So after our two week break for Easter, we are coming back into the book of Acts. We’ve spent a lot of time more in liturgical settings with doing readings out loud, prayers out loud and spending time in traditions that have been with the church for two thousand years. We only start to scratch the surface of the kinds of traditions and rituals that the church has been doing. There is an entire season that leads up to Easter normally called Lent, and part of Lent is things like Ash Wednesday, Passion Sunday, Holy Thursday and the list goes on. The church for two thousand years has built their calendars and their lives around traditions that consistently put Christ at the centre of their lives. Christianity comes from Jewish traditions who had even more rituals, practices and traditions that they practiced on a regular basis. Feasts, sacrifices, prayers and the list went on. Their entire lives were build around the reality that God was their God and they were his people.
One of these prayers, which you have probably heard is called a ‘Shema’ prayer and it’s a prayer that Jews would say over and over again
“Hear, O Israel, The Lord our God, The Lord is One.”
Christians would have something similar and they had a prayer that they would say in repition
“One God the Father, and one Lord Jesus Christ”
There are many techniques and practices that Christians practice and many ways in which Christians learn to meditate and focus on the divine. Now back in the days when Acts was written, there was one type of Jewish meditation which became well known and practiced frequently. It was a sustained contemplation of the great vision of the first chapter of the book of the prophet Ezekiel where he sees something like a great chariot, with whirling wheels and flashing lights. There is a full description of the vision that includes four-faced angels who carry a chariot while sparkling and glowing, rainbows, jewels and thrones. The point on meditating on this vision for Jews was to see if by devout prayer, fasting and holiness one might come to share in the climax of this vision in Ezekiel 1
Above the vault over their heads was what looked like a throne of lapis lazuli, and high above on the throne was a figure like that of a man. I saw that from what appeared to be his waist up he looked like glowing metal, as if full of fire, and that from there down he looked like fire; and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.
This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the LORD. When I saw it, I fell facedown, and I heard the voice of one speaking.
Now people who studied day in and day out in the scriptures longed deeply to share in this kind of vision. They would use this kind of vision as prayer in hopes that someday they would be able to see the same glory, God’s face on his throne, even if such a sight would hurl them to the ground.
The reason I tell you this, is because we are in Acts 9. Acts 9 might be the most famous passage in Acts because we are at the road to Damascus, or Saul’s conversion. Two times in our readings before we have heard mention of this Saul guy. He was the one that people were laying their coats down in front of during the stoning of Stephen and he was mentioned about that he was leading the persecution of the Christians around. So Luke was setting us up, he was letting us know that this was the ultimate enemy of the church. Saul was the one to be afraid of, this was the one that was willing to use any force necessary to stop this false teaching from getting any further.
There is plenty more about Saul that we wouldn’t know just yet about him from reading, but I think are important for us to know to get a better understanding of exactly what Saul was doing, the kind of person he was and why he was persecuting Christians everywhere. Saul came from a part of Judaism with a very deep devotion to God and his law, he was a Pharisee. So remember when we talk about Pharisees, we talked about this last year a bit, we can’t characterize them as the bad guys, they were the good guys. They were the ones that kept the law, that did what they were supposed to do. He was from Tarsus which was known to be an intellectual place and he studied under great Jewish scholars and rabbis of his time. Saul was the cream of the crop and he loved God deeply. His entire life was in devotion to him and he never stopped serving him day in and day out.
So let’s take a quick primer on what we’ve just been through. The gospel is spreading. It has reached Judea, Samaria (Simon the Magician), and the Ethiopian (the ends of the earth) which we talked about the week before Palm Sunday. So Jesus words have now come true. This gospel is moving fast. But along with this good news that is spreading is all this persecution and so many people trying to put it out. We have the Pharisees killing Stephen and screaming at the top of his lungs and we have people running around spreading this news about Jesus. The most powerful people are taking serious measures to put an end to all the nonsense. Luke is being sure to give us both sides of this story and fill us in on the successes and failures of the gospel spreading. So we have come to the main event. The leader of the persecution. Saul of Tarsus. The very person who was the cause of many of the sufferings of all these Christians. So let’s read at the beginning of Acts 9.
Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
As he was traveling, it happened that he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; and he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” And he said, “Who are You, Lord?” And He said, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, but get up and enter the city, and it will be told you what you must do.”
The men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one.
Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Meditation like we just talked about would have been taught and practiced often. It’s very possible that even on this trip to Damascus that he was trying to envision this glory vision from Ezekial. The miraculous happens. The vision happens. Except that it wasn’t just God, it was Jesus. When he finally gets to see God’s glory like in Ezekiel, he sees Jesus. When something like this happens to you, your world gets turned upside down. Jesus changes everything. All this time he thought he was serving God, but it turns out he was persecuting Him. You can only imagine what this would do to you.
I remember when I read my first book on foreign aid companies. It was called the Road to Hell. It was a major criticism about the entire aid industry and how maybe wealthy countries were doing more harm than good by being there and bringing food. The stats were convincing and the stories were moving. The whole book did a number on me. All of sudden, some of the only things that I thought were good in the world and actually helping the world become a better place were actually making it worse. Nothing was safe, there was no good I or anyone could do. It was like my world was taken from right under me and I needed to start from scratch and really re-evaluate why I did the things I did and if I had really thought about them. It shifted my direction of thinking so much that the trajectory of my life changed with it. I cut out certain kinds of missions trips and I started investing my time and energy into helping locally run organizations. I started seeing the value in my individual relationships with the poor and not expecting some organization to do it for me. The list went on. I’ve had lots of these moments which makes me reconsider my past entirely. Even though my life I believe was always had good motives, I still come to grips with the reality that I was wrong, I was misinformed, I was missing something, I need to make some drastic changes. It’s odd how one moment, one realization can all of sudden bring a flood of new meaning to past events and to future ones.
Q: How about you? Have you ever had a Saul moment, where something registered with you and all of sudden you realized everything must change or has changed?
For Saul this moment was seeing Jesus. We have to keep in mind that Saul has probably seen Jesus before, he would have seen him with his followers and teachers around and would have known all about him. He just never made the connection. He never realized Jesus was God. As soon as that realization hit him. Everything changed. His entire life, all his prayers, all his memorized scripture, all his traditions all of sudden came to life and came with new meaning. Jesus was the answer to everything and he was working against it. He realized he was God’s enemy.
If you thought this gospel spreading to the ends of the earth was miraculous. How about spreading to the gospels enemies? The greatest enemy? This gospel is so powerful that it seems to be uncontrollable. We are beyond the ends of the earth and now reading the very hearts of those who opposed this gospel by killing people that believed it. Luke puts this story in just at the right time to remind us that nothing is about to get in the way. The very things that we thought were going to get in the way were going to become the things that furthered this good news forward.
Luke also is carrying on the theme quite strongly here, that this has nothing to do with people doing the right thing. Sure we know now that Saul writes half the New Testament, but to start the story off Luke just lays it bare. He was the enemy, he was the one to be feared. The reason he has now started following Jesus is not because he did the right thing, it’s because God stepped in and ordered his path. It’s not even like Saul was sitting in his chariot like the Ethiopian reading his Bible and seeking God to do the right thing. He was on his way to persecute and capture Christians. Nothing, and I mean nothing, that Saul did caused this event to happen. So, this is not a story that we can use to create some sort of formula to how people get converted or to what is the norm for salvation, but we see this as Luke placing this part of the story right here to show us something. That this is God’s story. Not Saul’s, Stephen’s, Peters – God’s. God showed up to him. He wasn’t even asking for it. Saul didn’t even know who it was at first. This was all God, from the beginning to the end. Saul was just a pawn in God’s master plan.
There is lots that we could spend our time in with just this little story. Like the fact that Jesus says why are you persecuting me? This question is packed full of theology that Saul will just start to begin to unpack here. He is persecuting Jesus because his followers are the body of Christ. Why are Christians considered followers of the Way? We could spend hours talking about what this meant. But we’ll just leave it for now, and keep moving on with this story.
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Your saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name’s sake.”
It’s interesting to note here that when the Lord speaks to Ananias, his response is “Here I am Lord.” This is a typical response to God throughout the scriptures. This was someone who knew God’s voice and was listening for it. When the Lord spoke to Saul, Saul’s first questions was “who is this?.” He was about to find out, but he had yet to make the connection that Jesus was Lord. There have been people that have said that Ananias is one of the forgotten great heroes of the church. Think about how messed up this story is. Ananias has no illusions. He knew exactly who this Saul guy is, and now he’s close by and he’s supposed to go lay his hands on him? This all sounds like a horribly bad idea. This was going to get him killed. But he does it anyway. The story continues to unfold and it continues to be lead by God and God only. God came to Saul. God came to Ananias and he’s getting this good news out no matter what, and he’s doing it in the most unique ways. I can’t help but think God has a sense of humour with a last line like that as well, “I’ll show him.” So now let’s go into the rest of this story without too many more stops.
So Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he got up and was baptized;
and he took food and was strengthened. Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
All those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, “Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ. When many days had elapsed, the Jews plotted together to do away with him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were also watching the gates day and night so that they might put him to death; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a large basket.
When he came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. And he was with them, moving about freely in Jerusalem, speaking out boldly in the name of the Lord.
And he was talking and arguing with the Hellenistic Jews; but they were attempting to put him to death. But when the brethren learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him away to Tarsus. So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.
So we are starting to see God’s mission unfolding. We’ve hit pretty much all the stops and it is now being spread through a very intelligent and zealous man named Saul. As I read through Acts, I can’t help but keep asking myself why all this is happening. Why do people care enough to go and kill Saul? Why did Saul care enough to persecute and kill Christians? Why is this so revolutionary that it’s literally turning people’s worlds upside down?
We don’t really live lives where a story like this makes sense. I don’t think any of us really care about anything that much. Which is why it’s constantly necessary to drag ourselves back into the context of this time to understand what people are feeling, and what they are pushing back against. The people that wanted to kill Saul are not bad people. They were good, upstanding God-fearing people. They believed that God alone was God, and they believed that he had given them his Law and that their entire lives should be summed up by fearing God and this law. God was king. God is sovereign. God cares about us and he is on our side. God is coming one day to free us from oppression, put our enemies under our feet and give us eternal life. We can barely imagine these people whose entire lives are consumed by these realities. This is the story of Hebrew Scriptures which they lived and breathed and memorized and hoped for.
Then Jesus shows up. He starts saying he’s the hope. He’s what they’ve been waiting for. Their entire lives now make sense because he is there. But he dies, so it’s a little unexpected, because the hope isn’t supposed to die, he’s supposed to win. But then his followers start saying he came back to life and he calls his disciples to start spreading this news to everyone. People are believing it by the droves and slowly the body of Christ, the church, becomes larger and larger and making converts from the most unlikely of places. The entire church is left with this mission to spread the kingdom of God everywhere and declare Jesus’ lordship over all of creation. As Newbigin puts it:
The concern for mission is nothing less than this: the kingdom of God, the sovereign rule of the Father of Jesus over all humankind and over all creation. Mission.. is the proclamation of the kingdom, the presence of the kingdom and the prevenience of the kingdom. By proclaiming the reign of God over all things the church acts out its faith that the Father of Jesus is indeed ruler of all. The church, by inviting all humankind to share in the mystery of the presence of the kingdom hidden in its life through its union with the crucified and risen life of Jesus, acts out the love of Jesus that took him to the cross. By obediently following where the Spirit leads, often in ways neither planned, known, nor understood, the church acts out the hope that it is given by
the presence of the Spirit who is the living foretaste of the kingdom.
The Church is bound to challenge in the name of the one Lord all the powers, ideologies, myths, assumptions, and worldviews which do not acknowledge him as Lord. If that involves conflict, trouble, and rejection, then we have the example of Jesus before us and his reminder that a servant is not greater than his master.”
– Leslie Newbigin
When Saul finally makes the connection that Jesus is his hope fulfilled, he starts to take all that zeal and all that passion and starts to live out the truth of this new Lord. As Newbigin states above, Saul is about to partake on a journey that is going to involve trouble, rejection, torture, pain and eventually death. When you say Jesus is the Son of God or that Jesus is Lord is challenges everything that doesn’t say he is Lord.
Q: Do we challenge powers, ideologies, myths, assumptions and worldviews that don’t acknowledge Jesus as Lord?
My assumption to this question is that we don’t. We can look at the fact that we are all pretty comfortable, we are all pretty peaceful, and we never really challenge anything at all. We barely know what it means to do that and we don’t like to exert much effort to do so. The result? Peace. We are peaceful right now because we allow things to go along in the direction they are heading without ever challenging them.
“we take in the harsh truth that there was and still is a political cost to the incarnation of God’s peaceable love” – Common Prayer Intro
This story ends with Saul getting sent back to where he came from – Tarsus. He’s about to face into his own people. The people that he was raised with, his family, his friends, he is going back to them. Odds are that we probably just read a few years of Saul travelling around this little bit and preaching and proclaiming Jesus just in these last few paragraphs. This most likely happened all over the course of a couple years. We’ll get to see how that unfolds as we make our way slowly through Acts. In the meantime, the church that exists so far is enjoying peace. Finally, peace. The church is growing and being built up and there is peace, that can be either a good thing, or it can mean what it means for us today – a bad thing. I thought this would be a good place to leave it today. So go in peace.