After Jesus had risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples for forty days he ascended and returned to his Father in heaven. On the Day of Pentecost he sent the Holy Spirit to help his disciples. And so the first Christians went out in the power of the Spirit with the Good News. They went into all the towns and cities of the Roman world. Today we are going to hear the story of two of them: Saul of Tarsus and Ananias of Damascus.
My name is Saul. I was born in Tarsus (in what you would call Turkey). My family is Jewish, so when I was a boy I went to school in the local synagogue. I learned all about the Lord God and all about the laws God gave to Moses. I would sit on the floor with the other boys in a circle around our Rabbi. He was called Gamaliel and he was a world famous teacher.
I grew up to be very religious: I always tried my hardest to keep all of God’s laws. I was also very proud of being Jewish and of belonging to the strictest sect of the Jewish faith – the Pharisees. I was proud of all my good deeds and I thought that if anyone deserved to go to heaven it was I. I thought God was pleased with me.
And so when I heard about these Christians I was furious. These people didn’t follow all the rules that we Pharisees followed. These people said you could not get to Heaven by your good deeds, but only by trusting in Jesus who had been crucified and come back to life.
To me these people were heretics. As a young man I hated them and I persecuted them vehemently. I obtained permission from the Jewish authorities to arrest anyone who followed Jesus. So I punished them, I tried to force them to give up following Jesus, I even went to other cities to arrest them.
It was on one of these persecuting missions that my life was completely turned round. I was on my way to Damascus with letters from the religious leaders giving me the authority to arrest anyone who followed Jesus. But as I travelled on the road I was not entirely at ease with myself. There was something nagging in the back of my mind:
“I have mistreated so many Christians, but they have never cursed me. They might well be heretics but they seem to be such good people. And have I been in the right to persecute them?”
You see, I had been one of those present when they killed Stephen – the first man who died for the Christian faith. In fact I looked after the coats of the men who were stoning him to death, and I agreed with what they did at that time.
But there was something about Stephen. There was a look on his face like that of an angel. He was happy and peaceful even as he was being stoned to death!
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”, he cried out, just before he died. I just could not understand it – it disturbed me. My conscience was troubled.
But what was I saying? Oh yes, my journey to Damascus. As we were nearing the gate of the City of Damascus, suddenly a dazzling light shone all about me. It was much brighter than the sun. It stunned me and I fell to the ground. A voice spoke to me saying:
“Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the stabbing of your conscience.”
“Who are you, Lord,” I said.
“I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. Get up and go into the City – there you will be told what to do.”
Then the brightness faded, and when I opened my eyes I found I was totally blind. Someone had to lead me by the hand into the City and I went to the house of a man called Judas, in Straight Street. This was the start of the most amazing change in my life.
Reflection on Saul’s story
From when he had been a child Saul had to tried to please God by keeping all the rules. He thought he was good at it.
He didn’t just try to keep the Ten Commandments and the Law of Moses, but also the extra rules invented by the Pharisees. That’s why he persecuted the Christians. They seemed to be telling people not to bother with God’s laws. (The Christians were not actually saying that. They were saying that because we are sinful people we cannot keep God’s laws perfectly.) Saul thought that if you did a good deed, for example: giving some money to a poor man, that would make you more acceptable to God. But even as he gave the money his heart was filled with pride and conceit – which is a sin. Saul didn’t see that his pride and self-righteousness were keeping him from God.
We are all a bit like Saul. We think of our good deeds as being like a clean, white linen cloth. But when God looks into our hearts, he sees filthy rags – not a clean, white linen cloth. Even our good deeds are tainted with sin and selfishness and with wrong motives. And so the Word of God tells us, “All our good deeds are like filthy rags.” (Isaiah 64:6)
But the good news is that Jesus can cleanse us from that sin. Jesus can make us pure within. If we trust in him who died for us, and throw ourselves on his mercy, all our sins are washed away.
As he sat in darkness in the house of Judas in Straight Street, Saul thought about these things. He realised his sin, and he prayed to God to forgive him for persecuting the Christians, and all his other sins. He fasted, in fact he did not eat for three days. He cried out to God for mercy.
Like Saul we also, every one of us, need to cry out to God for mercy. (Maybe not in such a dramatic way as Saul did, but we all need God’s forgiveness and grace.)
And now to the other figure in the story:
My name is Ananias of Damascus, a believer in Jesus. One night I went to bed somewhat troubled.I had heard that Saul of Tarsus was coming to arrest all the Christians in Damascus. I was a Jew, but also a Christian, I believed in the Lord Jesus as my Messiah. And Saul was on his way to arrest us!
During that night the Lord spoke to me in a vision:
“Go to the house of Judas, on Straight Street, and ask for Saul of Tarsus. I have told him in a vision that you will go to heal him of his blindness.”
“Lord, I know all about this man, and all the harm he has done to your people – how can I go to him?”
“Do it! This man is my chosen instrument to bring the Good News to the Gentiles.”
So I did what my Lord said. With my heart thumping I went to the house of Judas in straight Street and there I saw a blind man. I placed my hands on his head.
“Brother Saul,” I said. (Remember this was my enemy!)
“Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the way has sent me, so that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Then I saw something that looked like scales falling from his eyes, and he was able to see! Later I baptised him and welcomed him into God’s family.
And so here ends the story of Saul and Ananias.
After this experience Saul was a changed man – he never looked back. He went on to become a great preacher of the Gospel. He was never afraid to tell people that Jesus was Lord. He suffered a lot for the sake of his Lord, and eventually died for his faith. His name was Saul of Tarsus, but we usually know him by his other name – the Apostle Paul.
Later the Apostle Paul wrote these words:
“If anyone ever had reason to hope that he would save himself, it would be I. For I went through the Jewish initiation ceremony when I was eight days old, having been born into a pure blooded Jewish home that was a branch of the old original Benjamin family. So I was a real Jew if there ever was! What’s more, I was a member of the Pharisees who demand the strictest obedience to every Jewish law and custom. And sincere? Yes, so much so that I greatly persecuted the Church: and I tried to obey the Jewish rules and regulations right down to the last point.
But all these things that I once thought very worthwhile – now I’ve thrown them all away so that I can put my trust and hope in Christ alone. Yes, everything else is worthless when compared with the priceless gift of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have put aside all else, counting it worth less than nothing, in order that I can have Christ.”
(Philippians 3: 4-8, Living Bible)
Whatever wealth, position and prestige we may have in the world, nothing can compare with the immense privilege of belonging to Christ; of being members of Gods family, sons and daughters of the Heavenly King; our sins cleansed away and eternal life our reward.