Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 5, 2019
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20) Commentary
As I said last week in my comments on Acts 5, during the season of Easter the Lectionary switches from its customary focus on the Old Testament in the first reading, in order to follow the effects of Easter on the early church in the book of Acts. It is an ingenious way to show how God was creating the new heaven and the new earth (Isaiah 65) through the growth of the church.
That growth was not always pleasant. A surge of new converts after the first persecution of the Apostles resulted in a pastoral problem that had ugly racial overtones, but the church solved the “widow issue” by appointing seven deacons to assure a just distribution of aid and to give the apostles time to preach and pray. Then things got ugly when commands to stop preaching became stones that killed one of those deacons, a Spirit filled man named Stephen.
That martyrdom was the flashpoint for widespread violence against the church, driving many Christians out of Jerusalem back to their homes in faraway places. One of those scattered was another deacon named Philip who was instrumental in converting the first African, though he was still in Judean territory. Peter and John spread the Gospel in neighboring Samaria, thus fulfilling Jesus commission to widen the circle of faith geographically.
All of that was great news, but our text reminds us that even as the faith was spreading to the ends of the earth, so was the persecution that began in Jerusalem. One of the bit players in Stephen’s murder has taken on the role of arch villain. Not content with driving the church out of Jerusalem, Saul of Tarsus, a Hellenistic Jew of high breeding, advanced education, and fervent faith, was determined to wipe this new “Way“ off the face of the earth. How ironic and how typical that God would use this particular man to take that Way to the ends of the earth.
With letters of authorization from the Sanhedrin, Saul was on the way to Damascus, about 150 miles north and east of Jerusalem, to find, arrest, and drag back to Jerusalem anyone who belonged to the company of disciples. What follows is one of the great reversal stories in all of literature. In fact, the phrase “a Damascus road experience” has become a cultural slogan for a dramatic change of life wherever people have even passing knowledge of the Bible.
That’s where Saul was when it happened—on the road to Damascus. The story is told three times in the book of Acts—here, by the narrator (Dr. Luke) and in Acts 22 and 26 by Saul/Paul himself—with some difference in details. But the heart of the story is the same in all three versions. A bright light from heaven knocked Saul to the ground. A voice from heaven confronted Saul with the question that changed his life, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul stammers his terrified response, “Who are you, Lord?” The Lord responds with the most unexpected answer Saul could have imagined, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” That alone would have been enough to change Saul from unbeliever to believer, but Jesus had more to say, something that would change him from persecutor to preacher. “Now get up and go into Jerusalem and you will be told what you are to do.”
In your sermon you could dwell on any number of issues: the bright light and thunderous voice are typical of a theophany in the Bible; Jesus’ identification with his persecuted church; Saul’s addressing the unknown voice as “Lord;” Saul’s state of mind upon hearing the voice of the living Christ. All of that would add color and texture to your sermon, but you must be careful not to stop your sermon where the Lectionary stops today.
That would miss the whole point of the story. It’s not just or primarily about Saul’s conversion; it is ultimately about Paul’s commission. Of course, he couldn’t have had his commission if he hadn’t been converted. But his conversion was not just a ticket into heaven; it was the beginning of his task to take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.
The rest of the story is hinted at in the last word of verse 6—“do.” “You will be told what you must do.” It is hard to exaggerate the change in Saul as a result of his encounter with the risen Jesus. The hard charging champion of orthodoxy who knows exactly what God wants him to do is now a blind and shell-shocked child who must be led by the hand to a home where he will spend the next three days and nights praying and fasting.
He would never have figured what he was to do after his shattering encounter with Jesus, if Jesus had not sent Ananias to explain his mission and introduce him to the rest of the faith and to the community of faith. Ananias was, understandably, reluctant to meet Saul. This man had a well-deserved reputation; who knew what he might do with this lone Christian. But God insists, because he has something very special in mind for Saul. He will be Jesus’ “chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.”
So Ananias goes and completes God’s work of reversing the course of Saul’s life. Note how Ananias instantly incorporates Saul into the new life of the church. He lays hands on him and addresses him as “Brother Saul.” He clarifies the heart of the Gospel; it was the risen Jesus who met you on the road. He heals Saul’s blindness and is the human means by which Saul is filled with the Spirit. Then he is baptized and takes food (the Eucharist?).
Thus strengthened Saul is introduced to the rest of the Damascus church. Immediately he begins to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God, proving that he is the promised Christ. That’s when the other part of Saul’s mission begins to be fulfilled. “You must suffer for my name.” Jewish astonishment at Saul’s complete transformation festered into a murder plot. The reversal is complete; the one who stood by as Stephen was murdered for his testimony about Christ is now the victim who may be murdered for his testimony about the Christ. The would-be murderer is now a potential martyr. The one who wanted to stop the preaching of the Name will now carry that name to the ends of the earth. Only Jesus could change someone that completely.
That is the point you should emphasize as you preach through this marvelous story. It is first and foremost a story about Jesus, about the last appearance of Jesus in the New Testament (at least according to Paul in I Corinthians 15:8). The existence and success of the early church (and of today’s church) depended on the resurrection of Jesus. Saul would never have been changed by human argument. The early Christians would not have braved death for an idea. It was the reality of the risen Christ that drove the church. While the Christian faith is more than “Jesus and me,” it is never less than that. “I am Jesus.” The church lives and grows by faith in those 3 words.
So the message we must always preach centers on Jesus. Luke’s summary of Saul’s early preaching is the standard for all subsequent preaching. He claimed that Jesus is “the Son of God… and he proved that Jesus is the Christ.” That, of course, is exactly what Jesus said was the rock on which he would build his church in Matthew 16:18; “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” The resurrection of Jesus proved that he was the Son of God who became the Messiah. To be Christian, a sermon must always have that Christ-centered focus.
But each Christ-centered message must speak of Christ in a way that is uniquely rooted in a specific text. So a sermon on Acts 9 should emphasize three things. First, no one is beyond the saving reach of Jesus. If someone like Saul could become someone like Paul, there is hope for everyone. As Paul would write later in Ephesians 2, even those who are dead in sin, imprisoned by the power of sin, captive to the Unholy Trinity of the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and objects of God’s wrath, even such people can be made alive with Christ.
Second, conversion always leads to commission. Jesus didn’t come to Saul merely so that he could be a Christian; he changed Saul into a Christian so that he could do a particular work. As my old Catechism books said, “We are saved from sin and saved to serve.” Paul’s fellow missionary, Peter, put it this way in his first letter. Once we were not a people, but now we are a chosen people, belonging to God “that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light (I Peter 2:9,10).”
Third, Saul would not have known what to do and he would not have been able to do it, if it hadn’t been for the community of believers around him, beginning with Ananias. As Charles Campbell puts it, “A call is not simply a matter between ‘me and Jesus,’ but something that requires the discernment, confirmation and direction of the community of faith.” There is a place for solitude, for individual fasting and praying and studying and thinking. But we will not be able to go into all the world and make disciples without the support and encouragement of the gathered Body of Christ. Think of it this way. Jesus could have told Saul directly what he wanted him to do with the rest of his life, but he chose to speak to and minister through an ordinary believer named Ananias. The church is, literally, the Body of Christ on earth. We cannot do without it.
I love the way Charles Campbell summarizes this dramatic story. “The living Christ is ‘loose’ in the world, encountering people and shaping the community of faith, often in surprising ways, for our mission in the world. In the presence of the living Christ persecutors become allies who share the suffering of the persecuted. ‘Ordinary’ believers provide the gift of discernment. Enemies become brothers and sisters. Violence is replaced by witness. Ordination, baptism, and Eucharist become vehicles for the transforming and empowering work of the Spirit. And the Word is lived and proclaimed ‘in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’”
There are two ways to make a U turn. You can do it the way the street racers do in the “Fast and Furious” movie franchise—at top speed with smoking tires in an instant in the middle of a busy street. Or you can do it the way the country singer described it in a classis old trucking song—“give me forty acres and I’ll turn this rig around.” Saul’s turn was fast and furious as he did a dramatic 180 from persecutor to preacher. Timothy’s was more gradual; from infancy he knew the “holy Scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ (II Timothy 3:15).” Both are legit. What’s crucial is that we make The Turn. And the turn depends on Christ.
The recent fires in the West and the floods in the South have led to numerous search and rescue missions. Sadly those often become search and recovery missions when it is clear that there are no survivors. Our story in Acts is both. Jesus went on a search and recover mission. Saul was dead in his sins. But because Jesus is the Risen Christ who gives life to the dead, he gave new life to Saul and sent him on a life-long search and rescue mission. The same is true for all of us.
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