about the death of Stephen, who was persecuted for his faith in Jesus, and Luke tells us that as the crowds gathered to stone Stephen, they handed their coats to a young man named Saul. In the aftermath of Stephen’s death, Saul “began to wreak havoc against the church. Entering one house after another, he would drag off both men and women and throw them into prison.”
Saul is back in the picture today, and he’s on the warpath. Now, just like the church’s mission is moving out of Jerusalem, so is Saul’s. He’s traveling all the way to synagogues in Damascus, looking for Jesus followers to bring back to prison in Jerusalem. The CEB translation describes him as “spewing murderous threats.” Can’t you just see Saul on that road to Damascus, with murder in his eyes?
But that was when everything changed.
A blinding light beamed down from heaven. The voice of Jesus spoke: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” says Saul, and there’s a loaded question if I ever heard one. The voice answers, “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.”
When Saul finally does enter the city of Damascus, it will be as a witness for Christ. Soon after, he will come to be known by his Roman name, Paul, as this persecutor of Jewish Christians goes out to make some Gentile ones.
Like I said, the worse the guy, the better the story, and Saul was pretty much the worst. He even writes to Timothy, “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” (1 Timothy 1:15) We have to love Saul’s story. We have to love the complete about-face. We have to love the reaction of Ananias, who God sends to lay hands on Saul and restore his sight- who’s like, uhhhhhh. We have to love the reaction of the people in the Damascus synagogues when he’s starts preaching and they’re like, uhhhhh. We have to love the disciples when Saul tries to join them back in Jerusalem. “Hey guys!” Uhhhhhhh.
We have to love how God works like this, through people like this, to build up God’s church – because truly if there is hope for Saul there is hope for all of us.
Most of our own stories aren’t quite like that, though. Some of us may well have more dramatic conversion stories than others. Some of us may very well have stories about how we were hard and fast skeptics but then there was one precise moment where we somehow saw the light and everything changed. Those are great stories I’ve often wished I had a story like that, because I think they preach so much better than, “I grew up in the church and always kind of liked it.”
But let’s face it, some of us have stories that are more along those lines.
And that’s OK, because while Saul is busy proving to the disciples in Jerusalem that he actually doesn’t want to kill them anymore, Peter is on his way to a conversion story of his own. It happens when Peter is traveling around the region healing people, and after raising a disciple named Tabitha from the dead (like you do) he ends up staying for a while in the city of Joppa, at the house of a tanner named Simon.
Meanwhile, we meet a man named Cornelius, who is not Jewish, but he is a God-fearer. Do you remember that term from last week? A God-fearer was someone who hadn’t officially converted to Judaism – when conversion meant circumcision, you can understand why adult men might find that to be a bit of a barrier – but he did participate in Jewish life and faith through prayer and financial support. One day while he’s praying, an angel appears to him and tells him to send some messengers to go find Peter. So, Cornelius does.
As the messengers are approaching Joppa, Peter is praying himself. He’s on the roof of Simon the tanner’s house and it’s lunchtime and he’s starting to get hungry. And while lunch is being prepared, Peter has a vision. He sees heaven opening up and a sheet being lowered down with all sorts of animals on it, and a voice says to him, “You ordered lunch?”
And Peter says, “Oh no! I couldn’t possibly! By no means, Lord!” I love that response; the CEB puts it “Absolutely not, Lord!” Absolutely not, Lord – that takes a little bit of chutzpah, right there.
But what you need to remember about Peter is that Jewish law forbade him to eat certain kinds of animals, among them animals on that sheet. And Peter has grown up in the synagogue and always kind of liked it, right? That’s his story. Peter’s a good Jew. And good Jews don’t eat that stuff.
I can tell you, as someone who became a vegetarian at age 16 and then a few years ago started eating fish again – just fish – that I thought about it and considered it for years, literally, before I actually ate fish. And the first time I did, it was hard to actually put that fork in my mouth and then swallow. Things like this are hardly a matter of someone just shoving a sheet in your face – and my diet wasn’t even religiously motivated.
Peter’s dilemma is this: what he hears God saying now directly contradicts what he knows God to have said before.
What would you do?
Well, Peter never gets the chance to actually eat the food on this sheet. After Peter protests, the voice says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane,” and then the sheet is pulled back into heaven. This happens three times. And Peter’s wondering what to make of this all when all of a sudden there’s a knock at the door.
It’s Cornelius’s messengers, and they ask Peter to come back with them to Cornelius’s house.
But Peter isn’t supposed to stay at Cornelius’s house. He’s a Gentile. He doesn’t follow the same dietary and purity laws as Peter.
But Peter must hear in his head, again, a voice saying to him: “What God has called clean, you must not call profane.” And something clicks. It wasn’t just about food.
At Cornelius’s house, Peter says, “I now understand that God doesn’t show partiality to one group of people over another.” At Cornelius’s house, Peter preaches the Gospel of Jesus. At Cornelius’s house, Peter watches as everyone there – this whole group of non-Jews – receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, just like Peter and the Twelve had at Pentecost. Up till now, the Christian church had been a Jewish movement – but suddenly the doors swing open wider.
Like I said, Peter was a good Jew, probably from birth. And what’s more, Peter was a good Christian. He didn’t need a bright light to bring him into the family of Jesus, because he was already there, already its leader. Peter didn’t need a conversion story.
But he got one anyway.
Because conversion doesn’t end when you become a follower of Jesus.
It makes me wonder if to be a part of God’s church, to submit yourself to the leading of the Holy Spirit, is actually to be called to conversion over and over.
So here’s a question: When was the last time you changed your mind about something related to God or faith?
I had to really think about this question and it made me wonder if this was one of those times I was preaching to myself. In college and in seminary, as I was learning all sorts of new perspectives on the Bible and theology, I felt like what I believed was changing every day. In a good way. What did it mean for Jesus to die on the cross? Maybe it was something different than what I had always taken to be the one right answer. How does prayer work? Maybe it was a little more open-ended than simply getting God to do I wanted. It felt like every new answer, as provisional and imperfect as it may be, led me a little bit closer to the God that I was seeking.
Somehow that’s a little harder these days. I feel like I’m supposed to know certain answers a little bit more. Whether I do or not is another question.
I think it can be scary to change our minds about something as big as God and what God is like and what God wants from us. Those are often things that we have a lot invested in. They’re things we’ve built a worldview around. The stakes are high. It’s scary to think that the conclusions we’ve come to today, much less the ones we’ve held forever, might not be the ones that God wants for us to hold for all time. It’s not quite as easy as someone sticking a sheet in your face.
Here’s what I will say: when I’ve changed my mind about something related to God or faith in the past few years, most often, I think, it has been about people. People who might not share my exact theological convictions, but who I come to realize are full of grace and love, anyway. People whose politics frankly annoy me, but then I’m struck with how they are living out their Christian faith in some ways better than I am.
If Peter’s conversion is any indication, then maybe changing our mind about people and where they fit into God’s family and God’s church and God’s will for the world is maybe the most important kind of conversion we are called to. All the theology – we have time to figure that stuff out. But to God, people are urgent.
Think back to Ananias, the Jesus follower who laid his hands on Saul to let him see again. Saul changed his mind about Jesus, but it wouldn’t have gone any further than that – except that Ananias was willing to be converted about Saul.
Here’s what I believe: I believe that a church on fire, the way it was in these early days of Acts, can never be a stagnant church. I believe that Jesus calls each of us into a relationship with God through him and that Jesus calls us to follow in the way of life that he shows us, life in the Kingdom of God even before death. And I believe that as we do that, as more is revealed to us, as we meet new people who bear the face of Christ along the way – that we are going to have to change our minds. Not just once, but a lot of times. Not just about one thing, but about a lot of things along the way.
It’s called conversion, and we’re called to it over and over, well beyond the day we first saw the light.
 Victor Torres, Son of Evil Street: The Amazing True Story of a Son Who Became a Product of New York City’s Mean Streets