This week our Church celebrates two great missionaries–Peter and Paul. Often when we talk about conversion in the Christian life, there can be almost a rivalry between the idea of our life-changing conversion as a particular moment (i.e. I remember on such-and-such date, praying to Jesus with my whole heart and soul, for the first time, telling Him I was ready to be his disciple) or a process that happens over time in a way that we can’t really pinpoint a date or even month when it happened. A “this” or “that competition between moment and process, however, is plain ridiculous. But, it’s a temptation we Christians seem to be prone to!
The lives of Peter and Paul give us examples of both.
When the divine voice speaks to Paul in Acts Ch 9, Paul responds, “who are you?”
Now, Paul had never been on a “quest” for God. He may have been like many of us, raised up in a religious setting (for him the Pharisee revival within Judaism), always remembering praying, worshiping in Temple, etc. Yet, at this moment he hears God speak through his Son, and asks who are you? Paul knew the voice of God enough (from his life of prayer) to know this was God–and yet still had this new question, who are you?
Paul remembers this specific date and time. He speaks of it again and again to others. It’s a touch point for him. A concrete, real experience of conversion that gives his life a new and definitive trajectory that he doesn’t waver from. Paul gains a sense of his specific calling and mission, and an understanding of where God’s plan is headed, that God will be gathering the scattered of all the earth–even the Gentiles!–into one family.
Looking at Peter’s life, we see more of a process of conversion into God’s plan for us to be missionary disciples to all the world. Peter encounters Jesus, recognizes his own unworthiness, and follows Jesus as Lord early on (Lk 5:1-11). Later, Peter stands out among the Twelve, making a clear confession of Jesus as Messiah–the Savior sent of God (Mt 16:16). Yet, Peter falters from his discipleship, strays from following Jesus most profoundly in this three denials leading up to Jesus’ saving death on the cross. Peter repents and returns to Jesus’ love, however, and through this on-going process of conversion starts to grasp the breadth and depth of truly missionary discipleship. Of how far God’s love is meant to go. Of the Twelve, Peter is the one who hears God’s communication of how non-Jews are to become part of God’s family. While praying before lunch one day, Peter hears a divine voice say: “What God has made clean, you are not to call profane” (Acts 10:15). And he doesn’t know what to make of it. But, as Peter continues to follow the Holy Spirit’s lead, it becomes clear. God’s plan is for a radically open discipleship that can even include the “unclean” Gentiles! Peter goes on to passionately advocate for this stance of missionary discipleship between the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). And yet, Peter pulls back from this missionary discipleship later on, as we hear from Paul that Peter “began to draw back and separate himself” from Gentiles (Gal 2:12). Nonetheless, Peter recovers. Again 🙂 and goes on to participate in God’s mission fully, even to the point of giving his own life. Peter offers us a vivid and authentic portrait of conversion as a process.
The important thing for Peter, for Paul, and for each of us, is that our conversion to becoming a disciple of Christ happen. And that once we follow Jesus as Lord, we become fully open to his Holy Spirit, leading us to be missionary disciples in the world around us. There’s no need to think our conversion more or less “real” than any other believer’s, so long as we know the love of God and know of our relationship with Him and the mission God empowers us for.