By Michael Fitzpatrick
A Reading from Acts 9:19b-31
19 For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.
23 After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
26 When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
31 Meanwhile the church throughout Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and was built up. Living in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
I remember a man from my youth who despised the Native American community indigenous to our area. Whenever they sought to hold community events or undertake building projects to improve the area, he would fight them relentlessly, often with barbed and racist comments. It was practically his mission to be a thorn in their side.
One day, he came to the community center where a town hall meeting was being held. In tears, he apologized for his behavior and claimed to understand how hurtful his comments in the past had been. As a small atonement, he wanted to help with the proposal currently being debated by the town. Yet the response he received was measured suspicion. Many suspected his “change of heart” to be a ploy to betray them later. It took many months and his willingness to commit his own money and work to Native American projects before they accepted his conversion.
“Conversion” is a term we may sometimes shy away from in our enlightened modern culture. Like Jesus’ early disciples, we have a real hesitation to want to believe that God would change “those people” and welcome them into the community of believers. In accepting Christ as Lord of his life, St. Paul turned his former religious allies against him, to the point of plotting to kill him. But precisely because he had been one of the chief persecutors of Christians (then a harshly treated Roman minority), they were just as wary of him.
Yet conversion should not be surprising if we believe with Jesus that through God all things are possible. No one is beyond the pale of change. St. Paul converted from a zealous persecutor of Christians to one of the Church’s most significant voices. The man from my youth converted from someone who scapegoated Native Americans to someone grateful to join their cause. We should always be ready for surprise when we see who God converts next into the body of Christ. May we boldly step forward to welcome them in the name of the Lord!
Michael Fitzpatrick is a doctoral student in philosophy at Stanford University. He attends St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Palo Alto, Calif., where he serves as a lay preacher and teacher.
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Today we pray for:
The Diocese of Connor (Church of Ireland)
Saint James School, Hagerstown, Md.