Sermon Sunday 15 April 2018 Martin Baker
Last week we finished a series on the Gospel of John.
We heard the story of Jesus appearing to his disciples.
And he said those words ‘blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.’
We are the ones who stand in this history of blessing.
So the earliest Christians were Jews, and Christianity started moving out from Jerusalem first of all probably via the network of synagogues.
It was actually some decades after the death of Jesus that Christianity was seen as a faith separate from Judaism. Early Christians described their faith simply as belonging to the Way.
Paul was also called Saul. It was quite common then to have dual names. Saul was a Hebrew name and Paul a Latin or Greek name. It’s quite common for people when they come to New Zealand to change their names so people like me can more easily pronounce them.
Paul was a highly educated Jew who appears to have led the first campaign against the earliest Christians. They were seen as Jewish heretics or blasphemers, and the punishments under Jewish law were severe. So today we hear of the new Christians in Damascus. Damascus was just 220 km from Jerusalem. Less than the distance from Auckland to Taupo.
So today we start off hearing about Paul’s campaign to travel to Damascus, hunt down those early Christians arrest them and bring them back to Jerusalem for trial.
Acts 9: 1-19
1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 11 The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 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." 13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength
In so many ways this is a glorious story of God’s dramatic conversion of Paul or Saul.
But part is not a very nice story.
Paul has gained the authority to persecute and abuse a tiny breakaway religious minority.
And to commit these acts in the name of religion. It’s happening on the road to Damascus the same place where unspeakable miseries are being inflicted on a minority today. Often identified by their religious differences. Chemical attacks last week.
Pauls is wanting to see these Christian persecuted and killed.
So it is pretty raw stuff.
The Reading today. So disruptive.
Meanwhile Saul, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem
He’s got permission. He’s got authority. And he’s motivated. And he has his instructions. And he has an attitude. We are told he is breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord. The people who make the rules have made the rules. Paul to go to Damascus and bind all the early followers of Jesus. And bring them for trial.
Passion, strategy, purpose measurable outcomes. The business of how to run a good persecution.
All that clarity, all that certainty and yet it is completely wrong. It’s against the very will and purposes of God.
Such a powerful thing. Righteousness, Paul believed that this was what a good faithful believer in God wanted. Permission, authority, power, certainty.
No wonder a mighty conversion is necessary here
Flannery O'Connor, who once said of Paul, "I reckon the Lord knew that the only way to make a Christian out of that one was to knock him off his horse."
The main character in this and every conversion story is God. It is God who changes lives. The one thing clear about Saul's Damascus Road experience is the power of God that turned him from someone "breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord" (9:1) to someone who "proclaimed Jesus" so that "all who heard him were amazed" (vv. 20-21). Saul's conversion was not something he decided to do on his own. It was God's doing. Remember from last week, this is the scared and injured God we see in Jesus who appeared to his disciples last week.
But there is a second conversion story here. And we often overlook it because of the drama and wonder of Pauls Damascus road moment.
And this conversion is the conversion of someone who is already a Christian. Someone whose life hardly features in scripture at all. He just gets a few lines here. Ananias. (Anna Ni As)
Ananias’ knowledge of Paul as a persecutor is expressed in verse 13. He says to God, Lord, I have heard from many about this man, Paul, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem.
The church in Damascus has been talking about Saul and its members rightfully afraid of him -- he has, after all, been dragging Christians out of house after house, throwing them into prison, and desiring their deaths.
So it may be difficult or to place ourselves with Paul and the dramatic moment of encounter with God on the road to Damascus. And though sometimes we may hope and pray for that level of certainty most of the time God’s work in our lives tends to be more subtle. Tends to be known by looking back and reflecting.
But God speaks to Ananias. Ananias knows that kind of man Paul is. Brutal powerful assured that he is doing God’s work in his persecution of those early followers of Jesus. Who lock their rooms in fear of people like Paul?
But this is what God says to him, and let’s listen to the words again.
15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for Saul is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel;
17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength
So remember Ananias didn’t know about Saul’s moment on the Damascus road, but he was faithful. He did as the Lord told him anyway. He trusted that Christ had a future purpose for Saul (verse 15) even though Saul’s past as he knew it seemed to point toward a different future.
Not all of us can be like Paul.
But here is the tough challenge. Everyone can pray for those who we fear, who have hurt us, who we have not forgiven. This is the very power of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel.
Conversion. For Paul of Ananias. A transformation for them both in the very understanding of how God works, of how Christs calls, and how God’s spirit can move.
Paul a smart brutal abuser of the earliest Christians, breathing threats and murder - to become the most famous Christian advocate and missionary. He hears the voices of Jesus asking why do you persecute me?
For Ananias, Lord, I have heard from many about this man, Paul how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name. He hears the voice of God and goes to Paul “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored
For those who have misused their power and for those who have been intimidated and threatened and abused. A conversion. A new future for them both.
The hardest thing of all to believe that God may still have a plan and purpose for the abuser and abused.
How contemporary is this story. We hear about the abuse perpetrated by those in powerful position, trusted roles and in trusted professions. Churches medicine law. The damage that has been done not only by those who abused but by those who stood by and said nothing. Whose passivity made something bad acceptable. The chief priests of their jobs.
And here today, God striking down the abuser rendering him blind. The only space left to speak words of truth is in a dream or a vision, and his sight only restored when one who he was in fear and under threat himself hears God call to pray for him, lay his hands upon him anoint him, pray that the holy spirit would fill his life and then something like scales fell from his eyes.
The scales falling from the eyes of someone who has so terribly misused their power.
We recall the times we have been hurt and damaged by another, the scars we carry.
As we recall the times we have hurt and damaged another. The scars we have inflicted.
But here we are. People on the way.
Let’s pray for conversion. On the way.
So let’s pray for abusers. Scared and damaged people. And maybe we are one of those people. That they may be struck down like Paul. That scales may be lifted from their eyes, so they both can really see the damage they have done, and that the spirit may work the miracle that enables them and us to follow a new plan in their lives in which God is honoured and the good news of healing, grace and restoration can be proclaimed.
And let’s pray today for the abused. For me and you perhaps. Also the damaged scared people. For those rendered powerless and fearful. Let’s pray that God may work in their lives and our own. That a miracle or restoration may work. Giving strength and power, allowing new choices to be made, overcoming fear, believing, as hard as it may be that God may have a new plan for them and for those who have persecuted and abused them. Believing that they may even become God’s very agents of healing and restoration. AMEN
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