Genesis 28:10-19, Acts 9:1-19
July 13, 2008
Several of you mentioned last week that I forgot to give you the specifics of your reading assignment. Silly me!! Actually, I’m glad some of you said that. Because I know you’re doing those readings! (Or you’re just humoring me!) Well, I wanted you to read the story of Philip, who we were talking about. That’s the 8th chapter of Acts. We read only part of that during the service. So there you are. Now you can go back and “catch up” on your “assignments.”
This week, as I promised, we’re looking at the story of Paul. And as I said, Paul is perhaps the greatest Christian leader, certainly of the early church, if not the greatest of all times. He’s the writer of the majority of the books of the New Testament. Having gone on at least 3 “missionary journeys,” he founded a number of churches in the cities he visited. He was a debater who was thought of highly throughout the Greco/Roman world – a world which had raised debate to the status of an Olympic sport! He was one of the greatest Christian theologians and apologists. (A word we dealt with a few weeks ago.) And he was a huge factor in the spread of the faith, and the rise of Christianity in the first century. And all this from the man who started out as a Pharisee and who was the greatest persecutor of the Church.
As I said before, that was a great strategy on the part of God. How do you fight against your biggest enemy? Get him on your side! That’s what God did. “Well done, God!” Not only that – and this may be the strangest part of that strategy – God took a Pharisee, and maybe the most “pharisaic” of the Pharisees, (as Paul once described himself) and he made him missionary to the Gentiles! That’s almost mind boggling when we think about how adamantly the Pharisees detested those who were not of the faith – especially the Gentiles. What a miracle story!
We read that miracle story in Acts 9. Saul was on the way to Damascus with a letter from the High Priest giving him authority to find the believers there and bring them back to Jerusalem. And don’t forget, the High Priest was also the civil authority! This was like obtaining an arrest warrant! Then, all of a sudden, there was a blinding light.
As I read this, many thoughts came to mind. I remember a lot of times Jesus used blindness as a metaphor in his teaching. Though he sometimes he physically gave sight to the blind, more often when he spoke of blindness, it was not about a physical disability, but rather a state of mind where a person does not see the truth. I’ll always remember the statement – and I don’t know who said it first – but it goes like this. “There are none so blind as those who refuse to see.”
I was looking through some of those passages. And I found that many times Jesus accused the Pharisees of being “blind guides.” He said they were like “the blind who were leading the blind.” But the one that I remember most vividly is in John’s Gospel, right after he healed the man who was born blind, and having dealt with the Pharisees throughout that whole story, he said this. “For this I came into this world… so that the blind may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees heard him say that, and realized he was talking about them! They said, “Surely you’re not saying we are blind, are you?” And Jesus answered, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt. But since you say, ‘We see,’(when you really don’t,) your guilt remains. (John 9:39-41)
I think it’s amazing then that this Pharisee was struck blind by the light on the road. And do you think Saul was aware of those confrontations with Jesus and his references to blindness? Do you think he could have been there? Do you think he himself may have been accused of being blind by Jesus in on of those confrontations? And now here he was, blinded by the light. And this would became the time he would truly see!
This is the story of Saul’s conversion. It’s perhaps the most famous conversion experience recorded in the scriptures. And as we think about this today, I’d like each of us think of the time when we came to Christ. Think about that for yourself. How long ago was it? Where was it? What were the circumstances? Were you “knocked off of your donkey.” That’s become a sort of cliché for a drastic change or a dramatic experience in a person’s life. Was that you? Or was yours a slow, almost imperceptible process, at the end of which you realized you were a follower of the Lord Jesus, but you can’t point to an exact moment that decision was made?
A few weeks ago, I described the “conversion experience” of C. S. Lewis. And it was just that. He got on a train, and he got to thinking, and by the time he got off the train he knew he had become a follower of Jesus Christ, though he didn’t know when along the route that decision was made. Here he had been a confirmed atheist, but now he was a believer. And he was destined to be one of the greatest Christian apologists of our time. (There’s that word again!)
So, I’d like you to think today of your own “personal history.” When did you first decide you were a follower of Jesus? Were you on that train? Were you “knocked off of your donkey?” Or did you have an experience that falls somewhere in between? That’s what I want you to think about today. And in doing so, I would like you to think in terms of renewing that commitment to Christ. I think it helps us in our devotion to God to remember how we got where we are. Because sometimes we let that commitment “get a little old” in our minds, don’t we? Sometimes we let it get to the point were it doesn’t “do anything for us” any more. It doesn’t inspire us like it used to. Sometimes we find that we’ve lost some of that “first love” for God that Jesus talked about in the Revelation to John. (Revelation 2:4)
So as you think about Paul and this miraculous encounter with the living Christ, I want you to think of your own experience with Christ. But maybe that’s not so easy for you. Maybe it’s hard for you to identify with someone as famous as Paul. And maybe the whole “blinding light” thing is beyond your experience. In that case, I invite you to think instead about some of the “lesser people” who have done “great acts of faith,” like the other guy in this story, Ananias. You may find it easier to “identify” with him.
Ananias was the man who God sent to Saul after he was blinded. He was told to go and to pray for him and restore his sight. And notice, Ananias was no dummy! And he certainly knew Saul was no dummy either! When God called him, he objected! He said, “Hey God, we know about this guy!” He knew what he had been doing to the Church. He even knew of the letter Saul had gotten from the High Priest that gave him authority to arrest the believers at Damascus. And Ananias new this man Saul was ruthless enough to use just such a “conversion experience” to infiltrate the Church. That would have been the perfect “under cover” strategy! And I think it was a great act of faith on Ananias’ part just to accept this assignment and to do what God said!
Whenever I’ve read this story, I’ve always been amazed that Ananias actually went to Saul, and did what he did, and told him the things God said, knowing what he knew about this man!! I don’t think he gets nearly the recognition he deserves! And he is definitely a “lesser character” in this drama. We don’t ever hear from him again after this story. But he is a “lesser character” who performs a “great act of faith.” He’s the one who baptized Saint Paul and who introduced him to the Church. And that was no small thing, either. When you read this story – and I hope you will – you’ll find out that everyone in the Church also knew about Saul’s business in Damascus! Yet it was through this man Ananias that they finally came to accept him.
Then think about their acts of faith! Not only did the believers accept Paul, they eventually ended up protecting him! What a strange turn of fate that was!! The Jews were out to kill him. He wasn’t just a follower of Christ, which they were fighting against, he was a turncoat, a traitor! He was with them, now he was against them. So it says they wanted to kill him. And if you think about it, even that could have been part of an elaborate plot to infiltrate the Church – even the death threat! The believers demonstrated great faith in helping him!
There’s a lot to think about in this story, I know. And I do hope you’ll read this again. And I do hope, you will think about your own commitment to Jesus Christ. Did it start with an experience like Paul’s? Or was it more like that of C. S. Lewis, or Ananias? Do you need to renew that commitment? Do you need to think again about God’s call on your life? Will you be a great leader like Paul? Or will you be perhaps a “lesser character” who nonetheless is ready to do “great acts of faith.”
Let us consider all of that as we approach this table, remembering the presence of God in our lives through this communion together.
Eternal God,. forgive us for the times we have refused to see. Help us by the Holy Spirit to see more clearly your kingdom in our midst. Help us to follow more closely Jesus Christ our Lord. Help us to be the light by which others might see him more clearly. For this we pray in his name, Amen.