(Note: this sermon is the second in a two-part sermon series looking at Acts 9 and the conversion of Saul to Paul. The sermons are in the first-person. This sermon is written from the perspective of Paul; the previous sermon was from Ananias' point of view).
Acts 9: 10-19a
July 15, 2012
But it’s hard to see that, I know. Christianity does a marvelous job of telling just half of my story. When people think of me, they think of “Paul,” an apostle of Jesus Christ. They think about the three missionary journeys and all the letters I wrote. They see a fervent believer in Jesus who would do just about anything to share the gospel.
And that’s true, of course – that’s who I had become. But it wasn’t who I had been. The truth of the matter is this: to appreciate Paul, you have to get to know Saul first. And that’s why I’m here today.
I was born in the port city of Tarsus, north of what they call today Syria. I couldn’t have asked for a better upbringing, really. My father was a Hellenistic Jew, which meant that he was Jewish to the core, but he was also part of the Greek aristocracy. And not only that, but my father was a Roman citizen – a commanding status symbol of our time. Translation: I had it made!
Early on I recognized my love for God’s Law. It’s kind of hard to explain my obsession with it. I guess it just helped everything around me make sense, you know? It gave it some context and some meaning. It gave my life meaning. And believe me, in the craziness that was the ancient world, I needed all the meaning I could get! Our Torah is so much more than just a simple list of guidelines and rules. I was brought up to believe that following God’s Law was not only being faithful to God but brought me into fellowship with God.
As with most young Jewish boys, my father taught me the Torah early on. Later I went to Jerusalem and synagogue school. I just couldn’t get enough of the Torah; I had this insatiable appetite. I was obsessed with trying to follow and live it. I was a model student; and before I even finished school, folks started putting me up on the pedestal, telling me I’d be one of the greatest Pharisees. They meant that as a compliment, you understand!
There was only one other thing that surpassed my zeal for the Law – and that was my disgust for those who disregarded it. Especially those Jesus-followers. I mean, I just could not understand why other people – good, reasonable Jews like me – would ever want to follow Jesus, be his disciples, and – worse yet – proclaim him as the Messiah, God’s anointed one.
Now, I know it may be hard for you to hear this – after all, your very presence here is due to those folks I was working so hard to persecute. But please try to understand where I was coming from. For me, the Torah was the embodiment of the Almighty God in our midst. It had to be followed to the letter, literally. And Jesus totally changed all that. Of course, now I understand that he came, as the apostle Matthew said, to fulfill the law. But all I could see at the time was a man who had no regard for the law. None! He healed people on the Sabbath. He fellowshipped with those our faith told us not have any contact with. And to top it all off, he proclaimed himself as God’s only son. As far as I was concerned, Jesus was a fraud – that’s why the world wound up putting him to death. And I was determined to make sure that anyone who followed him met the same fate.
So you can see how I quickly gained a reputation as a persecutor of these “followers” – revered by my peers and feared by my targets. And I gotta say – I was pretty good at it! I had a plan and it worked like a charm. Here’s what I’d do: I’d pick out a city and write all the synagogue leaders there. I’d ask them for the names and addresses of those in their flock who’d been swayed by the teachings of Jesus and embraced this radical and perverted faith. Then I’d travel to that city, list in hand, and seek those individuals out one by one. Believe me, I was quite good at my work.
All of that changed, of course, the day that I made my way to Damascus. You know the story, I’m sure – Jesus coming to me on the road, blinding me with his presence, and asking the question that even now reverberates in my head, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Let me tell you something: meeting Jesus on the road like I did tends to leave a bit of a mark! But you know what experience had an even greater impact on me? It wasn’t the bright light or the voice of Jesus. No, what really worked on my heart in a way my legal-minded self could never explain was the blindness – three whole days that I couldn’t see a thing.
I wonder – have you ever lost your sight for some period of time? Maybe you were blindfolded for a game, or maybe you were trying to walk around your house in the dark of night. Do you know how disorienting that can be, when that blindness goes on and on and on; and you truly have no idea if you’ll ever get your sight back? Do you know how that makes a man like me feel? Because see, that blindness was about more than just not having sight. It was about being vulnerable – for the first time in my life, really. That was the most unsettling part of the whole thing. There I was, the great Saul, reduced to a stumbling fool down the streets of Damascus. Taken to a home of someone I’d never met; having no idea what they’d do with me. This was not my style! This was not the way I rolled! And so there I sat – in the home of a Jesus-follower, nonetheless! – waiting for some man named Ananias to come and give me back my sight. If he ever came at all.
Three days, without sight. You know what that’ll do to you? Among other things, it forces you to put your mind to work. And that’s what I did – I did a lot of thinking those three days. A whole lot of it. I thought about this Jesus, who obviously had demonstrated to me quite dramatically that he was not the fraud I thought he was. I thought about those people I was with, people I only knew from the sounds I heard. Amazing people they must be, to have their hated enemy in their midst and take care of me like that.
But you know what I thought about the most about during those three sightless days? I thought about my life and what would become of it. It was obvious to me that things would never be the same; that I couldn’t keep doing what I always had. This Jesus, who I had always despised, he was real! So what would that mean for me? What would that mean for the rest of my life?
I remember thinking that when I heard the door open and immediately knew in my mind that it was this Ananias Jesus had spoken of in my vision. I couldn’t see him, of course, but I could hear him walking over to me, the steps getting closer and closer. I was halfway expecting a slap in the face or kick in the gut, but what I got instead were his hands placed softly on my shoulder. And these were hands of love, mind you – a love which far surpassed any loyalty to the Law I’d ever encountered. It was a love that could only come from Jesus. And it was a love that made this blind man see again.
I know you all today talk about my conversion “on the road to Damascus.” But if you want to know the truth of it, the real moment of turning for me was in that room three days later, when Ananias came to me and laid hands on me and baptized me into the fellowship of believers. And you know, even to this day I am still utterly amazed by the contrast of it all. Think about it – I had used my hands over the years to persecute these people, and now they were using theirs to, quite literally, instill the spirit of Jesus in me. And with that spirit, I would be changed forever. Once a thorn in their side, I would now become their brother and ally. Once a man who scoffed at Jesus, I would now willingly lay down my life for him. Once a man who tried to do everything in his power to snuff out the Good News, I would now become its greatest champion. And I’d do it all just as passionately as I did everything in my life before – three long missionary journeys, numerous letters to churches, a zeal for the Lord that would never die.
It wasn’t easy at first, of course. It never is. I knew there were many in my new community of faith who would doubt my sudden “conversion” and be suspicious of my motives. On the other side, there were former Pharisee colleagues of mine who assumed I had suffered some mental breakdown from which I would never recover. Perhaps over time the doubts on both sides would diminished and everyone would accept me for the new man I had become. Perhaps.
And I guess that’s part of the reason why I don’t really think about what happened as a “conversion,” you know? For me, it felt more like a “call.” There’s a difference. Conversion suggests a turning from one direction to another – and that’s great and all. But the thing is, conversions don’t always wind up sticking. Because in the end, there’s not always something to keep you from turning back to where you were before.
But a call – now that’s different. A call is not as much about an outward turning as an inward transformation. And when change happens on the inside – well, that just seems to be a bit more permanent, you know? More importantly, though, a call isn’t as much about what you do as what God does. When God calls you, there’s a sense that you are a changed person – that you can’t keep living your life and doing the things you did before. You just can’t. Because you don’t want to. There’s something new at work inside you, and it’s leading you in a different direction than before. And you’re not really having to fight it, because you actually enjoy where it’s taking you and who you’re becoming along the way. It’s not any easier – it’s not like your life is suddenly free of burdens or temptations. It just feels right - like it’s the person you were meant to be all along.
And see, I think ultimately that’s the call that God places on each of us – to follow Jesus wherever he takes us. And the great thing is, you don’t have to be blinded for three days or made vulnerable and exposed to realize this. I’m here today to tell you that my entire life is a testimony to the fact that God has a purpose for each one of us, if only we listen to his voice and act upon it. And as long as we remember that God’s vision may be vastly different from ours, we’ll be okay. As long as we follow the call, we’ll forever be in God’s hands.
So listen – if you ever feel like you can’t quite live up to the calling, if you ever wonder whether God’s plans are too much to handle, just remember a religious fanatic who met Jesus on the road one day and, after three days of blindness, came to see the truth of it all. That truth, my friends, is a calling to serve Jesus with your whole life. The question for you this morning is this: how will you respond to your call? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.