Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 10, 2016
Acts 9:1-6,(7-20) Commentary
The Lord is willing to do almost whatever it takes to get people’s attention. So we save both God and ourselves a lot of time and energy if we just pay attention to the Lord right away.
C.S. Lewis was among the most famous Christian authors of the twentieth century. He, however, initially paid virtually no attention to the Lord. Lewis was, in fact, a virulent opponent of Christianity until God graciously got his attention in 1931. He later called his conversion the result of “the steady, unrelenting approach of him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet.”
Saul too “earnestly desired not to meet” the risen Jesus. He grew up in the city of Tarsus, which means that he grew up surrounded by Gentiles. Saul eventually became one of the Pharisees who believed that Israel needed more than anything to return to a strict observance of her religious laws and traditions. After finishing his schooling, he took a job with the religious authorities. Saul’s basic job was to ensure that nothing changed within Judaism. And in his day, the greatest threat to the status quo was a group that called itself “The Way.”
This offers Acts 9’s preachers and teachers opportunities to reflect on and explore with their hearers religious change. Why do we find insights on the Scriptures that differ from our own so hard to even explore? Is there any danger in simply assuming we can’t be wrong in our interpretations of the Scriptures?
After all, Saul interpreted what we call the Old Testament very literally. That interpretation left no room for Jesus of Nazareth to be the Messiah whom God had raised him from the dead. That Jesus’ followers claimed he was the Way to God for both Jews and Gentiles. Since thousands of good Jews had already begun following this Jesus, Saul was determined to stop that change by stopping the movement.
So when Saul hears that the Jesus movement has spread into Damascus, he heads for that great city. He’s so afraid of how Jewish followers of Jesus may change his faith that he rides there to hunt them down. Stephen had reminded the mob that called for his death that their ancestors had also persecuted God’s prophets. Now Saul’s murderous work puts him squarely into that company of Jesus’ persecutors. Stephen called his enemies “murderers.” Saul now “breathes out murderous threats against” Christians.
However, Stephen had prayed that God would not hold Saul’s approval of his murder against him. Now God shows Saul just how far God is willing to go to answer “yes!” to that prayer.
After all, en route to Damascus, on the way, which is where change always seems to happen, the risen Christ gets Saul’s attention. God knocks Saul off his high horse.
Into Saul’s obsession with saving the Jewish faith from change, the ascended Christ interjects the question, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” So the One whom Saul assumes is a dead religious fraud speaks to him by name.
Saul answers not with the reason for his persecution, but with a question about the heavenly speaker’s identity. Jesus, in turn, answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” So as it turns out, Saul isn’t just persecuting Jesus’ followers. He’s also persecuting Jesus himself. That suggests there’s far more to this Jesus than Saul ever imagined. The One whom the Roman soldiers had executed is now alive.
Conversion stories are often about people who come to recognize their sinfulness and ask for God’s forgiveness. Yet Saul’s conversion clearly isn’t his idea. He doesn’t figure out that he’s a sinner who needs God’s forgiveness. Saul doesn’t recognize that he’s made himself God’s enemy by persecuting those he assumes are God’s enemies. Saul’s conversion is strictly God’s idea that comes at God’s initiative. God shows him more about God than he’d ever imagined.
One biblical scholar notes that our understanding of God determines both our faith and life. So if our view of God changes, so does everything else. Inversely, if we want to change, we may need to let God change our view of God. After all, because God created us in God’s image, those who have a flawed view of God have a flawed view of ourselves. So until our understanding of God changes, you and I can’t really change.
Yet God never changes us just to make us different. God always transforms us so that we can participate more fully in God’s work. However, just as was the case with Philip, unbelieving Saul isn’t the only one whom God wants to change. God has left the one who was persecuting God’s only Son as helpless as a baby. Saul’s travelling companions must hold his hand like they’d clasp that of a toddler and lead him into town. There Saul spends three days in the dark, perhaps alone, unable to either eat or drink. He becomes, in other words, like the kind of young child whom Jesus insists alone is prepared for entrance into God’s kingdom.
In the meantime a man named Ananias has his own encounter with the ascended Lord. He’s one of Jesus’ new followers who may be hiding in his home from the very Saul whose attention God has just gotten by knocking him off his horse. When the Lord gets Ananias’ attention by calling his name, he literally responds not by, like Saul, asking whom he’s talking to, but with the biblical “Here I am.” God then tells him to get up and go to the house where Saul is staying, lay hands on him and heal him.
One scholar compares that mission to that of a Jewish rabbi making a house call on Adolf Hitler in 1930’s Germany. Ananias assumes he already knows everything he needs to know about “this man” Saul. So he basically tells God, “You can’t be serious!” Yet God doesn’t argue with Ananias. God just repeats God’s assignment: “Go!”
That’s, after all, always God’s basic commission to God’s church, perhaps especially when it’s fearfully hiding behind various locked doors: “Get up and go to those who scare you. Get up and go to your enemies. Get up and fearlessly go as a disciple to work, or school or wherever your routine usually takes you.”
Acts reports that Ananias gets up and goes to his former persecutor. There he lays his hands on the one whom he’d just referred to as “this man” but now calls, “Brother Saul.” That’s when Saul’s healing begins and he can see clearly. And when Saul can finally see again, who’s the first person he probably sees? It’s precisely the kind of person to whom he’d devoted his life to exterminating. Now, however, Ananias is not an enemy, but a Christian brother.
God continues God’s transformation of Saul as he’s baptized and receives food, perhaps even the Lord’s Supper. Prepared in that way by the Lord, he promptly begins to “carry” Jesus’ name “before the Jewish people” of Damascus. In their synagogues Paul insists that the Jesus whom he’d been persecuting is actually the Son of God. He may even admit that he was wrong in coming there to persecute Jesus’ followers and invite Jews to turn with him to Jesus and believe in him. That’s, after all, the kind of work the risen Jesus sends his disciples to do.
(During the Easter season, the Lectionary appoints texts from Acts as Old Testament lessons)
Charles Colson, who’d been known as Richard Nixon’s “hatchet man, was implicated in the 1974 Watergate scandal. After serving seven months in prison for his role in the scandal, he was released in early 1975. Two years earlier, he publicly proclaimed that he had “accepted Jesus Christ.” He describes that conversion in his book, Born Again.
Perhaps Saul and Colson’s stories parallel each other in at least two ways. First, prison and its attending humiliation rendered Colson child-like in some ways. In prison, he depended on guards to provide him with nearly everything. Perhaps God even used that dependence to deepen Colson’s sense of dependence on the Lord.
Second, God brought a man named Tom Philips, the president of the Raytheon Company, alongside Colson to help and encourage him. It was Philips who first shared his testimony of his Christian faith with Colson. It was also Philips who walked alongside Colson as the Holy Spirit deepened his relationship with Jesus Christ.
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