The Conversion of St. Paul (1/25/2009)

A Heart and a Life Turned Around

Lessons:     Acts 9:1-22     Psalm 67     Galatians 1:11-24     St. Luke 21:10-19

Prayer of the Day:     O God, by the preaching of your apostle Paul you have caused the light of the gospel to shine throughout the world. Grant that we may follow his example and be witnesses to the truth of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

9:1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 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. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 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. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 11 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, 12 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." 13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 15 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; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 17 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." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.

Acts 9:1-22 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

Saul was a prominent Pharisee - a religious official in Jerusalem - during the time when Jesus was crucified. By his own admission he was an ambitious young man, having achieved a status well beyond others of his same age. He describes himself as zealous for the traditions of his ancestors (Galatians 1:14). It was that zealotry, of course, that set him on a collision course with the followers of Jesus.

They believed Jesus was the Messiah - the one sent by God to save the world. They spoke of Jesus as "Immanuel" - God with us, as a human being. For an orthodox Jewish believer like Saul, this was blasphemous. Claiming to be God was sinful beyond imagination. Furious at these scandalous claims, Saul made it his personal mission to round up as many of Jesus' followers as possible, and bring them to Jerusalem to be tried. In his misguided intent to be faithful to God, he became one of the fiercest opponents of what God was doing through the church, and Christians of the time were frightened at the very sound of his name.

That is what makes his conversion so remarkable. He wasn't preparing himself to meet Christ. He wasn't a religious seeker in pursuit of the truth. He wasn't in search of a new way of knowing God. He wasn't committed to re-evaluating his own beliefs and discovering something new. Instead, he was convinced of his own convictions. He was determined to correct (even punish) any who disagreed with him. He stood with his feet firmly planted in his own worldview, unwilling to compromise on even the smallest of theological matters.

Yet despite his zealous adherence to the beliefs he had embraced, God was able to turn his life around. (It's amazing what being knocked off your horse by lightening can accomplish...) Before long, the shoe would be on the other foot. It would now be Paul (as he was renamed) who was the recipient of persecution and imprisonment. It would now be Paul who had to decide what to do when his beliefs called him to stand up against the religious and political forces of the time.

The very words that once encouraged his opponents became his own source of strength. Jesus taught his followers that hard times would come. Jesus taught his followers that they would have to stand up against the most powerful forces of the world in order to stay faithful to him. Jesus taught his followers not to give in to fear: he would be their strength. He would give them words. He would fill them with wisdom. He would make it possible for them to see their time of persecution transformed into a time of witness. Those words became a source of strength and hope for Paul too - and empowered him to persevere in a ministry that could have otherwise destroyed him.

They will arrest you and persecute you and bring you to trial. They will betray you (even those close to you). They will kill some of you. You will be hated because of your faith. With these words, Jesus spelled out a future that his followers could never have imagined. But his words were also words of hope. These hard times would become opportunities to witness - opportunities to display their faithfulness to him. His strength would become their strength, and nobody was a better example of that than the Apostle Paul.

David J. Risendal, Pastor  (January 20, 2009)

Exploring This Week's Gospel:

  • Why was Saul so determined to oppose Jesus' earliest followers?
  • How did God break through that kind of thinking?
  • What was Paul able to accomplish, once God turned him in a new direction?

Connecting with This Week's Gospel:

  • What beliefs and convictions am I absolutely certain about?
  • What would it be like to learn that I was wrong about one of them?
  • How might I keep myself open to the possibility that God might transform me in as dramatic a way as was the case for Saul?