Saul’s conversion shows us that we are saved, not just for our own sake, but so that we can become partners in God’s mission of salvation in the world.
Through this lesson students should:
Understand that God can turn enemies into friends and co-workers for the Kingdom.
Understand that our salvation is not just for our own sake but so that we can be co-workers with God in our world.
Ask themselves to examine what God has called them to do as those who have been saved.
Catching up on the story:
After Jesus’ death, a movement begins within the Jewish faith to follow in the way of Jesus. They are, quite literally, known as “the way.” For their part, they are still Jews, but these Jews believe that God has really done what they believed all along that he would do, that is, bring about salvation through Israel to the whole world. Additionally, people from all walks of life and all sorts of places are being converted to follow this Jesus Christ. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, is in the middle of recounting a string of dramatic conversions. These conversion stories take place in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and most recently, the ends of the earth through the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.
There are, however, those who refuse to believe that this is so. After all, this Messiah, this anointed and sent one from God, was crucified, which was unbelievable. Saul, a young Pharisee, was one of those nonbelievers who saw this “way” as a threat to true faith in God. So he went about doing what most people do to threats perceived or real: he eliminated them. This is where our story picks up. Saul is on his way to Damascus with a letter from the High Priest to detain any followers of Jesus. He will stop at nothing to inhibit the advancement of this new “way.” At this point, Saul is the number one enemy of the Christian faith.
Saul, on his way to persecute some followers of Jesus, is confronted by Jesus. Imagine with me that Saul and a few companions are walking down the road from Jerusalem to Damascus. They have had some pleasant conversations about the weather and what they’ll do in Damascus.
Suddenly, a bright light bursts forth. Everyone is knocked down to the ground. Then a voice begins to speak. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” God calls Saul’s name twice. Anytime that happens something serious is going to happen. Before Saul can respond, the voice wants to know why Saul is persecuting him. The voice, of course, belongs to Jesus. The question, put the way that it is, highlights the closeness between Jesus’ and his followers. Luke, in his previous work, reminds us that whoever rejects Jesus’ followers rejects Jesus, too. So, whoever persecutes the follower, persecutes the master as well (Willimon, 75). Paul himself will later describe Jesus and his followers as forming one body. Saul responds, “Who are you lord?” “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…” Saul, as a result of this encounter with Jesus, is left blind and helpless. His traveling companions have to help him up and usher him to Damascus. There he lays in bed. He prays, and neither eats or drinks for three days.
Meanwhile, God appears to a follower named Ananias. In a vision God tells him to go to Saul and heal his sight. Ananias hesitates at first. He knows this Saul as an enemy of the faith. God reassures Ananias that this is part of his plan. Indeed, God says, Saul will be a chosen instrument which he will use to take the good news before kings and Gentiles. Saul’s conversion is a commissioning as well.
Ananias agrees to go see Saul. He enters the house and lays hands on Saul. When he addresses Saul he calls him a brother. Notice that, in the span of a few short verses, as a result of Saul’s encounter with Christ, he has moved from enemy number one to a brother. We are told that the purpose of Ananias’ laying his hands on Saul was to enable him to see again and so that Saul might be filled with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, Saul regains his sight and without delay he is baptized and welcomed into the Christian community.
There are three things that are important for us today in this passage. The first thing is that conversion is about God coming to us. Now, I do not believe all of our conversions were or should be like Saul’s. What is important is that God, because he loves us and wants to engage with us in a meaningful relationship, actively seeks us out. In our tradition we call this prevenient grace, or the grace that goes before us. Saul, who was engaged in all kinds of violence against the followers of Christ, is actively being sought by God. He isn’t being sought by God so that he can be punished. No, he is being sought by God so that he could be transformed, so that he could be changed, so that he could be adopted into God’s family.
The second thing that is necessary for our conversion is a transformation from being the masters of our own destiny, the creators of our own will, to being childlike and dependent on God and others. Saul, dangerous Saul, is knocked to the ground and is blinded by God. He now needs to be led by others.
See, we were never created to be overly self-confident and completely independent. We were created to be dependent on the one who created us. We were never created to live and work on our own. We were created to live and work in conjunction with God, to do his will. What Saul and the rest of humanity have been doing since the beginning of time is seeking to rely on our own self for existence. Now God comes to us and says, “now that’s not how it should be, I want you to be dependent on me.”
Finally, our conversion and our transformation from depending on ourselves for life and everything to depending on God is very much like an adoption. In adoptions names change. As he spends those three days blind, praying, and figuring things out, Paul not only becomes a new person, but is made part of a new family.
In the world of Saul and the first Christians, adoption was a common way of talking about what happens to us when God comes to us and invites us into relationship again. Adoption was also very different then. Today, most adoptions take place when the child is a baby. The child has little or no choice about who adopts him or her. But in the world of Jesus, adoption took place at a much later age. Normally, a rich or well-off family would adopt a young man. With that adoption the individuals name would change and the adoptee would get all of the rights and privileges of belonging to that family. The adopted individual would also be required to live life to a different standard than they lived before. With all the privileges of adoption comes a responsibility to represent the family well. The one being adopted also has the choice to accept the adoption. Being taken into a new family could be refused.
This is what has happened with Saul. Jesus is offering him the chance to be adopted. Saul is asked to lay aside a former way of life and begin a new way of life with a new name and a new job to do. Yes, Saul’s name is better known to us as Paul, but that name change is not nearly as important as the name he receives when he accepts the invitation to be adopted by God. The name he gets is child of God. God comes to us today and invites us to be transformed by being adopted into his family. As we do this, we receive a new name, child of God. As we do this we receive all the benefits of belonging to that family. But we also must bear the responsibility.
While our conversions were probably not like Saul’s, some of the same things take place in us. God in Christ has come to us to announce to us his good news concerning salvation. In our faith tradition we call this prevenient grace, or the grace that goes before us. Long before we ever know we need to be transformed, God whispers our name, calling us to turn toward him. This grace works in our hearts and in our minds, preparing us to have an encounter with the risen Christ.
Christ can encounter us in a million ways. It can be unmistakable, like it was for Saul, or it can be subtle. Either way, Christ comes to us and calls our name and bids us to follow him. If we choose to follow him, we must do so in a way that is dependent on him to show us the way we should go. Following necessarily means that we trust the one whom we follow to get us where we need to go. We must no longer rely on our own sense of direction.
We are then adopted into God’s new family. Ananias greets Saul, one who had formally persecuted the faith, as a brother. So now, as we have responded to the call of God we too are greeted as brothers and sisters in the faith. We receive a new name: child of God, co-heirs with Christ.
With our new place in God’s family we are given a job. Saul’s conversion was not just about turning him away from persecuting the church; it was a commissioning so that he might help build God’s Kingdom here on earth. Our conversions to the Christian faith are always commissions too. God never welcomes us to the family only to tell us to relax on the couch. We are welcomed into this new family, with its new way of life, and then given a job to do.
The questions we must ask ourselves are these. Are we following Jesus in a child-like dependent way? Do we really trust him to lead us? Are we learning what it means to be a part of this very different kind of family? Are we open to being different? To what has God commissioned you as a newly (or not so newly) adopted child of God?
Critical Discussion Questions:
What does God look like in this text/Who is God in this text/What is God doing in this text?
God is calling an enemy to become a friend and ally. Saul, who was one of the greatest enemies of the faith to this point, is called to become a friend. This is an amazing turn around. It shows the nature of God to be a steadfastly loyal and loving God in the midst of our own unfaithfulness. It also shows the power of God’s love to woo us back to him. It helps us to see how God can use even the hardest of persons for the benefit of God’s Kingdom.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
God’s grace comes to even those who are actively working against his Kingdom. Salvation looks like being turned from an enemy of God to a child of God and co-worker with God.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
Regardless of how long we have been a Christian, from time to time it is good to examine if our turn toward the faith has moved us into serving in the Kingdom of God, too. As Saul was commissioned through his conversion, so too have we been. We must examine if we are faithfully living into the commission that God has given us. Perhaps we also need to spend time discerning together what it is that God has called us to do.
Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why does God call Saul by his name twice, “Saul, Saul…”? Who else in Israel’s history has God called that way? What might that signify?
The voice that Saul hears is Jesus’. He declares that Saul has been persecuting him directly. Jesus has died, risen from the dead, and ascended into heaven. How can Saul be persecuting him directly?
Do you see free will in Saul’s conversion story? If so, where?
Saul goes from being in complete control, even exercising control over the lives of others, to being blind and helpless. Why might it have been important for Saul to experience helplessness like this? Without that do you think Saul’s conversion would have been as significant?
Have you ever experienced a time when you went from being in control to being completely helpless? How did that affect your spiritual life?
God appears to Ananias in a vision and instructs him to go and visit Saul. Ananias initially resists. Why did he do so?
God reassures Ananias and declares that Saul will become an instrument to be used by God. Saul’s conversion is a commissioning as well. To what is Saul being commissioned?
What similarities might there be between Saul’s conversion and your own?
Our conversions are always commissions too. You were not saved just for your own sake but so that you can participate in what God is doing in our world. To what have you been called?
Works Cited:Works Cited:
William H Willimon, Acts, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).