Our first introduction to Saul occurs at the stoning of Steven Acts 7:58:
Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Saul is a Zealous Jewish Pharisee, fiercely loyal to his Jewish convictions and heritage, and also characterized as a man of violence. Saul’s religious righteousness and zealousness become a burning rage within him. Threatened, outraged, full of consternation, that people were proclaiming that Jesus crucified had been resurrected and sits at the right hand of God. Saul persecuted those who saw Jesus as the messiah and who had introduced this new movement within the heart of Judaism called “The Way”. The debate within the many groups in 1st century Judaism is intensifying. Judaism was becoming a large tent of Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, and these new Jesus people, who belonged to what was called the Way. Disagreements arose about the nature of true Judaism.
As a religious man, Saul thought he knew God intimately. He felt he was following God and God’s will. He believed this is what God wanted from him. He passionately carried out what he saw as the logical conclusion of his beliefs. The Chief Priests have taken notice of him…they see his drive, his charisma, his passion, his zealous faith. Saul is the up and coming superstar. In his self-righteous zeal, he went to the High Priest, asking for a written blessing, authorizing him to deliver the mail to the synagogue in Damascus, so he can persecute followers of the Way in Damascus in Syria, and bring them in chains to Jerusalem. Damascus was 135 miles outside of Jerusalem. It was hardly a threat to the Jewish Temple or the capitol city…yet Saul was obsessed,
“breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”
He would not rest as long as the Jesus message was spreading. He was convinced that it was God’s will for him to crush these followers of the Way.
He is commissioned by the Chief Priests with letters to pursue, arrest, and persecute any and all “followers of the Way.” His obsession with ravaging the church leads him to pursue those who have escaped Jerusalem into other cities and villages. Not only did he throw people into prison, but he cast his vote to have them executed on more than one occasion. What was going on in his head that allows him to persecute, oppress and react so violently to another human being? Where does he find moral justification and validation to do so? Saul somehow convinced himself that God sanctioned violence in order to preserve religious purity.
Presbyterian Pastor Jim West writes that “Saul becomes a ruthless terrorist, without mercy. We are all susceptible to hearing and agreeing with lies. Saul believed the lie of religious indignation; the lie that his righteous beliefs were worth killing for. Saul substituted his devotion to God for his devotion to blindly heeding the party line. He lost his first love and betrayed everything he said he stood for…there was no biblical justification for what he did. Still, Saul was convinced he was right…he was convinced that this was God’s will. Today all over the world there are many intelligent, well intentioned, zealous individuals who wreak terror upon the world, while living with absolute certainty that they are doing what is right in the eyes of God. What we believe to be true about God determines the way we live.”
What we need to know is that Saul wasn’t operating alone. He is part of a religious system. He wants the authority to oppress others. He needs to know that he was acting in a righteous way, where he can say, “I am authorized to wage war on these people in the eyes of the religious system.” History is full of examples of unjust systems, including the church and political systems, to create some moral justification to oppress others. In God’s economy, I don’t believe it is right to stand by while someone is being stoned, not criticized or challenged, but lynched, with their life taken away from them. But it means challenging the system, the status quo; not waiting for God to intervene, as God did with Saul.
On the road to Damascus, Saul has a mystical experience…a first-hand encounter of the risen Christ. Jesus speaks to him in a distinct voice, which most of us never receive: Suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. Saul, who was blessed by the high priest to terrorize the followers of the Way, is thrown to the ground, blinded by a vision of the risen Christ. He hears a voice, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul does not recognize this voice, and asks, “Who are you, Lord?” Jesus identifies himself by addressing the issue of violence again: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ “Saul, you have been killing me, when you helped them stone Stephen, when you set out to trap my followers at Damascus, wherever you are colluding with the authorities, wherever you are breathing your murderous threats, wherever you are killing them, you are killing me.” Jesus identifies with the suffering, whom Saul is persecuting. Saul is plunged into darkness that lasts 3 days, waiting in Damascus, not eating, not drinking, searching his soul, unable to see.
We sometimes hear about that this is Saul’s “Damascus Road” conversion. Except that his conversion doesn’t happen in the moment. It happens after another follower of the Way experiences a conversion of the heart. At the same time that Jesus tells Saul to “Get up and enter the city, and wait to be told what you are to do,” Saul does as Jesus tells him, indicating the first change in Saul. It is the beginning of Saul’s understanding that violence is not the method by which truth is made known.
Jesus also appears to Ananias, a member of the Way and says, “Go to the street called Straight and in the house of Judas, there you will see Saul of Tarsus and I want you to lay your hands on him so that he will regain his sight.”
Ananias rightly and justifiably protests. He knows Saul by his frightening reputation. “Jesus, are you sure about this? He’s going to arrest everyone. Saul is OUR enemy.” And Jesus replies, “Yep, I’m sure. He’s going to do great things but he’s not ready yet. Go to him.” What is the conversion that needs to happen in the heart of Ananais? After a bit of resistance, Ananias goes and lays healing hands on Saul. A member of the community of the Way whom Saul has been persecuting becomes an instrument of healing. We can almost hear him saying: “This guy is problematic. I have my doubts. But against my better judgment, I am listening to Jesus who told me to lay hands on you. This is not who God meant for you to be. I lay my hands on you so you can truly see the harm you have been a part of. The system you are a part of is going to lead us to destruction. You are at my mercy, I am choosing to use my power to heal to you, not hate you. I am coming to you with a heart of love, with acts of healing, not retribution.” THAT is the moment of Saul’s conversion. Saul receives the Holy Spirit. The scales fall from his eyes. He is baptized. His vision of God changes. Paul not only gives up persecuting People of The Way, he begins to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Often overlooked is Ananias’ mystical experience and conversion. Just as Paul experiences God’s dramatic intervention, Ananias experiences a call to courage and transformation. Ananias goes to a person he does not trust. He reaches out when he doesn’t have to, doesn’t want to, and offers love. Someone has to rise above to reach out in love when they don’t want to, when they prefer not to do so.
Who do you think had the biggest conversion was it Saul or Ananias? Just like I believe there were two conversion stories in last week’s story of the Ethiopian Eunuch & Philip who baptized him, I believe there are two conversion stories in this chapter of Acts. Imagine what Ananias had to go through when he went to heal Saul of his blindness. Who needs to be converted?
If God appeared to you in a vision and told you to go lay hands of healing on someone detestable to you, someone who has wreaked havoc on all that you hold sacred; someone who has done so much damage, who would come to mind? What would our conversation with God be at that point? I can tell you what is going on in my conversation with God right now is a whole lot of resistance, if not outright refusal.
Years ago, PBS offered a series on the history of First Ladies of the US. There is a curious story of Dolly Madison, wife of the 4th president, James Madison. The political atmosphere in Washington was poisonous. Members of Congress had not yet figured out how to make the gov’t function. Foreign relations, taxation, states’ rights — all were issues of bitter dispute. This was a violent era in the early republic, where men dueled against each other over ideologies. They beat each other with canes on the floors of Congress.
Dolly Madison noticed that there were no good places for people to meet socially in DC, so she decided to host parties at the Executive Mansion every Wednesday afternoon and serve ice cream. The parties were so popular people called them “squeezes”. But the squeezes weren’t just parties. Dolly was intentionally bringing together people who didn’t like each other, who didn’t trust each other, who didn’t want to get to know or even meet each other. When a member of the House or Senate said particularly awful things about her husband on the House or Senate floor, Dolly would find them at the next squeeze, charm them and offer them ice cream and then guide them by the hand from one room to another until surprise, they just happened to run into her husband, and then she would invite these political rivals into conversation.
It was very risky then to engage with someone you didn’t like, someone you didn’t trust. You could be guilty by association. But these political enemies began to see humanity in their political foes. You might learn something new that will soften your heart and change your perspective.
The story of Saul and Ananias is a story of enemies coming together And in the midst of it is healing and reconciliation.
We will not all be stopped in the road by a brilliant light. We will not all hear a voice calling us by name, nor have a vision in which the Lord instructs us to go to a specific street and find a specific person to perform a specific healing ritual. But we can all experience a transformation of the heart – like both Saul & Ananias. Relinquishing the violence in ourselves and in our culture.
Ananias is called to heal Saul in the name of Christ, but he is reluctant to answer the call. Are there people we are called to serve and are reluctant to do so? Who needs to be converted?
Often, what stands between us and renewal, between us and living a deeper life is not something we lack, but something we have a difficult time letting go of. In what ways to we need to be converted in our thoughts by God’s grace? We are all capable of conversion, sometimes sudden, sometimes after long trials and growth, and we all need it to grow closer to God and closer to our neighbors. Amen.