Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
August 30, 2015
The late British New Testament scholar F. F. Bruce declared that “no single event, apart from the Christ-event itself, has proved so determinant for the course of Christian history as the conversion and commissioning of Paul.” Paul’s dramatic conversion, his missionary activity and his writings, have influenced the church more than any other Apostle and any theologian who came later. For some reason unbeknownst to his followers, Jesus picked Paul to get the word out to the Gentile world and Paul fulfilled his purpose. Today, as we continue to work through Acts, we’ll take a second look at Paul’s conversion. Last week, we looked at Jesus meeting Saul, as he was known then, along the Damascus Road. Saul had no choice but to follow Christ. Although his conversion was instant, Saul found he needed the help of others, as we see in this passage. Likewise, in our walk of discipleship, we need both Jesus and believing friends at our side.
If you remember, Saul is on his way to Damascus. He’s not far from town when he encounters Jesus in a blinding light. His companions take him on into Damascus, which is perhaps the oldest continually inhabited city in the world. Some scholars consider Damascus as a code for a “place of exile.” Obviously, there are those in the city who’d fled persecution and who are in exile, but in another way, we all live in exile during this life. For Saul, Damascus is just the beginning; he’ll end up taking the message all the way to Rome.
In the book of Acts, it appears that as soon as Saul’s sight is restored, he begins preaching in the synagogues in Damascus. Luke may have shortened the story a bit, leaving out a part that Paul tells us in Galatians, where he went to the desert of Arabia, after encountering Christ, preparing himself for what was to come. We get the essential details down, but Paul’s desert journey is also important for it reminds us of the need for preparation to fulfill God’s call. Also, in our preparation for ministry (whether lay or ordained) we need the help of mentors such as Ananias, who helped Paul. Read Acts 9:10-19a.
We’re not in this life alone. We have God and we have one another, and to have a good life and to fulfill our purpose, we need both. There’s not much we can do by ourselves. As the old saying goes, “no man is an island.” Think for a minute, this morning, about those people who have encouraged you in your Christian walk. None of us has taken this walk by ourselves.
It’s amazing who God sends into our lives to nudge us along the way. As you know, before seminary I was working for the Boy Scouts and my last position with them was in Hickory, North Carolina. I got to know two Lutheran pastors who were very involved in the scouting organization. The first was Reverend Jim Bruce. At the first camporee our district held, Jim had a heart-attack. Things were going well at the camporee, with the volunteers in control, so I followed the ambulance to the hospital, called his wife and met her and their daughter, who was about three or four, at the hospital. I spent time with the two of them in the hospital and when he was out of surgery, the hospital staff did not want the daughter to go in, so I ended up babysitting this girl in the hospital lounge for another hour. Jim turned out to be fine and the next time we ran into each other, he thanked me for caring for his family and then asked, “Why aren’t you a pastor?” He had no idea I was struggling with that decision.
A few months later, Reverend Dunn, spent a week as a chaplain at Camp Bud Schiele, where I was the director for the summer. At the end of the week, after we’d had a lot of theological discussions and even more laughs, he asked me when I was going to answer the call. Although interested in theology, I had not confided in him that I was pondering seminary which is where, a year and a half later, I found myself. God sends people in our direction to help us make decisions and to teach us what the Christian life is to be about.
Back in the early 70s, a Catholic Priest and Philosopher, Ivan Illych, issued a challenge to the modern world with a book titled Deschooling Society. I remember reading the book in the early 80s and thinking, “wow, if this could only be implemented.” If I’m remembering right (it has been more than 30 years since I read it and somewhere along the way I lend out my copy and it never returned), the thrust of the book is that as one learns, one teaches. Education becomes the responsibility for everyone—older students in school teach younger ones and so forth. Actually, this is the way our Christian walk is supposed to work. You experience, you learn and then you share or witness. We’re all to be students and teachers at the same time. As we learn and share with one another, we also care and show God’s love.
In our passage for today, we see that even after Saul has had his great conversion experience, he has to depend upon others. And God, who’d set this whole thing up, made sure that there was someone to help Saul. It was Ananias, who in a vision was told to go to Saul. Now, put yourself in Ananias’ shoes. You’re told to go see this guy who has been talk trash about you, who would like to see you strung up or at least locked up. Ananias, as would any normal person, objects. He knows Saul’s plans. Going to see Saul is a little like crawling into a lion’s cage. But God convinces Ananias. When God calls Ananias, he answers with that old response that we find throughout the Bible, “Here I am, Lord.” And God tells him that Saul is his chosen instrument. The calling of Saul is God’s decision, so Ananias visits Saul, lays his hands upon him and his sight is restored. Saul is then baptized and received into the church. Ananias who had referred to Paul’s evil deeds in verse 13 has a change in heart. In verse 17, he calls Saul as a “brother.”
There are three points from this passage that I want us to understand. First of all, God’s ways are not our ways. Who would have picked Saul for such an assignment? This guy was out to get the church! For Ananias to go to him would be like one of us being called on to visit the Great Leader of North Korea or the head of Isis. For good reasons, Saul was feared by the early Christians. He was willing to do anything to wipe out this sect that he saw as a black eye on his Jewish faith. But God’s ways are different from ours; God changes Saul’s heart so that he’s transformed from the persecutor to the persecuted.
Secondly, when God calls someone, God provides so that they have what they need to fulfill their calling. Walking by faith means that we have to trust God more than ourselves. When I went into seminary, I didn’t want to become a preacher. This idea of having something to say each week in front of a congregation was daunting. I couldn’t do that… But, over time, God worked on me and by the time I graduated, I had changed. No longer was I feeling called into some kind of administrative position, but to the pulpit. God will make sure we have the tools we need to do his work, so if you have a feeling that you should share your faith or take a new role within the church, don’t worry too much about your abilities. Pray and ask God if that’s what you’re supposed to do. If it is, God will provide you the insight you need to share with others.
By the way, this isn’t just for us as individuals. When God calls a group of people—a church—to a particular mission or ministry, they have to trust that God will give them what is needed for its completion. Both churches that I served as pastor of who built a new campus had to step out in faith. When God leads us to take such a risk, God can bless us beyond our imaginations! Believe that! Live it!
And finally, my third point, although salvation is God’s doing, we need other people of faith around us. The Christian walk isn’t about being the Lone Ranger. We need teachers and mentors… We learn from others but we are also teachers and mentors to others. Jesus calls us into a community of faith, into a church, where we find not only nourishment but also the opportunity to nourish others. The church isn’t a one way street. You can’t just come and take and leave. If you’re going to get the full benefit, if you’re going to live in the kingdom, you have to also be willing to share, to give of yourself through doing jobs like teaching a Bible Study or mentoring students or helping out with the youth, caring for those in need, providing snacks and leadership and a building and grounds…
Today, think about those people in your lives who have made a difference with your walk with Christ. If you can, if they are still around, thank them for their faithfulness. They may not even remember, even so, it is good for us to acknowledge the role others have played in our lives. Unfortunately, after checking with a friend whom I worked with in scouting who went on to become a Lutheran pastor, I learned both Reverends Bruce and Dunn have died. I can only give thanks to God for their role in my discernment and be available for God to use me in a similar way in the life of another.
Sooner or later, all of us will have a chance to help another. When that opportunity comes, are we willing to be the Ananias on the spot? The Christian faith is about learning and sharing and caring all while being led by God. Through our efforts, God can do some incredible things. May we all do our part and may God’s blessings flow forth. Amen.
 F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1977), 75.
 Bruce, 76-78.
 Galatians 1:16-17
 From a poem by John Donne
 Ivan Illych, Deschooling Society, 1971.
 William H. Willimon, Acts (1988, Louisville: WJKP, 2010), 76.