Conversion that sticks

Acts 9:1-20

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God.

One of the tricks that they teach you in preaching class is that if you forget what you had planned to say, simply repeat the last thing that you said until you remember where you had planned to go with that line of thought.

A young pastor in his first pastorate was giving one of his first sermons on Revelation 22, and for the life of him, he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say about Revelation 22:7. He read the scripture, “Behold, I am coming to you soon!” He paused, thought about it a second, and said it again, “Behold, I am coming to you soon!” Still, he had no idea where he wanted to go with this, so he said it a third time, “Behold, I am coming to you soon!” This time, as he said it, he tripped over the microphone cable, stumbled down the steps, and landed right in the front row and in the lap of a dear sister in the church. Obviously, the young pastor was embarrassed, and he apologized over and over to this woman.

The sister replied, “Don’t apologize. It’s me that should apologize to you.”

Confused, the young pastor said, “Why should you apologize to me? I fell on you.”

“I’m sorry for not catching you,” said the woman. “After all, you did warn me three times.”

I don’t know about repeating something until you remember where you were planning to go with it, but we do repeat things for emphasis. If I really want to make a point, regardless of if it is a sermon or in giving a life lesson to my children, I tend to repeat myself, and I repeat myself intentionally. I may use different words, but the point is still the same. So when a particular story is repeated in one single book of the Bible, we should take note. The author wants you to get this. It is important.

Today we are looking at the conversion of a man named Saul, who we know better as Paul. Paul is given credit by some people for writing over half of the New Testament. He helped start many churches and to spread Christianity throughout the known 1st-century world. But he wasn’t always a champion of Christianity. He started out as an antagonist toward Christianity, persecuting Christians and applauding their murder.

So what happened to Paul? How did he go from this Christian-persecuting Pharisee to one of the greatest evangelists of all time? He had an encounter with Jesus and he converted. And Luke, who wrote the book of Acts, gives three accounts of Paul’s conversion story. It is in today’s passage from Acts 9, but also Luke record’s Paul’s own telling of this experience in chapters 22 and 26. So if this conversion experience is important enough for Luke to write it down three times, surely it is important enough for us to consider today. And if that isn’t enough, Paul talks about it again in 1 Corinthians and Galatians!

One of the things that I want you to notice today is what leads to Paul’s conversion. For Paul, this isn’t simply about head knowledge. He knows his Hebrew Bible forward and back, and he is at least familiar with what the Christians believe. Ultimately, what brings Paul into the world of Christianity is an encounter with Jesus.

Probably very few of us will ever have the same kind of encounter that Paul did. But I think that we have all had our own experiences with the risen Lord that have brought us to where we are today. Usually, we see Jesus in others, through their actions, their teachings, and their lifestyle, and this is what draws us closer to Jesus. We want to learn more about him, to know him.

But notice what is absent in Paul’s conversion experience: the threat of eternal conscious punishment. You are welcome to disagree with me on the application of this observation, but the Bible study is pretty solid. When Jesus appeared to Saul/Paul in a flash of light, Jesus didn’t threaten him with hell to make him convert.

Let me say before we get any further that Jesus talks about hell more than any other person in the Bible. We have some clear teachings like Lazarus and the rich man, the separation of the sheep and the goats, and Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees where he tells them that they are making their converts twice the children of hell as they are (Matthew 23:15). So obviously, Jesus isn’t opposed to talking about hell. But I think there is reason to hesitate when considering using hell to scare people into conversion.

Now I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to scare people into the kingdom. And I’m sure that there are plenty of stories about how people have been scared into the kingdom. I’m not going to argue against that. But is preaching and teaching about hell to bring people to a conversion experience really biblical?

Let’s get to our Greek lesson for the day. The word that we translate as proclaim or preach in the New Testament is kerygma. In the book of Acts, which tells the story of the early church and how it grew, there are eight different kerygmatic sermons, that is, sermons proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah or Lord, with the intention of converting people. We might call them evangelistic sermons. Five of these sermons are delivered by Peter and three by Paul. Of these eight kerygmatic sermons, how many do you think speak of hell?

Zero.

While I don’t think that this means that it is wrong to talk about hell with a non-believer, I do think that the fact that these evangelistic sermons don’t include a threat of eternal punishment should be an indication that maybe that shouldn’t be our first approach to talking to people about our faith. But I would say that this is the dominant way that Christians are taught to talk to people.

I think of my younger years and for some reason my father and I got into a bit of a tradition of going to a haunted house around Halloween. You know the kind, they often are in an old warehouse or school building that has not been used for years. And every time you come around a corner something jumps out at you and scares you. There are usually flashing lights, loud noises, and scary music. These haunted houses are especially popular among high school and college kids where young men like to take young ladies for a date. This gives the young man a chance to act all brave—you know, when there is no real threat of danger—and the hope is that the young lady will want to hold on to you real close.

So there were a number of these haunted houses in my area, particularly in the vicinity of Akron/Canton. I remember one year hearing on the radio about a new haunted house called “Hell House.” The radio advertisement didn’t say much about it, other than where it was and the times of operation. And best of all, it was free. So of course, why would you spend $20 per person to be scared when someone would do it for free?

I never went to the Hell House, but I have friends that did. It was held at a large megachurch and it started outside where actors portrayed a situation where a car full of teenagers had just been in an accident after a late night at a party where they were drinking and perhaps having sex. Next the friends were ushered into a room filled with fire and what I assume was supposed to be brimstone. People are wailing, crying, and gnashing their teeth. There is a large man, dressed all in red, yelling at the people, making them work, making them suffer. Visitors are then taken into the sanctuary, where they hear a story about the message of salvation and invited to accept Jesus.

First of all, I want to say that I believe the hearts of the people at this church to be in the right place. I believe that they are trying to be faithful, and that they have given of their time, and probably of their finances as well to see this ministry of the church come together. But if the eight kerygmatic sermons in Acts didn’t use this method to bring people into the kingdom of God, maybe we should be asking if it is the best approach. Yes, I believe that you can scare someone into praying a prayer and you can use emotional situations to make someone make a decision on the spot, but ultimately, is that what we are supposed to be doing? I would say no. We aren’t supposed to be scaring people into praying a prayer. We are supposed to be inviting people into a life of discipleship, a life of following Jesus.

Luke 14 is one of the places in the New Testament where Jesus talks about the cost of being his disciple. As people are coming to Jesus to hear his teaching and experience his miracles, he says that if you want to be his disciple, you need to consider the cost. He says following him is like a person who is going to build a tower. If you are going to build a tower–and who hasn’t said to their self, “I think I’d like to build a tower”?–one of the first things you do is see if you have enough money to finish the project. It would be rather embarrassing to start building the thing and then have to stop because you ran out of funds. If that example doesn’t make sense, he gives another one. If a king is about to wage war against another nation, he is going to consider what his chances are winning are before he enters the fight. If he has 10,000 men and his enemy has 20,000, it might be wise to consider another option.

And these are only two of the multiple examples where Jesus tells his would-be followers that they are not ready to follow him yet and need to go back and think about it a little bit longer.

I don’t think that preaching and teaching about hell is the problem. I think that forcing people to make a decision by manipulating their emotions is the problem. Following Jesus isn’t supposed to be an emotional reaction. It is supposed to be a well-thought-out response to the Good News. I think we can find a better option in our text this morning.

Recall that Saul/Paul has built up a reputation for himself as a persecutor of Christians. And he goes to the high priest and gets what is essentially an arrest warrant that allows him to go into the synagogues in the city of Damascus and take any Christians he finds there back to Jerusalem as his prisoner.

On his way to Damascus, Saul meets Jesus in a vision of light, and Saul is temporarily blinded. But Saul doesn’t know that this is temporary. All he knows is that Jesus told him to go on to Damascus and wait on further instructions. So blind Saul is led by the hand to Damascus, where he stays with a man for three days. And during that time he neither eats nor drinks.

Has Paul officially converted at this point? I can’t say for sure because the text really doesn’t say. He has had an emotional experience, but more is coming.

In Damascus there is a man named Ananias. God has told Ananias that he is to go to the house where Saul is and pray for him, lay hands on him, and God will restore his sight. Now what do we know about Ananias? He is a Christian, living in Damascus. What was Saul’s original goal when he left Jerusalem? To go to Damascus and arrest Christians. Christians, in Damascus. Christians, in Damascus, like Ananias.

After some hesitation, Ananias goes to find Saul, and says to him, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” When Ananias puts his hands on Saul and prays for him, something like scales fall from Saul’s eyes and he is able to see again. He is then baptized and eats and stays with the disciples for several days.

Do you remember how the Pharisees used to criticize Jesus for eating with the tax collectors and the sinners? Eating with someone was considered an act of acceptance in the 1st century. The very people that Saul had gone to Damascus to arrest and drag back to Jerusalem where they would likely be put to death were now eating with Saul and allowing him to live with them.

When I started this morning, I mentioned what I believe to have been the single most important event leading to Saul’s conversion. I said it was his encounter with Jesus. And I still believe that to be true. But I’m not sure which encounter with Jesus was the most formative. Yes, Saul had an encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus, but he also had an encounter with Jesus in the person known as Ananias.

Saul was an enemy to the Christians. Verse 1 says, “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” Not exactly what you might call a friend. But how did Ananias treat him? He prayed for him, ate with him, and perhaps even gave him a place to live.

My friends, most people we meet will never have a face-to-face encounter with Jesus, but everyone we meet will have a face-to-face encounter with us. If you really want to see people come into the kingdom, perhaps the best thing that we can do is to remember that our face-to-face encounters with others might be the closest thing they ever have to seeing Jesus in action. We are the Body of Christ. Let us not take that charge lightly!

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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