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Meanwhile 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 who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment 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 in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, 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 his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a Protestant missionary who was in India trying to convert Hindus to Christianity. He taught a Hindu man about Christianity and gave him a Bible. He came back a week later and saw a picture of the Pope among all the other gods at the man’s house. “Why do you have a picture of the Pope there?” “Isn’t he the reincarnation of Jesus?” The missionary told him that Catholicism isn’t as good as Protestantism and he should take the picture down then left. The missionary came back a week later and the picture had been replaced with a picture of his pastor. “Why do you have a picture of your pastor there?” “Isn’t he the reincarnation of Jesus?” The missionary explained that Jesus wasn’t reincarnated, gave him a cross to put there instead, then left. The missionary came back a week later and saw that the picture had been replaced with a Roman soldier. “Why do you have a picture of a Roman soldier there?” “I was confused about the cross, so I read about it. You never told me your god was defeated.”
For those of us who have grown up in the Christian tradition, it’s funny to hear that Hindu man stumble his way through understanding Christianity. But if you take a moment to consider the basic tenets of our belief, it’s no wonder he was a wee bit confused. We claim Jesus was fully God, immortal and everlasting, yet he somehow managed to die on the cross. We claim that the pastors and priests of the Christian church are serving as the body of Christ yet they themselves are not Christ. We claim that Jesus was resurrected from the dead to new life yet this is different from reincarnation. We claim, well, A denomination, claims that the Pope is a direct mediator to God yet, again, he too is not Christ. Talk about a big ball of confusion! I don’t blame that Hindu for getting it all wrong right out of the gate.
I imagine Saul was equally confused in those days immediately following his conversion, not to mention utterly bewildered by his conversion experience itself. To have such an intimate and personal encounter with Christ had to have been overwhelming Saul, especially considering his vehement opposition to Jesus’ teachings and authority! Saul was a man who didn’t deserve such an encounter! He deserved nothing but God’s wrath and condemnation for his persecution of God’s beloved followers! Yet, for whatever reason, God chose him to witness his love and grace. Maybe in choosing such an unlikely person God revealed the truly radical nature of his grace. Maybe God knew the heart of Saul and simply needed to redirect Saul’s passion to something more constructive instead of destructive. Maybe in empowering Saul God was actually punishing him for all his opposition. Heaven knows the life that Saul led after his conversion was a difficult, sometimes dangerous, life. He traveled far and wide, was imprisoned several times, was scorned and ridiculed by many people…yes, Saul’s life after his conversion could easily be considered as punishment! Certainly adds a bit of snark to Jesus’ remark to Ananias, “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name”…”trust me, Ananias, you’re not doing Saul any favors by helping him regain his sight!” Yes, God had a variety of reasons to choose Saul to spread the good news and establish his church.
Just as He has a variety of reasons for choosing us to spread the good news and be his church here in this place at this time. Whether you had a terrifying encounter similar to Saul’s or not, God has chosen us to witness to his powerful love and grace. We know the love of God both in our own lives and in the lives of those around us. We’ve witnessed God’s saving grace firsthand and are willing to testify to it to others. Granted, we’re Lutherans so we’re naturally hesitant to boast of God’s love and grace but we know it. That’s why we come back here week after week to delight in God’s love and grace and to give thanks for them. Our God is a good and gracious God, there’s no doubt about it! Our God didn’t afflict Saul with blindness for the rest of his days. No, God simply took his sight away for three measly days as a way of getting his attention. Our God isn’t a cruel God. He’s a forgiving God to those who are open to receiving his forgiveness. Simply atone for sins and He will offer forgiveness.
Of course, Saul didn’t know his affliction would last only for a few days. No, I’m sure he was quite terrified that he would be blind for the rest of his days. And rightly so for all his persecution of the followers of Christ! Saul deserved a devastating affliction for all his hatred! But that wasn’t why God afflicted Saul with blindness, as punishment. No, I believe God did it for two reasons. First, to get Saul’s attention and suggest an alternate way of living, a way that didn’t involve persecuting Christians. But more importantly, God did it to teach Saul the power of faith. Bodily affliction has a wonderful way of teaching us about faith. When we’re afflicted, we just don’t know the depth or duration of our suffering. Doctors and nurses may give us a good idea of what to expect. Heck, they may even give us relief from our suffering! But there is invariably a great unknown associated with affliction. Science doesn’t always have a solution for suffering. Science certainly didn’t explain or solve Saul’s blindness! No, Saul became a faithful man after those three days of blindness. It’s no wonder that Ananias found Saul praying when he came looking for him. Saul was forever a changed man having experienced that affliction. He had become a believer and faithful man, a man befitting his name changed to Paul.
And what great wisdom Paul had to offer us on the subject of faith! In his letter to the Romans, he writes, “so faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (10:17) Of course, he’s lauding the power of the spoken word in creating faith! That’s how his faith journey began on that road to Damascus! And what about what he wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians: “for we walk by faith, not by sight.” (5:7) For three long days, that’s exactly how Paul walked…by faith! And that’s exactly how God wants each of us to walk in this journey here in this world: by faith! God wants us to say and do things we never thought we could do. More importantly, God wants us to place our absolute trust in him. He’ll carry us through this world! He’ll protect us and strengthen us! He’ll lead us exactly where we’re supposed to be. Recall the wisdom of Proverbs, “trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.” (3:5-6) Why? Because our God is a good and gracious God! I just can’t say that enough! And by now, you know I won’t say it enough, week after week! Our God is a good and gracious God!
As we continue along through this season of Lent, let us be reminded by Paul’s witness that each of us has also been called to witness God’s love and grace. Maybe not through a blinding light and three days of blindness but each of us has been called. We are God’s faithful church, God’s beloved children, God’s hands and feet. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.