Grace, mercy, and peace to from God our
Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today, dear friends, we observe one of
the most significant events in the history of the Christian Church, the
Conversion of St. Paul, namesake of our congregation. It is recorded in
chapter 9 of the book of Acts. Born and raised a Jew under the name of Saul,
he was trained as a Pharisee. By his own admission, Saul was vehement in his
persecution of early Christians. We are also told earlier in Acts that Saul
was among those who witnessed and approved of the stoning of Stephen, the first
known martyr of the faith.
It was his zeal for Judaism and the
careful observance of God’s Law that led Saul to pursue the arrest and
punishment of anyone who confessed Jesus as the Christ, the Lord’s Messiah.
As chapter 9 opens, we read words such as
the following: “Meanwhile, Saul was
still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.”
Kind of like you and me, in a way. Yes,
I know that for the most part, you may not have given much serious thought to
causing genuine physical harm to your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
And, probably the only “murderous threats” you’ve ever made were the childish, “I’m gonna kill you!!” that you
screamed at a sibling or a playmate, when they pulled a prank on you or caused
you some minor offense.
Nevertheless, we’re all guilty of causing
others great harm with our tongues, aren’t we? Try as we might to avoid gossip
and backbiting, snide comments or crude insults, we gravitate to them anyway.
We can’t help it. Such is our sinful nature.
We try to excuse and rationalize this
behavior, telling ourselves, “They’re only words.” We even retreat to other childish things, quoting
the old familiar lie, “Sticks
and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” What a crock
that is, isn’t it? We all know better than that. Words have great power—power
to do both harm and good, even when they’re only human words. The scars we
leave with our words can linger for decades after any cuts, scrapes, or bruises
have long since healed and faded.
We’d like to think the sins we commit
against Christ’s Church and our baptismal brothers and sisters are of far less
severity than the sort we read about Saul committing and planning in the New
Testament. But they only seem less severe because in our desire to compare
ourselves to others, we like to put things on a scale. Human concepts of justice
have to rank genocide as worse than a mugging, and bank robbery as more severe
But, as I’ve tried to explain to some of
our young people in confirmation class and in our school, God doesn’t see it
that way. In His perfection and holiness, He is so far removed from any sin
that our unrighteousness puts us at the extreme end of any human spectrum of
sin we might construct to make us feel better about ourselves.
Paul, or Saul as he was still known at
the time today’s first lesson took place, later called himself the greatest of
all sinners. In human terms, his crimes and sins probably wouldn’t put him in
our top 100, if we were to create such a list. Yet in those early days, he was
certainly doing his best to snuff out the sparks and embers of Christianity
that he would soon help spread broadly across the Roman Empire.
Traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to see if he could capture any Christians and take them back for punishment, Saul
is driven to the ground by a flash of light from above. The light was probably
quite impressive, again in human terms, and Saul sees the resurrected Jesus.
Yet, we can’t begin to assume that at
this moment, Saul received a revelation of the full glory of the Lord.
Instead, as the encounter continues, Saul receives the exact opposite:
complete darkness. The blindness he had been showing in spiritual terms
by ignoring the message of God’s Scriptures and by persecuting the Church is
suddenly made complete in physical terms as well.
The word Saul hears as he cowers on the
ground is not one of comforting Gospel, either. It is a word of accusation, a
word that challenges him to justify his actions: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The
confrontation Saul experiences on the road does not convert him; it convicts
It is a word of Law; God’s Law, spoken by
Him who is the wholeness and the reality of God’s Word. Yet Saul’s blindness is
so complete that he can’t even realize who he had seen who objected to his
actions, and also had the power to drive him to his knees.
Confused and frightened, he asks, “Who are you, Lord?” If Saul had any suspicion that
it was God incarnate speaking to him, he wouldn’t have had to ask the question,
would he? He would’ve realized his past mistakes, and instead said with us
when we realize our sin, “Lord, have
Saul’s use of “lord” is perhaps more a statement of recognizing that he is at
the mercy of someone who has overpowered him, not that he has been confronted
by the Lord of heaven and earth Himself.
The response he receives is curious,
indeed. “I am Jesus, whom you are
Jesus? Being persecuted? Hadn’t this
rebel Jesus fellow been killed years earlier, crucified by the Romans at the
demands of the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees? Even if he had
risen from the dead, as these radicals Saul was hunting down had claimed, Saul
had never laid a hand on that Jesus. How then could he, Saul, be
In these curious words, however, we see
the intimacy of the love and compassion our Savior has for His Church. To
persecute God’s own, to lay a hand or even a harsh word upon any Christian, is
to put yourself at odds with the Lord Himself. It is as if Jesus were saying
to Saul, as He had said to His own disciples, “Whatsoever you do to the least of these, my brethren, you do it unto
That should give us all pause, shouldn’t
it? It should make us hesitate to throw about gossip about our brothers and
sisters in this congregation. It should make us recoil from questioning the
motives or sincerity of others. And it should make us shudder in fear as we
recall the times I’m sure we’ve all done just such things. We should answer not
with the question, “Who are you, Lord?” but with the plea, “Lord, have mercy!” For
unlike Saul, we already know Jesus.
Saul had little choice but to comply with
the directions Jesus gave him on the road that day. He was now at the mercy of
others, dependent upon them to lead him in his darkness to a place of safety.
He despaired of his predicament, refusing even to take nourishment. Saul had
no way of knowing it at the time, of course, but he was among God’s chosen, and
God never leaves His chosen ones in despair.
As the Lord usually does, and would soon
do with Saul, he uses another human being to bring God’s message to a lost and
suffering person. Ananias, a believer, is called by the Lord to go to Saul, to
heal him of his blindness and to convey the Holy Spirit to him. Ananias is
naturally hesitant. He knows that Saul is bad news. As far as Ananias is
concerned, as vigorously as Saul has tried to destroy the Church, he might as
well be the devil incarnate.
But the Lord won’t have any of that. He
assures Ananias with His Word, just as He does us, and sends him forth to
accomplish His purposes, in spite of His apprehension and reluctance.
Bolstered by his faith and God’s promises, Ananias the believer approaches Saul
the despairing, and speaks what God has given him to say.
It is there, in that encounter of
a single Christian speaking God’s Word to an unbelieving sinner, that the
conversion of St. Paul takes place. It wasn’t in the bright flash on
the road. It wasn’t in the voice of God, speaking directly to Saul. It
wasn’t in the suffering of Saul’s blindness, either. Not in his
vision of Ananias coming to him. Not in his fasting. Not in his
No, it is in the Christian witness of
Ananias—to one he was initially afraid to encounter—that perhaps the greatest
Christian missionary of all time receives the gift of saving faith in Jesus.
This faith would then be conveyed by Saul—Paul—to countless others by the
proclamation of God’s Word, in his own lifetime, and in the many centuries
It was God’s will and God’s plan, of
course, that Ananias would obey His command and bring that message to Saul in Damascus that day. Ananias was afraid. He did hesitate. He gave God
excuses as to all the reasons he shouldn’t go to see Saul and speak God’s Word
But in the end, Ananias’ faith in the
Lord was stronger than the human fear in his heart, and Ananias was God’s
humble instrument to bring God’s greater instrument to faith as well.
You may know many people you’re afraid to
approach with the Gospel. There are countless more you don’t know at all, who
you’re probably even more hesitant to approach, because of the way they
look, or talk, or dress, or behave.
Don’t let that stop you, though. Ananias
wasn’t out prowling the streets of Damascus, proclaiming the Gospel at the top
of his lungs, and happened to stumble into Saul by accident. Rather, God
created a specific set of circumstances in which Ananias and Saul were brought
together, and Ananias was given what he was to say and do for the benefit of
Saul. God has promised, through Christ, that he would do this for believers.
And look what happened: Saul received
the message, received the blessing of faith, was received into the flock of the
Church, and began to do marvelous things for the benefit of others. It’s
amazing what a little conversation about Jesus can do, given God’s will and the
Your witnessing to others about Jesus as
Lord and Savior may not result in the conversion of anyone with quite so much
impact on the Church and on the spread of the Gospel as Paul had, of course. It
may not result in the conversion of anyone, so far as you know. But
don’t let that stop you, either. Your role in the spread of the Gospel doesn’t
have to be spectacular in human terms. But there may be somebody out there,
maybe only one person, maybe thousands, who needs to hear from you that Jesus
Christ came to save sinners, of whom we are all chief among them.
If you have a difficult time bringing
Jesus to them, it’s perfectly OK for you to bring them to Jesus, instead.
Bring them here, to where Jesus is found and proclaimed and given to us in Word
and Sacrament. The important thing isn’t who they hear it from, or where it
happens. The only thing that matters is they end up here in the fellowship of
the saints: Where the scales of blindness will fall from their eyes. Where
they can be baptized. Where they can take heavenly food and regain their
strength. Just like Saul. Just like you. Amen.