Acts 9: 1-20
Damascus, back in the day, was a hotbed of spiritual activity it seems according to our scripture because the road to Damascus is where Saul, later to become known as Paul had his conversion experience. All you need do is a Google Search to find out the iconic status the Damascus Road experience has become. Today we will consider Luke’s account of the conversion of Saul, the 9th chapter.
Meanwhile 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 at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.
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. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 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, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’
But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 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; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’
So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul 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.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
Conversion can, at times, take on a very bad connotation. In the Christian context particularly we have placed heavy emphasis on the act of conversion, I believe, without thought, without consideration, without regard to God’s part in all this. When did you become a Christian? How did you become a Christian? What were you doing when you knew that you were saved? For some, statistics are of value when counting how many lives have been saved, it’s sort of like McDonalds who touts on their billboards ‘over one billion served’.
I remember many years ago when the father of my son’s friend asked me if I ‘was saved’. Sean, being a ‘born again’ Christian, wanted to know a specific time and date when I received Jesus into my life. When had I truly converted or transformed my life. I was at somewhat of a loss for words since I had never known myself to be anything other than Christian[i], and a practicing one at that!
I suppose I could have pulled out the church bulletin from the day I was baptized, December 28, 1952, which I still have but I don’t think that would have assuaged Sean’s deepest desire to know if I was REALLY saved. We both went away that day uneasy with the conversation and unsatisfied. He, because he couldn’t add another ‘saved life’ to his tally and me feeling rather incompetent since I have never had a flashy, light-blinding ordeal like Saul of Tarsus. Conversion is a very personal experience and not something that we can use a formula on or even try to invoke ourselves.
When you hear the story of Saul’s Damascus Road experience it really leaves you feeling a bit inadequate if you have not had that sort of experience. His is rather blatant. Flashes of light, a voice from heaven. Blindness, hunger and thirst, he had to be led into Damascus rather than find his way himself. His conversion was a life changing experience that took three days to complete. And when Ananias finally laid hands on Saul, then and only then did the scales fall from his eyes and he could see.
What did he see? He saw the disciples in a new light; he saw the world around him in a different way. His old habits had been altered to make ready for the new. He saw that rather than being a persecutor of the followers of Jesus he could become a believer and proclaimer of the Word and the Way. And we know that he did! That is some major turnaround. His life was changed for the good.
And Ananias? He also needed a change of heart in order to lay hands on Saul. He balked at the thought of touching Saul but it was God who said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings…’. So Ananias then laid his hands on Saul, he trusted that what God was doing was the right thing to do. He compassionately called Saul brother. Saul was no longer the enemy. Ananias’ heart was transformed for the good.
Yes, conversions, changes of heart, transformations, altered states, however you name it, can happen in any way shape or form because it is God who chooses to enlighten us and do a new thing with us and for us. When we are converted whether in the blink of an eye or with razz a matazz, or over a lifetime we are converted for God’s good that is for the betterment of our lives and those around us.
I believe that we are converted because God wants and needs us for SOME reason, which may or may not be made known to us. “Live the questions”, says poet Ranier Maria Rilke[ii]. We are God’s instruments, chosen and beloved to bring God’s presence before each person or each circumstance that we encounter. And what that means is that we are to speak justice, love kindly and to live each and every day lifting up God’s presence and trusting that tomorrow will be a better day. Otherwise, what is the point of conversion if we do not live into the hope of Jesus the Christ?
I have no doubt that one, some, or all of the youth and adults who have gone on the mission that left just yesterday will come back changed, converted in a way. It might be through the hard work that they will be doing or the encounter with the homeowner, or even a moment between friends, a proverbial ‘light bulb’ will go on and they will experience the profound love and awesome nature of God. They will understand that to help another person is the Gospel at work. Herein lies the conversion; it is a conversion of the heart to a new way of seeing and living, doing and being.
What happened on the Damascus Road so long ago to Saul happens today. He was blinded and then was made to see again, but with fresh vision. He witnessed of God’s redemptive love for you and me and then told others who also might just need a lift.
Every person’s got a story to tell of how God has lifted them up from despair to hope, from ruin to growth, from really abhorrent behavior to decent, ethical living and then moved them on to help out this sorry world. How it happened, that’s not the most important point. The point is that it did happen.
Conversion is not just a 10-letter word, or a tally sheet, or flashing lights on a dusty distant road. It is an ongoing witness of love for others to see and hear. God calls. God converts. Now go! We are God’s instruments to bring peace.