Acts 9:1-6 (7-20)
Saul was a young man with a reputation for his zeal. He was passionate about his faith, and he was willing to go to extremes to see that God was rightly worshiped. We first met him at the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, and in Acts 8:1 we read, “And Saul approved of their killing [Stephen].” Why did he approve of Stephen’s stoning? Because Stephen was part of this new movement called The Way, and he preached about the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. This movement was new, and was challenging the way things had always been done. These followers of Jesus weren’t abiding by the rules. Their teacher had healed on the Sabbath, touched people who were unclean, and had no problem interacting with sinners.
Saul, in his desire for faithful worship of God and adherence to the law, dedicated himself to turning in all those who followed Jesus. He had them arrested, thrown into prison, and he even approved when these followers of Jesus were killed. Acts 9:1-2 says, “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for the 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.” His conviction that the disciples of Jesus must be stopped had become so vitally a part of who he was that it was like breathing – it was second nature. Day in, day out, Saul was so convinced that these people were blasphemers that he worked tirelessly to stop them from spreading their message.
He knew with certainty that he was right, and his conviction seeped down deep into his heart until it became such a part of him that it was like breathing.
Saul must have received the letters to the synagogue at Damascus, and he headed on the road toward Damascus so that he might continue to find these followers of the Way and have them thrown into prison. This is the part of the story we know so well. This is the part that we tend to focus on. Saul, heading to Damascus with conviction and intent, is overwhelmed by a flash of light. He falls to the ground, and he hears the voice of Jesus speaking to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul responded, “Who are you, Lord?” and the response came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
In that moment, Saul encountered the risen Christ. He came face-to-face with the truth that in Saul’s zeal to do good, he was working against the movement of God.
Have you ever, in your zeal for holiness and righteousness, actually been working against the movement of God? I am reminded of that famous Peanuts comic strip where Charlie Brown says to Snoopy, “I hear you’re writing a book on theology. I hope you have a good title.” And Snoopy responds, “I have the perfect title. ‘Has It Ever Occurred to You That You Might Be Wrong?’”
Saul’s deeply held convictions, his murderous threats towards those of this new movement called the Way, were wrong. And, in that moment, he had to face the reality that what he had been dedicating himself to was wrong. He had to change, and he had to face the reality that his zeal had had disastrous results. In his zeal for godliness, he was hurting the cause of Christ. In his passion for uprightness, he was attempting to stand in the way of the movement of the Holy Spirit.
This story is dramatic and convicting, compelling us to marvel at God who is able to change any heart. We know that from here, Saul becomes Paul. We know that from persecuting the early church, Paul would go on to be a missionary for Christ to many. He would write letters that would eventually make up the bulk of the epistles in the New Testament. From persecutor of the church to apostle to the Gentiles, Saul’s conversion stands as a stark reminder that no matter how hard our hearts may be, God can change anyone’s heart. There are no hopeless cases.
A few months ago I came across this painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. The scene is chaotic. There are horses and riders and people walking along a dirt road along a rocky mountainside. The painting is busy, and if it hadn’t been for the title given to the painting, I would have missed what Bruegel the Elder was capturing in his work. This piece is entitled “The Conversion of St. Paul.” Do you see Paul in this picture? It’s a bit like a Where’s Waldo, but if you look long enough at the painting, you’ll see Paul, in gray, on the ground in a very small clearing. (For larger image, look here)
Why would Bruegel title this painting after Paul’s conversion, and then make Paul so difficult to find? As I’ve read and studied this passage, I’ve started to wonder if perhaps Bruegel was keenly aware that Paul’s conversion wasn’t the only thing happening in this story. Perhaps he knew that, though Paul’s conversion was dramatic, it was simply one story among many stories of the spiritual journey we’re all on. And, he’s not wrong. If we keep reading, we see that Paul’s conversion is not the only thing going on in Acts 9.
The brilliant light on the road to Damascus left Paul blinded for three days. And then we meet another character in the story – Ananias.
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.’
Can you imagine how terrified Ananias must have been? The Lord spoke to him in a vision, which would have been unsettling, and called him to go to someone Ananias had probably been hiding from. Everyone knew that Saul threw followers of Jesus in prison – and even approved of these followers of Jesus being killed. God told Ananias to go, but Ananias was afraid.
Have your fears ever stood in the way of doing what you knew you needed to do?
When I was going into fifth grade, I had an opportunity to go and meet my new teacher. I walked into the classroom, and there was my teacher – a man over six feet tall (which made him seem like a giant to me), with a strong, muscular build. I later learned he had been a Marine, and he made a habit of running 11 miles to the nearest town and back a few times a week. I looked up at him, and I was terrified. How on earth was I going to come to school every day and sit in a classroom with such a scary teacher?
When you’re a fifth grader, you don’t really have a choice about going to class, so I had to figure out how to go to school every day and not be afraid of my teacher. But, he didn’t make it very difficult for me to overcome my fears. On the first day of school, he shared his two class rules with us (respect yourself, and respect others), and I knew it was going to be okay. He was big and strong, but he was also gentle and kind. He showed respect and love to every student he encountered, and he even pulled a bully off of me one day after school. I was forced to face my fear, but we aren’t always forced to face things we’re afraid of. Too often, we resist and fight against our fears, rather than finding freedom in facing them.
We fight and resist because we’re afraid – either afraid that we won’t be safe, or afraid that our fears will be proven unjustified and we’ll be forced to change our minds. Like Jonah, we run away from Nineveh. Like Moses, we’re afraid to go before Pharaoh and we ask God to pick someone else. Fear is a real and compelling force, and it’s incredibly difficult to get beyond.
It’s a little bit like a man who fell off of a cliff and managed to catch hold of a small branch on the way down.
“HELP! IS THERE ANYBODY UP THERE?” he shouted.
A majestic voice boomed through the gorge:
“I will help you, my son, but first you must have faith in me.”
“Yes, yes, I trust you!” cried the man.
“Let go of the branch,” boomed the voice.
There was a long pause, and the man shouted up again, “IS THERE ANYONE ELSE UP THERE I COULD TALK TO?”
It’s scary to let go. I remember often climbing a fence, or a ladder, or onto a short wall and then being afraid to come back down. “It’s not as far down as it looks,” my mom would remind me. It didn’t make it any easier to let go or come back down, even if I knew she was right.
Ananias was afraid to go and help Saul. Beginning in verse 15, God tells Ananias, “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.” Verse 17 continues, “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.’”
Saul had his mind changed about Jesus, and Ananias had his mind changed about Saul. The Holy Spirit changed the heart of Saul, whose zeal against Christians had become so ingrained in him it was like breathing. The Holy Spirit called Ananias to step out of his fear and restore Paul’s sight. And all of this so that the good news about the resurrected Jesus could be shared with all people – and eventually with you and with me.
I always thought it was interesting that Ananias was given the name of the street of where he could find Paul. “Get up and go to the street called Straight.” And Ananias did. The word for straight is also used in Luke in a quotation from Isaiah: “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:5-6, cf Isaiah 40:3-5).
Saul was afraid of the Way who proclaimed Christ crucified and raised from the dead. Ananias was afraid of Saul, who was persecuting the early church. Both were brought together on a street called Straight. I wonder if sometimes the people we are trying so hard to save the church from will end up being people who help save us from ourselves. Could it be that on the street called Straight there were two conversions, rather than just the one? Saul to breathe in a new kind of breath – the Holy Spirit – rather than breathing violence against followers of Christ, and Ananias to lay down his fear and embrace Saul as his brother.
When Paul retells this story of his conversion in Acts 26, he fills in more of what he heard from the Lord on the road to Damascus. The voice called out to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” This reminds me of something Corie ten Boom once said: “Hold everything in your hands lightly, otherwise it hurts when God pries your fingers open.”
May we come before the Lord with open hands, ready to lay down our fears and our misconceptions and be transformed by the love of Christ.
And even when we are too afraid to come with open hands, may we take comfort in knowing that the One who opened his hands on the cross for all of us is willing to meet us where we are and walk beside us all the way.