Acts 9:1-20

Saul encounters the risen Jesus

9 Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest, seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”

Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”

“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”

Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.

10 In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

He answered, “Yes, Lord.”

11 The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”

15 The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”

17 Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”    Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. 19 After eating, he regained his strength.

He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days. 20 Right away, he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues. “He is God’s Son,” he declared.

This is the word of God for us the people of God.  Thanks be to God.

Signs and Wonders, Then and Now (Saul)

The Holy Spirit was poured out on the church in the days after Jesus died, was resurrected and ascended.  And thank you, Jesus, the Holy Spirit continues to be poured out and to work signs and wonders today.  I invite you to deeply think about this scripture that tells the crazy story of the conversion of Saul.  William Barclay says that Saul’s story is the most famous conversion story in history! And what an amazing story it is.  Because you see, Saul was a Pharisee.  In fact, he describes himself as a Pharisee of Pharisees.  He was learned in the Jewish law – he had studied and studied.  He knew the law of his faith.  And it was his goal to keep the law – to follow all the regulations and rules set out by his faith.  Saul had observed Stephen being stoned to death, even holding the cloak of the soldiers who were stoning Stephen.  And this conversion story follows soon after that death.   Saul had applied for permission to go and extradite Christians for punishment who had fled in fear of their lives.  Saul was an enemy to Christians.  But Saul’s life changed on that road to Damascus.  Because as he travels along, headed to further persecute believers in “The Way,” he meets Jesus.  And things were never the same for Saul.  When we meet Jesus, and when we open our eyes to who Jesus really is, things are never the same for us.

I want to point out to you a few things that I noticed in today’s scripture.  First, as Saul walks down that road, as he experiences the voice from heaven, as he is struck blind, Saul hears Jesus, say, “Saul Saul, why are you harassing me?”   And it struck me that Jesus took it personally that Saul was involved with the persecution of Christians.  Jesus noticed it all.  Jesus said, “why are you harassing me!”  Not “why are you harassing my people!”  Jesus noticed the persecution of his people, and he did not take kindly to it.  He noticed Saul, specifically.

And I can’t help but see the connection with this part of the story to what has happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, over the last couple of days.  We have been watching and reading about this protest led by white supremacists because the city intends to remove a statute that is a symbol of its confederate past – a reminder of our enslavement of African Americans.  And as you know, this gathering resulted in violence and death.  We have witnessed racial bigotry; we have witnessed prejudice, and we have witnessed hatred.

Saul was known as a persecutor of Christians.  He hunted them down so that they could be thrown in jail and even killed.  Today’s text says that he spewed out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples!  I see Saul in what happened in Charlottesville!  And there is no way I can talk about the signs and wonders that resulted in the life of Saul without calling on this body of believers to consider what has happened in Charlottesville.  Because although we can say – I didn’t do that or that’s not how I think or believe, racism is a huge issue for all of us in this country.  And I think it’s time for us to examine our own hearts to see how we are a part of the problem of racism and hatred.  I think it’s time for us to examine our family-life, our work-life-, and our church-life to see how we are a part of the problem.  I think it’s time to admit that we do have a problem.

I’ve met and talked with Rev. F. Willis Johnson who is a United Methodist pastor in Ferguson, Missouri.  You may remember that in 2014 Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teenager was shot by police.  Protests and demonstrations rocked the city for weeks afterward.  Rev. Johnson is the part of a racial reconciliation group in Ferguson, and he’s written a series called “Holding Up Your Corner: Talking About Race in Your Community.”  The first time I met Rev. Johnson, I told him that I lived in a community that had a very low African American population, and so I didn’t think this was an issue for us.  And he pointed this out – he said, “how did your community get that way?”  And it hit me like a ton of bricks – the fact that we didn’t have many African Americans or people of color IS the issue.

The past history of the community is the reason African Americans choose to live elsewhere.  But really that is not what happened either – because what actually happened is that murderous threats were spewed out against them in the past, and they ran for their lives.  That is the history we live with in this state.  If you don’t believe it or remember – go to the Little Rock Central visitor center or Mosaic Templar Cultural Center in Little Rock or the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.  And racism is also the current reality with live with in this state — if you think we don’t have a problem, look at the Confederate flags all around.

I just spent a week learning about interreligious and intercultural issues, and one of the assignments was to write a paper about our own prejudices and biases.  I had to think about how I grew up and what influenced me, and to honestly describe how some warped thinking colored the way I view other people.  And I had to admit that growing up in Harrison, Arkansas, effects the way I look at people who are different than me.

I urge you to do the same thing — to examine yourself and your thinking.  I urge you to open your eyes to how we as a church and as a community love each other, or do we fail to love each other by ignoring the problem and doing nothing to address the issue.

This is a hard issue.  It can only be solved by honesty and hard work.  It cannot be solved by name-calling, hatred and violence. It can only be solved when the church steps up to admit there is a problem and to actively work against the evil at hand.  The problem of hatred, fear, violence and evil can only be solved with the power of God’s Holy Spirit.  And I hope that you will seriously consider your response to the issue of racism – and our response as a church.

But we don’t read just about murderous threats in Saul’s story.  There is hope in this story.  There are miracles in this story.  There is grace in this story.  Because as horrible as Saul’s behavior was, Jesus didn’t strike Saul down with a lightning bolt.  Instead Jesus had a better plan for Saul.  Jesus did not give up on Saul.  That realization gives me such hope that no matter what we have done or how long we have carried hatred, no matter how long we have hidden from God or ignored God, Jesus notices – and Jesus does not give up on us.  In fact, God loves us so much that if necessary, if we don’t listen to God’s still, small voice in our lives, God will show out like this to get our attention.  God can provide a conversion experience like this — where we hear the voice of God — where we experience some sign or wonder that will help us to know in our knower that God is God and God is real!!!  God will do whatever it takes to get our attention and to turn us to repentance – to help us to see the depth of our failings and to help us turn to God and change our lives.  Jesus notices Saul’s bad acts, and yet, Jesus loves him still.  And maybe even more amazing, Jesus can use him still – as his agent for the world!!

Did you hear that in the scripture?  God told Ananias that Saul was his agent – chosen to carry his name before Gentiles, kings and Israelites.   Saul was chosen to carry God’s name.  He was a hater and persecutor of Christians, and yet God had chosen him as God’s agent to carry his name to all kinds of people.  So, know that God will not give up on you.  And God can use you for amazing things and in very surprising ways.

Saul was healed, and he got up and he began to preach about Jesus, saying, “He is God’s Son.”  God will not give up on you.  God can use you for some surprising work in the world.

The other thing that struck me with this scripture is the William Barclay quote in your bulletin.  When Saul asks Jesus who he is, Jesus says, “I am Jesus, whom you are harassing.  Now get up and enter the city.  You will be told what you must do.”  William Barclay says that all of Christianity is contained here in what Jesus says to Saul.  “Go into the city, and you will be told what to do.”  Barclay says, “up to this moment Saul/Paul had been doing what he liked, what he thought best, what his will dictated.  From this time forward he would be told what to do.  The Christian is a person who has ceased to do what he wants to do and who has begun to do what Christ wants him to do.”

And this is where faith in Jesus Christ is difficult.  It is difficult to set aside what we want to do, and trust God with a different way.  It is difficult to ignore our inner panic to be in control and wait for the Holy Spirit to show us the way.  It is easy, for example, to stick to spewing out murderous threats rather than sharing love.  But when we wake up to the love of God that we can see in Christ Jesus, our faith becomes more than a set of laws and rules.

When we are filled with God’s love, treating our faith as a weekly duty is not an option.

When we are filled with God’s love, we have no other choice but to “go into the city, and wait to be told what to do.”

When we are filled with God’s love, hatred is pushed out.

So the second thought is — may we come to say “not my will, but God’s will be done” and really mean it.  May we come to that point in our faith that we can just “do what we are told.”

The third thought involves the transformation in Saul’s behavior. Jesus instructs Ananias, a disciple, to go to Saul, to put his hands on Saul and to restore his sight.  And Ananias thinks he’s misunderstood what he’s heard from the Lord.  Because he knows that Saul has been doing horrible thing to Jesus’s people in Jerusalem.  Saul is known for persecuting followers of the Way – helping to put them in prison and assisting in killing them.  And so Ananias argues with Jesus—thinking surely Jesus wouldn’t expect him to heal his enemy.  And probably thinking surely God wouldn’t choose this outlaw as his agent to change the world.  How could Jesus choose such a person?  But indeed, that is exactly what Jesus had in mind.

The Lord replied to Saul’s arguments, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.”  A former enemy of the Way was to be Jesus’s chosen agent to carry his name to the world!

Unbelievable!  And yet, how perfect a choice.  What better choice could God have made as a witness to the remarkable power of Jesus to transform lives.  Because in these few verses we read today, Saul went from spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples to preaching about Jesus in the synagogues and declaring, “He is God’s Son.”  In just 20 verses we see this total transformation.

And that is really the amazing sign and wonder in this story – the persecutor becomes the agent of salvation for the very people he persecuted!  Saul becomes Paul.  The Apostle Paul.  He traveled the world and suffered all kinds of hardships as the Lord’s agent.  And, ironically, he was ultimately killed for his beliefs.  Many were converted to Christianity through his work – new churches were started all around the known world because of his efforts.  And his works live on in all the writings he contributed.  Paul wrote 13 of the 27 books in the New Testament – 31 per cent of the New Testament.

When Ananias goes to Saul, he says to his enemy, “Brother Saul, the Lord has sent me – Jesus who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here.  He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Instantly flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again.  He got up and was baptized.  Right away he began to preach about Jesus in the synagogues.  “He is God’s Son,” Saul declared.”

Jesus notices when we fail to love each other.  And if we are brave enough to listen, Jesus calls us out on our failings.  But there is hope in Jesus Christ – there is redemption and renewal – there is grace and peace in the love of Jesus Christ.  And things are never the same when we meet Jesus.  May violence become peace.  May our ignorance be replaced with knowledge.  May we be filled with love and not hate.  In the name of Jesus Christ, the one who loves all, Amen!