Conversion of Paul, Part 3

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

Acts 9:19b-30

September 6. 2015

 

A few years ago at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing Conference, I attended a seminar led by Barbara Nicolosi, a screen writer from Hollywood.  She spoke about being a Christian in an industry in which our faith is often shunned or ridiculed. Yet, as she reminded us, even there people need to know the love of Jesus.  It seems everyone in Hollywood has a slew of addictions: drugs, alcohol, sex, food, you name it.  Although there is great wealth, there is also great unhappiness.  Destructive behaviors are prevalent; yet, in the midst of this is a great spiritual hunger.  She tells about those who know of her faith who will begin a conversation by saying something like: “I need to get my act together and become a Christian.”  She laughs and says she wants to respond sarcastically, “Oh, like we all have it together.”

We don’t have it all together and when we pretend we do, we do a disservice to the faith.  As a church or as individuals, we don’t have all the answers.  Never had, never will!  Yes, we have Jesus and his love and grace holds us together.  However, the church isn’t to be a place of answers but a place where people who are hurting can ask honest questions.  As followers of Jesus, we don’t offer pat answers.  Instead, we offer a relationship: a friendship with the only one who can make a difference in our lives, a friendship with the one who can lead us through the valley of the shadow of death,[1] a friendship with the one who was able to take Paul, a blood thirst zealot and change him into the greatest missionary ever.

Today, I’ll complete our look at Paul’s conversion in the ninth chapter of Acts.  I’ve broken the narrative into three parts.  The first week, we looked at Jesus encountering Saul (as he was then known) on the Damascus Way.  Last week, we saw Saul’s dependence on other Christians, those like Ananias, who helped him regain his sight.  Today, we’re going to look at the consequences of Saul’s conversion.  You’d think everyone would be happy he’s doing God’s work and he’d be blessed for it, but that’s not the case.  Saul’s conversion upsets the apple cart.  The followers of Jesus don’t trust him and the Jews think he’s a traitor.  Doing the right thing doesn’t always lead to rewards, as we see here at the end of this narrative.  Read Acts 9:19b-30.

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We should do what is right because it is right, not because we think we’ll be rewarded.   One of the great myths within our society is the belief that hard work will automatically result in blessings.  That if you work hard and do right and keep your nose clean, you’ll do well in life.  Unfortunately, it’s a popular theme (even in many churches), but it’s a position we don’t find a lot of support for in Scripture.[2]  Instead, the Bible gives us example and example of those who have done what is right, good and noble and paid heavily for their deeds.  Think of Elijah, fleeing into the desert.[3]  Think of Stephen, being stoned to death.[4]  In a way, the Apostle Paul is just one in a string of examples of people being “punished” for doing what is right.  And, of course, the ultimate example is Jesus on the cross.

Part of the problem with this myth of being rewarded for good behavior is that the focus is on us.  It’s all about me, a message that we are bombarded with over and over again in our world.  Advertisements are based on us deserving some reward (as if we can go out a buy happiness).  Too often, we see salvation in the same way; it’s just another trophy to be placed on the mantel, right next to our diplomas and perfect attendance certificates.  But we got it all backwards.

Martin Luther, at the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, came to understand that “Salvation is no longer the goal of life but rather its foundation,”[5] We don’t do good in order to earn salvation; we do good because it is right and is a result of our thankfulness to God, the one whom we owe allegiance for all that we are and have.

In our passage today, we see that Saul is rejected three times.  Once he’s finally been accepted by the believers in Damascus, he then makes the Jews there so mad that they are out to kill him.  They see Saul as a threat; he was supposed to be defending the Jewish faith against this talk about Jesus and now he’s preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.  So Saul’s former allies, those who were his friends and colleagues, are now his enemies.  If you think about it, I think you will agree that the reaction of the Jews is normal. In politics, when someone breaks ranks and thinks for themselves, what happens?  They’re attacked.  The same thing happens in the schoolyard.  Someone befriends an unpopular kid, what happens?  They’re immediately ostracized by former friends…

How many of you have read Pat Conroy?  He’s got a big birthday celebration up in Beaufort next month and for the price of admission you can be invited.[6]  Many of Conroy’s characters do what is right even when it means they’ll be ostracized.  In The Prince of Tides, Tom Wingo tells the story of the first black student in his high school in South Carolina and how the young man didn’t exactly receive a warm welcome.  Tom’s sister, Savannah, was the one who broke ranks and sat beside the new student, causing a ruckus.  All of a sudden, she was seen as a traitor.  The same thing happened to the “Toad” in South of Broad. Doing right doesn’t always make us popular.

What happens to Saul is not unusual; the human tendency is to challenge anyone who questions the status quo.  Yet, Saul is called by his Savior to share a message and, as long as he has breath, he isn’t going to let anything stop him from fulfilling his mission.  Even later in his life, when he’s in chains, he’s still praising the Lord![7]

In our passage today, we find Saul saved from a plot to kill him by being lowered down from a window in the city’s wall. Those who are trying to get to him are watching the gates, so the faithful in Damascus come up with this nifty plan to safely allow Saul to escape and head back to Jerusalem.  It’s a story we’ve heard before, for the spies sent into Jericho were saved by Rahab by fleeing through a window and down the walls of that city.[8]

Of course, Saul comes to Jerusalem and isn’t exactly received with open arms.  The Christians there remember how he was so gun-ho to have them all arrested and, for good reason, don’t trust Saul.  They’re wondering if this is a trick to betray them.  As in Damascus, an individual steps forward and takes a chance on Saul.  In Damascus, it was Ananias, whom God spoke to in a dream.  Now it’s Barnabas, who befriends Saul.  Ananias and Barnabas play a role in seeing to it that Jesus’ plan for Saul to become a great missionary is carried out.  God works through normal and ordinary people, like you and me.  We never know when God might use us to encourage or support the next Saul.

Of course, it isn’t just the Christians in Jerusalem that are fearful of Saul.  The Jews in city are now looking at Saul, as those in Damascus did, as a traitor.  We’re also told that the Hellenists are having problems with Saul.  Hellenists are Greek speaking Jews, a group that Saul himself is a member.  They too are trying to get Saul in their gunsights, so the believers in Jerusalem help slip him out of town.  Saul heads to Caesarea, where he takes off in a ship bound for his hometown of Tarsus.  In a couple of chapters, Saul will return to the story.[9]

What do we learn from Saul’s conversion?  Certainly, as I’ve tried to reiterate throughout this message, being rewarded for doing the right thing isn’t always the case.  Had Saul wanted earthly rewards, he should have kept to his original plan, not looked into the bright light, and persecuted the Christians in Damascus.  He’d been lifted up as a hero in Jerusalem, but of course, his term as a hero would have been short lived.  Furthermore, as Jesus reminds, we’re not to save up treasurers for this life.[10]  Are we willing to do what is right regardless of any rewards or punishments we may experience?

A second thing we learn from Saul is that following the crowd is not a good way to decide on one’s direction.  Through his conversion, Saul made many enemies. It takes guts (and in Saul’s case, divine intervention) to stand up against the prevailing attitudes and stand for what is right.   And such stances quite often will cause us harm in the short-run. Many people don’t appreciate those who challenge long-held beliefs and the position held by the majority. But as Saul shows us, what’s important isn’t what he wanted, but what his Lord needed.  He took the unpopular position and suffered for it.  Would we?

A third lesson we should learn is that although it is a risk to stand beside one who is fighting for what is right, it takes folks like Barnabas, who play a minor but important role in the divine plan.  We don’t do it all by ourselves.  Without someone making an assist, there wouldn’t be a superstar.  Sometimes we are required to take a risk and stand up for someone who is going against popular opinion?  Are we willing?

Finally, remember this life of ours is ultimately not about us.  We are followers of Jesus and the most important thing is that our lives reflect his.  The question we need to constantly ask ourselves is “Are we reflecting the face of Jesus?  Amen.

 

©2015

 

[1] Psalm 23.

[2] The one exception are some of the writings in Proverbs, yet other books of wisdom like Job support the idea that rewards are not always given for right behavior.  As Jesus says, it rains on the just and unjust.  (Matthew 5:45).

[3] 1 Kings 19.

[4] Acts 7:54-60.

[5] Quote on Luther from Carter Lindberg, The European Reformation, as quoted by Charles Partee, The Theology of John Calvin (Louisville: Westminster, 2009 ), 91.

[6] http://www.sc.edu/uscpress/microsites/conroy70/schedule.html.

[7] Examples of Paul rejoicing in chains or under guard: Acts 16:16ff, Philippians 1:12ff,

[8] Joshua 2:15

[9] Saul will make a brief appearance at the end of chapter 11 (Acts 11:25).  Beginning in Chapter 13, Saul, who becomes known as Paul, dominates the rest of Acts.

[10] Matthew 6:19-20


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