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Who Needs to Be Converted

Preached:  July 14, 2013
Scriptures:  Excerpts from Acts 9

Earlier this year, a few weeks after Easter, I had a really profound theological conversation with Bruce Taylor who had just taught this lesson in Sunday School.  It was one of those A-HA moments.  Bruce said as he read through this story he wondered aloud with the kids:  who do you think had the biggest conversion – do you think it was Saul or Ananias?  I had never given much thought to the conversion Ananias had to go through when he went and healed Saul of his blindness.  The story had always focused on Saul’s dramatic “come to Jesus” conversion.

Debate within Judaism is intensifying. There are many groups within Judaism: Pharisees, Sadducees, Zealots, Essenes, and the Jesus people, those who belonged to The Way. And there’s disagreement among these groups on what is true Judaism.

Saul, a Pharisee is characterized as a man of violence as the one who took care of the coats of the people who stoned Stephen. Saul not only approved of the execution, he’s breathing threats and murder against the disciples of Jesus, and asking if he can deliver the mail to the synagogue in Damascus, so that he can  find the Jesus people and bring them in chains to Jerusalem.

Saul is on his way to Damascus to find followers of Jesus, and suddenly he has an experience of the Risen Christ. Within a moment that takes his breath away, he is blinded by a light so brilliant that he falls to the ground and tries to shield himself from it. It seems to him that there is a figure standing within the light, a figure who speaks directly to him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul does not immediately recognize this voice, and when Jesus identifies himself he addresses the issue of violence again: ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’ “Saul, you have been killing me, when you helped them stone Stephen, when you set out to trap my followers at Damascus, wherever you are colluding with the authorities, wherever you are breathing your murderous threats, wherever you are killing them, you are killing me.” By identifying himself as the one whom Saul is persecuting, Jesus identifies with the believers in their suffering.

And then, Saul is plunged into darkness, darkness. He waits in Damascus for three days, not eating, not drinking, searching his soul, unable to see.

At the same time, Jesus appears to Ananias, a member of the Way and says, “Go to the street called straight and in the house of Judas, there you will see Saul of Tarsus and I want you to lay your hands on him so that he will regain his sight.”

Ananias protests. He knows Saul by reputation, and that reputation is frightening. “Jesus, are you sure about this? Saul is OUR enemy; he has hurt us.”  What he is really saying: “LORD, ARE YOU CRAZY?!?!?”  He knows who Saul is, he doesn’t want to get near the notorious killer.  And Jesus replies, “Yep, I’m sure. I have work for Saul to do. Go to him.” After a bit of resistance, Ananias gives in, and goes to lay healing hands on Saul.

A member of the community whom Saul has been persecuting becomes the instrument of healing. “Brother Saul,” he says – by using the phrase “brother,” Ananias welcomes him into the inner circle of believers.  “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”    Within moments, “something like scales fell” from Paul’s eyes, his sight is restored and he immediately begins to proclaim that Jesus is the Son of God.

Often overlooked is Ananias’ mystical experience. Just as Paul experiences God’s dramatic turnabout call, Ananias experiences a call to courage and transformation. He risks everything as a result of a visionary experience.  Ananias goes to this person he doesn’t trust.  Ananias reaches out when he doesn’t have to, when he doesn’t want to, and he offers love.  Someone has to reach out in love when they don’t want to.

PBS specials on the First Ladies of the US.  Story of Dolly Madison, wife of James Madison, 4th president. The political atmosphere in Washington was poisonous. Members of Congress had not yet figured out how to make the gov’t function. Foreign relations, taxation, states’ rights — all were matters of bitter dispute. This was a violent era in the early republic, where men dueled against each other over ideologies. They beat each other with canes on the floors of Congress.

Dolly Madison noticed that there were no good places for people to meet socially in DC, so she decided to host parties at the Executive Mansion every Wednesday afternoon and serve ice cream. The parties were so popular people called them “squeezes”.

But the squeezes weren’t just parties. Dolly was intentionally bringing together people who didn’t like each other, who didn’t trust each other, who didn’t want to get to know or even meet each other. When a member of the House or Senate said particularly awful things about her husband on the House or Senate floor, Dolly would find them at the next squeeze, charm them and offer them ice cream and then guide them by the hand from one room to another until surprise, they just happened to run into her husband, and then she would invite these political rivals into conversation.

It was very risky then to engage with someone you didn’t like, someone you didn’t trust.  These political enemies began to see humanity in their political foes. If you do that you will likely learn something new that will soften you and change your perspective about the other person.

The story of Saul and Ananias is a story of enemies coming together. Ananias doesn’t like Saul, doesn’t trust him, doesn’t want to be anywhere near him.  And in the midst of it is healing and reconciliation. God changes Saul’s name to Paul (in a later chapter) as a sign of his new life.

We will not all be stopped in the road by a brilliant light. We will not all hear a voice calling us by name out of that light, nor have a vision in which the Lord instructs us to go to a specific street and find a specific person and perform a specific ritual. But we can all experience a transformation of the heart – like both Saul & Ananias.  Relinquishing the violence in ourselves and in our culture.

Ananias is called to heal Saul in the name of Christ, but he is reluctant to answer the call.  Are there people we are called to serve and are reluctant to do so?

Often, what stands between us and renewal, between us and living a deeper life is not something we lack, but something we refuse to let go.

In what ways to we need to be converted in our thoughts by God’s grace?