A sermon offered by The Reverend Ann Edwards
May 1, 2022
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It’s so easy to read the story of Saul’s conversion, knowing the ending, and thinking about it in light of the Paul we know, who would go on, with Peter, to lead the church. But let’s instead put ourselves into the shoes of Luke’s contemporary audience.
Saul had consented to the death of Stephen, and watched on as he stood with the cloaks of those that would kill him, and a great persecution of the nascent church began. Saul did great damage, going house to house to drag men and women to prison. As a result, the apostles were been scattered, and the news of Jesus’s teaching, death, and resurrection was carried to Samaria and Ethiopia as a result. And here we pick up the story of Saul – Luke writes:
9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest
9:2 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.
Saul not only struck out at the new emerging church, but he breathed threats and murder.
Luke has painted for us a dangerous, violent, and evil man who scattered the church, who people followed, and who knew how to influence the council and chief priest in his quest to extinguish the church, getting written authority to do so. Now, Saul is going on to Damascus to continue this quest. Just as the Gospel is spreading, persecution intends to follow.
We know this trope, don’t we? Evil ends with the villain’s death. We see that in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it carries through into our modern story telling. The readers would be expecting Saul to either win,or be conquered, like pop culture criminal masterminds, the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, or the very scary Voldemort.
9:3 Now as Saul was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.
9:4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Just as he is about to reach the Church in Damascus, there is a divine intervention. When Saul is blinded, this should be the end of the story. In the Hebrew Scriptures, and in other writings of the time, when the sight of an adversary is divinely obscured, the hero steps in to finish them off. As the story reads, we should expect a satisfying comeuppance of the villain as the narrative continues.
Here we go – we might think – he’s about to be smitten. Are we going to have a pillar of salt, or will some other awful end come to this villain. What we’re not expecting is a conversation at this point. Luke is about to flip our expectations on their head.
9:5 Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…
This is a new type of encounter with the risen Christ. This time, Jesus inhabits the type of self-revelation of God that we know from the Old Testament. There is a blinding light and unmistakably divine voice speaks. Luke shows us the divinity of Jesus – there is no mistake, Jesus is the Son of God, the Christ, and the Messiah.
Still, Saul has no idea who it is that comes to him. “Who are you, Lord?” he asks.
What will Jesus say to this evil man, this persecutor, this wolf that stalks and decimates the flock. It’s judgement time, right? Jesus says:
9:6 … get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
9:7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
Wait – what? What’s going on here? This begins to look a lot like God calling a prophet. But how could that be?
This is Jesus – the one who has previously been present miraculously, but in human form. The Jesus who was himself a prophet. The one that was declared loved by a divine voice at his baptism. Now instead of Jesus being heralded and affirmed the divine voice, Jesus is the source of the divine voice. The nature of the church changes forever, as Jesus’s revelation and commission is now passed on to the early church, and Jesus calls new leaders for the work that continues.
But Saul? Saul is not prophet material – he is the one that would be finished off in the good old days. Surely this persecutor of Jesus will not now just follow these instructions. The signs are, however, unmistakeable – like Moses and Elijah before, Saul sees and hears God, witnessed in part by those with him, who could not see Jesus because this epiphany is not for them. And so….
9:8 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.
9:9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Remember that Acts was written in close parallel to the Gospel of Luke. Within this story, we have another nested parallel to the Gospel. Saul falls to the ground, as though dead. Obediently, he follows Jesus. While his sight had been temporarily obscured, Saul had with him men and his sharp faculties remained. Don’t mistake his sightless state as powerlessness . He chooses to follow the instruction given.
And just as Jesus would not eat again with his friends, until he had been dead for three days, and then resurrected, Saul neither ate nor drank. After three days, he would have been weak and pale, as well as being no longer able to see. He has lost the use of his vision, and given over his autonomy to follow the voice of Jesus to a place where he does not know what will happen again. His earthly authority and power has been shed. He must be nearly unrecognisable, and he just has to wait. We will discover he is praying, when Luke continues the story:
9:10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.”
9:11 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,
9:12 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.”
Curious, isn’t it, that he had a vision during the time his sight was taken from him. We can only imagine the power of that moment for Saul. Saul had handed himself over to Jesus, and like Jesus and God the Father before him, Saul obediently followed Jesus, and before acting, retreated to prayer.
9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;
9:14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
Now, Ananias is a good and faithful servant. Unlike Saul, Ananias questions the direction of Jesus. He puts voice to Luke’s audience’s surprise and doubt. Of all the people, in all the world, this is the person doing your church the most evil. Surely you don’t send me to him, for any reason, and especially not to restore him.
9:15 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;
9:16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
9:17 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.”
9:18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized,
Saul got up, after giving himself over to the prayer of Ananias, and when his sight was restored, he continued in obedience to Jesus and was baptised.
The sightlessness was not a punishment, but a way through which Saul could physically enter into the Gospel story, and it was formative for his ministry. He had to stop relying on his own assessment and power and becomes, as all good servants should be, obedient.
9:19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
9:20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
The NRSV translates in 9.19 as “regained his strength” but perhaps a better translation would be to say Saul “strengthened”, which reads less elegantly but is a more literal translation of the Greek word, ἐnίskysen. This is important, because the type of strength Saul gains, after giving over his life and direction to Jesus was a new strength, and not the same type of potency and power he had wielded before. It isn’t his strength – this is the strength gifted by the Holy Spirit, and by entering into community, being fed and cared for, and having purpose.
It is in this strength, that Saul will go on to proclaim Jesus in the very same synagogues for which he had intended to search and weed out the followers of Christ.
At the beginning of acts 9, Saul was a persecutor of the church, by its end, Paul is a powerful prophet and leader. While we call this story the conversion of Saul, really, it is the revelation of Jesus the Christ. It is also the commissioning of Paul, the prophet and church leader.
Ananias had a shift of his own. He resisted going to Saul. Understandably, Ananias could not understand God’s intent. And yet, against his own judgement, Ananias went and was transformed when he was there and met the Saul. His prayer was gracious and honoured God’s call to him.
The story of the conversion of Saul on the road to Damascus speaks a profound truth about Jesus. Just as Jesus was affirmed by his Father God, retreated to him in prayer, and walked obediently in the face of human expectations, so Paul and the church were called by Jesus to do the same thing. Jesus was revealed to Paul in the same manner as God the Father was revealed to Moses – with unbearable light and a divine voice – and the story of that revelation is to be treasured, taught, shared and lived. Jesus is active in the life of the church, and will call those we least expect. This truth informs the theology and teaching of Paul, and this story helps us to understand what it means when Paul says Baptism is to be baptised into the death of Christ.
What do we think when we hear the word “conversion”? Is it a decision to switch to a particular faith? What if we give conversion its full meaning – to transform, to metamorphose? An encounter with Jesus did just this for Paul, and led him to fulfilling a new role in God’s kingdom. Conversion does more than help the individual – it changes their function in their community, church, and world. Saul is commissioned as a biblical prophet in the line of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel
We know from last week that the hero of Acts is the Holy Spirit, and the gospel – the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Encountering Jesus gives rise to transformation, and encountering those that have encountered Jesus can give rise to transformation. That’s how the Gospel is shared – not just in words, but by in words shared in encounter. And there is a cost. Temporary sightlessness metaphorically opened Saul’s eyes to see the need to follow instead of lead, and to hand over his own expectations of others and for his own future. Ananias also set aside his own reservations and fear, and in facing this once potent enemy, saw one who breathed threat and murder transformed by love. We should reject the idea that leadership and ministry require self sufficiency, strength, and power, when Saul and Ananias model vulnerability, just as Jesus did before them.
Luke shows us vulnerability in Saul’s loss of sight and Ananias’s fear of Saul. When faced with privation, the temporary loss of something that we usually possess, the ability to let go of expectations and wait can form good ministers and prophets. This is different, of course, from deprivation, or lacking something essential to survival and well-being. In Hebrew Scripture – temporary speechlessness, imprisonment, being swallowed by a whale, or losing sight make ministers and prophets. For us, recognising that temporary privation, by happenstance or by disciplined choice, with prayer can help us untether from our mistaken idea of independence, help us to learn to rely on others, and can make us patient. Including those experiencing privation in our communities is equally transformative, as we learn to slow down for the other, to share and support, and to sit together with God. To learn to live in a community where we love one another, as we love ourselves, the lesson of letting go of our expectations for ourselves is a good start.
This runs counter to the idea that God blesses those he loves with material wealth, power, and bodily health – Saul shows us that quite the opposite is true, and as his ministry continues, he will know suffering and imprisonment full well. Prophets have never had an easy time of it, speaking truth is unpopular. He is cared for and helped, as he teaches, cares, and supports others. We can remember that it is to Love and prophesy that Paul was called, and to love and truth Paul would call those that followed him.