Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sermon for the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul
Preached at St. James – Quitman January 25, 2009

This morning is not simply the Third Sunday following the Epiphany, but it is also the date in which the church commemorates the Conversion of St. Paul. It is quite appropriate that the church would have a date on its calendar to celebrate this event since Paul is the author of the majority of the books in the New Testament canon. The church has used his words to develop many its doctrinal statements about the Trinity, the Dual Natures of Christ, as well as, areas of theology that deal with pneumatology, which is the study of things pertaining to the Holy Spirit, ascetical theology, which is the realm of how we live out the Christian life, and many others. Without the Pauline group of writings, Christianity would certainly be drastically different from how we know it, experience it, and live it today.

Most of us know the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, but I think it is always appropriate to hear the story again within the context of our worship so that we might meditate on those words again, and do so within this Epiphanytide in which the revelation of God was manifest to us as part of the plan of salvation from the very beginning.

Hear again the words from the Acts of the Apostles:

But 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 belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?" And he said, "Who are you, Lord?" And he said, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Here I am, Lord." And the Lord said to him, "Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, 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 at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name." But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came 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 he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.
For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." And all who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?" But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. (Acts 9:1-22)
There are so many different areas I could delve into with this passage, but I believe the role of Ananias in the story is so incredible, and so challenging to wrestle with. It says in the passage that Ananias received a vision, a dream, a message from God that he was to seek out this man, Saul. This is one of those places in Scripture where I wish we had more than just the written text. I wish we could hear the tone in which Ananias answered God. I wish we could have had his body language. I also wish we had those thoughts that were running through his head that were obviously never recorded.

If you want a modern image of this, imagine receiving a revelation from God tonight that said that you needed to go to a particular home across town and Osama bin Laden would be waiting for you to give him instructions on increasing the spread of Christianity back in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan. If anyone had a right to have a Jonah moment and see how far in the other direction I could go, hoping and praying the God wouldn’t find me that would be the one. And yet, Ananias fulfills the title that is attributed to him – disciple. He is willing to follow the directions of the Lord, his Master, even if it required him to do one of the most unthinkable tasks. He is prepared to meet the man who he knows has already had Christians imprisoned and executed, and is armed with paperwork to haul more off to jail as he speaks.

Ananias is an example of what true discipleship truly looks like. He is the embodiment of someone who doesn’t count the personal cost of what it means to follow Jesus, and simply submits fully to His will. There are other times in Scripture where others answer in a similar fashion when God calls. The call of Isaiah should immediately come to mind when the Lord asks “Whom shall I send? Who will go from us?” and the prophet proclaims, “Here am I, Send me.” When the Lord called out to Samuel three times and he went running into Eli’s room, finally, he receives instructions to answer quite humbly and simply, “Speak for your servant is listening.” In those two instances, God is calling out to those He has chosen to be his instrument for the in-breaking of His Kingdom. I hope you caught the intentional use of the word instrument there because that is the same word used to describe Saul to Ananias. God says that Saul is to be an elected or chosen instrument.

One of the most remarkable things about the Christian faith is that God chooses us – fallen, sinful creatures to be his tools in spreading His message. In the medical industry, doctors and nurses refer to the tools of their trade as instruments, say in an operating room. I’ve never been in an OR before, but the visual images I have of the implements for a surgical procedure laid out neatly for the work they are about to do quite amazing. The attention to detail, the precision and care with which they are handled. They look nothing like the tools in my toolbox at home. Rather, the surgeon would be at an absolute loss in the practice of medicine without his instruments. I don’t want to push this analogy too far of course, because God would not be at a loss without us, His instruments, for God is perfect in His own right as a Trinity in Unity. However, he does intend for us to be readily available when called upon for service or work. He intends for us to be clean and sanitized, free from the infection of sin and stain so that we might not pass on those germs to others. He intends for us to perform as we were intended. We are made in His image, we have His spirit and breath within us. Therefore, when God uses us for His work, those who see us, should immediately see him.

We come this morning to receive the life-giving Body and Blood of Christ so that we might be His living instruments in this world. When we make our Confession of Sin, and receive Christ’s absolution, we are being cleaned and sterilized from the sin that attacks us on every front, every day of our lives. When we participate in the liturgy we are performing the fundamental nature of our existence – we were created to worship God. The only way that we can perform as God’s instruments as intended is to adopt the call to, “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” Finally, we must be ever attentive to God’s call in order that we might be ready when we are pressed into service.

Ananias was just this type of person. He answered when God called to him. He did as the Lord commanded, laid hands on Saul, and baptized him. He ultimately faded into the background so that God might be seen, heard, obeyed, and followed. We really know nothing else about this vessel Ananias. He did one thing, and one thing only, he showed Saul, Jesus. If our tombstone had one sentence on it that read, “He showed others Jesus,” then the sentence that would resound in our ears at the Resurrection would be, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant, enter into your reward.” Amen.

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