This week I asked our congregation to consider their own conversion, not in the way we traditionally think of conversion. Some people think of conversion as a one-time thing, a decision to turn away from sin, their baptism or a sinner’s prayer. But the New Testament doesn’t really use conversion in quite that way. Conversion in the New Testament is used to describe when someone changes from being pagan to following Judaism or from being pagan or Jewish and following the Messiah. There are just a few references to someone being a convert to Christianity. So one major way the word convert is used in the New Testament is to describe a change of belief and way of life, because changing your religious beliefs most certainly must lead to a different way of life.
Because this way of life means doing things differently over a period of time, conversion is not always simply a one-time event but a change of belief and practice. Could there be more than one conversion of our hearts? Last week I asked the church to consider what they think and feel about the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, because if we believe in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, then this impacts how we invite and welcome murderers, adulterers, homosexuals, abusers, addicts into our midst. Are we willing to accept the conversion of Saul of Tarsus if we’re a church where Saul has dragged our people out in the parking lot and stoned them? Then that Saul wants to come up in here and become a member?! Are you kidding me? That’s what the early church thought. Check out Acts 9.
This week from Acts 10-11 we considered first our own conversion, and many wrote very moving short notes about their conversions, which I read during the sermon. Then I took on the voice of Peter, who I feigned had turned in a card describing his conversion. Was his conversion when Jesus borrowed his boat that day, or the day Jesus said, “Drop your nets and follow me,” and Peter and the others did. Was his conversion the day Peter shoved Jesus back when he said he must go to Jerusalem and die, and Jesus called him Satan, told him to get out of the way? Was it when Peter said he wouldn’t deny or betray, then that night denied he ever knew Jesus? Was his conversion when he swam 100 meters to the shore when he saw Jesus after his resurrection, or when Jesus re-instated him. Was Peter’s conversion finally when the 3,000 were baptized that day at Pentecost?
I claimed two things in the sermon: 1) That Peter had more than one conversion and so do we. 2) That perhaps Peter’s most profound conversion was in Acts 10 where Luke makes more of Peter’s change than Cornelius’s conversion. Our Bibles often head the chapter, “The Conversion of Cornelius” but if Luke was writing headings, he might have titled that chapter, “The Conversion of Simon Peter.”
Peter had been told by a voice when he was in a “trance” to eat stuff that would sound to us like “dog, cat, and national bird.” He refused three times, and finally the voice said, “Don’t call clean what I have called clean.” While pondering this some men had come from Cornelius’s house, because he too had seen a vision but it was more practical: go get Peter in Joppa and bring him back to Caesarea. So they walked down the coast about 30 miles, got Peter, walked back 30 miles to Cornelius’s house.
Peter got off on the wrong foot with the gathering at Cornelius’s house. He said, “You know it’s against Jewish law for me to enter a Gentile house and eat with them, right?” But something about the long walk with Gentile messengers and seeing an eager group of God-fearing Gentiles gathering at Cornelius’s house melted Peter’s heart, and he recounted the vision he’d received and said “I now realize God does not show favoritism.” He had made the analogy of the sheet to relate to the Jew-Gentile issue. Were the Gentiles included in this new kingdom by grace through faith or by the Jewish laws, and even then were they still second class citizens? No, don’t call unclean what I have called clean.
He watched as the Holy Spirit fell on the house of Cornelius, a huge sign that the Gentiles were included. Peter commanded they be baptized.
Peter had been converted, and you can tell by his explanations two different times to Jewish Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 11, 15) that he believed with all his heart that God also had allowed the Gentiles to share in his Holy Spirit indwelling. Those who had been critical at first about Peter entering Gentile homes said, “So then, even to Gentiles God has granted repentance that leads to life” (11:18).
Peter had been converted.
What about your conversion? What do you think and feel about your own conversion. Did you think that conversion only comes once? Do we, like Peter, have multiple conversions, including profound ones that change our entire outlook on God, others, and our life’s work? Paul may have become the apostle to the Gentiles, but it was Peter who was first for the Gentiles to hear the gospel from his lips. His life’s work and mission were radically altered.
In the parlance of our church [we get this language from the idea that we continually grow in how we reflect the image of God, from one degree of glory to the next (2 Cor. 3:18) and language shared from the REVEAL study (Willow Creek)], we “invite all people to Christ centered lives,” and ALL PEOPLE means ALL PEOPLE, including ourselves.
We grow by conversions or movements from “one degree to the next” that Willow Creek calls, and we use the terms as well, “Far from God to Exploring Christ,” “Exploring Christ to Growing in Christ,” “Growing in Christ to Close to Christ,” “Close to Christ to Christ Centered.”
This process may take years, but as we grow we become increasingly prepared for mission in God’s Kingdom. We’re going to discuss this more Sunday, February 23, going through each phase and explaining what each of the movements includes in terms of beliefs, practices, and service.
See you next Sunday!