ON THE WAY TO DAMASCUS AND BEYOND
Acts 9:1-19, Psalm 30, John 21:1-19
April 26, 1998 by Tad Mitsui
My great grand mother was a convert, so was my father. However, I can not think of any recent convert otherwise. Conversion does not happen very often because it is costly. A complete change of ideas or religions upsets people close to you. Suppose, one day your daughter comes home and announces that she is a converted Mormon. A convert can lose jobs or end up being a lonely person. When my great grand mother decided to become a Christian, she was disowned by the family and had to leave home. My father was also disowned by his family. He was in a medical school, when he became not only a Christian but also decided to go to a theological school. This is why I never met many of my father”s family.
Saul”s conversion was an story of a radical change. Earlier he hated Christians. He was convinced that they were blasphemous people deserving death penalty. According to the book of Acts, Saul was filled with threats and murderous intent towards the Christians. When Stephen was stoned to death for blasphemy, Saul oversaw the execution. His zeal to keep the purity of faith was so strong that he went to another country to arrest and jail the Christians. He obtained the Arrest Warrant from the Chief Priest of Jerusalem. It was not a valid document in Syria. But that didn”t bother him. He was ready to risk overstepping the jurisdiction. He was a fanatic.
I think that there is nothing more dangerous than religious fanaticism. I am against the kind of religious fanaticism, that places purity of faith before people. Saul murdered Christians to keep the Jewish faith pure. We see the same travesty of religion in many places today. Shooting the doctors and bombing abortion clinics is an example of such religious fanaticism. You hear about the same kind of fanaticism in Algeria, Iran, Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, and the U.S. They kill in the name of God. Those fanatics are more dangerous than the common criminals, because they are convinced that God is on their side and that they are absolutely right.
So, Saul was on the way to Damascus with armed men to arrest the Christians. It was about three days ride on a horse back. He had some time to think. He must have reflected on what he had been doing recently. He must have thought about those Christian whom he jailed or killed. Surely Paul must have remembered how Stephen died, whose execution he himself supervised. Before Stephen breathed his last breath, Stephen cried out and said, "Father, forgive them. They don”t know what they are doing." He must have remembered those things. Suddenly, a blinding light struck him. He fell off the horse. The shock made him blind. He heard a voice, "Why do you persecute me?"
All of us have the Spirit of God within us. In other words, God lives in all of us. Paul called our bodies "God”s temple". If you give God in you a space to work; a time for the Spirit in us to work its way, you will come to senses. God spoke to the prodigal son, when he was feeding pigs and he came to himself. Fanaticism is a temporary insanity. Likewise, when we are infatuated, obsessed, lose temper, or sink into despair and hopelessness, we are also temporarily insane. We lose common sense that God has give us. Give yourself time; count ten and calm down. A day or a week will be better. God will speak to you. But if you have not given yourself time and not given God a chance to speak to you for a long time, the voice will come like a lightening bolt. It knocks you out. Because when it comes, it makes you realize how crazy you had been and how long. When it comes, you lose a sense of direction. You don”t know where you are and what to do any more. You become blind like Saul. You need help.
Help came to Saul in the person of Ananias. Ananaias knew who Saul was and what he had done to Christians. He himself could have been one of his victims. But he went to help him. Can you imagine? What kind of a man was he with such a huge capacity for forgiveness? If fact, this part of the story has the most important message about the conversion of Saul. If Ananaias was full of indignation, he could easily have decided to revenge all the Christians who died or suffered, and could have given Saul what he deserved. But he forgave him and helped him. Ananaias showed Saul forgiveness and love of God by his deeds.
Fanatics who hate people contradict themselves in the most fundamental way the principles of all religions, no matter how much they say they love God. You can not love God while hating people, in any religion. Most of the religions are based on the belief in the merciful God and the divine love. Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Catholicism, or Protestantism all have the common ground in this belief. As John said, "If you say you love God and hate people, you are a liar." The voice of Jesus asked Saul after he fell off the horse, "Why do you persecute me?" Saul was not persecuting Jesus Christ. As far as Saul was concerned, Jesus was dead. He was going after his followers. But Jesus said that persecuting people was the same thing as persecuting Jesus Christ himself.
God is loving and forgiving. Jesus Christ forgave, while being still on the cross dying, those who caused so much pain and suffering. Ananaias put into practice the forgiving love of God. He forgave and accepted Saul. When Saul was touched by this amazing love, he recovered the sight. No longer was he blind. He now could see the direction of his life.
I heard this story from Stephanie Hankey, Minister of the Presbyterian Church in Delaware at a meeting last year. It was about a kind and gentle couple who adopted a troubled young man who spent many years in prison for attempted murder. They were the members of the church my friend ministered to. They visited him every week. When he was released, they took him to their home and tried to help him find a job. He couldn”t find any. The world is unforgiving. He became more and more frustrated and began to behave like an angry young man. One day in a fit of rage, he took a gun and shot and killed the kindly adopted parents. The challenge for my friend was whether she should visit him in prison. "How could I?" said my friend. No longer was there Betsy who played piano at the evening service. No longer there was Jim, who was an elder serving as a liaison with the Scouts. "How could I visit such an ungrateful beast?" said my friend. But that”s what Ananaias did, who visited Saul and helped him find the direction of life. Otherwise, the church would not have had the Apostle Paul.