Good morning, Friends!
We’ve been spending some time this summer in the book of Acts. There are some really great stories in here!
Today we’re looking at a person named Saul. Saul was not a nice guy. Saul hated Christians with a passion. The first time we meet Saul, he was involved with a religious lynch mob. They were attacking a Christian leader named Stephen.
Stephen was a minister who stirred people’s hearts with his preaching. He also organized a food program for poor widows. Some jealous people arrested Stephen, and he refused to deny his faith. In fact, Stephen went ahead and preached right there in the court! So they stoned him.
It says in the book of Acts that Saul was “consenting to Stephen’s death.” Saul held all the other people’s coats, when they threw stones at Stephen. Saul was the head cheerleader at a religious lynching.
After that Saul found himself a niche an instigator of violence. Saul was the one who put the finger on Christians and arrested them.
Later on, in one of his letters, Saul said that he was the worst of sinners. Most of the Christian community would have agreed. The name of Saul meant terror to the earliest Christians.
So, what happened? What changed his life? What was it that changed him, from Saul to Paul? 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? Let’s read and find out.
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 Saul 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.
– Acts 9:1-9
Paul kind of redefines our ideas about who or what a saint is. Paul is not someone with a blameless life, a person who never lost his temper, who never had a regret. He had a lot to be sorry for!
By his own admission, Paul was not impressive. His enemies said that he wrote powerful letters, and then disappointed people by his physical appearance when he showed up. Probably he was short and suffered from a speech impediment.
If we were to try to turn Paul into an “ideal” saint, he’d need a makeover. We’d send him off to a course in how to win friends and influence people, and get him a set of elevator shoes.
At the same time, when we look at Paul, we also have to understand what he endured and went through as he witnessed to his faith.
In his own words, Paul writes:
“Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. . .At Damascus, the governor guarded the city in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped his hands. . . And, apart from other things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches. . .” (II Corinthians 11)
How did this guy change from Saul, the terrorizer of Christians, into Paul, the saint?
It happened on the road to Damascus, a city about 100 miles north of Jerusalem. Saul the persecutor finally met Christ.
Maybe Saul’s conscience had been bothering him. That happens, you know. Maybe the sight of all the people who were terrified when they were arrested, maybe the sight of families weeping as they were torn apart, maybe the courtroom scenes and the executions finally got to him.
But 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 the tradition.
And then came the encounter on the road.
We like to think of the Holy Spirit as a soft, gentle, healing presence during open 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 asked. Not the voice of human conscience, but the voice of Christ.
It was so bright that Saul couldn’t open his eyes. Or maybe it was as though he’d been avoiding seeing God 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. I think that’s an interesting question. Saul asks, “Who are you?”, but he also 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 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, here 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 a fellow human being, without also attacking Christ. You can’t hurt a child of God, made in the image of God, without also injuring Jesus. That’s important.
The people who were travelling 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 a vision of Christ, and he was blinded by it.
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.” Was he was fasting, or was he was praying for a cure?
Maybe he didn’t eat or drink anything because he was in despair. Maybe he thought that he was doomed. Maybe he thought that he was blinded as a divine punishment for all the wrong that he’d done. Maybe he was just waiting to die, as he waited for those three days, blind in Damascus.
Do you all know the rest of the story? A vision came to another 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. He said, “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 many of your people in Jerusalem, and he has come here with papers to arrest 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. . .”
So Ananias, in fear and trembling, went to Saul. He laid his hands on him, and he said, “Brother Saul,” – can you imagine that, calling the dreaded 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 person for us to understand. There are a lot of 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 him. 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 discussion 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. Cause 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. Forgiveness was the joy that lifted him up, forgiveness was the life-changing experience he lived with every day. 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. 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 Jew – 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 ability. 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 fellow Jews, that Jesus was indeed the promised Savior.
What would Paul consider to be his mission, if he were to return today? We often talk about what would Jesus say, if he came back in 2016. 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 brought into, the freedom from old laws and the responsibility of love. I think that Paul would still talk about those things.
One of the biggest concerns in Paul’s life was always reaching out, beyond his own people, to draw other people to Christ. Paul was always concerned for outsiders and for people who were not included in the common understanding of fellowship.
I think 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 draw when we pretend that we control the love of God.
He would reach out to people at the bottom of society – to prisoners and homeless people, to people with no religion and people who don’t belong to church. He would welcome immigrants. He would welcome people of all nations and all ages.
I think that Paul would laugh at the divisions we make between liberals and conservatives, between fundamentalists and middle-of-the-roaders. He wouldn’t care about styles of worship, or kinds of music, or about how many Quaker ancestors people have.
Paul would insist that the encounter with Christ was essential – maybe not one exactly like his, 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 being forgiven, and the lifestyle of reconciliation. That’s what matters.
In the quiet of open worship together, let’s think on these things.
Copyright © 2016 by Joshua Brown