Traveling with Saul – May 5, 2019

Traveling with Saul

A Communion Meditation by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Acts 9:1-20

May 5, 2019

Main Idea: We are called to change.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

In this season of Easter we will be spending time with people from the early church, in those heady days when the experience of the Risen Christ was a new and wondrous reality and the Holy Spirit was powerfully at work transforming a small and grief stricken group into a committed community of believers who share the Good News of God’s love to all of the known world.  This morning we will visit with Paul and Ananias as we explore conversion and calling.  God chooses who God wills and we often are surprised by God’s choice.  God calls people as individuals and as communities, to specific tasks or ministries, also often surprising.  While parts of today’s story may seem fantastic and unbelievable to some, the experience of being on the wrong track and then “seeing the light” is something that we all have experienced or witnessed in others.  Jesus calls us to change.

Today’s story actually has two conversion and call stories.  Ananias’ experience is minus the fireworks of Saul’s but still is a powerful account of someone changing their life and following God’s call. Both men; violent Saul and faithful Ananias need to change their life to follow Christ.

The story of Saul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus is often held up as the ultimate conversion story.  Violent fanatic Saul is knocked to the ground by the power of Christ and is reborn as Paul, evangelist extraordinaire.  (Saul is his Jewish name and Paul his Roman one.  His name does not change at his conversion)  Saul’s conversion is so memorable that some people of faith feel lacking if they cannot point to the moment when they became “born again”.  But Saul’s conversion is only part of the story.  And nowhere in the New Testament is Saul’s conversion held up as normative for everyone’s faith journey.  Saul’s encounter on the road to Damascus is part of God calling Saul to ministry, just as God calls each one of us to participate in sharing God’s Good News. 

So let’s enter into this story and see and hear what it has to tell us about conversion and calling.

The text begins with Saul “breathing threats and murder”.  What an image!  He is living and breathing his zealous campaign to stamp out those who threatened his Jewish faith. His fear of these followers of Christ causes him to demonize them. He sincerely believes that he is serving God.  He is blindly determined to protect God and his community from these heretics. His devotion to God has led him to bind up men and women so that they might be brought to Jerusalem for punishment.  There is no mercy in him. 

Suddenly a light from heaven flashes around him and he falls to the ground.  He hears a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  Saul does not know where the voice is coming from but he does recognize that it is divine in nature for he responds “Who are you, Lord?”  The voice replies “I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”   And Saul obeys!   Why?  Why does he do what Jesus tells him?  Saul recognizes the voice of God and accepts that it is the voice of Jesus.  Saul’s conversion and call begin at this point.

When he stands up he discovers that his eyes are blind; a physical blindness to match the spiritual blindness of his violent actions.  His companions lead him by the hand to the city of Damascus.  “For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” 

The text now switches to the faithful disciple Ananias who also experiences a conversion and a call.  The Lord comes to Ananias in a vision.  Jesus speaks his name and Ananias replies “Here I am, Lord.”  Whereas Saul needs to be knocked to the ground for Jesus to get his attention, Ananias is open and ready to have a conversation with Jesus.  The Lord tells 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 see a vision of you coming to him to restore his sight.”  Ananias is open to listening to Jesus but he is reluctant to do what he is told.  “I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.”  He is dangerous and has the authority to arrest me even here!   I really don’t want to go.”  Ananias is afraid.  As much as he has faith in the Risen Christ, Ananias still does not fully understand or trust the future Christ has laid out before him.  He certainly does not trust Saul!

So Jesus explains. “Go, for Saul is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and the people of Israel.  I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”  This world-traveling, fanatical persecutor will become a world-traveling fantastic apostle who will be persecuted just as he once persecuted others.  God chooses as God wills. 

Ananias obeys and goes to the house where Saul is staying.  He greets him as “Brother Saul”, naming the new relationship Saul will have with Ananias and the Christian community.   Ananias lays hands on Saul and says to him “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 by the Holy Spirit.”  Immediately,  something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes, and his sight is restored.  But really his sight is renewed for now Saul looks at the world in a completely new way.  He gets up and is baptized.  He regains his strength and goes to the synagogue proclaiming “Jesus is the Son of God.

The conversions and calls of both Saul and Ananias remind us that God is in charge and that everyone, from outrageous zealot to steady disciple, must sometimes change course to remain aligned with God’s purposes.

I invite each one of us to think about when we have been on the wrong path.  Perhaps in spectacular fashion like Saul or perhaps simply reluctant to change or to risk anything like Ananias.  Perhaps we have neglected our families in favor of our jobs.  Perhaps we have self-medicated ourselves during difficult times with alcohol, drugs or destructive behaviors.  Perhaps we have let money become our religion, what we have faith in.  Perhaps we have made foolish and selfish choices which have hurt others.   Perhaps we have valued being right over being loving.  Perhaps we have let despair lead to inertia and fear lead to exclusion. In big ways or small we have all gone astray.

So how do we get back on the right track?  Do we see a blinding light or hear a familiar voice? Each one of us is here this morning because we are trying to follow Jesus.  We are trying to make healthy choices as individuals and as a faith community.  God is with us in our struggles. We can experience God through the words or actions of people around us.  And we can be the vehicle for God to speak to others. 

What was your blinding light or familiar voice?  What or who helped you to make the healthy choice, to get back to the path God was calling you?  Sometimes it is a truth-telling friend.  Sometimes it is a blunt stranger. Sometimes is it the witness of those in our congregation. Sometimes it is reading Scripture or wisdom written by others. Sometimes it is just waking up in the morning and deciding that life needs to change.

As a church, how do we recognize what God is doing? Where is God leading us?  Where do we need conversion and to what new ministries is God calling us?  We are reaching out to our local community through the Marathon Pasta Supper and to the wider ABC community through the Puerto Rico Sister Church Initiative. We are deepening our connections with the Karen community and we have the opportunity to strengthen our connections with the Nepali community. How else can we reach out to those outside our doors? To those who are one block away on the most walked street in Vermont!  We must be open to change as we look to the future of First Baptist.

Through a blinding light or a familiar voice, God will make known to us where God would have us go.  The stories of Saul and Ananias are freeing to us because they show us that God does amazing and surprising things.  No one is beyond God’s reach or attention.  The violent zealot Saul really does become Paul the apostle extraordinaire.  The totality of his life prepares him to be the one person most responsible for spreading the Gospel throughout the world.  If God can use Paul to do such wonder, just think about what God can do with each one of us, if we are open to God’s leading.

As we prepare our hearts and minds for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, please join me in a spirit of prayer,

           Amazing God, we are often surprised by your grace and creativity.  Help us to be open to your leading.  Help us to leave the paths of selfishness and destruction so that we might walk with you in life and light.  We ask this in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Our hymn of preparation is # 422 Amazing Grace