Sermon – 05-05-19 – Easter III – Cycle C
Scripture: Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, [John 21:1-19]
Sermon Title: “The Turn-Around”
Saul – S-a-u-l – is zealous without a doubt! He is zealous to keep the religion pure. No heretics shall ruin this religion of superfluous rules and regulations. It is the law! As far as I know, Saul’s persecution of these followers of Jesus is not selfish. He personally is not gaining money. Well, maybe he is accumulating fame and acclaim within the Hebrew community.
But Saul is a vicious person. He is very determined and ruthless has the respect of his elders and peers. You see, these followers in the movement called “The Way,” the followers of Jesus, being called “Christians,” are like poison in the religious system. Never mind that a Messiah was predicted hundreds of years earlier. This Jesus could never be that Messiah – coming out of nowhere. This homeless man with a scruffy band of followers could never be the Savior that Isaiah prophesied. These people need to be purged before they can multiply. They are like a serious, controlling weed that needs to be pulled and destroyed before it takes over the field.
This is Saul’s mission. To purge the Christians. Our passage today is chapter 9 of Acts. If we read before that in chapter 7, we find the persecution of Stephen. Apparently, Saul was not the person who started the persecution of Christ followers because in this story he is watching the persecution of a young man filled with the Holy Spirit named Stephen. We call Stephen the first martyr. He sacrificed his life to save our lives! Wow! That is some claim. Stephen is like the disciple Peter. Neither one can stop talking about Jesus. Nothing is going to clamp their mouths. The Holy Spirit is within each of them.
As it happens, Saul is watching Stephen being stoned to death. Saul’s presence there is documented by the statement in Acts 7, stating that the people who are present lay their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. “And Saul approved the stoning of Stephen.” So history sets this young man named Saul into position. Position for what? In position for God to use Saul as the most powerful and dedicated starter of churches. And that brings us to our lesson for today.
This very Saul keeps stretching his circle. He asks his religious leaders to grant papers to him giving him permission to go to a town called Damascus to ferret more Christians in that town. On the way a bright light from heaven surrounds Saul and he drops to the ground as you see on the bulletin cover. And a voice booms into the air, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Saul replies, “Who are you?” The answer comes. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting!”
How is that for a shocking scenario? But Jesus does not leave Saul lying in the road. Jesus tells Saul to get up and to finish his journey into Damascus. He shall stay there until a man named Ananias finds him. The problem is that Saul has become blind. So his companions guide him into Damascus where he waits for three days. Saul neither eats or drinks that whole time. So that is one shocking event. But here is another one.
This man named Ananias is a follower of Jesus – a disciple we heard John read earlier. He may have had some courage but not enough for this assignment. Ananias says, “No way, Lord, not me. I value my life more than that.” But Jesus, the Lord, says to Ananias, “I need you to go to Saul. He is expectiing you. I have blinded him to get his attention. I have great plans for him. But Saul and I need you to go touch Saul so he will regain his sight.” So Ananias goes to the street called Straight to the home of a man named Judas and finds this man from Tarsus named Saul.
Things like scales fall from Saul’s eyes and he can see again. But now he sees as Jesus, the Lord, wants him to see and to understand. Saul confesses that he now is a believer in this Jesus. Saul is baptized. He regains his strength and starts to preach again but now he is preaching in support of Jesus, not against Jesus. I had thought that Saul’s name changed at this point in time. Upon investigating in the book of Acts, I need to go to Chapter 13:9 to find this mild statement, “But Saul, also known as Saul, filled with the Holy Spirit, . . .”
I love this story – how God stops someone in his or her tracks and transforms him or her. When you and I have those times when we wonder how God could possibly love us or have good use of us, we can think of Saul-Paul. If it had not been for Paul, I wonder who would have started the Church of Jesus Christ. Paul traveled and traveled and traveled, starting communities of believers as he went. This is in the days of walking or traveling by boat. You may have seen the maps which show his three major trips around the Mediterranean Sea. Paul and his companions nearly die in an awful storm on the sea. He finally makes it to Rome and finds himslef in jail there because of his preaching about Jesus and the salvation he provides. Paul writes rejoicing expressions in his letters to the other churches which he has started – all while he is in jail! “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice!”
Between Peter and Paul the church is birthed and flourishes. Even with the small hiccups and through the dark ages, the church has survived. What does that mean for us? Our church and similar churches don’t appear to be thriving. It takes some imagination to think our church would still be serving God another hundered years not to mention a thousand years from now.
A thousand ages in your sight are like an evening gone,
Short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.
O God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come,
Still be our God while troubles last, and our eternal home!
A thousand years may be short in God’s eyes but not in our eyes. A thousand years is beyond our perception. I perceive that our place in history is now. We are not responsible for a thousand years from now. That will be someone else’s charge from the Lord. We are now. We can’t change history but we can learn from it. We could default on our responsibility. We could stay home on Sundays; we could keep our money for ourselves. We could say “the heck with it!” But God would come calling us as he called Ananias to take courage and have faith and go to this monster amed Saul. Today we have other monsters but God will take care of them. We just need to do what God says.
How do we know what God wants us to do? Not many of us are privileged to hear Jesus’ voice coming from the sky. But God speaks to me by putting a very strong thought in my head and it reaches my heart. And I say, “Where did that come from?” How does God direct you? We need open minds. We need to be pliable. Even when we are in our eighties, God may have a task for us. “Go Ananias, go!” Even when we are one hundred, “Go Zion UCC in Womelsdorf, go!”