Acts 9:1-22 Last week we heard how the early church faced persecution. That persecution quickly grew from imprisonment to murder. Stephen was a leader in the early church and after a particularly powerful sermon was attacked by a mob and stoned to death.
We don’t know the name of anyone in that mob save one: a young Pharisee named Saul—born about the same time as Jesus—taught by the greatest rabbi of the day—a rising star in his community—a man who stood by watching with approval.
You would think that brutal experience would have elicited some compassion from Saul but it didn’t. Instead he became the fiercest persecutor of the church. The Bible says that:
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 belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
Immediately before his ascension into heaven, Jesus gathered his disciples together and told them that the Good News of salvation would go forth into the world, reaching more and more people through their witness.
But the devil was right there too—doing everything in his power to tear down the Christian faith. And the tool that he chose to do that was Saul of Tarsus—the young man who stood by while Stephen died—the young man who wanted to expand the persecution of the church—the young man who by virtue of his intelligence and zeal and ruthlessness was the deadliest enemy the church had ever encountered.
But what we see today in God’s Word—what is the best possible news for us when we confront a world that is increasingly opposed to Christianity—is that the risen Christ has the power to change lives forever—even his enemies. The Bible says that:
Saul approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
When we hear the stories of what is happening to Christians in the Middle East, the emotions that we feel are not love for our enemies and a desire to do good to those who hate us, are they? And yet God loves them and Jesus shed his life’s blood for them.
Saul was an enemy of God and a persecutor of Christians and a more dangerous obstacle to the mission of the church has never existed than that man—and yet Jesus loved him and intervened in his life in a mighty and miraculous way to save him.
We may shake our heads in wonder at God’s love for his enemies—we may think that we could come up with a better solution regarding those who persecute the church—but God’s love for his enemies and his desire to convert his persecutors IS the story of Christ’s salvation and it encompasses us too—and in exactly the same way.
The Bible says that Adam’s rebellion has passed to each of us—that the old self is corrupt—that we are by nature children of wrath—that the intentions of our heart are evil from our youth—and the carnal mind is at war against God.
The biblical point is this: if the love of God and the salvation of Jesus do not extend someone like Saul—then neither do they extend to us. But of course they do! The risen Christ came into our lives just as certainly as he did for Saul on the Road to Damascus (perhaps not as dramatically!) but no less real for that.
Jesus’ love for us would not let us continue as his enemies and he came to us and converted us by the power of the Gospel and made us his people. The Good News of God’s love for his enemies and Christ’s salvation of his persecutors for Saul and for us is this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
That is the message that changes our hearts when it comes to our enemies and makes us love them and desire their salvation. The Bible says that:
There was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, 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 at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
It’s important to note that while the risen Christ did miraculously appear to Saul, Saul’s actual conversion did not occur at a snap of God’s fingers or through some magical way—it came through the people of God—just like our conversion did.
Someone brought us to Holy Baptism. Someone taught us in Sunday School. Someone preached to us. Someone witnessed to us about Jesus. Someone invited us to church. God used those who were already his people as the means through which he brought us into his kingdom—and that’s the way it worked for Saul.
We talked last week about how we hear the word “go” again and again in the Easter story and in the church’s story as it shares the message of Easter and so it is today: the Lord comes to Ananias and says “GO”!
In fact, he has to tell him twice because Ananias has some serious reservations about the mission he is sent on. Doesn’t the Lord know that Saul is a persecutor? Doesn’t God know Saul wants to destroy the church? Doesn’t God know what kind of man Saul is? Well, yeah—he does—he’s God!
The problem wasn’t with the Lord or his plan but with Ananias because the words he heard about what a terrible man Saul was-- were more powerful than the Word of the Lord that tells him to “GO”!
That the Lord told him to “go” should have been all he needed to immediately drop everything else and go. But Ananias could only see what was in front of him in an angry, murderous man. He didn’t have the faith to see what Saul could become through the gracious work of the Risen Christ in his life.
We still struggle with the same discipleship challenges of obedience and faith. The Lord has told us to “go” with the Good News of his life and yet we are very comfortable remaining in the comfort zones of people and places that we already know.
We look out at a world full of people who have real problems and that’s all that we can see-- instead of what they can become if only they knew Jesus. The work of bringing Christ to the world and the world to Christ goes forward through us his people who obey his command to make disciples of all nations and who believe his promise that he can change the lives of even the most hardened enemies of the church.
The power of the risen Christ to convert his enemies has not changed or diminished in the last two thousand years and is still being accomplished today in every place where his Word is preached and his sacraments are administered. Luke writes:
So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on Saul he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came 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 he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.
In that moment, Saul went from being an enemy of Jesus and a persecutor of the church to a child of God and a brother to all the other believers in God’s family.
From that moment on, every time he talked about baptism he would talk about being raised from death to life. From that moment on, every time he talked about the church he would talk about a family of faith. From that moment on, when he talked about the work of the Holy Spirit in human hearts, he would liken it to a blind man regaining his sight.
But also significant was what happened to Ananias. He learned that God wanted even his enemies to come to faith. He learned the importance of being obedient to the Lord’s mission and in having faith in the Lord’s vision of salvation that encompasses the whole world. He learned the power of the risen Christ who could convert even his worst enemies. We need to learn the same.
The saving mission of Jesus Christ goes forth into a world that does not know him and is opposed to him and hates him. But it goes forth in confidence and courage because the people of God know beyond any shadow of a doubt that the power of the risen Christ is infinitely greater than his enemies and has the power to change persecutors into preachers. The Bible says that:
For some days Saul was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.
This is what Jesus had in mind all along—Saul was a completely changed man by the power of the risen Christ—but he didn’t lose what he was before.
He was still zealous and intelligent—he was still dedicated and fearless. It was all just converted to the cause of proclaiming Jesus as the Christ. As powerful an enemy of Christianity as he was, he now became its greatest champion. Countless millions of people have come to Christ through his apostolic ministry—and Ananias was the one who brought him to Christ.
That is the joyous privilege of being a part of our Lord’s mission: he does not demand of us results—but that we would be obedient to his Word and faithful to his mission-- and trust that the Risen Christ can convert his enemies. Amen.