Eyes Wide Open: From Blind Conviction to True Purpose
I’m not much of a television viewer, but recently I began watching the first season of a show that debuted on NBC last season. I was a little behind, as usual, but at the suggestion of a friend I watched the first episode of the first season of SMASH. Well, I will just admit here that after that first episode, I was hooked.
The story begins with a play writing team struggling to come up with their next big hit. They want to write a Broadway play about an iconic figure in American history…someone whose fame and tragic life mesmerized the public in real time and could mesmerize the public again, through a musical hit on Broadway (and, apparently through a television series about the musical…). During that first episode they are brainstorming and they hit on the most obvious person about whom to write their play: Marilyn Monroe, of course!
The season unfolds with all the drama and intrigue of writing, casting, and producing a Broadway play, but the part of the show that makes it so interesting is the constant theme of Marilyn Monroe’s life, as the characters struggle with the same problems and experiences she had in her own life. That shared experience is entertainment worthy because in our culture Marilyn Monroe is iconic.
I thought about her and about my addiction to SMASH (just FYI, the second season is not that great) when I looked at our lectionary texts for worship today, because today we hear a story of conversion—a story of coming face to face with the reality of resurrection and having your eyes opened. Wide.
And you could say that the story we read from the book of Acts this morning is the iconic story of conversion. That is, were you to ask most anyone in my profession, for example, “When you think of conversion, which story in the Bible comes to mind first?” It’s Paul the Apostle, who was also called Saul, whose conversion story—his glimpse of resurrection—is told by Luke, the writer of the book of Acts, with much drama and intrigue.
Paul, or Saul (as he was called then), was a Jew of the highest pedigree. He had an excellent religious education and a bright future ahead of him as a leader of the temple. He was also a Roman citizen, so he had the best of both worlds. And he was a person whose practice of his religion was zealous and intense.
In fact, he was such a committed adherent to his faith practice that you could call him a Fundamentalist. He was worried about this new sect of folks who called themselves followers of Jesus Christ, or The Way, and he was determined to do everything he possibly could to root them out.
If you were to go back in the book of Acts a little before the passage we heard read today, you would learn that Luke sets the stage for a character of Paul’s stature by telling a terrible story about the stoning of Stephen, during which Paul held the coats of those who were doing the stoning. Paul was so convinced that his way of believing was the right way that he was engaging in terrible acts of violence and oppression toward those who were Christians.
In fact, the way Luke tells it, Paul had taken this cause on as kind of a personal crusade. He was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord,” Luke tells us, and he’d secured letters of introduction to the synagogues in nearby Damascus, where he was headed to repeat what had happened with Stephen.
In the pivotal scene, a light from heaven flashed around him and Saul fell to the ground. He then heard a voice from heaven asking him why he was persecuting Christians…and you know the rest. Paul was blind for a few days and led to Damascus, where one of the followers of The Way, Ananias, was told to go and welcome him to the early church. The passage is a little bit humorous, as Ananias wants nothing to do with Paul—and why would he? Paul was blind physically, but he was also blinded in a more profound way—he was so limited by what he had understood about God that he was using God to endorse terrible, violent behavior.
Eventually Paul became a foundational figure in the life and establishment of the first church. In fact, he started many of the first churches and wrote more of our New Testament than anyone else, laying the groundwork for most of the theological underpinnings of this new movement. And it was in this moment of conversion that he glimpsed resurrection, and his limited and constricted view of the world became wide and embracing. In a very dramatic way, Paul had his view of God totally changed; his blind conviction became true purpose.
But while we heard this iconic conversion story of Paul shifting from blind conviction to true purpose, we also met in our texts today another one who experienced conversion a little later in the book of Acts. Peter, who, as you heard was kind of at loose ends after the whole resurrection situation and went back to his old life of fishing because he didn’t quite know what to do, also experienced a conversion.
To understand this in the light of Paul’s conversion we need to do a little bit of digging into the history of the early church. After Peter finally got his head around the idea that being a follower of Jesus continued after resurrection, he became a leader in the early church, welcoming many, many converts to The Way. Peter, a devout Jew, was of the mind that Christian faith—or following in The Way—was an extension, or fulfillment of Judaism. As such, he was happy to invite new converts to join The Way, but in his view they needed to become Jews first before they could join up.
As Paul made his recovery from his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus, he became a leading voice within the church advocating for a new group of followers of The Way, who were not Jews, but Gentiles. Paul was of the opinion that the message of Jesus was for everyone, as he makes clear in his letter to the Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free, but all are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
Peter and Paul disagreed, and they became opponents. It was the first ever church conflict, and these two vehemently disagreed until Peter himself had a conversion experience—a dramatic dream—where Peter changed his mind and came to believe, like Paul, that the way of Jesus should be offered to anyone who wanted to believe. For Peter, it was a powerful conversion experience, where he glimpsed resurrection in his own life and his view changed: from blind conviction to true purpose.
At different places in their journeys of faith, both ironically from within established faith traditions: conversion.
Here we sit in church and perhaps you are wondering what conversion has to do with us. The truth is that we are constantly coming face to face with the reality of resurrection, if only we will open our eyes. When our perspectives change, even we will see that there are times when we are blind to the transforming reality of resurrection. Nevertheless, like Paul or Peter, we can open our eyes to the message of Jesus Christ and be changed from a view of the world that is rigid and exclusive to one that is vast and embracing. We’re invited, over and over, to open our eyes and change: from blind conviction to true purpose.
Just a few weeks ago the news broke that Megan Phelps-Roper and her sister Grace, granddaughters of Westboro Baptist Church founder Fred Phelps, publicly announced their departure from the church. For those of you who may have recently been living on another planet, Westboro Baptist Church is an independent Baptist church known for its extreme ideologies, and especially their positions against gay people. The church is best known for its regular and media-attracting protests in public places, holding prominent signs that spew hateful slogans. A few weeks ago, Meghan Phelps, who grew up in the church, published an online statement entitled “Head Full of Doubt/ Road Full of Promise,” in which she announced Hers and Grace’s intention to leave. I intended to excerpt it here, but I’ve decided to read the whole statement. It reads:
“’There’s no fresh start in today’s world. Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what you did. Everything we do is collated and quantified. Everything sticks.’”
Don’t act surprised that I’m quoting Batman. At WBC, reciting lines from pop culture is par for the course. And why not? The sentiments they express are readily identifiable by the masses – and shifting their meaning is as easy as giving them new context. So put Selina Kyle’s words in a different framework:
In a city in a state in the center of a country lives a group of people who believe they are the center of the universe; they know Right and Wrong, and they are Right. They work hard and go to school and get married and have kids who they take to church and teach that continually protesting the lives, deaths, and daily activities of The World is the only genuine statement of compassion that a God-loving human can sincerely make. As parents, they are attentive and engaged, and the children learn their lessons well.
This is my framework.
Until very recently, this is what I lived, breathed, studied, believed, preached – loudly, daily, and for nearly 27 years.
I never thought it would change. I never wanted it to.
Then suddenly: it did.
And I left.
Where do you go from there?
I don’t know, exactly. My sister Grace is with me, though. We’re trying to figure it out together.
There are some things we do know.
We know that we’ve done and said things that hurt people. Inflicting pain on others wasn’t the goal, but it was one of the outcomes. We wish it weren’t so, and regret that hurt.
We know that we dearly love our family. They now consider us betrayers, and we are cut off from their lives, but we know they are well-intentioned. We will never not love them.
We know that we can’t undo our whole lives. We can’t even say we’d want to if we could; we are who we are because of all the experiences that brought us to this point. What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on. That’s our focus.
Up until now, our names have been synonymous with ‘God Hates Fags.’ Any twelve-year-old with a cell phone could find out what we did. We hope Ms. Kyle was right about the other part, too, though – that everything sticks – and that the changes we make in our lives will speak for themselves.
Megan and Grace”
Like Paul…and Peter…Megan and Grace have opened their eyes. They’ve seen resurrection, new life, and it has shifted their world on its axis…changed everything for them.
Perhaps you and I haven’t had conversion experiences quite as dramatic as these, but if we open our eyes to see resurrection around us, if we allow our perspectives to be shifted from the limitations we impose on the possibilities of God’s love for us and for the world, we may suddenly find that we, too, are converted…that our blind conviction becomes true purpose instead.
And this is, truly, resurrection.