Central Presbyterian Church

Massillon, Ohio

"A Conversion Story"

Text: Acts 9:10-19

Proverbs 16:7, 24:17, 25:21

 

            Opening the 9th chapter of the Book of Acts is a conversion story as compelling as any in the Bible. It’s the conversion of Saul from the city of Tarsus, who later came to be known as Paul the apostle.

Recorded in the 7th chapter of Acts is the stoning of a disciple named Stephen after he had insulted a council of Jewish religious leaders with a sermon. This event marked the beginning of what is described as “a severe persecution…..against the church in Jerusalem.” After the account of Steven’s death,chapter 8 begins with this statement: “And Saul approved of their killing him.” A few verses later, we read: “….Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”  

    It would be fair to say that Saul had an insatiable appetite for persecuting those who were followers of Jesus of Nazareth. It was his ambition, his passion to stomp out the movement of fledgling Christ followers who were known as “the way.” Much later in the book of Acts, Saul recounts his persecution of Christians before King Herod Agrippa. Here’s how he describes his former life: “Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.”

            Acts 9 opens with an episode in Saul’s life which was a total game changer. He was on his way to the city of Damascus when he was knocked to the ground by what commentators have described as a “divine bolt of lightning.” He then heard the voice of Jesus speaking to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” After Saul asked who was speaking, the voice instructed Saul to “get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” When he got up from the ground, this fury filled, bloodthirsty raging bull was helpless as a baby. We are told that “though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” This sets the scene for this morning’s lesson beginning at verse 10 of chapter 9.

            (Read Acts 9:1019)

            When Jesus preached His Sermon on the Mount, He said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” This teaching strikes us as counterintuitive. Our first reaction is to avoid our enemies, if for no other reason, to ensure our own safety. Even if we are good enough to manage to not hate our enemies, we certainly don’t go seeking them out. Well, to a particular disciple named Ananias, Saul of Tarsus was an enemy of the nth degree. Saul’s tactics against Christians were no less barbaric than Hitler’s against the Jews, or ISIS against the infidels. Saul wanted all Christians exterminated. So common sense would warn Ananias to avoid a man like Saul at all costs. But the Lord had different plans for this disciple in Damascus.

            The Lord said to Ananias in a vision to go to Judas’ house [that’s of course not the Judas Iscariot we know] on a street called Straight, and seek out a guy from the city of Tarsus namedSaul. He’ll be expecting you. “Now wait a minute Lord! You surely can’t mean the Saul who’s been going around killing Christians?!” “That’s the one.” Then the Lord further shocked Ananias, whose head by now was spinning, with a revelation: “….he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles, and kings and before the people of Israel.”

            So off Ananias went in search of his enemy Saul, no doubt muttering to himself, “I sure hope you know what you’re doing Lord.” At the house of Judas, Ananias finds his mortal foe, pitiful, cowering in a corner; blind; hungry; thirsty; a mere shell of the terrorist Ananias had heard so much about. In spite of his fear and trepidation, we can’t help but admire Ananias’ compassion. Notice his greeting to a mortal enemy: “Brother Saul…..” Then he lays his hands upon Saul’s head and prays for him. “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” Ananias, as an instrument of the Lord, interceded for Saul, and Saul himself was filled with the Holy Spirit. He regained his sight. He was baptized. His appetite returned. His strength was restored. The rest is history as the words of this enemy of Christians stand as almost a third of our New Testament in the letters of the Apostle Paul. Following the 17th verse of the 9th chapter of Acts, we hear nothing more of this brave disciple named Ananias.

            This morning’s lesson about Ananias and Saul is a great example of how God, through God’s Holy Spirit, leads disciples to people, to places, and into situations which seem absurd in order that God’s will be done. So how might this lesson bear on us today?

            Maybe we have an enemy so to speak. Someone who has never liked us, and someone we ourselves have never liked. Perhaps that person has talked behind our back. Or insulted us to our face. Maybe that person has done everything possible to make our life miserable. Possibly he or she just rubs us the wrong way. How would we react if a voice in our heart was to say to us: “Go and seek this person out. Show her love and compassion. Go and pray for him?” “Now wait a minute Lord! You surely can’t mean…..”

            Do we have an enemy who used to be a friend? A best friend? Even a family member? Our blood? But it’s too late now. Too much water over the dam. Too much said. Too much done. Too much hurt, and too many scars. What if a voice in our heart was to say to us: “Go, and forgive. Take the initiative and try to begin healing the relationship.” “Wait just a minute Lord! After what he’s said! After what she’s done!”

            I’m not naïve. Not every relationship can be saved or restored. Not every enemy can be appeased. Not every foe can become a friend. That’s just a reality of the brokenness of our human condition. But friends, if we hear a voice in our heart compelling us to reconcile; heal; mend the fences; go and seek our enemy, and love them, that may very well be the voice of the same Holy Spirit who spoke to Ananias in the first generation church; the same Holy Spirit who spoke through Christ: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” May we be open to that Spirit-inspired inner voice, and to the possibilities God may be offering to our enemy through us, as God offered to Saul through Ananias. Amazing things just may happen for both of us!

 Almighty God, we recoil at the thought of loving our enemies, and praying for them. We resist even going to our enemy for fear of hurt and rejection. You understand this, for through Christ, You’ve experienced hurt and rejection. Even so, by the voice and Spirit of Christ, that is Your high call. Implant in us a spirit and will to respond, even as we mutter, “I sure hope you know what You’re doing Lord.” May we trust that You do, in all things. Hear this prayer, and speak to our hearts. Amen.