Acts 9:1-20

One thing that helps me to believe what our faith tells us about the events that took place on Easter and beyond, is the change in the Disciples. They go from rather bumbling, seemingly not so smart people who are cowardly and have abandoned their friend and leader, to being these incredibly bold folks who will let nothing, not even death, stop them from talking about Jesus and what he has to teach us. They are entirely different people, and that kind of sudden change doesn’t happen without some really amazing event to push us into a new life.

Today’s scripture is about another sudden change that came about as the result of another amazing event. We hear the story of Saul’s conversion to the person we know as Paul fairly often, and sometimes that is a bad thing, because what should be incredible becomes mundane, but this year in particular, when we are being bombarded with messages to choose sides in our world, to be with “them” or “us” when we vote, God and Jesus offer us another way.

The early church had been growing rapidly, once the message of Christ’s resurrection began to spread. The Holy Spirit was bursting out all over, and I do mean all over. The apostles were so busy converting and baptizing people near and far that some said they were neglecting the pastoral care of the Hellenistic Christians – the ones particularly influenced by Greek culture, and not as much by the temple ways in Jerusalem. So the disciples called everyone together and had them choose seven people “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” to do the pastoral care for that community. One of them was Stephen.

Stephen was apparently amazing at what he did, and officials at the Synagogue began to argue with him. They accused him of blasphemy and brought him before the council. Think how terrifying this would be. This is what led to Jesus being crucified. But Stephen not only doesn’t cower, he gives them a most amazing sermon that includes the history of Judaism from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to Joseph, Moses, David, and Solomon. And while they are looking at him, they saw “that his face was like the face of an angel.” And then he called the officials “stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, who are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute?” he asks. “They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the laws as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.”

You can imagine that they weren’t too happy to hear all that, and they “ground their teeth at him.” That’s scary. Can you just see it? And then he had the audacity to say he saw “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” That did it. They rushed him, dragged him out to the street and stoned him, during which he prayed much the same prayers that Jesus did on the cross. He asked Jesus to receive his spirit, and he said: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And then he died.

While they were stoning him, they had “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul,” and we are told that Saul approved of the killing. And so “a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem,” and Saul was a leader in that. He went into lots and lots of houses, dragging off both men and women, and putting them in prison. Doesn’t this sound like some of the terror that has taken place in countries like Nazi Germany, or like what is taking place right now in several countries that are under siege? Imagine how terrifying it is to know of someone like Saul who could visit your home at any hour and drag you or your spouse away for what you believed.

But the Spirit could not be stopped, not even by terrorism. Some of the Disciples went to Samaria, that place that before Jesus good Jews would avoid, and practically the whole country became believers in Christ. That was a miracle.

So now we find Saul, “still breathing threats and murder against the disciple of the Lord.” He has actually received written letters of introduction, and permission to enter synagogues in Damascus and drag out followers of Jesus to take them by force back to Jerusalem. And suddenly he has this experience, which is not only just in his head, but at least heard by others as well. A bright light surrounds him, and he fell to the ground. And then he and the people with him heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul asks who this is, and is told that it is Jesus, “whom you are persecuting.” Well that could be terrifying too, couldn’t it? Saul is told to get up and go into the city and wait for instructions. When he gets up he discovers that he is blind and has to be led into Damascus, where he not only can’t see, but doesn’t eat or drink either.

That’s one side of this story. But our scripture today shows us another side as well. Ananias is a disciple of Jesus, living in Damascus. The Lord appeared to him in a vision, calling him by name and telling him to go to a specific house where he will find “a man of Tarsus named Saul.” The Lord tells Ananias that Saul has had a vision of Ananias coming to him and healing him of his blindness. Well how excited would you be to do something like that? Ananias has heard of Saul, and knows that walking into a house with Saul in it would be like walking into a hungry lion’s den. He is not eager to do it. But the Lord says that Saul will be one who will bring the name of Christ to gentiles and kings and all of Israel. That was probably one of the most unbelievable statements that Ananias had ever heard. This is like asking someone who has lost friends and family in the long history of war between Israel and Palestine to go and make friends with someone who is a known killer on the other side. This is like asking a Christian who has had family and friends injured or killed by ISIS to go and take care of one of the leaders. Who would want to do that?

But Ananias so trusts in God and in Christ that he is willing to do what ever is asked of him. The Holy Spirit is at work empowering him to overcome fear and dread and to do what the Lord asks. And so he goes. And he heals Saul in Jesus’ name, granting him the Holy Spirit. Saul is baptized, and can eat again. For several days he stays with the disciples, who I can imagine feel like they have a lion trapped in the house with them. But Saul begins to go to the synagogues, where I am sure everyone who is at all interested in Jesus is terrified to see him walk in, and proclaims Jesus as the Son of God.

It will take a while for Saul to convince people that he is now on the side of Jesus. His past will take a while to overcome. At some point, he will begin going by the name of Paul, and end up writing or at least inspiring a majority of the New Testament of our Bible as he carried the word of Christ to people all across the land.

So here we have two men, both afraid of something. Saul is afraid that his way of worshipping and living is threatened by this new way. Ananais and the disciples are threatened by Saul. Yet the Spirit leads them to listen and understand one another, rather than to avoid and harm each other. How open are you to the calling of the Spirit? Could you be stopped in your tracks and turned completely around? How willing would you be to help someone who has threatened you to make that turn themselves? Sometimes we get offered that chance in subtle or even not so subtle ways.

NPR and the Huffington Post both carried a story about a man named Julio Diaz who was on his way to a diner after a day of work when a teenage boy came at him with a knife and demanded his wallet. Diaz, a 31-year-old social worker, wisely turned it over. But then he did an amazing thing. As the boy made off with the wallet, Diaz called to him, telling him that he had forgotten something. “If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.” What other than the Spirit would prompt somebody to say that to someone who is threatening their life?

The youth asked him why he was doing that, and Diaz said “If you’re willing to risk your freedom for a few dollars, then I guess you must really need the money.” And then he invited the young man to have dinner with him.

The young man miraculously accepted the offer! The Spirit at work again? Off they went to the diner, where it became obvious that Diaz knew everyone in the place, from the manager to the dishwashers. The would-be robber commented on the fact that Diaz was even nice to the dishwashers. Diaz asked him if he wasn’t taught that he should be nice to everybody, to which the young man replied: “Yea, but I didn’t think people actually behaved that way.”

Then something humorous happened. The bill came, and Diaz told the robber that he would have to pay for dinner, because he still had the wallet. And you know what? The young man returned the wallet, and Diaz treated him to dinner. Not only that, but Diaz gave him a $20 bill in exchange for his knife. “I figure, if you treat people right, you can hope that they treat you right,” he said. “It’s as simple as it gets in this complicated world.”

We live in a post resurrection world. We know that Christ is alive, and calls us to help others with that knowledge. Where or with whom might you share the Good News of Jesus Christ this week? Amen

Seeing It From Both Sides

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