Sermon for the Conversion of Saul (Years A B & C)

25th January
Acts 9.1-22

Sara, daughter of Ananias of Damascus, tells her story.

“Do you know what it’s like to be so afraid that you think the fear itself might kill you? Afraid of having to leave your home to look for a place of safety as refugees;
afraid of being captured and imprisoned for the beliefs you hold;
afraid that you will be killed by stones thrown at you in anger and hatred?
Do you?  Do you know what that’s like?
Can you imagine it?

I remember so well the time I felt like that –
well, it’s not really something you’d ever forget is it?
I was a young girl then, still living with my mother and father here in Damascus.

We’re called Christians now but in those days we still thought of ourselves as Jewish followers of The Way – the way of the Lord Jesus Christ who was crucified and raised from the dead.

Those of us who followed The Way heard that Saul, the Persecutor, was on his way to Damascus from Jerusalem where he’d been hunting down our brothers and sisters and having them thrown into prison.

Having faith in God doesn’t stop you being afraid and we were all frightened and began making plans to hide in safe places or perhaps to leave town for a while at least.

My brother and I were too young to be involved in the discussions and planning but we knew what was going on and often tried to hear what our mother and father were saying to each other.

Then came that morning when my father told us that he was going to the Straight Street, to the house of Judas where Saul from Jerusalem was staying.   I remember the stunned silence as we all stared at him in horror.

“Are you out of your mind?” said my mother.

My father was clearly shaken but his voice was firm when he said

“I have to go, the Lord has told me to go and lay hands on Saul so that he regains his sight  – I don’t know why he’s blind now.
… I know, … I know, and I did protest that it was too dangerous for me to go to him but the Lord was insistent –  said he’d chosen Saul to proclaim our Good News to the Gentiles.

I have to go – I have to trust that the Lord will keep me safe.”

At the time I was afraid and angry with God for asking my father to take such a risk and I thought my father was mad and selfish to go along with it – what about us?  How could he put our family in such danger?

But looking back I can see what great faith and courage my father had, how he left our house not knowing what was going to happen but believing the God who says “Fear not, I will be with you”.

That was a long, long day.  My father had refused to allow anyone to go with him and my mother refused to allow my brother to follow him.

So we waited, occupying ourselves as best we could but always looking out for my father returning.

And that was the day I felt that icy, numbing fear that something terrible was about to happen.

My father returned to us looking tired but excited too and he told us what had happened – all of us, not just my mother – we all heard the story together – the story Saul had told my father about his experience on the road to Damascus, the brightest of lights, the voice of the Lord Jesus, the blindness, the fasting and praying – the recovery of sight, his baptism – and now, said my father,

“Saul is coming here to eat with us.
Please welcome him as our brother in Christ.
He died a sort of death on his way here.
His old life was destroyed in that moment of bright light.
He was thrown into a world of darkness, unable to see around him
and now after three days he has been born again into a new life in the light of Christ.”

I’d never heard my father speak so passionately but I still wondered about the whole story and even if Saul had become one of us (and I wasn’t convinced about that!)  I still felt angry with him for causing so much fear and suffering and I certainly didn’t want him coming to eat with us.

But when he came I couldn’t see him as a monster of anger and hate.
I couldn’t imagine him turning us in to the authorities and having us thrown in prison.
I didn’t understand that at the time – I think I was confused and emotionally worn out – fear can do that to you.

But looking back I think I recognised in him a certain humility born of realising that he could get things very wrong and cause pain and suffering to others.  But he also had a sense of wonder that God could not only forgive him but could actually use him to take the Good News of Jesus Christ to all peoples, not just his own people of Israel.

He’s not an easy person to love.  He can come across sometimes as intolerant and dictatorial.  I think he still struggles to make sense of his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures in the light of his belief in Jesus as God’s chosen One, foretold by those very scriptures.

He’s a man of integrity and of great passion –  he’s a man on a mission.

He’s as passionate about his Christian faith as he was about his Jewish religion and frequently faces opposition and even persecution because of that.  He meets those hardships with the same God given courage that enabled him to turn away from his old life to become a follower of The Way in Damascus.

My father was right, Saul, or Paul as he’s known now, is worthy of respect and honour even if we don’t always understand him!