Paul’s Conversion

April 15, 2018

Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:1-19

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Are there things that you don’t like to do? Are there daily or weekly chores? Is there a to do list? We all have those tasks that we would rather not do, but we still must complete. Sometimes, we are give a job and it is a difficulty chore. It is no different for us or folks from past generations. Sometimes we get called to do something that we are unsure of, but are invited to serve none the less. A prime example is Ananias. He is aware of Saul. The church in Damascus has been talking about Saul and its members rightfully afraid of him — he has, after all, been dragging Christians out of house after house, throwing them into prison, and desiring their deaths.

That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.  But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest

So here is a man who is seeking to do harm to the followers of Jesus on behalf of the Jewish Religious Leaders. He has been given permission to arrest, jail and physically attack disciples. Ananias is called by the Lord to go a pray for Saul, lay hands on this persecutor and heal his sight. Can you imagine hearing that…

“You see, Ananias didn’t know what had just happened. He didn’t know that the risen Christ had confronted Saul on the road to Damascus just as Christ is now confronting him…”
Ananias didn’t know about Saul’s epiphany, he did as the Lord told him anyway. He trusted that Christ had a future purpose for Saul (verse 15) even though Saul’s past as he knew it seemed to point toward a different future.

In the end, then, Ananias’ decision to go to the house of Judas on Straight Street (verse 11) to lay hands on Saul was a decision to risk his life to do the will of God. The result of that reluctant leap of faith is that Saul’s eyes are opened and he is baptized, becoming part of (and eventually a leader in) the very church he sought to wipe out.

Paul’s conversion is one of the great stories of the early church, and it has rightfully inspired Christians from every generation. But hidden in its shadows is another inspiring story, and one to which we can more easily relate. We know nothing of Ananias beyond this story in the shadows. Acts does not tell us that he goes on to proclaim the gospel to the Gentiles, found churches in urban centers across the Roman Empire, stand true to the gospel while on trial for his faith over and again, and end up under house arrest in Rome awaiting a trial before Caesar. No, Ananias did not do any of these things so far as the author of Luke-Acts is concerned. All Ananias did was to obey Christ’s command to go pray with Saul so that Saul could do all those things. Without Ananias’ prayer, Saul spends the rest of his life as a blind man wondering what his life might have been.

Not all Christians are equipped to be apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, or teachers (Ephesians 4:11). But everyone can pray for and with those who have scorned the church and are scorned by the church. Not everyone can be Paul, but we all can and should be Ananias.

One of my favorite stories of listening to God and heeding the call comes from Corrie Ten Boom – who was arrested during WWII for sheltering Jews in her home in the Netherlands. She tells the story about prayer and forgiveness

“It was in a church in Munich that I saw him—a balding, heavyset man in a gray overcoat, a brown felt hat clutched between his hands. People were filing out of the basement room where I had just spoken, moving along the rows of wooden chairs to the door at the rear. It was 1947 and I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives.

“It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I liked to think that that’s where forgiven sins were thrown. ‘When we confess our sins,’ I said, ‘God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever. …’

“The solemn faces stared back at me, not quite daring to believe. There were never questions after a talk in Germany in 1947. People stood up in silence, in silence collected their wraps, in silence left the room.

“And that’s when I saw him, working his way forward against the others. One moment I saw the overcoat and the brown hat; the next, a blue uniform and a visored cap with its skull and crossbones. It came back with a rush: the huge room with its harsh overhead lights; the pathetic pile of dresses and shoes in the center of the floor; the shame of walking naked past this man. I could see my sister’s frail form ahead of me, ribs sharp beneath the parchment skin. Betsie, how thin you were!

[Betsie and I had been arrested for concealing Jews in our home during the Nazi occupation of Holland; this man had been a guard at Ravensbruck concentration camp where we were sent.]
“Now he was in front of me, hand thrust out: ‘A fine message, Fräulein! How good it is to know that, as you say, all our sins are at the bottom of the sea!’

“And I, who had spoken so glibly of forgiveness, fumbled in my pocketbook rather than take that hand. He would not remember me, of course—how could he remember one prisoner among those thousands of women?

“But I remembered him and the leather crop swinging from his belt. I was face-to-face with one of my captors and my blood seemed to freeze.

“You mentioned Ravensbruck in your talk,’ he was saying, ‘I was a guard there.’ No, he did not remember me.

“But since that time,’ he went on, ‘I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me for the cruel things I did there, but I would like to hear it from your lips as well. Fräulein,’ again the hand came out—’will you forgive me?’

“And I stood there—I whose sins had again and again to be forgiven—and could not forgive. Betsie had died in that place—could he erase her slow terrible death simply for the asking?

“It could not have been many seconds that he stood there—hand held out—but to me it seemed hours as I wrestled with the most difficult thing I had ever had to do.

“For I had to do it—I knew that. The message that God forgives has a prior condition: that we forgive those who have injured us. ‘If you do not forgive men their trespasses,’ Jesus says, ‘neither will your Father in heaven forgive your trespasses.’

“I knew it not only as a commandment of God, but as a daily experience. Since the end of the war I had had a home in Holland for victims of Nazi brutality. Those who were able to forgive their former enemies were able also to return to the outside world and rebuild their lives, no matter what the physical scars. Those who nursed their bitterness remained invalids. It was as simple and as horrible as that.

“And still I stood there with the coldness clutching my heart. But forgiveness is not an emotion—I knew that too. Forgiveness is an act of the will, and the will can function regardless of the temperature of the heart. ‘… Help!’ I prayed silently. ‘I can lift my hand. I can do that much. You supply the feeling.’

“And so woodenly, mechanically, I thrust my hand into the one stretched out to me. And as I did, an incredible thing took place. The current started in my shoulder, raced down my arm, sprang into our joined hands. And then this healing warmth seemed to flood my whole being, bringing tears to my eyes.

“I forgive you, brother!’ I cried. ‘With all my heart!’

“For a long moment we grasped each other’s hands, the former guard and the former prisoner. I had never known God’s love so intensely, as I did then”