Good morning, Friends! Thank you all for coming out, on such chilly winter morning!
We’ve been talking about light for several weeks now. First we had Christmas, the season of light. We had our candlelight Christmas Eve service. Then last week, for Remembrance Sunday, we lit candles again to remember the light that shone through the lives of all the wonderful people who died and went to Heaven last year.
Today, I want to look at another light story. It’s about light, but it starts out kind of dark. In the early Christian church, one of the leaders was a man named Stephen. He helped with distributing food to the widows and orphans. But he was also a tremendous public speaker. He talked about Jesus, and he did such a great job, that he was put to death by a lynch mob. They stoned him to death.
The people in the mob took their coats off while they did their terrible business. And one of the people who stood by and watched their coats while the lynching was going on, was a young man named Saul.
Saul hated Jesus, and he hated anyone who followed Jesus. Saul turned himself into a one-man militia, arresting every Christian he could find. It says that “Saul went into house after house, dragging off both men and women, and throwing them into prison.” (Acts 8:3)
Then one day, something changed. Saul saw the light. But it wasn’t anything like the light we’ve been talking about.
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone.
Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.
In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.Acts 9:1-19
This is one of the greatest turnaround stories of the entire Bible. Saul was – no two ways about it – a terrible, terrible person.
In today’s words, Saul was a terrorist and an influencer. He was an organizer. Saul was the one who put the finger on people, the guy who went to court and got the no-knock arrest warrants to throw people in jail.
By his own later admission in one of his letters, Saul said he was the worst of sinners. And I think maybe he was right. And most of the disciples would have agreed. The name of Saul meant terror to the earliest Christians.
What was it that changed him, from Saul the violent terrorist to Paul the Christian? What was it that changed him, from persecutor to persecutee? From prosecuting attorney into an advocate for the defense? From the accuser of Christians, into the proclaimer of Christian liberty?
In his personal appearance, again this is going by his own words, Paul was not impressive. His enemies said that he wrote powerful letters, and then disappointed people by his physical appearance when he showed up. He was short, and he may have suffered from a speech impediment.
But in today’s story, he changed. On the road to Damascus, a big city about 100 miles north of Jerusalem, Saul the enemy of Christ finally met Jesus.
Maybe Saul’s conscience had been bothering him. That happens, you know. Maybe the sight of all those people, terrified when they were arrested, maybe the sight of families weeping as they were torn apart, maybe the sight of all the inquisitions and the tortures finally got to him.
It doesn’t say so. From all appearances, Saul the persecutor was a man with a clear conscience. He felt he was doing the right thing. He was serving God, by helping to get rid of those troublesome Christians who were upsetting traditional religion.
And then, came the encounter along the roadside.
We like to think of the Holy Spirit as a soft, quiet whisper, as a gentle healing light during worship. But in this case, the Holy Spirit appeared as a blinding light, an unanswerable voice, which threw Saul to the ground and undid him.
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”, the voice shouted. Not the voice of human conscience, but the voice of Christ. It was so loud that it shook the earth.
The light was so bright that Saul couldn’t even open his eyes. They were scarred, and he couldn’t see. Or maybe it was as though he’d been blind all his life, and now, all of a sudden, the true light, the light of reality, was blinding to him.
“Who are you, Lord?”, Saul asked.
That’s an interesting question. He asks, “Who are you?”, but he calls the voice, Lord, as if he already knew who it was that he was speaking to.
And the voice answered, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting…”
There’s a connection here, that I want to be sure that we make together this morning.
Do you remember when Jesus said, at the Last Judgment, we would all come before Him and be told, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and in prison and you came to Me…as you did all these things to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them also to Me…” (Matthew 25)
In the same way, in the book of Acts, Saul made a discovery. Saul discovered that when he persecuted Jesus’ followers, he was persecuting Christ. You can’t attack another person, without also attacking Christ. You can’t hurt another human being, a child of God, made in the image of God, without also injuring the Holy Spirit.
The people who were traveling along with Saul heard the same voice, but they didn’t see anything. It’s like they could see, but they were still blind. Saul, on the other hand, had been given a vision, and he was blinded by it.
And so, Saul’s companions led him by the hand, and they went together, pretty frightened, you might expect, the rest of the way into Damascus.
What do you suppose Saul thought, during those three days that he was blind? How do you suppose he felt? It says that he “neither ate nor drank,” and I’m not sure whether he was fasting, maybe he was praying for a cure.
Or maybe he didn’t eat or drink anything because he was in despair. Maybe he thought that he was doomed, or condemned. Maybe he thought that he was blinded as a divine punishment for all the wrong that he’d done. Maybe he was waiting to die, as he waited for those three days, blind in Damascus.
And then a vision came. This time, the vision came to a follower of Jesus, a man named Ananias. The Lord came to him in a vision, and called him by name, and said, “Ananias!” And he answered back, like one of the prophets, “Here am I, Lord!”
And the Lord said, “Rise, and go into the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man named Saul; for he is praying. Saul has seen you already in a vision, coming in and laying your hands on him, so that he might regain his sight. . .”
But Ananias replied, “Lord, you know who this is! This is the man who persecutes us! He has arrested so many of your people in Jerusalem, and now he’s come here with papers to arrest even more of us!”
But the Lord said, “Go! For I have chosen this person to carry my name to other people all over the world. And I will show him, myself, how much he must suffer for the sake of my name. . .”
And Ananias, maybe it was in faith, or maybe it was in fear and trembling, went to Saul. And he laid his hands on him, and he said, “Brother Saul,” — can you imagine that, calling the dreaded terrorist, calling your own persecutor, “Brother”? — “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me here, that you might regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit…”
And the scales fell from his eyes, and he was able to see. The persecutor of Christ, the man who had been blinded by the Light, was made whole. He was healed in the name of the Christ whose people he had tried to destroy.
Paul is not always an easy figure for us to understand. There are times when I’d like to argue with him. But if we want to understand Paul, we’ve got to understand that fundamental relationship: Christ saved me.
There is no other way for us to understand the man. Paul is someone who had been blinded by the Light, a person who knew that he had been saved.
The other fundamental thing which we have to understand about Paul, the key that unlocks our understanding to him, is that Paul recognized the evil or the wrong that he had done. Paul knew that he was a sinner.
Now, I’m not going to get off onto a long digression here this morning about what is sin, and how we get trapped in it, and all that sort of stuff. If you really want to read a master on that subject, go read Paul. He wrote volumes about it.
My point here is, that Paul recognized the evil that he had done. His eyes were opened. And one of the fundamental things which made Paul who he was, was that he understood that he had been forgiven.
Forgiveness, forever after, was what made Paul tick. It was the joy that lifted him up, it was the rocket fuel that drove him.
Paul was somebody who was driven by forgiveness. Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit, for the rest of his life, was, first, that it’s light blinded him, and then, that the Spirit’s power reconciled him and healed him.
And for the rest of his life, Paul went rejoicing over the world, sharing that understanding with everyone he met.
In some ways, Paul didn’t change all that much. He became a Christian, but he never denied who he was, or where he came from. He would always say that he was “a Pharisee of the Pharisees, brought up at the feet of Gamaliel,” who was one of the most famous rabbis of his time.
Paul retained his nit-picking personality He was always interested in questions about Hebrew history and Jewish law. It was Paul’s greatest grief, that he was unable to convince more of his own people, his own fellow Jews, that Jesus was indeed the Christ.
What would Paul consider to be his mission, if he were to return today? We often talk about what Jesus would say, if he came back in 2024. What would Paul say, do you suppose?
I think that his basic message would probably still be the same: the love of God in Jesus Christ, the relationship of forgiveness which we are reborn into, the freedom from old customs and the depth and responsibility of love. I think that Paul would still talk about those things today.
One of the central concerns for Paul’s life was always reaching out, beyond his own people, to draw in other people to Christ. Paul was always concerned for outsiders and for people who were not included in the common understanding of fellowship.
If Paul were to come back again, he would challenge us about where we draw our lines, and who we include in our fellowship. I am sure that he would challenge us to include more of the poor, and I’m sure he would question every distinction that we make when we pretend that we can judge other people and that we control who God loves.
Paul would laugh at the divisions we make between liberals and conservatives, between races and where people come from.
He ripped any distinction between rich Christians and poor Christians. He couldn’t care less about styles of worship, or kinds of music, or about how many Quaker ancestors people have.
He said, over and over, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)
Paul would insist that the only thing that matters is meeting Christ. Maybe not exactly the way he did, on the road to Damascus. But Paul would say that it is the living Christ who matters, and the discovery of our blindness, and the joy of reconciliation.