Sermons
Home Sermons “Redirection”

“Redirection”

Date: May 2, 2022/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Acts 9:1-19a

In his commentary on the book of Acts, William Willimon quotes Flannery O’Connor about Paul:  “I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse.”[1]

She’s not the only one who imagines the scene that way.  A lot of artists portray Paul as being knocked off a horse—or in many cases, like the one on our bulletin, the horse also knocked down.[2]  And they show Paul lying on the ground, sometimes hiding his face from the blinding light or reaching out in agony, like in Murillo’s depiction on the bulletin.

The only problem is, in the actual text, there’s no mention of a horse.  Nor does it say Paul (Saul, actually, at this point)[3] was knocked down.  There is something else going on here, something that should sound familiar if we have any acquaintance with the Hebrew Scriptures at all.[4]

Listen carefully as I read those verses again:

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.  He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  He asked, “Who are you, Lord?”  The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”  The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.[5]

See, there’s no horse.  Saul was probably on foot, not on a horse.  And he was not knocked down.

Instead, when the light flashed around him he did what any Jew familiar with his own Scriptures would do when he suddenly finds himself in the presence of God:  He falls to the ground, not cowering in fear but bowing in worship.  Then, from the light, comes a voice, and the voice identifies itself as that of Jesus, “whom you are persecuting.”

Luke probably doesn’t have a copy of Matthew 25 in front of him as he’s writing this, but what he has Jesus say here is very similar to what Jesus says there:  whatever you do to my people, you’re doing to me.[6]

Then Jesus says to Saul, “Get up”; and Saul got up.

If you have read the Old Testament, you’ll also recognize the way Ananias responds when the Lord speaks to him.

“Ananias.”

“Here I am, Lord.”

In a lot of the stories where God speaks to someone, they respond this way, “Here I am.”[7]  It seems likely to me, given the appearance to Paul on the highway and the call to Ananias in Damascus, that Luke means for us to realize that if Jesus is speaking to people in the same way as God has spoken to people throughout history, Jesus is himself divine.

When Jesus tells Saul to “get up,” he does, right then and without another word.  Not so for Ananias.  Jesus says, “Get up,” and Ananias says, “Wait a minute.  This Saul is a bad man, and he has done terrible things to your disciples in Jerusalem.  He was coming here to do terrible things to us, too.  Why on earth would I go to him?  Blind he is a bit less dangerous, but people like that don’t change.”

But Jesus doesn’t take no for an answer.

“Go.”

So Ananias went.  And he laid hands on  Saul and called him “Brother.”  Ananias called Saul, his enemy, “Brother.”

We generally call this story “The Conversion of Saul.”  But I don’t think that title is totally accurate.  That’s not because Saul isn’t really “converted” here—he is, but not to Christianity from sinful heathenism.  It’s because there are two conversions in this passage, and of the two, Saul’s may be the easier.

Before this incident on the road to Damascus, Saul was a devout Jew.  He was already a believer in the God of his ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and King Saul (from whom he got his name).  He was already looking for the coming of the promised Messiah.

Really, Saul’s conversion was a slight adjustment of belief in the face of new information he received from a direct, mystical encounter with the risen Jesus, whose followers believed him to be the promised Messiah.  He went from being a devout Jew who was awaiting the Messiah to being a devout Jew who understood Jesus to be that Messiah, and understood that this same Jesus had chosen him to take that good news outside the boundaries of the Jewish faith, to the Gentile world.

But Ananias also had to be converted for Jesus’ plan to work.  That was a difficult conversion.

We can see how difficult it was by how he responds when Jesus calls him and tells him to go to Saul and lay hands on him.  This Saul is the enemy—the enemy of Ananias, the enemy of all the followers of the Way,[8] the enemy of Jesus Christ himself.

So Ananias argues with Jesus.  “Do you know what you’re asking me to do?”  I don’t think you’ve picked the right guy here; you should be having me lay my hands around his neck!  (Well, probably not, actually; Jesus was sort of big on not returning evil for evil, and Ananias would have known that.)

How hard it is for our vision to change so we can see an enemy as a brother (or as a sister)!

I’m sure that some of us here have had dramatic, Damascus Road-like conversions.  In some Christian communities that’s called your “born again” experience, and it’s important for believers in those communities have such stories to tell.  If a person doesn’t, they can be left with a bit of a sense of inferiority—or maybe even left worrying that they’re not really saved.

I didn’t grow up in such a community, although I do understand where that inferiority and worry come from.  I’m one of those who’s never really had a dramatic “born again” experience.

I have no idea when the first time I went to church was, but one of my earliest memories is of being in the nursery at First Southern Baptist Church in Coffeyville.  I remember that the nursery workers taught us a song:  “Jesus loves me, this I know…”  And I knew, even then, that it was true.  I have always identified myself as a Christian; even in the midst of the wild behavior and rebellion one might expect from an adolescent (which in my case was actually pretty tame), I never turned away from my faith in Jesus Christ.

I don’t have a dramatic Damascus Road experience to tell about.  But what I do have, and what I daresay many of us have—even if we can point to one dramatic moment when we became followers of Jesus—are many conversion experiences that were less dramatic, but still important.

There was the time, for instance, when I was sitting in church and we were singing a new hymn out of our new hymnal, and I heard God speaking to me in the words of the hymn:

Who will go into the darkness where my people live in fear?
Who will speak of truth and charity so all of them can hear?
If you go where I am sending you, I always will be near.
Here I am, go for me, here I am.[9]

That was the moment when I realized I needed to stop dragging my feet and go to seminary.

I had known I was called to ministry since I was sixteen years old; at this point I was 28 and already under care of the Region as one who was preparing for ministry. But I hadn’t actually done anything to prepare for ministry.

It wasn’t a big, dramatic experience; I didn’t see any blinding lights, didn’t hear the Lord speaking to me out loud.  Even so, at that moment I had a conversion, as I had had many other times in my life, as I have had many times since then.

At that moment I was born again, as I had been many other times in my life, as I have been many other times since then.

If anyone has a dramatic conversion like Saul’s, we ought to give thanks and praise to our Lord for making that happen.  But we can and should do the same thing for quieter, less dramatic conversions like Ananias’, too.  And even if we never have a Damascus Road experience, I suspect most of us will have occasion where the Lord calls us to see someone with a new vision, to see an enemy as a brother, to see one who has hurt us as a sister in Christ.

You have probably heard of Corrie ten Boom, a Dutch Christian who, along with her family, hid Jewish neighbors from the Nazis.  Even though she and her father and sister were all arrested for this, all the Jews they cared for remained safe.

In the concentration camps, Corrie’s father and her sister both died, and Corrie witnessed cruelty and inhumanity most of us cannot begin to imagine.

Years after her release, Corrie was speaking to a group about her experiences.  Afterward, as often happens at this kind of event, people came up to her to ask questions or make comments.

A few people back in line was a man she recognized as one of the guards at the camp where she and her sister Betsie had been imprisoned, the camp where Betsie died.  Her heart pounded as she remembered some of the horrific scenes from her time at the camp.  She nodded and said all the right things to the people who were talking to her, but her mind was elsewhere.

Finally it was the former guard’s turn to speak to Corrie.  He spoke of how, in the time since the war had ended, he had become a Christian, and was filled with horror at the things he had been part of during the Nazi regime.  He said he had come to the lecture that night so he could ask her forgiveness, as one of the prisoners in the camp he had guarded.

He put his hand out to Corrie.  “I am sorry.  Will you forgive me?”

Corrie says she prayed hard at that moment.  This man had been part of the cruel machine of Nazi extermination, which had taken her father and sister from her!  How could she even consider forgiving him?

Could you?

I can’t even begin to fathom what he and the rest of the people at that camp had done to her and her sister and all the others there, what people like him had done to so many Jews and others during the Nazi evil.  Had I been in Corrie ten Boom’s position that night, I very well might have simply excused myself and fled backstage and avoided talking to him at all.

But she prayed hard.  “Lord, I know you command us to forgive those who have hurt us.  But I can’t forgive this man!  I can’t—but Lord, I know you can.  Please let me be an instrument of your forgiveness, right now.”[10]

And she said that immediately all the bitterness she had felt toward the man since the moment she saw him standing in line vanished.  She was able to take his hand in hers, look him in the eye, and say, “Yes, I forgive you.”  Instead of an enemy, at that moment Corrie saw a brother in Christ.

In the same way, when Ananias laid his hands on Saul, he no longer saw an enemy.  And he called Saul “Brother.”

He called Saul “Brother”! 

Could any of us have done the same?


[1] William H. Willimon, Acts, Interpretation series (Louisville, KY:  John Knox Press, 1988), p. 73.

[2] The painting on the bulletin is “The Conversion of Saint Paul” by Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), a Spanish painter roughly contemporary with the Dutch Rembrandt van Rijn.

[3] Notice that nowhere in the story of Saul’s conversion does the Lord give Saul a new name.  That happens to many other characters in the Bible, most notably Simon Peter; but Saul as both a Jew and a Roman citizen likely had two names all along:  his Jewish name, Sha’ul, and his Roman name, Paulus.  It is not until Acts 13:9 that the narrator begins to call him Paul, as he goes out to minister to the Gentiles.

[4] See, for instance, the encounter Moses has with God after the golden calf incident, in Exodus 34:1-10.

[5] 9:3-7.

[6] Matthew 25:31-46

[7] See ,for instance, the story of the binding of Isaac in Genesis 22:1-19, specifically vv. 1, 11; Abraham also answers Isaac the same way in v. 7.

[8] It appears from Acts that “the Way” may have been one of the earliest names for the community of Jesus’ followers.  We don’t hear the name “Christians” until Acts 11:26, which says the disciples were first called “Christians” in Syrian Antioch.

[9] “You Have Called Me,” by David L. Edwards.  He wrote this hymn for his wife Kaye’s ordination service, and it was also sung at my ordination service.  It’s #455 in the Chalice Hymnal.

[10] I am re-creating this from memory; I don’t have a copy of the book from which it came.  In fact, I’m not sure if it’s from The Hiding Place or one of Corrie ten Boom’s other works.  My apologies if I have gotten any of the details wrong.