Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 1, 2022
Acts 9:1-6 (7-20) Commentary
Acts 9 is one of those stories that has proven to have a pretty wide reach. Mention the phrases “Damascus road experience” or “scales falling from your eyes” to most anyone—even to people who are not regular churchgoers—and they’ll know what you mean for the most part. And to the minds of some of those outside the church, it might be safely assumed that this is a grand narrative in the Bible. Any story that could prove to become so well-known even beyond religious circles must rank right up there with some of the biggest and most embellished narratives of all time.
But no. Acts 9 is told with remarkable restraint.
If anything—and given how momentous a figure Paul will prove to be for the church in the first century and ever since—the story displays the hallmarks of what could be called dramatic understatement. In swift strokes Luke narrates this important event but he does so sparely and in the span of only a few brief verses. But the story is artfully placed. We open in verse 1 with the word “Meanwhile . . .” and this follows the homely little tale of Philip’s baptizing the Ethiopian eunuch out in the middle of nowhere. Luke juxtaposes that little piece of narrative with the bold actions of Saul of Tarsus who was doing his level best to breathe out violence and stamp out “The Way” and the whole Jesus movement once and for all.
For those with eyes to see, however, Luke is engaging in a little irony right from the outset of Acts 9. The Holy Spirit will always prove to be more nimble than persecutors like Saul. While he’s storming into towns and cities to stamp out the Jesus people, the Spirit is quietly at work in the outback, bringing Philip to this Ethiopian and so adding another member to the kingdom and to The Way. Saul will not succeed, and we know that even before the light from heaven knocks him flat and leaves him groping in the dark for a few days.
As noted above, though, this story is pretty simple and pretty simply narrated, too. Saul meets up with the One whose name and memory he had been trying to wipe out. Although this story does not tell us (Paul will fill in a few more details later in some of his epistles), Saul must have been thoroughly disoriented by this encounter. It’s one thing to discover you’ve been wrong all along about something but it’s quite another matter to discover that the person you thought was a sham and a hoax actually exists, knows your name, has been watching the violence you’ve been perpetrating, and is putting a personal stop to it right then and right there.
We know Saul was led away from the Damascus road with the help of others due to his blindness, but even if Saul’s eyes had not been stricken, you have the feeling he would have kept his eyes clamped tightly shut on his own anyway—he hardly dared to open his eyes for fear of what me might see next!
But notice that this is a story with two surprises in it for two different people. Because Ananias must have been as perplexed, befuddled, and shocked by his revelation from Jesus as was Saul. You don’t ask a Jewish rabbi to pay a house call on the local Gauleiter in the Nazi SS in 1930s Germany and you don’t ask a devout Christian believer to show up on the doorstep of the church’s #1 foe in the first century. Saul discovered that he had been making a mistake. Ananias was convinced that God was making a mistake. But even as God was more clever than Saul, he was more clever than Ananias, too, and knew exactly what he was doing in sending this pious man to this formerly impious man.
You wonder what Saul thought when those scales fell from his eyes only to have those eyes then fall on the kind—if somewhat wary—face of Ananias. A few days earlier Saul would have seen red to behold such a Jesus person but now he sees instead the face of a brother in the Lord. But that was just a harbinger of things to come: truth is, Saul would never look out those eyes the same way again. And if Saul turned Paul became the early church’s biggest champion of grace, you know full well (partly because he later says as much himself) that it was this dramatic turn-around in his own life that was the wellspring of every syllable of grace Paul ever preached or wrote about in the coming years.
God tells Ananias that Saul will learn how much he has to suffer for the Lord’s sake. Paul will suffer, that is true. But so profound was his change of heart that he came to regard even those sufferings as a good thing, as a piece of solidarity with his crucified and risen Lord Jesus. In fact, as the subsequent section of Acts 9 makes clear, it didn’t take long before Saul found himself on the receiving end of religious hostility.
Acts 9 is a delightfully understated narrative. It comes right after an incident that shows how incessantly active God’s Spirit is (and so how unstoppable God’s project is). And the story proper of Saul’s conversion is told in a very straightforward manner that is largely devoid of narrative bells and whistles. Maybe that is a piece of irony, too. Maybe that is the Spirit’s way of telling us (through Luke) that important though Saul/Paul will be, the story is finally God’s story and it is finally God’s power that gets things done. Even Saul is just a piece in the larger program of God and so we don’t need to glitz up his conversion story. It’s enough to see that this is a God thing, a movement of the Spirit of God.
And in preaching on this text in the year 2022, it’s enough for us preachers to remind our listeners that it remains our privilege even now to be caught up in that same God-infused drama and action. It’s not about us. It’s about God. And he will not fail to accomplish his purposes!
The mystery of grace. In later years Paul could not talk enough about what he often referred to as “the mystery of grace.” It is the gospel truth that when it is all said and done, God saves people not according to their merits, not because of their background, piety, skin color, ethnicity, or high moral standards but just by grace alone and against all odds.
This was a mystery so great that God had to literally knock Paul flat on his back one bright afternoon to get it through his thick skull. He had been known as Saul in those days and was the most-feared persecutor of the early church. No one had broken up as many churches as had Saul. No one had ever dragged as many women away by their hair as had Saul. No one had arrested more Christians than had Saul and he had even been a consenting participant in the dreadful murder of the church’s first deacon, Stephen. What was behind all that vitriol and violence? A firm belief that Saul knew exactly who was who in God’s grand scheme of things. Pious, observant, highly moral Jews like the Pharisees (and Saul was a chief Pharisee) were the good guys going straight to heaven. Everyone else (starting with that shabby and morally sloppy rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth) were the bad guys who needed to be rooted out like a cancer.
That’s how Saul thought until one day God crashed into his life with a truth so profound as to qualify as a kind of mystery: it’s all by grace, Saul. And just to prove it–and to show that God has a sense of humor–Saul was renamed Paul and was then given the life-long commission of proclaiming the utterly free nature of salvation to Gentiles, to non-Jews, to the very people Saul had once deemed to be the unsaveable scum of the earth. As Frederick Buechner so deftly put it, “Paul set out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ!” Paul had to eat crow the rest of his days, proclaiming that everything he had believed once upon a time was bogus, a lie, the opposite of what he now knew to be the truth of grace.
Saul had always pictured the kingdom of God as a highly exclusive “Members Only” club with a restricted membership. Paul concluded Romans by hoping that nothing less than “all nations” on the earth would believe God’s gospel. Saul saw salvation as a simple, straightforward formula, as sensible as 2+2=4. Add up your merit points, subtract your demerits, and if you came out ahead, you were in. Paul saw salvation as so sublime he could only fall back in wonder at what he ended up calling the “mystery” of it all.
Saul saw God as kind of the senior partner in a firm in which Saul was himself a key player whom God needed to keep everything tidy and in order. God as senior partner surely garnered Saul’s respect but their relationship was pretty much all business. Paul saw God as the font of such a supreme grace that he knew he would never be finished in singing doxologies to him. When you see your senior partner, you greet him with due decorum. When you see the God of all grace, you fall down to your knees and begin to sputter glad thoughts that are finally too exuberant for rational speech!
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