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Ever Deeper Relationship with the Divine: On Conversion and the Absence of Jesus

Denson Staples
Sun, May 28

Text: Acts 1:6-14, Acts 17:22-34

Today marks my last Sunday with you as a ministerial intern. It is also Ascension Sunday, marking the moment that Jesus is lifted up into the heavens before the eyes of the disciples. While I had high hopes of departing from the church today through a dramatic reenactment of the Ascension, it turns out none of today’s worship leaders were willing to throw me in a harness and hoist me into the air to depart through the roof, for some odd reason. Something about a retractable roof not being part of the capital campaign—go figure! So, I guess we’ll all have to settle for a departing sermon.

Today’s passages from the Acts of the Apostles address one of the key questions I have grappled with during my time at Harvard Divinity School and First Church: how must we live? What models for human life are uplifted by this book we call the Bible? Regardless of how strongly you identify with the terms “Christian” or “Christianity,” how do we live out the teachings encapsulated in the words and deeds of Jesus?

I think we find a few answers in The Acts of the Apostles. You see, Acts kicks off with the Ascension—and subsequent absence—of Jesus. Like us, the apostles are left to determine how to live in what seems like the absence of Jesus. What they do, then, might be instructive for us.

In considering the model the apostles leave us, let’s begin with what might seem like an unusual topic: conversion. If you are like me, the idea of converting others to one’s own view of the world—much less one’s religion—is uncomfortable. And, yet, this is often how the story of Paul preaching in the Areopagus is discussed. Indeed, it has long been used to suggest that the conversion of the world to Christianity is a central task for all Christians. And this interpretation is not entirely unreasonable given that the dominant theme of Acts is salvation unto the ends of the earth. But I think rather than focusing solely on saving or converting others, The Acts of the Apostles is also concerned with how to save one’s own spiritual life.

What do I mean? Well, in the current historical moment, the term ‘conversion’ often conjures up images of persuading others to become Christian. In today’s understanding, conversion is, in short, aimed at bringing others around to one’s own religious sensibility.

And, yet, this is but one understanding of the term, albeit the most common today. Prior uses of the verb “to convert” in English meant something like “to turn around,” or “to send in a new direction.” In fact, the meaning of conversion in English comes from the Latin word convertere, meaning “turn around.” The prefix “con” means “altogether,” while “vertere” means “turn.” To turn altogether or turn around completely is the Latin sense of the word.

What happens when we read The Acts of the Apostles with an eye for moments of conversion: that is, moments when things or people are turned around completely?

In this new light, I think today’s passages just might contain moments of conversion. But this is a conversion or turning around not of others who are deemed sinners—rather, we glimpse in these passages conversions of the self.

Let’s take Acts 1, for example. Here, Jesus is depicted as a commissioner. His final words charge the apostles to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and then broadening out to Judea and Samaria, and finally extending that witness even further: to the ends of the earth. And then he is gone. Just like that, their great teacher and guide is lifted up and taken from their presence. Acts tells us that the apostles were gazing toward the heavens, seeming to search for their Jesus where they last caught a glimpse of him before he disappeared into the clouds. The text leaves us with a sense of searching; what longing the apostles might have felt in the wake of Jesus’ sudden departure.

So, what do we do in what seems to be the absence of Jesus? What did the apostles do in what seemed to be the absence of Jesus?

On this, Acts is clear. An enigmatic visitation by two men in white occurs; in this moment, the apostles are chastised for searching for Jesus in the clouds, and then they are roused to action. Acts is careful to illustrate the apostles as moving from one state of activity to another. First, they are described as gazing longingly for traces of Jesus in the external world, searching for him in the physical form they had always known him to take. Second, they return to Jerusalem and, joined by certain women and others, begin to pray. They move from the relatively inactive state of gazing to a more active state of traveling and, importantly, praying. In other words, Acts 1 depicts an internal journey of the apostles: parallel to their travels from the mount of Olivet to Jerusalem, we catch a glimpse of their journey from a somewhat idle longing and searching to the act of praying. In fact, Acts regularly refers to prayer as an activity of the earliest followers of Jesus. How important to acknowledge this today: Acts, which is thematically concerned with salvation unto the ends of the Earth, emphasizes prayer as a recurring, indispensable activity for those who live in the wake of Jesus’ apparent departure from their lives.

But what we cannot overlook about this passage is that prayer is the result of a change. Yes, Acts regularly refers to prayer as an activity of the earliest followers of Christ, but in Acts 1 this only occurs after the apostles are prompted. They turn to prayer only after turning from cloud gazing. Acts depicts turning inward to a life of prayer as a fruitful starting point for the apostles’ search for Jesus, rather than turning outward to find Jesus in the world or, most importantly, to convert others. If any conversion takes place at all, in fact, it is the conversion of the apostles. That journey from idle searching, albeit earnest, to prayerful activity is, I think, a moment of conversion: of completely turning around. And so, too, I hope, with us. Perhaps, like the apostles, prayer is how you gain a greater sense of the divine. For many of us, other practices, “spiritual” or otherwise, are what we turn to as we search for meaning and God. I think Acts prompts us to consider what conversions we must undergo. What has hindered my relationship with the divine? What would lead me to turn from these things? What new activity is the world or God prompting you to turn to as you search for your God?

Acts 1 shows us that in the immediate wake of Jesus’ departure, the Apostles respond by devoting themselves to prayer. Seventeen chapters later, Paul searches for God in an especially public format with which we are all familiar: preaching. And what a sermon it is. Paul has traveled to Athens, the intellectual capital of Greece and the entire Mediterranean world at that time. There, he preaches about his own understanding of God and the resurrection of Jesus, but he does so in an especially peculiar way. You see, Paul’s Areopagus sermon is absent of many of the features characteristic of Pauline theology. Case in point: Jesus is mentioned nowhere by name. How odd. After all, this is Paul, the man who had once dedicated his life to persecuting Christians, only to then join the early followers of Christ with such ardor and conviction that he is today one of the most well-known disciples. He delivers this sermon in Greece, perhaps the most famous stage upon which he would ever preach. With such a platform and a reputation for spreading the teachings of Jesus, why would he possibly choose now to avoid explicitly naming that teacher?

This question has plagued many students and practitioners of Christianity. And the answers to this question range widely. One idea is that it was illegal to preach about foreign gods in Athens, and so Paul’s sermon avoided naming outright ideas about God that would have been foreign in this context. One of the more popular explanations turns Paul’s sermon into a model for cross-cultural or inter-religious engagement. Indeed, Paul’s sermon is held up as a model for how to proselytize Christianity to those of other ethnic and cultural heritages. He incorporates notions about God that were popular in Athens into his sermon alongside his own beliefs. Paul even goes so far as to quote two Greek poets: in God, we live and move and have our being, and we are the very offspring of God. Paul draws from Greek poetry to illustrate his own belief about our intimacy and closeness with God, and the transcendence of God beyond human imagination. Even when mentioning the resurrection, Paul avoids explicitly naming Jesus. Perhaps this is the world’s shrewdest cross-cultural sermon ever.

But I hesitate at that conclusion. Rather than Paul quoting poetry and theological notions from another culture for the purposes of rhetorical persuasion or to evade the law, I want to imagine that Paul deeply believed the words of his own sermon. I want to imagine that Paul chose to adopt this new language about the divine because it truly stirred something within him, that it resonated profoundly with what he felt and knew to be true about God. If that’s the case, then Paul’s sermon at the Areopagus is not merely some shrewdly conceived attempt to convert others, but rather an authentic expression of his own beliefs. While the language differs from his usual theology, it does not have to be reduced to proselytizing prose. Rather, in the poetry and ideas of this cultural context that was not his own, perhaps Paul found language that actually renewed or deepened his understanding of God. In this iconic sermon, Paul turns from his usual language, ideas, and constructions about God and adopts new ones. And I know that newfound language and understanding about God is not foreign to us here at First Church. Just two weeks ago, Rev. Dr. Karin Case preached about the gendered language we use about God and how limited our ideas about God become when we opt for exclusively masculine descriptions of the divine. Like Paul, some of us turn to embrace or adopt new language and ideas about the divine because they enrich our understanding of God. And maybe these new ideas even open the possibility for closer connection with that God. Like Paul, some of us turn not from one religion to another in our moments of conversion, but rather we turn from our long-held language and notions about God to different language and ideas that help highlight aspects of God that our previous language may have overlooked.

Conversion is so often associated with ideas about “salvation to the ends of the earth,” that dominant theme of The Acts of the Apostles. We must ask what the nature of this conversion is. In the wake of Jesus’ departure, the apostles themselves are depicted in moments of conversion. They turn from searching for Jesus in the world to devoting themselves to prayer. Paul turns from his tried-and-true imaginings of God to new language and poetry that expands his typical theological repertoire and deepens his understanding of the divine. Just as the apostles turn completely, so, too, might we devote ourselves to renewing, transforming, and growing our relationship with God. Maybe this happens through prayer or embracing new ideas and language about God. But what seems clear is that only in this stronger, deeper commitment to our relationship with the divine might we find something that resembles, or is worthy of being called, “salvation.” In the seeming absence of God or Jesus, the apostles pray. They broaden their conceptions of God. Perhaps in this way, they grope for and find a relationship with God that is of salvific proportions. They act to save their own spiritual lives.

We, too, do well to act to save our spiritual lives: through dedication to prayer, through pushing the bounds of our notions of God, or through some other means entirely. But if we take The Acts of the Apostles seriously, we must turn completely. We must be converted. Perhaps this continuous conversion of the self to deeper and ever-deeper relationship with sacredness is the kind of salvation worthy of being talked about far and wide—yes, maybe even unto the ends of the Earth.

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