Sunday, April 18, 2010

The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-20)

I have, on occasion, encountered people with bad breath. But even so, I have never thought of that breath as actually murderous, which must mean that Luke is talking about something different here when he describes Saul.

He has transformed from the bystander who watched Stephen's execution to someone who actively fights this new "way" and its followers. Remember, Saul is a devout Jew who obeys all the commandments. To him, these people who try to suggest that God has some kind of "son" or that this teacher of theirs is somehow like God is the worst kind of blasphemy. The first thing he says in the morning and the last thing he says every night is the shema, the Hebrew prayer from Deuteronomy that says "Hear, O Israel, the Lord is your God, the Lord is One."

To him, these people are attacking his God, and prison is the least they deserve for it. So he gets some warrants and heads out to Damascus to round some of them up who've fled Jerusalem. Along the way, he has a little problem (I know people who like to suggest that he was riding a ass, or donkey, and that the voice from the Heavens literally knocked him off his...donkey. No way to prove that, but there are definite parallels with hearing a call to ministry).

In his vision, Saul learns that instead of defending God as he thought he was doing, he was actually attacking him! He was not God's friend but his enemy. Now blind, he enters Damascus in a much different way than he had thought he would. For three days, he fasts.

Put yourself inside his head. What will happen to him now? Will the followers of this new way find him and take their revenge? Is his blindness permanent, God's punishment for his opposition to the divine plan? How would it feel to be someone who learns that the God you thought you were serving turns out to be the God you were attacking? Alone in a strange city, lost, sightless and unsure of the future he thought he had mapped out.

Across the city lives a disciple named Ananias. God appears to him in a vision and tells him to go to this man Saul and heal him. Ananias demurs, quite sensibly from our point of view. Saul has been a great threat to the followers of the Way and now, made sightless, his threat is neutralized. Wouldn't it be safer to leave him that way? No, God says. I have plans for him. Do what I ask.

So Ananias does. He finds the house where Saul is and goes to him. Now put yourself in his head. Before you is a man who has threatened people of your faith. Because of them, some had to flee their homes. Some are in prison and have lost everything. Some may even have died. And this guy, who is responsible for it, is right in front of you, now sightless and his threat removed.

Do you have second thoughts about what God told you to do? Do you maybe think you'll do what God asks, but after you pop the guy one on the snoot for all your pals whose lives he's messed up? Sure, Lord, I'll lay hands on him all right...

Whatever Ananias thinks, he does lay his hands on Saul, but in healing and welcome rather than vengeance and violence. The first words from his mouth are "Brother Saul." I believe that Ananias' actions gave Saul his sight, but it was those words that truly healed him. To be welcomed by one of the ones who you'd have had marching back to Jerusalem in chains, to be called "brother" by him? I think that worked the miracle of healing on the guilt-wracked, crushed spirit of Saul.

And I say that knowing that when I give myself a performance review on this issue, I am not happy with the results. I'm too often someone who wants to win the fight between me and someone who thinks differently, rather than someone who wants to win the soul. We Christians have that awesome responsibility when we discuss the gospel with someone. We live in faith that we have been accepted by God when we didn't deserve it, and that the events we marked just two weeks ago -- the resurrection of the Lord -- bears out our faith and assures us we are right.

If we have the right answer on a quiz we're right on some issue of policy or fact, then obviously the point of discussing that with someone is to demonstrate our correct thinking. Teachers don't take votes on how to solve quadratic equations.

But this right answer involves much more than simple accuracy. It involves a relationship with God that God gave us despite how little we deserved it and which God offers to everyone else on the same conditions. If Ananias had his debate with Saul about the correctness of Saul's theology, he would have won. If he had pointed how how many ways Saul got things wrong and how wrong he got them, he would have won. But Ananias did not do those things. He offered the healing that God directed him to offer, and he welcomed Saul as a brother in Christ.

And to paraphrase Paul -- Harvey, that is -- you already know the rest of that story.

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