Conversion of Vinnie, Acts 9:1-22, Third Sunday of Easter, May 5, 2019

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Vinnie was one bad dude. It was well known that when the mob wanted someone to “disappear”, Vinnie was their man. One of the most high profile cases, that was still largely unsolved, was the violent death of the FBI agent known as Stevie the Deaconator.

And lately Vinnie had really been breathing down the necks of all law enforcement or any who opposed him, or the mob. He was out for the kill. Late one fall, he presented a plan to the top mob bosses across the country to eliminate anyone that threatened their way of life. It didn’t take long, and he was showing up in cities everywhere, and making a name for himself within law enforcement circles. He was definitely on the most wanted list in all fifty states. The bottom line was anyone wearing a badge was not safe. Whether men or women, anyone was likely to disappear…, or worse, if you know what I mean.

One cold and dreary night he and his cronies were heading west on interstate 80 from New York. When they got to the outskirts of Detroit, Vinnie was suddenly dazed by a blinding flash of blue lights. In the mists of one of the earliest snowstorms in Michigan, he was blinded and he jerked the wheel of his Cadillac and swerved into the ditch. As he was ejected and thrown into the snow, he heard a voice: “Vinnie, Vinnie, why are you out to get me?”

He said, “Who are you, what’da want with me?”

“I am the director of the FBI, I am the one you’ve been hunting down. I want you to get up and go on into Detroit. In the city you’ll be told what to do next.”

Vinnie’s cronies stood there dumbstruck, they could hear the sound, but couldn’t see anyone. While Vinnie, picking himself up out of the snow, he found himself stone-cold blind. His cronies had to get the Caddy unstuck, and take over the driving, and took him on into Detroit. He was blind for three days. He just was not himself; he didn’t eat or drink for those three days.

There was a man in Detroit by the name of Arthur. Arthur got a phone call from FBI Headquarters: the caller said “Arthur.” “Who me?” he answered. “Get up and go over to Park Avenue. Look for the house of Gambino and for a man from the Bronx. His name is Vinnie. He’s there waiting for you. He has just had a dream in which he saw the director of the FBI who promised to send an agent named Arthur. Enter the house and deputize him and when you do he will be able to see again.”

Arthur protested, “Yo, you’ve got to be kidding, you can’t be serious. Everybody’s been talking about this man and the terrible things he’s been doing, his reign of terror against law enforcement and decent citizens alike! And now he’s shown up here in Detroit with order from all the top mob bosses that urge him to “take out” the good people like me.”

But the voice said, “Woe, don’t argue with me. Go! I have picked him to be one of the top law enforcement agents in all the country. And now I’m about to show him what he’s in for, the hard suffering that goes with this job.”

So Arthur went and found the house, deputized Vinnie, and said, “Special Agent Vinnie, the director sent me, the same one you saw on your way here. He sent me so you could see again and be filled with good ideas.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than something like scales fell from Vinnie’s eyes, he could see again! He got to his feet, was convinced of the wrong he had been doing, and sat down with them for a hearty meal.

Vinnie spent a few days getting acquainted with the Detroit folks, but then went right to work, wasting no time, telling everyone of the legal way in which things should be done. Really the director of the FBI and all law enforcement officers weren’t such a bad guys after all.

Everyone was caught off guard by this and, not at all sure they could trust him, they kept saying, “Isn’t this the man who wreaked havoc in the Bronx? And didn’t he come here to do the same thing, torture us and fit us with our very own pair of concrete shoes?”

But their suspicions didn’t slow Vinnie down for even a minute. His momentum had gone up now, and he persuaded all to turn from their illegal ways. He let everyone know that he was on the right side of the law now, and trying to show them that everything was going to be okay. Vinnie would later been known as Bennie and would write many of the FBI’s policies and procedures that are still standard operating procedures to this day.

Now the purpose of this comical tale is to remind you of our First Reading this morning. Let’s look at again as found in your bulletin. Acts 9:1-22

But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any, belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground, he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.”

The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul rose from the ground, and although his eyes were opened, he saw nothing. So they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.

Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.”

But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints at Jerusalem. And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on your name.” But the Lord said to him, “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.”

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.

For some days he was with the disciples at Damascus. And immediately he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called upon this name? And has he not come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.

Like Vinnie or like Saul, often when something tragic happens in our life everything changes. What we do, and how we view life is quite different from the past. The risen Lord’s encounter with Saul was so radical, so life-changing, that from that moment nothing was the same.

The story of Saul’s conversion is not to encourage us to seek some similar religious experience. Rather it is intended to proclaim to us that God’s mercy is such a powerful reality that He intervenes in human history to rescue people from their sins, no matter how terrible their past, and to place them on the Way to eternal life.

This intervention took place when the Word became flesh; to suffer, die, and rise again for you and me. This event and all that it gives is ours through Baptism and is received by faith worked by the Holy Spirit given to us.

A phrase from Saul’s dramatic conversion on the Damascus road jumped out and stuck in my mind: “a chosen instrument of mine” (Acts 9:15).

Yet, there a problem with being God’s chosen instrument? Yes it is our sinful nature. We are basically self-centered. Our dreams, our ambitions, our desires always seem to focus on ourselves. We don’t really want to give up our own plans, to be used by someone else. Why would I ever want to be someone else’s “go-fer”?

Just like Saul. He was a proud, respected Pharisee. He had power, position, and prestige. He was even entrusted with the assignment from top leaders in Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world, to round up Christian “heretics” as far away as Damascus. He had rejected the claim that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, and was zealous to stamp out those who believed in Jesus as the Lord and Savior.

The Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, told the story of an emperor visiting a village in his kingdom.

From the crowd in the marketplace came a young farmer with a special request, “Grant me a favor. Give me a special blessing.”

The emperor thought a moment and surprised everyone with his answer, “Get into my carriage and come home with us. Marry my daughter and become my son-in-law. Live as a prince in my palace.”

That sounded good, at first, but as the peasant thought of how people in the palace lived and dressed, he had second thoughts. No more Saturday nights at the tavern with the boys; no more comfortable peasant clothes. There would be baths every night, manners of the court, official duties. He stopped, lowered his eyes and said, “No, Sire. No, thank you. It would be too much for me.” He was not ready.

How about you? Are you ready to give up your own dreams for God’s plan for you? Are you really ready to be God’s chosen instrument?

The problem of our reluctance, our self-centeredness, doesn’t stop God. He has the power to deal with that. In Saul’s case it was the bright light and voice of Jesus on the Damascus road. Saul was led into the city and for three days he did not eat or drink: he simply prayed.

What do you imagine Saul thought about in those long days of waiting? No doubt, he thought about Jesus. Was He really the Messiah? Was He really alive? Why were people like Stephen ready to die for Him and with such a look of peace on his face as the stones knocked him out.

Then God told Ananias to go over to that praying man in the house of Judas on Straight Street. Ananias wasn’t quite ready either, at least at first, to be an obedient instrument chosen by God. He reminded God of who this man was, of all the harm he had done to the church, and why he was even in Damascus. But God gave the order: “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel” (v 15).

When God says this to Ananias, and Saul, they knew what He meant. They were to be used as instrument to carry out God’s plan for building His kingdom. So Saul was baptized, forgiven, and filled with the Spirit. He was changed from self-centered to God-centered.

Now he understood who Jesus is and what it meant for Jesus to die on the cross for our sins. Later he expressed his commitment by saying in essence, “I am ready not only to be bound but also to die in Jerusalem for the sake of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 20:22–24). By God’s grace, Paul was shaped by God, to “become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Cor 9:22).

God’s big plan, His unchangeable will, is that all people come to the knowledge of the truth and be saved (1 Tim 2:4). So He commissions His church to “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:20). That is done by connecting all to Christ by preaching, teaching, witnessing to His Mercy, Love, and Grace through His Word and Sacraments. God has special assignments and tasks that are necessary to do the job. God used Ananias to baptize Saul and lay hands on him.

Though we have earned none of this, it is all ours as God’s free gift in Christ. That is the kind of God we have: a God who astounds us with his amazingly gracious choices. A God who chose His most tireless opponent to carry His name before the nations. A God who entrusted the treasure of His Gospel to a man who had once tried to eradicate the Gospel. A God who reaches out to people like Saul, and like you and me, who have lived as His enemies, and He chooses us to be His chosen instrument. Amen