Our life experience has taught us that there are at least two ways to approach a project, a task, a problem, or anything we want to accomplish. The best or better way is to obtain as much relevant knowledge as possible, give the matter an appropriate amount of thought, make any preparations that may be required or helpful, and proceed in a logical and methodical manner. If the matter has any religious or moral aspects, only a foolish person would fail to begin with prayer.
Approaches that omit any of these steps can usually be categorized as “doing (or learning) things the hard way. Most of us know people who seem to be drawn to doing things the hard way.
As you heard in our scripture, today we are going to talk about the familiar story of the conversion of Saul. We take another look at this story to see what it teaches us about God and about our relationship with God.
Although we don’t have a lot of detail about how Saul became a zealous persecutor of Christians, what we know of his life confirms our conclusion that he was a man of strong conviction. He acted on his beliefs aggressively and with great enthusiasm. While such qualities can be admirable, they are kind of like speed on the highway, they are only of value when one is going in the right direction.
It seems fair to conclude that Saul was arrogant, bigoted, ignorant of relevant facts, and intolerant of any beliefs inconsistent with his own. Most of us would summarily reject the idea that we are in any way affected by arrogance, bigotry, ignorance, or intolerance. Yet these qualities remain, as in Biblical times, very much a part of our society. We see them in the so-called culture wars every day. Arrogance, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance are readily seen to profoundly affect us individually and collectively and account for many of the problems that contaminate our global society.
The process by which Saul became an advocate for Christ is not only interesting, but it tells us much about the God we worship. First, Saul was confronted with a divine energy – a light so bright that he fell to the ground and was blinded. That got his attention. Next, the one who was making this happen identified himself: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Then, after Jesus had Saul’s undivided attention, Jesus told Saul how to proceed, what to do next: “[G]et up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”
The Lord used Ananias to minister to Paul. Note that Ananias expressed his reasonable doubts and apprehensions to the Lord, and the Lord gently reminded him of who was in charge. Does our Lord have to remind us who is in charge from time to time? Are we sometimes tempted to point out where the Lord is making a “mistake.”
Saul fasted, and under the ministry of Ananias, regained his sight and was baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit. Our scripture today tells us Saul soon began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” Thus began his amazing ministry.
The process by which one becomes an ideal practitioner of faith involves three things that continue throughout our lives:.
- The first would be, determining and understanding accurately the word and will of God.
- Next, we must have the faith to accept much that cannot be demonstrated by traditional methods, and finally,
- We must have the discipline to live in accordance with that faith, even when it seems difficult or even dangerous.
My choice of a title for this message was based upon my belief that Saul had been brought into the fold the “hard way.” Driven by arrogance, bigotry, ignorance, and intolerance, Saul had charged ahead in aggressive opposition to God’s will. Like the proverbial mule that the farmer hit on the head with a 2X4 to get its attention, Saul had a metaphorically similar experience. Jesus got his attention by extraordinary means. Surely, most of us are introduced to Christ in less traumatic ways, thus confirming that Saul came in the hard way.
However, perhaps Saul experienced the first two elements of faith in ways that offered him advantages unavailable to us. While details are not provided, it was explicitly evident that Saul was to abandon his persecution of Christians and become a follower of Jesus Christ himself. Saul was provided unambiguous direction and did not, at least initially, have to figure out what God wanted. Saul had to repudiate that which he had zealously embraced and believe that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, and the essence of the Good News. This is not easy for anyone. Reluctance to acknowledge our mistakes often inhibits our growth in our Christian faith.
It is not hard to find avowed Christians who are confident that they have achieved complete synchronization and conformity with what God would have them understand, believe, and do. This attitude played a major role in our recent General Conference. Our knowledge of Paul’s life and ministry suggests that this and subsequent experiences enabled him to determine and understand to an exceptional extent what God would have him believe.
The second step was also unusual. Being struck to the ground with a bright light, blinded, and spoken to by a disembodied voice telling one that he or she is wrong and to turn one’s life around is certainly not a common experience. Such an experience obviates the need most of us have to somehow authenticate divine presence and direction. Once confronted in this way, a person’s allegiance to the source of confrontation does not require the same process for the development of trust that characterizes our faith.
Of concern to us today is how we experience the three steps toward faith, especially the second. The first step, the determination of what we should believe, is accomplished with humility through prayer, worship, study of scriptures, and application of tradition, experience and reason, with the Holy Spirit.. We know that Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit early in his conversion process, and we can reasonably infer from the writings of Paul that his efforts to understand the will of God were extensive and successful. We also realize that as Christians, we know that much is required of us to learn God’s will.
But let’s take a closer look at the second step, that of embracing fully the elements of faith that are not demonstrably verified by worldly standards of proof. Here, in a sense, Saul may have had an initial advantage. Being struck down and confronted, as he was constitutes proof of something by almost any standard. Yes, Saul did not have to deal as some of our contemporaries do with whether such a power exists. There was no ambiguity about the first things he was told to do. There was no issue regarding the authenticity of this source of power. But the process by which Saul or we come to really get to know God and develop a faith in and love of God is essentially consistent.
We would be remiss if we failed to note the importance of the Christian community to the development and nourishment of our faith. Ananias was chosen to provide the primary ministry to Saul on God’s behalf. Few if any of us come to Christ without the ministry of others in our lives. We not only get help from others as we develop a relationship with God, we are commanded to provide such help, as well.
Although the details are limited, Saul’s conversion was not instantaneous. The Christian community ministered to him, baptized him, and provided support and resources to enable him to not only proclaim the divinity of Jesus, but to perform the extensive work that followed under the name of Paul.
An early step for the individual on a faith journey is to deliberately develop a highly sensitive receptivity and awareness. Although fully functioning individuals, some of whom require coffee first, perceive and respond to their immediate environment to the extent necessary to go places and do things, some are more perceptive of the world around them – the glory, the threats, the changes for better or worse. Not everyone is aware of the singing of birds, the blooms of spring, or the brilliance of the night sky. Nor does everyone sees the hunger, the injustice, and the needless suffering that surrounds us. One person accepts a perfunctory response to his query about a colleagues well being.” Another is immediately aware of and concerned about a troubled expression on the colleague’s face.
Mediation training and experience enabled me to develop intuition, not an exclusively feminine resource. God often uses compassionate intuition as a tool by which we may learn how to better serve him. God’s direction and evidence of God’s presence and influence tend to be more subtle than in Biblical days. If we prepare ourselves, we get direction from God frequently.
Remember there is a difference between faith in something that is not proven by traditional worldly processes and blind faith. Blind faith is gullibility and poor judgment. Christian faith draws upon knowledge, tradition, experience and reason. Christian faith is based on very real evidence, just not necessarily the kind of evidence we need to prove a scientific discovery or facts in a court case. Christian faith is the belief that God is in charge; God loves us; and in spite of some suffering and grief, God will make everything all right. Christians KNOW when God gives them wisdom. Christians KNOW when God gives them compassion. Christians KNOW when God gives them power. Christians KNOW when God gives them comfort. Ours is not a blind faith, but an informed faith.
In the development and practicing of faith, as with most things, there are hard ways and there are better ways. With God’s help, let us follow Christ to the better ways.
MAY IT BE SO!