By Paul Koch –
St. Stephen was a man of unshakable resolve and courage. And early in his ministry he stood and proclaimed the Word of God to a group of, well, let’s call them hostile listeners. In fact, we are told that the crowd grew so angry with what he preached that they ground their teeth and then tried stopping their ears. When they couldn’t stand it anymore they rushed at him, seized him, drug him out of the city, and began to stone him. As they cast their stones they took off their outer garments to better do their damage. They laid those garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Now Saul was a man who had made a name for himself as fierce persecutor of the church. He was known for going from house to house, searching out the faithful, dragging them off to prison, or worse, like what happens with Stephen. He seemed to be drunk with hatred and would go to great lengths to stop the spread of the Gospel. In his quest to do just that, he went to the high priest in Jerusalem and asked for official documents to root out the followers of Jesus from the synagogues in Damascus. He must have heard that the church was growing there and wanted to kill its roots before they could grow deep.
Saul, or as we know him better, Paul was without a doubt an enemy of the church. He was an enemy of Christ himself. But in this regard we actual have something in common with Paul. We may not see it at first because we like to talk about being lost or confused or even indifferent to our Lord and His Church before we were captured by the working of the Spirit and called to the faith. But we weren’t in some gray area, some neutral ground, where we just had to make up our mind as to which side we were going to be on. We come into this world as enemies of God, not neutral, not indifferent, but enemies! We may not have known it, and we may not have confessed it, but we were firmly on the side of the Evil One before claimed by Christ. This is exactly what happened to Paul.
As he heads off to Damascus to put an end to the spread of the Gospel he is knocked to the ground by a bright light shining from heaven. And he hears a voice declare, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he says, “Who are you, Lord?” And the voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Now Paul isn’t alone on this journey; those guys that were accompanying this great persecutor of the church stood around, mouths agape, unsure of what they should do next. Oh, they heard the voice but they didn’t see anyone. And there is their fearless leader lying on the ground, struggling to get back to his feet, struggling to do much of anything, for whatever it was he saw had left him blind. His physical blindness reflects his spiritual blindness.
So they get Paul to Damascus where this powerful man is reduced to nothing. He is completely helpless. He cannot change his circumstances. He cannot better his situation. Again we have much in common with Paul at this point. Blind, cutoff, enemies of God we could not change our situation. We had no ability within ourselves to open our eyes and see, to choose God or even to love our Lord. Like Paul we could only wait for God to do his work upon us. Like Paul we were and are completely dependent upon Christ alone for our salvation. What happens as Paul sits there in Damascus over three days without sight is he learns to despair of his own ability. He learns that his own wisdom and strength cannot deliver him. He who persecuted Christ now finds he is completely dependent in every way on the mercy of Christ.
Yet God does not allow Paul to wallow in darkness for very long. We are told that in Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias whom the Lord tasks with going to meet Paul in order to lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight. Now good old Ananias is a little hesitant, and who could blame him? After all he has heard of this man. He has heard of the horrible things he has done to the Lord’s church. The last thing he wants to do is go to Paul and help him see again. But the Lord assures Ananias saying, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
Now this is truly a dramatic change of events. The great persecutor of the church, the very one who breathed threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord is going to be the chosen instrument of Christ. He who would have gone to great lengths to stop the spread of the Gospel is now going to be the greatest instrument in spreading the Good News. But this is how our Lord continues to work. He chooses instruments to wield for his purposes. His instruments are physical things of this world, things we can touch and hear and feel, things that deliver his goods. Our God works through the things of this world to accomplish his great purposes; he uses the lowly, the small, even the great enemies of the church as his instruments.
To be a chosen instrument is not all sunshine and rainbows. To be an instrument means that there will be wear and tear. As God says to Ananias, “I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” I have for many years carried a pocket knife. It is simply part of my everyday wardrobe. Before leaving home, I put on my watch, grab my wallet and phone and car keys and clip my knife into my pocket. That knife is a tool that I use all the time. But in using it, the blade gets dull and nicked. From opening packages, to loosening screws on the bottom of my son’s remote controlled monster truck, to cleaning the tines of my tiller after working through the garden bed, my knife takes a beating.
So Ananias goes to Paul. He calls him his own brother and lays his hands upon him. Something like scales fall from his eyes and he regains his sight. He comes out of the darkness and is immediately baptized. Taking food he is strengthened to be God’s chosen instrument. And we are told that he immediately gets to work. He goes to the synagogue, the same synagogue that he was going to cleanse of Christians, and he begins proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. Those who witness it are amazed! And rightly so, for God has done an amazing thing. He turned an enemy into a preacher of the highest order.
One of the things that I love about this text is the stark objectivity of it all. When you read through this text of the conversion of St. Paul, you don’t read much about what Paul was feeling or how his prayers and dialogues with the Lord went. We don’t know about his fears, comforts, or joys. What we are given to know is that God was on the move. God was doing it all. It’s almost as if what was going on within Paul, his subjective struggles and victories, play no part in the text.
But this I think is what happens when one meets Christ. Christ simply does his work to us, he kills and makes alive, he breaks down and binds up, he chooses his instruments. And you are such instruments. In the waters of Holy Baptism, you met Christ. It may not have been a shining light on the road to Damascus but he was there. As Paul himself will later teach the church, “All of you who were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” The scales fall from your eyes now as you are reminded that you died with him in that baptism and now live a new life in his righteousness. And note the objectivity of it. It doesn’t matter much how you feel about it; Christ has still done it all for you. He died for you, he rose for you, he comes in water and word for you. He proclaims that you are forgiven, you are his brothers and sisters, you are the saints of God. In good times and bad, happy or sad, Christ is still here for you.
And so we go out into the world, out into our various vocations to live as his chosen instruments. Wherever it is that God has placed you; father, mother, student, teacher, craftsman or professional you are his instruments doing his work. And you will get worn down. You will get nicked and dull. Sometimes you will be so full of doubt and insecurity that you won’t want to go on any more. But when that happens, return to our Lord. Return to the place where his gifts are given and his Word is proclaimed for you. For here his instruments are sharpened and honed for the task at hand. As Paul did so many years before, let us take food and be strengthened to do the work of the Lord.