The Third Sunday of Easter
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Scripture Reading: Acts 9:1-20
The Conversion of Saul
9 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] 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[b] 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.
Saul Preaches in Damascus
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.”
- Acts 9:12 Other ancient authorities lack in a vision
- Acts 9:17 Gk him
Sermon: “What About Ananias?”
Stories of road trips have been around as long as people have. So has the fact that, on a road trip, things never go as planned. Sometimes, for example, the destination turns out not to be quite as we imagined it.
That’s certainly the case in a classic road trip comedy, National Lampoon’s Vacation. Watch as the Griswold family, after more travel travails than anyone can count, finally arrives at their long-in-coming vacation destination, “Wally World.”
Vacation tells us that no family is perfect, and that nothing ever goes quite as planned. In today’s scripture, Saul learns the same things.
The perfect Pharisee, Saul was one of the earliest persecutors of the church in Jerusalem. As our story opens, he’s taking his show on the road, traveling 150 miles to Damascus.
Once there, Saul expected to link up with Jewish authorities and, paperwork in hand, ferret out as many Christians as he could. Saul would then take them back to Jerusalem for trial, after which they might also face the less than tender mercies of Rome.
Saul made it to Damascus. Other than that, though, nothing on his persecution road trip went as planned. He ended up on a lifelong spiritual detour that took him in a direction he never expected to go. In the end, as a sign of that turnaround, Saul started using his Roman name, Paul.
Confronted on the road by that dazzling light and compelling voice, Saul’s pretensions fell away. He could no longer hide, as we all do, behind the masks he wore to keep the world from seeing him as he really was.
Mask? What mask? How about these, the ten most common masks psychologist Theresa Borchard says people wear: the cool person, the humorist, the overachiever, the martyr, the bully, the control freak, the self-basher, the people-pleaser, the introvert, and the social butterfly. Sound familiar?
Peter Fuda talked about the masks that business leaders wear in a 2013 Harvard Business Review article. Most of them, Fuda said, are open secrets. We know we’re wearing a mask. The people around us know we’re wearing a mask. We know that they know. Of course, no one ever says a word.
In time, the business leaders in Fuda’s study realized that their masks weren’t working, or reached a point where they couldn’t bear the weight of them anymore.
Those who’d kept silence all along, Fuda added, now helped the leaders make a new start. What the mask droppers discovered was that being true to their goals, values, and strengths was more important than trying to look perfect—and, as you might expect, failing every time.
It was up to the risen Christ and to a less than enthusiastic Christian named Ananias to help once-perfect Pharisee Saul shed his mask and find his true goals, values, and strengths.
“Lord,” Ananias argued, “I’ve heard about the evil this man did to your saints in Jerusalem! Now he’s here, with power from the chief priests to arrest anyone who calls on your name!”
Ananias had trouble believing God could change someone like Saul so quickly and completely. You can’t blame him.
Saul’s conversion is a miracle, his own personal encounter with the risen Christ. We shouldn’t see it as a pattern that every Christian has to follow. After all, God doesn’t offer cookie cutter salvation. Instead, God finds us in as many ways as there are people.
Some are changed suddenly, as Saul was. They can circle the day on their calendar and will always remember it. Not everyone comes to faith that way, though. Some take the route described by Horace Bushnell way back in 1875.
[A] child is to grow up a Christian, and never know him or herself as being otherwise…open on the world as one spiritually renewed, not remembering the time when he or she went through a technical experience, but seeming rather to have loved what is good from his or her earliest years.
Never underestimate God’s power to change people, whether in an instant or over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes, still, we wonder―as Ananias did.
It wasn’t so much that he wanted to argue theology, least of all with the risen Christ. Ananias was scared. Considering Saul’s track record in Jerusalem, he had every right to be.
The most blinding, stifling mask we wear is also one of the hardest to take off. That mask is fear.
Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in January 1933, shortly before Hitler came to power, spoke to the fear that at least some people in Germany felt at that time.
“The Bible, the gospel, Christ, the church, the faith―all are one great battle cry against fear in the lives of human beings,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “Fear is, somehow or other, the arch enemy itself,” Bonhoeffer went on.
It crouches in people’s hearts. It hollows out their insides until their resistance and strength are spent, and they suddenly break down…. We almost like it that way, all this misery around us…. What would we do if we couldn’t complain anymore?
That’s the worst of it: we don’t even want to find a way out. That’s fear’s final triumph over us, that we’re afraid to run away from it and let it completely control us.
Comparing German Christians at that time to the disciples caught in a great storm at sea while Christ soundly slept, Bonhoeffer concluded:
Faith doesn’t rely on itself or on favorable seas, favorable conditions; it doesn’t rely on its own or on another’s strength; faith believes only and alone in God, whether there’s a storm or not.
Ananias overcame the storm of his fear, and went to Judah’s house on the street called Straight. Paul may be the spiritual rock star here, but Ananias is the one who opened Paul’s eyes and turned him loose on both church and world.
Acts makes it clear that Christian discipleship is far too challenging for any one person on her or his own. Paul’s powerful experience on the way to Damascus only started changing lives after Ananias reached out to Paul and other Christians accepted him as well.
Like Paul, we find the resources and relationships that forge an enduring faith only in a caring community of believers.
That said, the road trip of faith will be different for each of us. We’ll all have our share of false starts and detours. Our final destination, though, won’t be some locked and shuttered amusement park, but glory beyond all measure and life everlasting with the risen Christ.
Even now, Jesus moves in power among us, stripping away our masks and calling us to a life of service and praise in the world as the body of Christ, the Church.