Everyone loves a good conversion story.
That’s why you always end up perched on the edge of your seat whenever someone tells an inspiring tale of living a smoldering train wreck of a life, but then one day “finding Jesus” and rising from the ashes in triumphant victory over the mortal sins of a sordid past.
With a doubt, conversion stories are nothing to sneeze at, particularly when the transformation narrative is peppered with lots of razzle-dazzle – like disembodied voices, mysterious flashes of light, and sudden onsets of blindness that mercifully end when “something like scales” fall away and restore sight.
Thanks be to God, another broken sinner has been saved!
And so it goes in this morning’s lesson from New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles as details of Saul’s conversion story capture your attention and hold you spellbound.
He’ll later be known as the apostle Paul. But for now, he’s Saul, who first steps into the biblical picture of couple chapters back in Acts. Stephen, one of the first deacons of the Church, is being stoned to death by the Jews for belonging to “The Way,” as the early Church was first known. Saul holds the coats of the men throwing the rocks, allowing them to throw with more lethal force and hit their hapless target with more deadly accuracy.
Saul is the baddest of the bad boys. He absolutely hates those Jews who embrace Jesus’s life and teaching.
No one has broken up as many churches as Saul has.
No one has dragged as many women away by their hair as Saul has.
No one has arrested more Christians than Saul has.
And now, Saul heads to Damascus on a zealous journey of persecution to root out even more members of Christ’s Church.
But on that dusty road to Damascus, Saul is stopped. Saul is blinded. Saul is saved.
Let the tidal wave of drama wash over your heart and mind as you listen for the Word of the Lord:
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. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
All who heard him were amazed! (Acts 9:1-21)
The spotlight understandably falls on Saul for the jaw-dropping change that conversion brings to his life.
But few people experience the kind of radical transformation that God brings to Saul.
So, as thoroughly impressive as the soul-saving events of these three days are, it’s hard for the average Christian to relate to Saul – at least it is for me, anyway.
I’m more inclined to relate to Ananias, whose conversion to discipleship in Christ apparently is so lackluster as to not even be worthy of biblical detail like Saul’s. Ananias is just another face in the faith community of newly minted Christians in Damascus.
Yet, the conversion of Ananias – however it took place – nonetheless produces game-changing results.
Like Saul, Ananias hears a voice, too. But unlike Saul, Ananias has no need to see someone speaking. Ananias recognizes the voice of God, because, presumably, Ananias has heard this voice before.
In his response, Ananias seems downright familiar with the voice – so much so that he engages the voice in conversation, pushing back against God’s marching orders to go on a mission of mercy to the vicious and mean-spirited Saul.
“I’ve heard about this guy, Lord, and he sounds like a bad actor. He’s done all kinds of nasty, bloody things to believers like me. Worse yet, the chief priests have given him the go-ahead to round up anyone who calls upon your name. And I’m one of them!”
Ananias in as much pleads with God: “Zoinks! Here I am, Lord, but send someone else.”
But God will have nothing of Ananias’s anxiety. The Lord poo-poos Ananias’s fear.
“Just go,” God demands. “I have big plans for Saul, and you’re among first links in my chain of events. So, get going!”
And Ananias goes – to that room at the house of Judas, crowded with Saul’s like-minded minions who led him there by the hand, no doubt shocked over the apparent demise of fallen leader. In Ananias’s worried mind, they’re likely ready to lash out in anger at the first stranger they see – and so much the better if he’s a Christian on whom they can feed their bloodlust.
Ananias has to be terrified that things could go horribly wrong in the blink of an eye. But Ananias goes anyway. His conversation demanded that he go!
He goes, because conversion is more than just assurance that you’ll one day be on the winning team when the saints go marching into heaven.
He goes, because conversion – or “being saved” – comes with submission to the desires of God.
He goes, because conversion – “being saved” or “accepting Christ” – comes with obedience to the work orders of the Lord, and it matters not how difficult, or intimating, or unraveling the job might be.
The mission of the reluctant Ananias cultivates a bountiful harvest: Saul is transformed from a persecutor of Christians to a “chosen instrument” called particularly to welcome outsiders into the fold of God.
And, perhaps more impressively for Ananias, a feared enemy becomes a brother in Christ.
Maybe, then, the take-away from all this drama is the truth that salvation signals reconciliation: Reconciliation of the strained relationship between you and God over the sins of your past, AND, reconciliation of the strained relationships between you and those whom God loves as much as God loves you.
Let me tell you a bedtime story – a friend’s bedtime story, really – that showcases the delicate threads making up the carefully woven tapestry of conversion, salvation and reconciliation.
My friend – let’s just call her Naomi – was praying before bed when God placed on her heart an unsettling message. God wanted her to reach out to a woman whose relationship with Naomi was, well, not entirely in sync with God’s desires for human relationship.
Both women attended the same church, and both were choir directors. Naomi had the job when the other woman and her family joined the church.
Now, this new family had a reputation in town for running people they didn’t like out of whatever church they joined – and they’d joined a lot of them. And this family wanted Naomi out as choir director and their kinswoman in.
Imagine Naomi’s surprise, then, when God placed on her heart the job of reaching out to the very woman who had designs on Naomi’s job!
Exactly what God wanted Naomi to say to the other woman wasn’t entirely clear. Something about cancer was all Naomi heard with any clarity, but the details remained murky.
Naomi rolled over in her mind God’s strange call to duty, even to the point of pushing back like Ananias did:
“Really, God! You want me to call this person who feels like the enemy – this person who seems ready to attack me and my job. You really want ME to call HER and mention something about cancer?! She’s just going to think I’m trying to intimate her or drive her out of church! I just know this isn’t going to end well.”
Naomi continued to wrestle with the message she’d received.
“I’m just hearing voices in my head. This can’t be the voice of God! Get behind me, Satan!”
Her cries signaled the start of a fitful night of sleeplessness. Naomi tried all the things that normally lull her to sleep: Reading, singing softly, counting sheep. She even tried saying the Lord’s Prayer but for whatever reason couldn’t remember all the words!
Naomi was frustrated to say the least.
Finally, about 4 a.m., Naomi figured out that it was God standing between her and a full night’s rest.
Drowsing off to the land of nod wouldn’t happen until Naomi answered God’s call to reach out to her church foe. So, Naomi decided to call the woman the next day, and with that response to God’s summons, she finally fell asleep.
“Oh my gosh, I hope she doesn’t answer the phone,” Naomi thought to herself as she dialed the number the next morning. Someone did answer, but it wasn’t the woman whom God put on Naomi’s heart. She wasn’t available at the moment, and Naomi breathed a sigh of relief, thinking that she was off the hook.
“I did what you asked, God. I called her, but she couldn’t talk. It’s over and done.”
But it wasn’t a done deal.
Later in the day, the woman returned Naomi’s call, curious about why Naomi rang her up out of the blue. So, Naomi told her: “God placed on my heart a message for you. Something about cancer.”
The other end of the phone fell silent, and Naomi thought the woman had hung up on her. But the woman on the other end of the line was still there, stunned to silence by what she just heard. Turns out, the woman had been resisting some encouragement to get a mammogram. Perhaps now she would heed the advice and have the test. She thanked Naomi for thecall.
Indeed, God through Naomi was speaking to that woman a message that just might save her life. And God was speaking to Naomi, too, with a simple message that speaks to the essence of salvation:
“Just stay close to me,” God says. “Just stay close to me and listen, so you can do what I want you to do.”
Naomi never learned how things worked out for the other woman cancer-wise. But the sweet fruit that Naomi tasted was a gradual easing of the simmering tension between her and the other woman. Their relationship felt less threatening, less competitive, and the woman showed some newfound respect for Naomi.
While the two never became fast friends, they nonetheless enjoyed a reconciliation of sorts that brought the two women a little closer than they were before. God unraveled the tense relationship between these two women, and enemies once locked in a competitive fight now saw each other a little more like God intends.
God unraveled a night of sleep, so two women might enjoy new identities as sisters in Christ and thus walk a path less taken.
In a flash in the middle of a road, God unravels Saul’s identity as a persecutor of Christ’s followers and invites him to blindly stumble onto a new way. His conversion requires Ananias, a disciple vulnerable to Saul’s threats, to lay hands on Saul’s eyes so that he might see the world anew.
Right about now, perhaps God would have each of us see the world anew.
As we watch the disturbing video of riots, flames and gunfire in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and elsewhere in this country, it surely feels like our world is unraveling. Our temptation is to lock the doors, bar the windows, and load the ammunition.
But those responses simply don’t support God’s desires and intentions for all people.
God calls each of us to the difficult and sometimes dangerous work of reconciliation and peacemaking – as God did with Ananias, as God did with my friend Naomi.
Let us go, as God commands, down the new trails blazed by the likes of Ananias and Naomi.
Let us reach across the aisle, reach across the picket line, and reach across the police line with olive branches of understanding and empathy, listening and learning, reconciliation and salvation.
Let us show that we care about the other, even if we don’t always see eye to eye with the other.
Sometimes God calls us into uncharted territory, and maybe our unraveling is what the Lord uses to grant us a holy, fresh start – for us and for others, even those whom we consider enemies.
For Christ’s sake, may it be so: Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant VanderVelden preached this message during worship on Sunday, August 30, 2020. It is the sixth sermon of his series, “Unraveled: Seeking God When Our Plans Fall Apart.” Commentary, reflection and scholarship by Lisle Gwynn Garrity, Scott Hoezee, Beth Scibienski, and Robert W. Wall inform the message. (Artwork: Lisle Gwynn Garrity, Restored, SanctifiedArt.org)