31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
April 15, 2018
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
In its first weekend, the movie “I Can Only Imagine” placed third at the box office. Amazing, right?, that a movie about a man’s conversion to Christianity could top the Disney produced “A Wrinkle in Time”, and “Love, Simon”, which was also newly out that weekend. Amazing that a movie about becoming a Christian could actually gross over $70 million dollars.
And at the same time, it is not all that surprising, because who does not love hearing a story of hope, a story about someone changing their life for the better, about someone turning from hatred and darkness to love and light?
That’s the power, that’s the appeal of Paul’s story. Born Saul in the city of Tarsus in modern day Turkey, Saul had it all. He was a respectable man in his community, educated by the right teachers, from the right family, behaving in the right ways, always by the book – and Saul was also a Roman citizen, with all of the rights and freedoms that came with that.
Saul had it all, and while with great blessing should come great compassion and the responsibility to care for others, too often, with great blessing comes a sense of entitlement and superiority. And Saul had that, too.
So when Saul, this proper, by the book, respectable religious man, began to hear about this upstart rebellious group that was proclaiming that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah and that all people were called by God to a Way of love and inclusiveness, every fiber of his being must have stood on end. What makes you special if everyone is loved by God? What makes you important if everyone is welcome?
No, no, no. Saul would not let this upstart group pervert tradition and the law. He would not let them upset the status quo, the status quo that gave him his power and importance. No, Saul would not let this happen.
He began to persecute the Christians as zealously as he could. Throughout the city of Jerusalem, he forcibly entered people’s homes and dragged these upstarts, these followers of the Way, off to prison. And Saul wasn’t satisfied with simply getting rid of the Christians in Jerusalem. No, he asked the high priest for permission to go to Damascus, in modern day Syria, to hunt down Christians there.
The Biblical translation I read you this morning said, “Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples”. While other translations say, “breathing out murderous threats” or “out for the kill”. (Acts 9:1) So we know Saul meant business. He wanted to chain the Christians up like criminals; he wanted to hurt them; he wanted to kill them all until not a single one remained.
What does it look like to hate someone that much? To hate someone that you have never met, that much? To hate a stranger because of what they believe and say?
As Saul traveled those miles to Damascus, he was filled with that much hate. He was filled with thoughts of murder. He was filled with darkness.
And then a few miles from his destination, a light from heaven broke through his darkness. The power of it, the surprise of it, caused him to fall to the ground, and he heard, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4)
On that road to Damascus, Saul had his darkness changed into light. On that road to Damascus, Saul met the Risen Christ. On that road to Damascus, Saul was converted, so thoroughly changed by his encounter with Jesus that even his name had to change.
We love a good conversion story. We love the thought that someone, that we, can change. It gives us hope.
The amazing part of this story is not Paul’s conversion though, not that God can change us from the inside out. God does that every day – in large and small ways: the birth of a child, an unexpected kindness, an interaction with the Holy through Creation or another person that makes us see the world in a whole new way.
The amazing part of Paul’s story wasn’t that he could change. It was his calling, his ministry – that God could and did use him as an instrument of God’s love. That this man, who had been persecuting the Christians, whose sole purpose was to eliminate all Christians, was the one called by Jesus Christ to create believers, to plant churches, to share the good news of God’s unconditional love and Christ’s inclusive welcome.
And what a calling, what a ministry it was. For fourteen years, Paul traveled across the Mediterranean, sharing the good news of Jesus Christ, proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and Son of God, creating Christian communities in modern day Turkey, Greece, and Italy. For fourteen years, he endured imprisonment, suffering, persecution, and rejection, and still he stayed true to his calling, faithfully sharing the good news of Christ’s love.
Paul’s was an amazing conversion, an amazing calling, an amazing ministry. Think of the thousands of lives that were changed. Think of the Christian communities that were created. Think of how the world was transformed. Paul’s was an amazing conversion, an amazing calling, an amazing ministry.
Most of us are not called to be Paul though. Most of us are not called to change our names, leave our homes, establish churches, and endure persecution and imprisonment. Most of us are called instead to be Ananias.
Ananias – his is not a name that stands out in world history or even Church history. You might have even forgotten we heard his name this morning. However without Ananias, there might not have been a Paul.
Because it was Ananias who first heard Paul’s calling for ministry. It was Ananias who heard directly from the Lord that this man, Saul, this persecutor of the Christians, would be God’s chosen instrument to Gentiles, Kings, and the people of Israel. It was Ananias who went and laid hands upon Saul, healing his blindness and gifting him with the Holy Spirit. And I can imagine that it was only because of Ananias that the Christian community in Damascus and Jerusalem accepted and trusted this newly converted messenger of God.
Paul had an amazing conversion to Christianity and an amazing ministry that changed the Church and the world, and none of it could have happened without Ananias. Without Ananias, despite his reservations, despite his fear, saying, “Here I am, Lord”. Without Ananias’ faithfulness and willingness to answer his own call to ministry, Saul might have remained Saul, blind and surrounded by darkness and hate.
Ananias, too, was God’s instrument, God’s agent of change. It was through Ananias that God made Paul’s ministry possible.
Whose ministry are you being called to make possible? Whose life could be turned around, who could be making our world a better place because you reached out in kindness, reached out in love, reached out with a healing, compassionate hand? Whose ministry are you being called to make possible?
Years ago, colleagues of mine were rising to national attention in the United Church of Christ. People of a similar age were founding non-profit groups and volunteering overseas, and I was leading youth group. I wondered what BIG ministry God was calling me to instead; how could I transform the world with Christ’s love; and I was blessed to discern the truth of these words from Forest Witcraft:
A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove… but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child.
We are not all called to be the Apostle Paul, traveling thousands of miles, converting thousands of people to the way of Jesus Christ, planting churches, and leaving a legacy of sacred writings; however we are all called to make a difference, whether that is a difference to Creation, a difference to a neighbor in need, or the difference in the life of a child. We are all called to make a difference.
And who knows, when we say “Here I am, Lord”, we might find ourselves being called to some big life changing, world changing ministry or we might find ourselves being called to be Ananias, the one who makes someone else’s life changing, world changing ministry possible
Paul or Ananias, we are all agents of change, instruments of blessing, called by God to transform our world with Christ’s love.