Saturday, April 13, 2013

Sermon: April 14, 2013 - Changing Direction


Acts 9:1-21 Conversion and restoration of Saul/Paul
Rev. Andy Ferguson

            Before we turn to Saul and his conversion, I want to call your attention to another great moment when God worked a change in someone’s life. In his Journal entry for May 24, 1738, a young Church of England preacher named John Wesley wrote in his Journal:

            In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me, that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (1).

I share this story as evidence that change can come in our lives in many forms. I also share it as a reminder that the change Saul experienced on the Road to Damascus is not reserved for Biblical heroes of long ago; others have also had life changing experiences. Indeed, any of us might have a life-changing experience with God.
I. Saul’s purpose in life was to stop any changes offered by this Way of Christ. Luke describes Saul as “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9.1). At the beginning of Acts 8, Luke reported that Saul stood near when Stephen was stoned to death. The ominous words that end the passage report: “And Saul approved of their killing him” (Acts 8.1). The impression is clearly given that Saul is opposed to any change that this Way of Christ might bring. He will defend the old faith even if these followers of Christ must die.
            [TEXT] Saul goes to the High Priest to ask 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 (Acts 9.2). There is no further explanation about his motives or his emotional state. It is enough that he was the chosen enemy of the Way of Christ, opposed to any change.
            Now, the famous story of his encounter with Christ:
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.
Paul runs into the reality that the Lord whom he protects suddenly reveals himself as the Lord Jesus. Saul was not only wrong about their religion; he was wrong about his religion. What he discovers is that attacking Jesus’ followers is the same as attacking Jesus himself. Saul the persecutor discovers that he has been persecuting his own Lord. He has been dead wrong all along.
            [APPLIC:] One lesson we have to learn from Saul’s experience on the Damascus Road is that we must be very careful when we set out to defend our God against challengers. It may be that God knows these challengers as God’s very own. We are not good at choosing God’s enemies.
+      Jonah knew God to be a forgiving God; it may be that God stands ready to forgive the present-day Ninevites we would destroy for their sins.
+      The crowd knew Zacchaeus to be a scoundrel and a traitor; what they did not know, although Jesus did, was his readiness to repent and return to faith and to his community.
God has some very big doorways. People with whom we would not be caught dead might be people that God is ready to welcome home to faith and grace.
            [APPLIC:] A second lesson we have to learn from Saul’s experience is caution when we believe that our indignation is endorsed or even demanded by God. In this highly polarized time in which we live, we constantly reach beyond healthy debate to impose punitive action.
+      The extremist willingly kills the innocent to make a political point – thus obscuring a valid principle with cruelty and bloodshed. We have seen such extremism among the Taliban in Afghanistan and allegedly among the Arian Brotherhood in our own nation.
+      Our political process has become so toxic that the two parties in congress could not be satisfied to compromise on any matter brought for vote. Thus, compromise for the good of the nation has become unthinkable, and the innocent who get hurt along the way are dismissed as a matter of collateral damage.
We can assume that Paul stood up to debate his faith principles before his conversion as he did after it. By moving beyond religious teaching and debate into bounty hunting and murder, he abandoned the character of the God he would defend. So might we do the same when we go beyond valuable principles into heavy-handed enforcement and punishment.
            Well, Christ meets him on the Road to Damascus and strikes him down. Blind, confused, and stunned, he hears the voice of Christ stopping him in his tracks. Saul, the enforcer, is suddenly helpless. He cannot speak, he cannot walk without being led. He cannot know who to depend on. His companions lead him to Damascus. Saul is left to figure out what has happened.

II. In Damascus, the Spirit of Christ finds a follower named Ananias. The Lord calls Ananias with the instruction to go to Saul: "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9.15).
            You know that Ananias was afraid to go. Saul had a well-earned reputation. People do not change overnight. It could be a trap! Going to Saul was not the most logical step for Ananias. But, the Spirit is not interested in much of this. The command to go is repeated. That is all, and that is enough.
            [APPLIC:] The message of this early part of Acts is that the events by which the young church takes root are driven by the Holy Spirit. These events are not the considered decisions of good leaders; they are the movement of the Spirit of Christ. Across the years, I have found myself wistful at times for such openhearted dependence on the Spirit of Christ.
            1. Wistful and yet resistant to such spirit thinking:
+      Too often we have seen such charismatic leadership leading to poor decisions.
+      Too often we have seen such charismatic leadership leading to demagoguery and claims of God’s blessing of heavy-handed decisions. After all, if God and I have decided on some course of action, who are you to resist?
+      Too often we have seen such charismatic leadership failing to examine its motives and methods.
Thus, we are more comfortable with human decisions and human institutions. We put them in office, we can take them out of office. Or, as exasperated mothers have been known to say to their smart-aleck offspring, “I brought you into this world; I can take you out of it, too.” We are cautious because we have seen too many charismatic leaders abuse the trust we placed in them.
            2. On the other hand, we might not be wistful for the leading of the Spirit, because we have lost the conviction that the Spirit is part of our reality. We simply have given up the capacity to look for the Spirit. Thus, we do not see the Spirit among us.
            Consider the possibility that we are blind to the reality of God among us. The proclamation of Easter is that Christ is alive and goes before us. We have many sources of information and guidance. Allow this lively Holy Spirit to speak to us in our decision-making. Allow this Holy Spirit to stop us in our tracks when necessary. Allow this Holy Spirit to guide our pathways.
            [APPLIC:] The good news in this story of Ananias’ ministry to Saul is that he went at the Spirit’s command. Thus, Ananias sets the example for the trusting follower of Christ who goes when his only assurance is the voice of the one who sends him. Like us, Ananias is not one of the big names among the disciples of Christ. He is not a Simon Peter, John, Andrew or Paul. He is Ananias, who served here and falls out of the Biblical record. Like us, he did not become a great hero of the faith. And like us, he could serve and would serve when he was called.
            [APPLIC:] With Ananias’ help, Saul is transformed from an enemy into a brother in Christ. This has always been one of the continuing miracles of the Christian faith. Enemies become friends; those with well-founded grudges find the freedom to lay them down. The unstated result of the Way of Christ is that peoples across all sorts of national and ethnic boundaries come together in Christ: Gentiles and Jews, Romans and Israelites, persecutors and the persecuted. Today, we live in the hope that this unity in Christ will again work its miracle on our divided world. As the old song says,
            “We are one in the Spirit; we are one in the Lord.
            And we pray that all unity may one day be restored” (2).

[ILLUS: The Incredible Hulk]
            In the movie, The Incredible Hulk, Dr. Bruce Banner falls into a program to create a super-soldier by exposing him to gamma rays. Most of the time, he is mild-mannered Bruce Banner. But, when he encounters injustice, his indignation is stirred up and he is transformed in the Incredible Hulk – this huge, raging crime-fighting machine. Oddly, the Hulk cannot do anything special when he looks like Bruce Banner. But, when rage transforms him into the Incredible Hulk – all green and covered with muscles, there is no limit to his powers.
            So it is with Christians. We look and behave like ordinary citizens – nothing special. But, baptized and filled with the Holy Spirit, our true nature is revealed, and we can move mountains.

IV. Finally, something happened as a result of this encounter with the Spirit; Saul got busy in this newfound conviction.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 All who heard him were amazed (Acts 9.19-21).

Thus, the conversion of Saul was complete. He went from being the persecutor of the church to being the proclaimer of Christ. All who heard him were amazed.
            All this is just to say that, when we are converted to Christ, fruit is expected. Confessing Christ is an important step. Still, it is a step that is followed and confirmed by the fruit of our ministry. The Church of the Living Christ is a Church on a mission. Following Christ, we are sent. Following Christ, we have work to do.
            In the commitment we make when we confirm our faith, we respond to the question:
Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?

This is our question; we make this commitment on the way to claiming our own faith in Christ. It is for us our Saul-moment. Stopped by Christ on the way to our Damascus, are we willing to accept the new way of Christ? Are we willing to accept the Spirit’s leading and power and strength to do all we are called to do – in his name?



Notes:
1. Wesley, John, Journal, May 24, 1738
2. “They’ll know we are Christians by our Love.” 

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