The encounter or the experience that we call conversion is about seeing and being seen. It is about being named.
First, seeing and being seen.
My vision fell off a cliff around the time that I turned 12. This is not a metaphor. In what felt like just a handful of days, but I suppose what must’ve actually been a handful of months, I went from being able to see at distance pretty well to blackboards turning green and vague and even stop signs morphing into red clouds on sticks.
I remember the day that I put on my new set of glasses. And, well, it was revelatory. I had never noticed or, I guess, I had forgotten how much texture there was on the linoleum floor of our kitchen, how there were veins in the leaves of the trees, how our cat was something other than a diffuse blob that moved around the house, periodically meowing.
Conversion is like that. Meeting Jesus is like that. In conversion we understand something, at least in part. But there is more than a new set of glasses going on, more than clarity when we meet Jesus. Because in conversion we realise that the clarity is mutual, that it is reciprocal. To turn around Paul’s language a little, in conversion we know and are known.
Now, I don’t mean that, in conversion, God sees us for the first time. God has always seen you and me. As Jeremiah proclaims, God has known you since before God formed you in your mother’s womb. Rather, I mean that in an encounter with Jesus, we understand, we know that we are seen by God.
This experience of being seen is powerful, it is transformative. If you have had a great teacher in your life – and if you have enjoyed any kind of success, any kind of happiness, I predict that you have had several great teachers – then you will know what it is to be seen. What is amazing about a great teacher is that, in order to free you up for the profound wonder that is learning, they don’t need you to be anyone other than who you are. A lesser teacher wants and maybe needs you to be just like them. They know how they learn and they want you to fit within their model. A great teacher, by contrast, wants and needs you to be utterly, freely yourself.
Jesus sees you as you are and wants you to learn and thrive and grow as you are.
Second, being named.
Sometimes when we encounter the holy, we get a new name. Some of us come out of the sacrament of marriage with a new last name, all of us come out of the sacrament of baptism with the new name Christian. And there are other sacraments, ones not named in the prayer book, where we get new names too. For some of you there was a day when you received the name Mom or Dad, or Grandma or Grandpa, Uncle or Aunt, Brother or Sister, or Friend. Hearing that name applied to you was maybe a little startling and a little beautiful all at the same time.
If we live long enough, we will receive other names, too. These names are harder. But maybe, maybe they are not less holy. To stand in a hospital corridor, for instance, is sometimes to be handed new and unwelcome names, names such as Next of Kin or Survivor or Widow or Orphan or the Bereaved.
In joy and in grief alike, we receive these new names. These names are outward and visible signs of our encounters with God.
In a way, it’s weird that the lectionary has paired this reading from Acts alongside this reading from John, that it has paired Saul along with Peter. After all, Peter is one of the very first of the disciples, he has followed Jesus from the very beginning, he was there long before the crowds, when absolutely everyone listening to Jesus’ words didn’t even add up to a dozen people. And Saul, well, when this story starts he is an ethnic cleanser, a supporter of the death squads. He is, Acts tells us, breathing threats and murder against the disciples.
But at another level, the pairing of these two people and these two stories makes total sense. Because Saul and Peter are both folks whose lives have been damaged by violence, whose lives have been shaped and distorted by the hatred of mobs. They are both folks, as a consequence, to whom Jesus comes – as Richard Rohr says, Jesus always goes towards the pain. They are both people who see Jesus and know that Jesus has seen them, they are both people who get new names after meeting God. Saul becomes Paul, and Peter (remember way, way back at the start of the story when his name is Simon), gets this new name, Peter, which means the Rock.
And they are both people who, in the stories that we hear today, are converted.
Clearly, the story from Acts is the conversion of Saul. And I’d like to make the case that the story from John is also a conversion story, that it is something like the second conversion of Peter.
Okay. I’ve just shared a whole lot of ideas in a row. Let’s see if we can unpack them a little bit. And let’s start with violence.
It is, I would venture, obvious how Saul has been distorted by mob violence: he is someone who is participating in and celebrating the Ancient Near East’s answer to lynching. And while, clearly, Peter has done no such thing, he does remain someone whose very understanding of himself has been shaped and shaken by the violence of a crowd. Because Peter at the last supper, remember, is the guy who says that he will follow Jesus to the ends of the earth, to death, that he will never deny Jesus. And he is the guy who, when confronted with the horror of the crowd’s violence, with the horror of the cross, denies Jesus three times.
So both of these men come into these respective tales having been profoundly diminished by violence, having had their understanding of themselves and of the world bent by violence. It’s fascinating to notice, by the way, that Peter starts this story naked. His very body is a metaphor, it is an outward and visible sign of how everything has been stripped away from him in the crucifixion.
Both Saul and Peter begin with this inability to see. Saul abruptly becomes blind. And Peter, like the rest of the disciples in the boat, can’t quite figure who it is on the shore in the early morning light who is calling out to them. As Paul Nuechterlein, whose work really shaped this sermon, says, the words, “Who are you?” are on the tips of all of the disciples’ tongues. But somehow nobody on the lake that morning dares to spit out that question, because – and how enigmatic or paradoxical is this? – they all know that it is Jesus.
Saul actually does ask the question, “Who are you?” And Jesus replies, fascinatingly, wondrously, I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Not, I am Jesus, and you are persecuting my disciples, but I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Here, from the risen and ascended Lord, is an echo of the Beatitudes: Just as you have done to the least of these, so you have done to me.
Saul, now groping about in darkness in the middle of the day, is lucky enough to meet some people who are kinder than he is, and he is led further into Damascus. He finds his way into a room where, lost, he devotes himself to prayer. And this disciple, Ananias, comes to him. Ananias who is afraid of Saul with good reason, but who trusts Jesus more than he fears Saul, and who goes and lays hands upon Saul – Brother Saul, he even calls him. He says, Jesus has sent me so that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit.
And something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes. And after he gets his strength back, he begins to proclaim everywhere that Jesus is the Son of God.
Peter meanwhile swims to the shore. (I love the weird detail that he puts on clothes to jump into the water – that’s the opposite of what most of us do. I love the even weirder detail that the net that he and his buddies haul in the incredibly specific number of 153 fish.)
And there, for the second time in not very long, he stands around a charcoal fire.
Remember that Peter is standing around a fire in the cold of the night when he denies Jesus. In the resurrection, in this moment of conversion, that scene is inverted or reversed. Jesus, wondrously, gives to Peter the chance to reverse his actions. Much as there were three denials, Jesus now gives Peter three opportunities to say, I love you.
The scene is amazing enough in translation, in English. It is a picture of resurrection, of forgiveness, so beautiful that it might just put you on your knees. But it is even more amazing in Greek. Because in John’s original language, there is a fascinating discrepancy in Jesus’ words and in Peter’s. The Greek has multiple words for Love, and so what Jesus asks Peter is Do you agape me? And Peter responds, Yes Lord, I philio you. And then a second time, Peter, do you agape me? To which Peter says, Yes, I philio you.
What happens the third time? Does Peter finally get it, does he finally use the right word? That’s what we might expect. But it’s not what happens. Jesus says:
Peter, Do you philio me? In other words, he sees Peter right where he is, he uses his language, he names him right where he is, he joins him right where he is.
This is what happens in conversion. For Saul, for Peter. For you and me. This is the moment, however fleeting, when we see Jesus and we know that he has always seen us, when we are given new a name, a name like Disciple, like Christian, like Beloved Child of God.