Sunday, April 10, 2016

Conversion Conundrums: Acts 9:1-20 - Third Sunday of Easter

By Caravaggio - scan, Public Domain
1Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and 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. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul 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. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The 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, 12and 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.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15But 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; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17So 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.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
  For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus,
20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” 
I thought I was in for a quiet flight when I took my window seat next to a nine-year-old boy immersed in a fantasy novel...  Boy, was I mistaken…

As soon as I sit down, he asks me my name and he introduces himself, and he strikes up a lively conversation. 

I’m amazed at how outgoing this young man is, particularly because I had just taken a mandatory personality test, as I was entering seminary the following month.  I rated 82% on the introvert scale—which is a fancy way of saying that I’m as shy as a bat in broad daylight…

By the time the plane takes off, he asks the big question: “have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?”

For me, this wasn’t an easy question to answer—because I’d always been a Christian.  I didn’t have a profound conversion experience like he had when he answered an altar call at his family’s church.  As a future pastor, I felt quite uneasy that I didn’t possess the spiritual gift he had to share my faith so openly with complete strangers… 

Yet if there was ever a person unqualified for the ministry of Jesus Christ, that person would have to be Saul.  We first hear about Saul in Acts, chapter 7.  He’s a young man of high standing in the religious establishment—and authorizes the execution of Stephen, who was the first person to die for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.  Soon, he is going house to house, throwing Christians into prison.  Later, the religious authorities send him to Damascus with official papers authorizing him to arrest any and all who belonged to the Church, and take them in chains to Jerusalem. 

As he neared the city, a flash of light knocks him to the ground, and Jesus speaks as a thundering voice from heaven, revealing that he is the one Saul is persecuting.  He then commands Saul to get on his feet and go to Damascus.  His traveling companions must take him by the hand—because the encounter of Jesus has left him blind.

Meanwhile, Jesus appears to a disciple in Damascus named Ananias, and commands him to go to the house of Judas to lay hands upon the murderous ravager of the Church, whose reputation has clearly preceded him.  Naturally, Ananias objects to Jesus’ commands—but Jesus asserts that he is his chosen instrument to bring his name before Gentiles, rulers, and the people of Israel.  Ananias does as he’s told; scabs fall from Saul’s eyes, and the great persecutor of the Church becomes one of its most faithful laborers.  He gets a new name, a new life, and a new purpose.

This is what happens when we encounter the living Christ: there is resurrection.  There is conversion.  We receive a new identity, a new life, and a new purpose.  Yet for most of us, conversion is neither immediate nor dramatic…  Even if it is, it’s not uncommon for the novelty to quickly wear off as life returns to what it was before…

Speaking personally, I’m amazed at how quickly the joy of Easter Sunday wears off.  It was only two weeks ago, but, the way I feel it may as well have never even happened.  When the liturgy ended and we walked out of this building, we returned to a world that was every bit as threatening as it was on Good Friday.  As the pains and uncertainties of life stalk us like Saul did the early Christians, our Easter faith can quickly be consumed by desperation, fear, anger, and even hate.  Easter and resurrection mean nothing if all you can see is evil and death.

Conversion is, quite frankly, what we all need in this world so full of evil and death. 

What is rather ironic about Paul’s conversion is that his life was easy and quite prestigious before.  He was a kind of white knight, defending the defending the holiness of Jerusalem.  But now, life will be quite difficult. God sent him to people who were probably scared to death of him.  He will indeed suffer greatly for Jesus’ sake, just as Ananias is told.  The religious authorities conspire to assassinate him before Acts 9 closes out. 

Conversion is neither easy nor gentle; just ask Paul.   

It happens when you’re knocked to the ground; or when you’re so petrified with fear that you want to run away.  The reality of your sinfulness shatters your pride and can barrage you with so much shame that you won’t want to face the light of day.  Conversion happens when there’s no going back to the familiar and comfortable ways of yesterday.  It even happens when you’ve given up on Jesus. 

The challenge before us, then, is to ask: where is there shame?  Where is there hatred?  Where is there fear?  What are you desperate for?  The first part of conversion is the most painful—we must be crucified with Christ, every day.  But the second part of conversion is that we rise with Christ.  God sends into the world with a new heart, a new identity, and a new purpose.  God doesn’t necessarily send us to convert people, but the Holy Spirit creates conversion by what God sends us to do and through the people God sends us to serve.  It happens in relationships.  Saul and Ananias converted each other merely by obeying Jesus.  It happens to you and me through the strangers we serve.  We give it as we tell our stories of God’s faithfulness. 

Conversion is hardly a one-time event.  It is the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit, enacting Christ’s resurrection from the dead in you

So get ready, because God may send your life in a new direction. Get ready for God to send you to do difficult things in unexpected places.  Get ready to love and serve the Sauls in your world.  Get ready for change, healing, and new beginnings.

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