It is 36 AD. Jesus has died, been buried, and resurrected and ascended to Heaven. It is now in the hands of a small group of men and women to continue proclaiming Jesus’ message. They all have to make the decision that would completely change their futures, a decision that would be a defining moment in their lives. A decision that would ultimately cost them their lives. Of the twelve disciples, Judas took his own life and of the other eleven, ten would eventually die a martyr’s death. John was the exception. He died in old age shortly after writing down the Book of Revelation.
Today I want to say a little bit about Stephen before getting into Saul’s conversion. When the early church started and was increasing in number, the apostles started noticing that the widows were being overlooked by the church. The apostles called a meeting with the people and told them they needed help to distribute food because they did not have the time to do their preaching and teaching as well as serving food. People are in need of both physical and spiritual food and there are not enough of them to do both. So they chose seven men to help them. One of these men was Stephen. He is described as being full of grace and power and he performed great miracles among the people. He was an effective leader and well-liked, and as happens in many cases with leaders like this, there were those who were jealous and insecure and were out to get him. They started spreading the word that Stephen was preaching things about Moses and Jesus that were blasphemy. The people got all stirred up and took Stephen before the court and testified against him. They asked Stephen if this was true and he proceeded to give them a sermon. It is a long sermon which I will not read to you now but it can be found in Acts, chapter 7. I will read the last paragraph of it, though, to demonstrate Stephen’s harshness. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it. Stephen ended up being stoned to death and became the first martyr for the faith. During his stoning, Stephen continued gazing toward heaven and at one point he says, “I see the son of God standing in Heaven.” This was a defining moment for Stephen. Also while this was happening, Saul was standing in the crowd watching and Stephen’s garments were thrown at Saul’s feet. The defining moment for this martyr, Stephen, was also a defining moment for Saul.
Saul had been trained at a young age in the Hebrew scriptures and you would think he would have been a man of peace, but not so. He believed that he needed to do everything in his power to oppose Jesus, the Nazarene. He caused many believers to be sent to prison and cast his vote against them when they were condemned to death. For years he was the greatest threat to early Christianity. He pursued Christ-followers from city to city. He never killed with his own hands, but had others do that. Saul was a big, strong, confident man who was full of pride and arrogance. Little did he know that he was soon to become very humbled.
He reminds me of the boxer, Mohammed Ali. He was a big strong prideful and arrogant man, always walking around calling himself “the greatest”. He was on a flight that a flight attendant friend of mine was working. She was walking down the aisle before take off making sure all the seatbelts were fastened. She came Mr. Ali whose belt was not fastened and told him to fasten up. He said to her, “I’m Superman and I don’t need a seatbelt”. She came back with a great rebuttal and said, “Superman doesn’t need an airplane, so buckle up”
Not many of us walk around with that kind of arrogance and we certainly have not committed the cruelties that Saul did, but we have all done and said things in our past that we are not proud of, that we wish we could take back.
Well, Saul’s chance came on that fateful walk to Damascus. There are many stories of conversion throughout the years, but not many are quite so dramatic as the “Damascus Road Experience”, as it is sometimes called. Luke reminds us that appearances of the risen Christ are not confined to Easter Day and this appearance to Saul and Ananias is just one of many throughout the book of Acts. Author, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one (meaning Saul), was to knock him off his horse. Saul was probably not on a horse, but we get the gist. He needed something drastic to change him. So down from the heavens comes a huge bolt of lightening, knocking Saul to the ground. He heard a voice booming out, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul cries out “Who are you, Lord?” And of course Jesus replies, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting…” and he goes on to tell him to go to the city where he will be told what to do next. The men with Saul had to lead him since he had been blinded by the lightening. Jesus left Saul blind for three days, giving him time to reflect where he had gone wrong and realize that his life is about to change. After being in the city for three days Jesus sent Ananias to him to lay hands on him. God sends Ananias to teach Saul the truth. God uses His servants to tell the story, just as He expects you and I to do. Ananias went to Saul and baptized him in Christ.
But sincerity and good conscience are not enough to earn our salvation. Fervor and zeal are not enough. Terrible things have been done throughout the ages in the name of zeal, just as Saul did before his encounter with Jesus. It is not a saving trait. Confessing Jesus as Lord is not enough. Saul had no doubt that was the Lord there on the road to Damascus. Yet the realization did not save him. Praying to Jesus for salvation is not enough. Saul spent three days fasting and praying, yet when Anaias came he said, “Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away”. Saul wasn’t saved on the road to Damascus. He was saved three days later by being baptized.
Now the main character in this conversion story is of course, God. It is God who changes lives. The power of God turned Saul from someone who preached threats and murder for the disciples to someone who proclaimed Jesus. God needed a witness to carry the news of Jesus to the people of Israel. So he chose someone who had been a witness against Jesus to be a witness for Jesus. Saul did not decide to do this, God decided. The story is not so much about Saul as it is about God’s work to change lives.
We are often skeptical about people changing their lives around. We have seen it happen successfully, but we have also seen failures. Ananias was certainly skeptical, saying, you must be kidding, this guy is out to get us…it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks. However, the theme throughout the Bible is that through God all things are possible and this story reminds us that conversion is not about us but about God. Saul’s name is changed to Paul and Paul has a significant impact on the church. If I asked each and every one of you about your faith journey, there would be many different stories told to me. God works through us all in many different ways. Our stories should not be kept to ourselves. Our religious experiences are not private affairs. We need to share them with others and help them see the works of God.
The real point of this story is not Saul’s conversion from bad guy to good guy, or from Judaism to Christianity. It is the choosing of Saul to bring Jesus’ name to the people of Israel and to suffer in God’s name.
We not only read about how Jesus changed lives in the Bible, but today almost every day we can read about someone or see someone on TV whose life has been changed and they attribute their change to have happened with the help of God and Jesus. These people are from all walks of life…athletes, addicts, drug dealers, celebrities, young, old, middle-aged. You probably know lots of people, yourself included, who have changed bad habits. Things that certainly weren’t as bad as what Paul had done, but things like losing your temper, breaking promises, lying, neglecting someone in need. When you were a child, you may have been told, “God is watching you”. Well not only is He watching, but He is surrounding you and invading your heart, and if you are listening and feeling his presence and what He is saying to you, you will change.