Conversion in Community

May 4th, 2015

Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet

Do you have a conversion story?

Our spiritual journeys here at Epiphany are varied. Some of us grew up hearing stories full of drama and sudden revelation, stories where someone had hit rock bottom and then found Jesus and had their lives transformed.

Some of us may be reluctant to call it a conversion, but can recall a specific point in time when we discovered that we had crossed into belief in God. Faith was present where it had not been before and we found ourselves praying and believing someone was receiving those prayers.

Some of us just have a collection of really real moments that along the way have brought new levels of awareness about God.

Some of us have no idea what a conversion story is.

Here is a definition of conversion: “a change of attitude, emotion, or viewpoint from one of indifference, disbelief, or antagonism to one of acceptance, faith, or enthusiastic support—especially such a change in a person’s religion.” I read several definitions of “conversion” and they all started with the idea of change. A conversion moment is a moment in which we are changed. And a conversion story is an attempt to put what we experienced into words.

In scripture the book of Acts documents how people responded to the rather incredible events of the resurrection of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Along the way it provides several striking conversion stories. These stories may or may not feel immediately relatable to you. They can be hard to square with our own modern sensibilities.

But if you have ever had a powerful “really real moment” as Doyt has called it, you may have discovered how hard it is to convey that to others. Something to keep in mind when reading Biblical narratives is that someone is trying to tell us something that is hard to put in words. It is not an easy task. However, if we as readers attend to their stories with curiosity and reflection, we may discover insights into the character of God or into our own character – insights that inspire changes of our own. So let us turn our attention to the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch and see if there is anything in this remarkable story that speaks to us.

At the heart of this story lies a man identified as an Ethiopian Eunuch, a court official in charge of the treasury. It was not uncommon during this period to castrate servants and officials who worked within a ruler’s home or had access to money. The idea was that castration made such individuals safer. They couldn’t have a family of their own that would tempt them to steal from the ruler. They couldn’t impregnate a princess or a queen or a mistress of the king. Some may have believed that castration made someone docile.

This extreme measure marked someone as different and dramatically limited their options in some ways while also providing them with close access to power. In this situation the Eunuch is not just a servant, but an important court official. He bears both privilege and old wounds. It is probable that the choice of castration was not his to make, and was made while he was quite young.

This man is traveling home from Jerusalem, in a chariot, but on a wilderness road. Again we see a combination of seemingly disparate details: a vehicle of distinction, but traveling an isolated road.

The story tells us that he was in Jerusalem to worship so he has a connection to the Jewish faith, even though he is an African and a eunuch. He is not identified as a gentile and this occurs two chapters before the Gentile conversions begin. So he may be part of the Jewish diaspora – a descendant of a Jew who was captured or fled during a time of war. When found by Philip, he is reading a scroll from Isaiah. He has access to scripture, but he doesn’t feel he can understand it on his own.

This man welcomes Philip, invites him to join him and shares what he has been reading. The passage reads:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him, who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Philip shares with him the good news about Jesus, and along the way as they come upon water, the eunuch chooses to be baptized. Philip baptizes him and then disappears and the man continues on his journey, rejoicing.

What is it that the eunuch discovers in Isaiah and in his conversation with Philip? Is it possible that the words about one who suffers as a lamb on the way to slaughter somehow speaks to this man’s experience of powerlessness, or wounding? Does the phrase “justice was denied him” resonate in a significant way?

And if Jesus embodies the description of the suffering servant found in Isaiah, in what way is that good news? What does the suffering of Jesus reveal about the character of God?

We see a God who chooses to enter human existence, experience it fully—both the good and the bad, and to follow it into some of the worst kinds of suffering that humanity can dole out. Consider that.
We see a God who says, “I have walked with you from the beginning of time, I care about you, but now I choose to really experience what it is that you as a human being experience.”

When you think of your own really real moments with God, do any of them involve a sense of comfort or connection with one who is acquainted with suffering, who knows what it is to be wounded, betrayed, rejected, or alone?

Is it not remarkable that God chose suffering as a way to more fully enter relationship with us?

Is that perhaps part of why the good shepherd can be trusted—because he has also been the sheep?

Philip told the eunuch the good news about Jesus. I imagine he started with the Isaiah passage and shared about the suffering of Jesus, but he probably also went on to talk about the resurrection—the great miracle in which something proved larger than death, and overturned all notions of what is possible.

The one who suffered so much returned from the grave bringing restoration, reconciliation, and redemption. As it turned out, Jesus’ wounds are not the final story—he is so much more than one who is wounded.

And the good news of Jesus indicates that so too are we—we are so much more than our wounds. We too have access to glory and resurrection and relationship with God.

So for this eunuch perhaps the good news of Jesus has something to do with discovering a God who enters into a life of wounds, and then offers us access to a redemption that transforms our wounds and draws us into glory.

The Eunuch didn’t get to this moment of conversion alone. As he revealed to Philip he needed someone to help him derive meaning from a puzzling passage of scripture. He needed someone to join him in the water, baptize him, and be a witness to the change he was experiencing.

Spiritual journeys are very hard to conduct in isolation. Certainly we are met by God when we are alone, and yet we often need a community of faith to help us understand scripture and our own encounters with God. We find ourselves wanting to talk with others so that we can integrate those experiences into the fabric of our lives and have witnesses to what is being transformed.

And we need places where we can share our wounds. If we pretend that they don’t exist, or bury them deep below the busyness of our lives, we can’t discover the reality that others have such wounds and be reminded that God, too, is marked by scars.

I find that is in the context of relationship with others and with God that the wounds become transformed. Through relationship the walls of our own private kingdoms collapse to make room for glory to move in. To make room for resurrection.

When you reflect on your own old scars and perhaps even new, fresh wounds, what does it mean to you that God chose to live into such wounds?

Does it matter? And if so, how?

And as you reflect on your own life, where has redemption and resurrection already appeared? In what ways are you so much more than your wounds?

And finally, where do you tell your stories? Your stories of wounding and transformation?

Who is able to benefit and be encouraged by your stories of conversion?