Last month we met Saul and saw his role in the stoning to death of Stephen. I think I compared him to ISIS or whatever the government wants us to call them; you know who I mean. I think the comparison was fair. ISIS seems to be religious fanatics who put to death anyone of an opposing religion. Saul was definitely fanatical and he made it his business to put an end to the new Christian sect.
I’m using the term Christian sect because the followers of Christ were still Jews who followed all the Jewish rituals as well as the breaking of bread. Saul saw the early Church as a threat to Judaism. He was moving around the country seeking out Christian groups to sort out. His name was well known and it inspired fear.
I’ve said before that the Bible is not a history book but a guide to how we should live today. I wondered if this section would give us some hints about how we, as Christians, should respond to ISIS. I thought a look at how the Christians dealt with the threat of Saul might give me a clue.
Saul went to the High Priest and asked for letters to authorise him to arrest Christians in Damascus. He was given the authority and set out on his way to Damascus. So what did the Christians do about it? They could have lain in ambush to attack Saul on the road. They chose another route. They prayed night and day.
Saul was suddenly enveloped in a great light and heard a voice saying “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” This is the strange part of the story. If God wanted to stop Saul a bolt of lightning might have served well. He could have destroyed this man who was intent on destroying his Church. It seems God had other plans for Saul. I’ve always thought of Saul as one of the bad guys. I suppose that’s unfair, after all he was defending his faith against what he saw as a threat.
Saul was blinded by the light. His travelling companions also heard the voice but there is no mention of them seeing the bright light. The voice told Saul to go into Damascus where he would be met. Being blind, Saul had to be led by the hand all the way.
Now while Saul was on his way Ananias, a disciple in Damascus, had a vision in which God told him to go and find Saul who had been promised that someone called Ananias would come to give him his sight back. As you might imagine Ananias was not too happy about going to find Saul. He told the Lord what he had heard about Saul persecuting the Christians. God reassured him, telling him that He had chosen Saul to be his instrument to bring the Good News to the pagans (that would be us).
Ananias went out and found Saul just as he was instructed. He went straight to Saul, laid hands on him and told him that he was sent to enable Saul to regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. From that moment his sight was restored. We hear no more about Ananias but I don’t think he gets the praise he deserves. Can you imagine being told to set out to Syria and find the leader of ISIS and give him a message from God? It would take a very brave man to do that and Ananias was just such a man.
Saul, when he recovered his strength, set about preaching to the Jews about Jesus. Can you imagine how the Jews in Damascus must have felt? Here was Saul who was coming to arrest the Christians now preaching that Jesus was the son of God. Instead of taking their part he was trying to convert them. They were angry and eventually worked out a plot to kill Saul and solve their problem.
The disciples got word of this and smuggled Saul out, lowering him from the roof in a basket. He went to Jerusalem to meet up with the disciples. Unsurprisingly they were not too keen to meet him. It was Barnabas who explained to the apostles what had happened to Saul and how he had been baptised in Damascus. Saul began to go around with the apostles in Jerusalem, preaching in the name of the Lord.
This brought about the same reaction he got in Damascus. The Jews were enraged that Saul, authorised to arrest the Christians, was now going round preaching about Jesus. Again they plotted to kill him. The Apostles, realising that Paul would not be safe among the Jews decided to take him to Caesaria and then send him to Tarsus. His work was to be among the pagans.
There are two lessons for me here. The first lesson is about God’s attitude to Saul. Despite Saul’s actions God did not see him as an enemy to be destroyed. He set out to bring about change in Saul. God was determined to save Saul. If God still wanted to save Saul then there is still hope for me.
Why did God blind Saul? To my mind, Saul was not seeing things properly. God stopped him seeing things in a distorted way and enabled him to see clearly. I suppose that’s what we need to do in our spiritual journey. We need to stop seeing things through the distorted lens of worldly things and start seeing clearly what God intends for us. God had plans for Saul. He wanted to use his sincerity and zeal to proclaim the good news. Those were gifts he had been given for God’s purpose. We have been given gifts too and God has a purpose for us. It’s just a matter of seeing clearly what God has in mind for us.
The second lesson for me is in how the early Christians dealt with Saul and what that tells us about ISIS. The followers of Jesus were powerless to do anything about Saul. He had the backing of the High Priest and they still saw themselves as Jews. They turned to prayer. Those early Christians had the faith to put their trust in God and let Him deal with Saul.
In the case of ISIS we don’t have the power to defeat them. The Church doesn’t have an army to send into battle. We do have the power of prayer. If we are really concerned for our fellow Christians and people of other faiths who are suffering at the hands of these religious fanatics we would follow the example of those holy people who were afraid of Saul. We would pray night and day for God’s intervention.
Bear in mind that God loves those extremists just as he loved Saul. They are also His children, lost sheep and he wants them returned to the fold. He has the power to change the way they see and help them to see clearly what His plan is for them.
So what’s stopping us? Why is there no rosary crusade for the conversion if ISIS? Are we not too bothered or have we been found lacking in faith?