“No one would have believed that
in the last years of the 19th century
that human affairs where being watched
from the timeless worlds of space
No one could have dreamed we were being scrutinized
as someone with a microscope studies creatures
that swarm and multiply in a drop of water
Few man even considered the possibility of life on other planets
and yet across the gulf of space minds immeasurably superior to ours
regarded this Earth with envious eyes
and slowly and surely
they drew their plans against us.”
Some of the opening sentences to H G Wells War of the Worlds…. but for a girl of the 70s it really should be Richard Burton reading this, with the crashing orchestral opening bars of Jeff Wayne’s musical arrangement coming in at the end… as we launch into one of the iconic albums of the 1970s. It still has the power to send shivers down my spine, whenever I hear it.
Some of the inspiration for this book came from Wells’ observations of Victorian society. For no-one in the upper and middle classes would have believed that anything was better than British culture. And everywhere the British went in the Empire they would impose this… regardless of local culture and society.
No one would have believed that Saul would turn from his work for the authorities. He was one of their ace operatives…. hunting down followers of the way (The Way was the name for those early Christians)… seeking them out and bringing them before the elders for punishment to be carried out.
As Luke tells us in the previous chapter of acts… “…Saul was ravaging the church but entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.”
In fact Saul was a bigot, totally committed to the cause, he was not out to merely contain or restrain the followers of Jesus, but to wipe them from the face of the earth. There was no room at all in his mind that he was doing anything wrong.
And for people like Stephen who continued to preach Christ’s word… it ended in death, an execution carried out with Saul’s full approval.
Wouldn’t it be good to say that nothing like that happens anymore… but it does… we read about it all the time in the news on social media….. groups and individuals with power who will not tolerate any dissenting voice, or anyone to live in a different way, to think differently, to worship differently.
With Saul being such a zealot for his cause, his change of heart is a really remarkable circumstance.
It comes when he least expects it….. breathing fire and murder against the Christians he sets out to Damascus to cleanse it of them. And is stopped dead by a bright light and the voice of Jesus. Who calls him to go for him into the city, to be told what will happen next.
This leaves him in a state of blindness both physically and spiritually. Paul knows full well that he is helpless in this state…. vulnerable to anyone who would want to repay him for all his past actions.
so he prays to God… what else is there for him to do… does he worry that God might punish him for past sins? Or has he recognised that that he has in fact been forgiven, and is now waiting for absolution in the form of healing and baptism.
Ananias – well he was most reluctant to go to Saul…. can you blame him? Ananias is named as a disciple, a devoted follower of Jesus… Saul is the oppressor, has committed countless offences against the Christians…. but the Lord has other plans for Saul.
He tells Ananias… that Saul is the vehicle by which he intends to bring the word to the gentiles. Christianity breaks out from its traditional homeland and into the larger world. Not that it hasn’t spread already… remember Jesus visited areas hostile to the Jews.
Jesus came to minister to the Jews, Saul is to take the word to the Gentiles. But he is not going to get off lightly for all his past sins, he will have to make atonement, for the Lord tells Ananias that Paul will suffer as he does this work.
And to do this work, he later takes up the name of Paul. It’s not a name change as such, it’s not because he was baptised Paul. Saul was the name he was given by his parents, a Hebrew name…. Paul is the Latinised version of his name, for Paul does have Roman citizenship. When Paul leaves the area of the middle east and travels to Turkey, Greece and Rome it will be easier for people to think of him by his Latin name.
So Ananias goes to the house of Judas and there lays hands upon Saul…. and Saul is able to see again. Then filled with the Holy Spirit, he is baptised into new life.
Saul would never have believed that he would become a follower of the way.
Ananias would never have believed that he would lay hands in healing prayer on his greatest enemy.
Saul’s troubles were not at an end… the hierarchy back in Jerusalem were less than happy with events…. and they sought to spy upon him and kill him. But he escaped. And the last few verses of our reading…. does that not ring bells with us reminding us of when Jesus was preaching in his home town… all were amazed. No one would have believed that this man who was the carpenters son could possibly be the Messiah. No one would have believed that this persecutor of Jesus’ followers was now the proclaimer of Christ.
Just imagine for a moment that you were a Christian living in Damascus… word has reached the city that Saul is coming. Surely the followers would be meeting together to pray. What is it that they would be praying for? That he might be waylaid, recalled to Jerusalem, or have a very bad accident… or would they be thinking that perhaps they should leave and the quicker the better? But I doubt very much that they would be praying for Saul’s conversion to the way.
And there would be another group meeting in the city… these would be Saul’s supporters. Meeting together to perhaps draw up some strategies for when he arrived.. almost certainly making lists of all households of known Christians. The last thing on their mind would be that Saul would arrive in Damascus as a follower of the way.
Neither group had made any accommodation for God’s actions. Neither group would have believed that Saul would arrive proclaiming Jesus as the messiah. Flabbergasting the Christians who were expecting persecution, and taking the wind out of the sails of those who were waiting for Saul to lead them.
God just chooses the seemingly most unlikely people to do his work. As Jesus says, the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
Saul’s conversion is so important that it crops up on more than one occasion. He quite frankly admits to what he once was… but no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. And by God’s grace he became the instrument God used to bring Christ’s love to the world.
And if God’s grace is available for anyone… however sinful they have been in the past, how do we respond to that?
It begs the question…. if we are praying for those who are persecuted, should be also be praying for their persecutors? That they may be touched by God’s grace, that they may come to realise that violence and kidnapping and killings does not create a land of peace, justice and dignity, but rather a nation which lives under a regime of fear, a people always scared of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, being betrayed by friends and neighbours, listening fearfully for that knock on the door in the night.
At the end of a week of prayer for Christian unity… maybe we should take up the challenge of praying for world unity.
Is our faith strong enough to believe that terrorists and oppressors can change? We have an example right here. For what Saul was doing is still happening somewhere in the world right now. Would you, could you pray for members of IS, Boko Haram?
A tough call but it is what Jesus asks of us…
‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven;
Pray for their repentance… for their own Damascus road experience. Pray for peace, pray for God’s justice to prevail in the world. Pray for the peacemakers, like Ananias who go to do God’s work even when they have their own doubts that it will work.
We live in a broken world…. but God’s grace is never broken and is available to everyone.
“No one would have believed that