August 7, 2011

Paul is Converted

Paul of Tarsus is a famous evangelist of the early church. We meet him in Acts, Chapter 9. But wait, we actually met him back at the end of Chapter 7 (on July 24) when those who stoned Stephen ‘laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.’ At the beginning of Chapter 9, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus.” (Acts 9:1-2)

Armed with the authority of the priests and leaders Saul (his Jewish name) heads for Damascus. This is not an easy, overnight trip. Damascus is far to the north in Syria. Saul would have passed the Sea of Galilee and continued north another 40 or so miles to Caesarea Philippi before turning northeast. Damascus was still another 40 miles away. The journey would have been about a week on foot. Fortunately Saul traveled by donkey, but it was still a long trek. Saul was inspired by his hatred for the new sect and his desire to preserve the purity of Judaism.

Something happens though, that changes Saul the Pharisee into Paul the Evangelist. A disciple in Damascus, Ananias, tells what happened on the Street Called Straight (photo from ca 1900).
One night I had a vision. The Lord called me by name. ‘Ananias,’ I heard it clearly. ‘Here I am, Lord’ was my reply. Then my God told me to do something terrifying. ‘Go to the street called Straight, to the house of Judas. Ask to speak to Saul of Tarsus. He is praying and has seen you come and lay hands on him to regain his sight.’

I was afraid and argued with the Lord. ‘Everyone knows that this man is evil. He has killed the saints in Jerusalem and is here to do the same under authority from the chief priests.’

God ignored my complaints. He simply repeated ‘Go. He is a chosen instrument of mine. He will carry my name before the Gentiles, kings, and all Israel. He will suffer much for my name.’

I tossed and turned the rest of the night. In the morning, I combed my beard and hair. If I was going to meet a famous Pharisee, I wanted to look my best. It took courage to kiss my wife and walk down our dirt street to the paved and colonnaded Street called Straight.

I knew Judas slightly from the Fellowship of Believers. He was a Greek who many years ago became interested in the Jewish religion. Now his faith in the Risen Lord was absolute. His home and shop shared the same space behind one of the columns along the street.

“Is there a man here known as Saul of Tarsus?” I asked, briefly wondering why Saul would chose to lodge here instead of in a Jewish home. Judas was known as a person who opened his heart to anyone in need but it was still odd that a rich Pharisee would come to him.

“Indeed there is. Members of his caravan brought him to me because it is known that I take in the ill and crazy. The men said that a few miles out of Damascus, there was a lightning storm. One particularly loud crack of lightning struck near the caravan. The animals were spooked. It was only after they were under control that someone noticed Saul lying on the ground. He appeared to be talking to someone, although no one else saw anyone.”

“What did he say?” I asked.

“The same thing he keeps saying since he has been here. ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I’ll tell you it’s getting on my nerves. Do you know anything about him?”

“Only that the Lord ordered me to come here and pray for him.”

Judas stood aside, “Enter, then. You will find the man in the atrium. The lightning struck him blind, as well as made him crazed.”

I stood for a minute staring at Saul. Could this young man be the one I had heard such terrible tales about? He was only a little older than my own son. His garments were of rich material and his beard and hair proclaimed him a Pharisee of the highest degree.

“Is someone there?” The young man turned toward me. His eyes stared sightlessly past me.

After another moment, I took a deep breath and stepped forward. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road, has sent me to you.”

Eagerly he reached out toward me. I took his hands between mine. “Do you know the Lord Jesus?”

For a moment I was taken aback and almost afraid that this was a trick. If I admitted to being a follower of the Risen One, he would arrest me and drag me off to death.

“So be it, Lord,” I said under my breath and replied to the young man’s question. “Yes, Brother Saul, I know the Lord Jesus. It is he who sent me to you so you can regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

I was ashamed of my fear when tears appeared in the sightless eyes. “Then I am in your hands.”

Gently I laid my hands on Saul’s eyes. “Lord Jesus, you have chosen this man to proclaim your glory. Give him sight that he may serve you to your glory.”

When I removed my hands, I did not see any change. Then he blinked and tiny flakes started to drop off his eyelashes. A moment later his eyes were clear.

“I can see,” the young man whispered in awe. “And it is not just my eyes that see. My heart sees my God in a new way. Truly I have been blind to all that God has accomplished.”

“He will continue to show you what you will do, my brother,” I affirmed. “Do you believe that Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God?”

“That I do!” His voice rang out and echoed in the atrium.

Judas peered in. “Is everything alright?”

“You are my host. I thank you for your hospitality. Is there water so I can be baptized in the name of Jesus?”

“Yes, there is water,” my friend replied slowly after looking at me with astonishment.

“It is not a trick.” The young Pharisee read his mind. “I have been changed by the same Lord you worship.”

A short time later, Saul shook the water off his hair and grinned. “It is a new beginning, isn’t it?”

“It will not be easy to convince the other Believers,” I warned him.

Supremely confident, the young man shrugged. “I plan to proclaim Jesus to the synagogues. Everyone needs to know about this new birth, this new beginning, this new life!”

Over the next several days, Saul rather made a nuisance of himself. He went to each synagogue in Damascus and insisted “Jesus is the Son of God. It is a new beginning for Jews and for Gentiles.”

“Isn’t this the man who imprisoned and killed those who follow the Christ?” Many people asked me.

“It is,” I shrugged. “He has changed.”

That wasn’t enough for some of the local leaders. I learned of a plot to kill Saul and so we smuggled him out of the city one night by lowering him over the wall in a basket. We heard he went to Jerusalem to preach to the Jews and disciples there. I wish him well.

Ananias was called by God to do something frightening, but he trusted and obeyed. How often do we hesitate to do something difficult because we aren’t sure of the outcome?

Recently I was reminded of the metaphor of a flashlight in the darkness. Faith is like following a dark path with only a flashlight. It doesn’t help me see everything, but it lights enough so I can take a couple of steps, then a couple more. No matter how big the flashlight, it will never completely light up the world. In the same way, we don’t have to have all the answers in order to step out in ministry.

Paul first preached to the Jews in Damascus. When he returned to Jerusalem, “Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord.” (Acts 9:27) Imagine the consternation in the community of Jerusalem when Saul came back. The Jewish leaders were angry with him and the disciples feared him. That didn’t stop Saul, though. He kept taking one step at a time until his journeys covered much of the Roman empire with the Good News.

Take out your Faith Flashlight and shine it on the path you are on. What is the next step?

Next week, we see Peter, once a Jewish fisherman, reaching out of his comfort zone to a Roman.

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