The Conversion of Saul Sermon
Our sermon series Bible Stories You Should Know brings us to the conversion of Saul in Acts 9:1-20. You should know this story because it shows how God can change our lives for the better, and it offers great insights into religious tolerance.
Saul the Persecutor
The story is about Saul, who identified himself as Paul to his non-Jewish friends. He grew up as a Jewish-Roman citizen. He excelled academically, a religious scholar shaped by the greatest biblical scholars of the day. The Old Testament was as familiar as the back of his hand. He despised Jesus and his followers, who called themselves “people of the way.” He believed the whole Jesus movement was a diabolical heresy against God’s will, so he made it his life’s mission to round up Christians, put them on trial, and execute them. He approved of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr.
He’s a bad dude who was so sure that his beliefs were right that he was willing to inflict violence on people who didn’t believe as he did. History is filled with tragedies caused by people like him, and the same kind of intolerance is rising in our country today. This was real persecution, not the faux persecution you hear people whining about today. The barista said, “happy holidays to me instead of merry Christmas. We Christians are so persecuted. Social media persecutes us by banning us from hating on people who don’t believe as we do. We’re so persecuted.” No, this was real-life and death stuff.
Blinded by the Light
One day, while Saul was on the road, on his mission to round up Christians, he was struck by a heavenly light and fell to the ground. Artists picture him on a horse. The light blinded him. You could say he was blinded by the light. He fell to the ground. Isn’t it nice to know that God knocks people off their high horses? Be careful if you are riding one—all certain of who is beyond God’s grace.
He heard a heavenly voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”He asks, “Who are you, Lord?”
If I were him, I’d think, “Don’t say you are Jesus. Don’t say, Jesus.”
The voice says, “I’m Jesus.”
Uh-oh. Persecuting the followers of Jesus is the same as persecuting Jesus.
Jesus instructs Saul to go to the city and wait. But he is blind. His friends also hear the voice and help blind Saul to the city, where he is so shaken that he neither eats nor drinks for three days.
The Courageous Ananias
Meanwhile, Jesus was working on another man, a Christian named Ananias. One of the delightful themes of the stories in Acts is how God works on two people simultaneously. One who needs help and one who is sent to help them on their journeys. Maybe at the same time God is working on your heart, the Spirit is working on someone else who can give you what you need.
We don’t know Ananias’ backstory, just that he is a Jesus follower. It’s as if the story says it’s not just church leaders. Any of us can have a role in bringing light to people. Ananias was praying, and he caught a vision. God calls to him. He responds to God’s call with the phrase, “Here I am, Lord.” He didn’t say, “What! I’m too busy. Go away.” Prayer leads him to a posture and attitude of openness.
God tells him to go help someone. “Who?”
He must have been thinking, “Don’t say, Saul. Don’t say, Saul.”
Yeah, Saul of Tarsus.
“You’ve got to be kidding. Saul? The guy persecuting us? He rounds up believers to have them put to death.”
God says there are big plans for Saul. He tells Ananias to go to a house on Straight Street (no saying, I looked but couldn’t find him). No excuses will get him out of this task. Ananias obeys and finds Saul. This story is as much about the courage and graciousness of Ananias as it is about Saul’s conversion.
He trusts God’s purposes for Saul so that when he meets him, he says hello, “brother.” Brother. No judgment. No giving him his comeuppance. No lectures. No mansplaining about how horrible he’s been. Just, brother. He treats the stranger who’s done terrible things as someone who is already part of the beloved community. Might this guide us on how to treat others? Couldn’t we all take a lesson from Ananias in our divided country?
Upon discovering Saul is blind, he lays hands on him and prays. The text says “something like scales” fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored.
Saul converts right then and there. It wasn’t just because he heard a heavenly voice. It was also because of the gracious way Ananias treated him. You never know how your graciousness will help someone turn their lives around.
Saul professes his faith and is baptized on the spot.
God uses people with a past to make a difference.
God used his keen intellect and passion. He becomes the most influential Christian of all time. He authored more of the New Testament than anyone else. Most of his writings are letters he sent to churches he founded once he had gone on to start churches in other communities. If it were not for his great mind, shaping the theology of the church, and his organizational abilities, Christianity might have remained just a sub-sect of Judaism and died off.
Remarkable. It fits with the theme of scripture of how God can turn a life around.
In many stories we’ve told this summer, we’ve seen how God works through flawed, imperfect people. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister. Moses and King David committed murder. The disciples all fled from Jesus when he was arrested, betraying their promises to be with him to the end. Saul inflicted religious violence. The point seems to be that no matter what rotten things you’ve done, God can still make a positive impact through you. This message runs so counter to cancel culture. It always hopes for redemption. Our culture would like us to believe there are good and bad people. But the Bible talks about all of us being good and bad. They say a leopard can’t change his spots. But we are not leopards. We are people created in the image of God who can rediscover that image and be more than we were. Every time we gather, we know that we are an imperfect community, made of imperfect people, called to do our best, believing that God isn’t done with us yet.
Conversion of hearts and minds
Saul’s conversion was more than a matter of not believing in Jesus one day and then believing the next. It was about more than belief. It was about a changed heart and how he saw others. Before conversion, he was driven by certainty of who God accepted and rejected. But afterward, his writings indicate a radical openness to everyone. He is the one who wrote about how Christ taught us to overcome all divisions.
Galatians 3 talks about how there is no longer male nor female, Jew or Greek, slave and free in Christ, but we are all part of common humanity. Paul is the one who wrote about how we should be driven by love and not judgment. In 1 Corinthians 13, he talks about how faith, hope, and love abide, and the greatest of these is love. A love that he defines as patient and kind, gentle that does not keep score with others.
He went from being a violent religious extremist to someone who opened his mind to accept others. When persecuted, he did not retaliate with violence even when it was inflicted upon him. He chose a new path.
Now some of you might be thinking, wait! Isn’t Paul the guy who wrote some of the horrible verses, especially about wives being subject to husbands and women being silent in worship? Well, it’s complicated. It looks like many of the New Testament letters didn’t come from the same person. The writing styles in some of the letters are completely different. Copywriting laws didn’t exist at the time, and if you believed you were being true to someone who taught you, you gave them credit by signing their name to it. Scholars look at the differences and show how the Damascus Road Paul is the one who always advocated for inclusiveness.
Sometimes conversion is sudden like Paul’s. We get knocked off our high horse. We are judgmental about one group, think they are against God, and then you discover that your child or friend is one of them, and you say they aren’t evil. Maybe I was wrong. They aren’t disqualified from love, from grace. I like what Ralph Waldo Emmerson said about certainty being the hobgoblin of small minds. We aren’t called to be certain about judgments of others but to be loving.
I wonder if the stoning of Stephen haunted Paul. Could he still see Stephen’s radiant, loving face? Could he still hear Stephen’s prayer of forgiveness for him? Could he still hear the taunts, lies, and anger of those who murdered him? Could he still feel his chest pounding with the thrill of self-righteous victory?
Did he remember?
How could he forget?
But I can also hear him saying, “Thanks be to God! I am not that person anymore!
There are a few people I’d like God to knock off their high horses and blind with God’s light. But I know the work begins in my heart as it does in yours.