This text is used for the Lectionary Year C on April 10, 2016.
The story of Paul’s conversion joins a litany of dramatic conversion stories that unfold in Acts 8-10. Beginning with Acts 8:4 we read about the conversion of the Samaritans, then an Ethiopian, and now the conversion of Saul. The conversions climax with a Roman centurion believing and being baptized. Each of these stories takes us farther from the original community in Jerusalem than the one before. They each tell a story of a God who touches the lives of unlikely people from diverse backgrounds, so the good news will spread to the ends of the earth.
On this second Sunday after Easter, it is fitting for the preacher to focus on this central theme of conversion. He or she will emphasize Christ’s primary and active role in the conversion experience. It is Christ who approaches and interrupts Paul on his journey, and it is Christ who changes Paul’s course. Others are unable to see or hear Christ, revealing the intensely personal nature of conversion. Even still, as the voice engaging Saul moves from accusation to invitation, Christ indicates that this story is not only about conversion but also about vocation and calling. In a moment, Saul becomes both a believer and a person with a role to play for God. Conversion is not only an experience shared between a new believer and God. It is also an experience shared between the believer and the world, as he or she is transformed both by their personal relationship with Jesus as Lord and Savior, and by their new calling to be witnesses to the ends of the earth.
A sermon that wrestles with conversion will ask the congregation to consider the times they have chosen the wrong path or encountered the work of Christ with closed minds. How were their eyes opened and hearts changed? They will have space to remember when they saw the blinding light of truth, and consider how that changed their hearts, minds, and understandings of their callings in this world? When and how did they first come to believe in Jesus and call him “Lord?” And how has Christ initiated continual conversion in their hearts and minds as they walk with him along “The Way?” The preacher will finally ask, “Where is God at work in your life right now? Where do you need him to open your eyes and help you see the light anew? How is Christ inviting you to be transformed from the self-confident independence of the pre-conversion Saul, toward the child-like dependence of the converted Saul? And how will you respond to God’s initiative?”
Within the larger context of conversion, each individual character lends itself to a number of sermon possibilities. First there is Saul. Luke does not tell us about his background or motives, just that he is the key enemy of the church. Saul “ravaged the church” (8:3) and breathed “threats and murder” (9:1). Luke leaves no doubt that Saul is the least likely of all people to believe in Christ and join the fellowship of the church.
Saul’s experience challenges today’s church to consider whom we label as too far gone for salvation and fellowship, and to acknowledge how Jesus’ presence can still transform the church’s most notorious critics and despisers. With Saul’s conversion experience an active, powerful man becomes passive and helpless like a child. This is the way the church’s number one enemy will enter the kingdom. And so it is with us!
Then, there is Ananias. Despite legitimate concerns about Saul’s past, he simply does as the Lord commands. Unlike the others who could not hear or see Christ on the Damascus Road, Ananias hears the voice of the Lord on his own. And he knows just who is speaking! There is a unique familiarity in his reaction to the voice, indicating Ananias has heard that voice before. Just as he spoke on the road to Damascus, and just as he spoke in the home of Ananias, our God still speaks. The preacher might ask the congregation to consider just how familiar they are with the voice of their Lord. Do we often miss it altogether? Do we require proof of who is speaking? Or do we know that voice so well that we just know it when we hear it?
The faithful disciple lays hands on Saul, leading to Saul’s healing and reception of the Holy Spirit. He calls Saul “brother,” challenging today’s church to continue extending the right hand of fellowship to whomever God brings our way. The despised enemy has become a friend- even more, a brother. Only God could do that, but Ananias willingly joined in and accepted God’s word and work. Do we join what God is doing in the world? Or are we more likely to put a quick stop to it? By the end of this scene, Ananias disappears from the story. Some of the Lord’s disciples are like Peter and Paul, the prominent heroes of the faith. But many more are ordinary men and women like Ananias, who enter the stage when called by God, faithfully listen and obey their calling for the day, and exit as God’s mission goes on. Ministry is not ultimately about status or privilege but faithful obedience.
The preacher may use today’s text to highlight the intimate and personal yet universal experiences of conversion. He or she may also emphasize the Spirit-led invitation to continual conversion. Or it may be a day to encourage small, faithful acts of obedience, noting how they have the potential of leading to the conversion of a man, whose life and witness then leads to the conversion of an entire people. Just two weeks removed from the empty tomb, the preacher will certainly want to focus on the life that continues to spring up from death, the light that outshines darkness, the enemies made brothers, the lost who are found, the closed minds that are opened, and the little people who are called to big things.
Belfair Community Church, Belfair, Washington
Tags: conversion, continual conversion, obedience, vocation