April 10, 2016
Acts 9:1-20; Conversion of Saul
This morning we are starting a worship series on Acts. Many of you know that Acts is the sequel to the Gospel of Luke—same author, same audience. But most of us aren’t nearly as familiar with the stories in Acts, so we’re in for a real treat. These stories are an important window into the life of the earliest church and, therefore, offer insight into what God is calling the church to be today.
While a lot of the stories from Acts are fairly unfamiliar, I imagine most of you have heard this morning’s story about Saul’s conversion before.
Before we go any farther, let me just clear one thing up so it doesn’t bother you and distract you for the rest of the sermon. Saul and Paul are two names for the same man. He doesn’t change his name after his conversion; he’s Saul and Paul always. Saul is the Hebrew name and Paul is the Roman name. So as he begins his ministry to the Gentiles, the Roman version of the name becomes the dominant one. But for now, the story uses Saul and so I will use Saul throughout the sermon.
You’ve probably heard this story of Saul’s conversion before because it is a Sunday School favorite–with the bright light and the voice from heaven and the dramatic healing. You also may have come across it before because it is in Acts three times—here when it happens and two more times when Saul tells people about it. So its kind of hard to miss.
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.
A lot of faith traditions have more of a individualistic attitude about salvation. On the more conservative end, you get people who want you to just say the sinner’s prayer. Being a Christian is about a one-on-one relationship with Jesus, about asking Jesus into your heart.
On the more liberal end, you get a reluctance to ask people for commitment to any particular group or belief or path. Salvation can be found in many places and we wouldn’t want to force anyone to be tied to one particular church.
But Mennonites, God bless us, we believe that true faith is lived out in community. Sure, you should ask Jesus into your heart; but if Jesus just stays walled up inside your heart he doesn’t do anyone much good—not even you. And while most of us would not condemn those who have chosen a different faith path than we have, we also believe that it is important for us to commit to one group of people following this one path. We choose to throw our lot in with a bunch of other would-be Jesus followers and try to do this faith thing together.
Conversion, for Mennonites, is not simply an individual event. When Jenny and Doug and Nadine and Carol and Jasmine and Mariah were baptized in the midst of this community, they made a commitment not just to Jesus, but also to this church.
And–listen carefully—we, as a church, made a commitment to them as well.
In Saul’s story, the church shows its commitment to him in a dramatic way. Ananias, a faithful member of The Way, is the first to get the news from God about their new member. In a vision, the Lord says, “Ananias, go to Judas’ house and find Saul of Tarsus. He has seen you restoring his sight in a vision.”
And Ananias says, “Uh, Lord, maybe you haven’t heard. This guy kills people like me. In fact, word on the street is that he’s wandering around Damascus with arrest warrants for us.”
And God says, “Go.”
And Ananias says, “OK.”
And I imagine the conversation was a little more tense—with possibly a bit more profanity—than the writer of Luke portrays it.
We don’t know exactly what words were exchanged between Ananias and the Lord, but we know the result of that conversation. Ananias willingly seeks out this new member of The Way, this man who had stood by with approval as Stephen, one of Jesus’ followers, was stoned. This man who had headed toward Damascus with the fervent intent of arresting as many Jesus followers as possible. Ananias seeks him out, walks right up to him, calls him “brother,” and puts his hands on him. “And immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes.”
After he is healed of his blindness, Saul is baptized and then stays with the disciples in Damascus preaching the Good News of Christ.
This story is not just about the conversion of Saul, it is also about the conversion of the church.
Nadia Bolz-Weber is a Lutheran pastor, known for her multiple tattoos, her use of profanity, and her sarcastic humor. Once upon a time she had a Saul-like conversion, was saved from a rough and destructive life. She found herself drawn to the church, yet never quite at home. And when she eventually came to be a pastor, she wanted to lead a church where people from backgrounds like hers would feel comfortable, would feel welcome.
So this cursing, tattooed pastor starts a church and sure enough, the people you think might show up did, in fact, show up. Recovered and not-quite-recovered drug addicts, misfits and artistic types, gay and transgendered people. Lots of young people. Lots of tattoos and piercings in the crowd.
The thing is, though, Nadia is not just someone with a bunch of tattoos and a colorful vocabulary. She is also a gifted speaker, a deep theological thinker, a woman who is passionate about sharing the love and grace of Jesus with everyone. And you know, it’s not just addicts and tattooed people who long to experience grace.
So after a while of a nice, comfortable church community filled with rejects and outcasts—very hip and Jesusy—new people started to show up. People with clean, trimmed hair. People with no visible tattoos and no body piercings. People with no Damascus-road conversion stories to tell. People who wore suits and had been going to church their whole lives!
Nadia worried about accepting these newcomers. She was afraid, she says, that they were “messing up our weird.” These churchy people had so many options of where to go to church, but her people—the druggies and drag queens—they didn’t have many options. This church was for them. For the people who couldn’t just walk into First Generic Lutheran Church and feel welcomed any Sunday morning.
So she was kind of resentful about the new, normal, people coming to the church.
Then she was talking with a guy in her church, a young gay guy. While Nadia was a bit horrified to see people who “looked like” her “parents” showing up to church, this guy had a different perspective. “You know,” he said, “my parents kicked me out of the house when I told them I was gay. And now, here are people at church, people who look like my parents, except they accept me as I am and they love me. I need these people to be part of our church.”
Welcoming those churchy people has converted, has changed, Nadia’s church. And I imagine that attending a church with addicts and gay people has converted, has changed, many of the churchy folks who show up there.
Every time we welcome someone new into our church it is a sort of conversion, a spark of new life. Each person brings new gifts, new ideas, new energy . . . new needs. The whole structure shifts, just a bit, to make room for the new member.
Or, in some cases, the whole structure shifts a lot. We heard this morning that after Saul’s baptism he stayed for a few days in Damascus, preaching about Jesus. The part of the story we didn’t get to goes like this: Saul’s activities in Damascus baffle the Jews, who eventually decide to kill him. They post people by all of the city gates so that they can arrest Saul when he decides to leave 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—as we usually think of it. 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 here–in worship, in study, in fellowship with each other—our presence with this church changes the church, and the church, in turn, changes us.
Thanks be to God.