When we hear this story, we usually focus on Saul: doubter turned believer; persecutor turned supporter; villain turned hero. I imagine this can be an inspiring focus for those who have come to Jesus from a rough, dark place: murderers, convicts, addicts . . . there are people who have seen the blazing light and heard the booming voice—people whose lives changed in an instant. And there are people traveling on the road to Damascus who long to be stopped in their tracks. Saul’s story is for them. Maybe it is for you.
I’ll be honest, though. I’ve never felt like Saul’s story was for me. The closest I have ever come to persecuting someone was to inch my finger onto my little brother’s side of the back seat on a family road trip. I’m glad for the story of Saul, but it is not my story. I marvel to see God work miracles of conversion in people’s lives today—but those are not my stories either.
When I read this story of Saul’s conversion, I have more interest in and sympathy for Annanias and the other church members than I do for Saul. After all, this is not just a story about Saul. It is also about the community of believers that Saul suddenly joins; it is, at heart, a story about the church.
One of the things I love about the Mennonite church tradition is that baptism is inseparable from church membership. I warn people about this in Baptism Exploration class—if I baptize you, that does not just make you a part of the broad, general Church; if I baptize you in the midst of this congregation, you are not just joining yourself to Christ, but also joining this very particular, flawed, and wonderful group known as Peace Mennonite Church.
Conversion, for Mennonites, is not simply an individual event. We choose to throw our lot in with a bunch of other would-be Jesus followers and try to do this faith thing together. When people are baptized in the midst of this community, they make a commitment not just to Jesus, but also to this church.
And–listen carefully—we, as a church, make a commitment to them as well.
In Saul’s story, the church shows its commitment to him in a dramatic way. First, Ananias risks life and limb to reach out and heal Saul. Once the scales fall from his eyes, Saul is baptized and then stays with the disciples in Damascus preaching the Good News of Christ. This baffles the Jewish leaders, who eventually decide to kill him. They post people by all of the city gates so that they can arrest Saul when he leaves Damascus. But the other church folk help Saul escape—by lowering him in a basket through a hole in the city wall.
It may be at this point that the church is beginning to wonder if this new guy is more trouble than he’s worth. But he was baptized. He’s part of the church now. He’s part of them. Because he is part of them, the early church changes and grows—grows both in terms of theological understanding and in numbers.
This “conversion of Saul” story is not just about the conversion of Saul. It is also about the conversion of the church. And to the extent that this story is about Saul’s conversion, it is not just about the blinding light and booming voice on the road to Damascus. Sure, that dramatic incident initiated the conversion, but the church carried it forward.
What kind of Jesus follower would Saul have been if he had simply stayed blind in Judas’ house? How would he have learned about The Way if none of Jesus’ followers had been willing to talk to him? What if the believers in Damascus had been unwilling to risk their own lives to get Saul out of the city safely? If you read through the letters by Paul that we have in the New Testament, you see the many ways in which the church has converted this man.
Saul’s conversion was not only a result of the vision on the road. It was also due to the fierce love of the people of God that he experienced as a new member of The Way.
That’s the thing about church. Our presence there–in worship, in study, in fellowship with each other—our presence with a church changes the church, and the church, in turn, changes us.
This post is excerpted from a sermon I preached last Sunday.