Sermon for May 1st, 2016
1Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and 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. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul 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. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The 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, 12and 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.” 13But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15But 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; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17So 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.” 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
First Church: An Instrument Whom I Have Chosen
Today's scripture reading is about the conversion of Saul. I'm reminded of the story about the Catholic Priest, the Baptist Preacher, and the Jewish Rabbi, who were all discussing the topic of religious conversion one day over coffee. They agreed that it was far too easy to convert a person to a new religion. A real challenge would be to convert a a grizzly bear. One thing led to another and they decided to test their theory. Each one would go out into the woods, find a bear, and attempt to convert it.
Seven days later, they came together again. The Catholic Priest was a bit scratched up, but happy with his efforts. "When I found my grizzly bear, I began to read to him from the Catechism. He slapped me around a bit, but then I quickly grabbed my holy water, sprinkled him and he became as gentle a lamb. The bishop is coming out next week to give him first communion and confirmation.”
The Baptist preacher spoke next. He was on crutches, with a bandage around his head, but also looked happy with his efforts. "WELL my brothers, when I found MY grizzly bear, I began to preach to him from the King James Authorized version of the Bible. But that bear would have none of it; he grabbed hold of me, and we wrestled down one hill and up another until we came to a river. Seizing my opportunity, I dunked that bear, and baptized his hairy soul. He gave his heart and soul to Jesus, got a haircut, came to church in a new suit last Sunday, and even put ten dollars in the collection plate.”
They both turned the rabbi, who was in a wheelchair, with full-body cast, and connected to an IV drip. In a weak voice, the rabbi said, “Looking back on it all, circumcision may not have been the best way to start.”
This month we are going back to the best place to start--back to the story of the first church in the book of Acts. And today we come at last to the character who occupies more pages of the New Testament than any other (including Jesus), the person who carries the message of Jesus beyond its regional origins and across most of the great Roman Empire of his day: The apostle Paul--or, as he is referred to in today's scripture passage by his Hebrew name, Saul.
The first time we meet Paul/Saul in the Book of Acts is a few chapters before this one, back at the story of Stephen, the first deacon and martyr, who is killed by an angry mob. In Acts 7, we read that the angry mob "dragged him (Stephen) out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul." Then in the next chapter, we read that this same Saul "was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison."
In a short span of time, Saul goes from being Christianity's most dangerous critic to its greatest champion. And it all begins in today's scripture passage, on the road.
Verses 1-2: Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, 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.
If he found any who belonged to "the Way." Long before they were called Christians, the earliest followers of Jesus had a different name: They called themselves "people of the way." And the word used for "way" is the Greek word ὁδὸς. It literally means "road." When Jesus says in John 14 "I am the way, the truth, and the life" he's using this word, ὁδὸς. So he's saying I am the road. I am the journey. And so his followers were known as people of the way, people of the road, people of the journey. And of course, even today, we speak often of our "faith journeys" as we "walk in the way" of Jesus and his teachings.
All of this makes it fascinating that Saul/Paul has his vision, his transformational experience, his encouter with Jesus, "on the road" to Damascus. I think there are some things that we, as individuals and as a church community, can learn from Paul's journey, some principles to help us on our own road.
The first principle is this: If you are on the right road, going the right direction, but for all the wrong reasons...you're still wrong.
Saul is going from Jerusalem to Damascus. According to the opening words of the book of Acts, this is exactly the direction that the message of Jesus needs to spread--from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and the ends of the earth. Damascus is the first stop, the first large metropolis outside of Judea and Samaria on the way to the major cities of the Roman Empire.
Of course, Saul is not going to Damascus in order to spread the message of Jesus, but to try to stop it. What's more, he believed with all his heart that this was the best way to be faithful to his God and to the religion in which he was raised.
We need to hear this: Sometimes when we think we are serving God the most faithfully, with the most passion and zeal...we really aren't. In fact, it's often when we are the most certain and sure of ourselves, that we are the most likely to be dead wrong. And that's a scary thing. How can we know, how can we be sure we're on the right road, going the right way, for the *right* reasons? Not everyone is lucky enough to get a blinding light and a loud voice from heaven!
That brings me to the second principle: God's way is always one of love, compassion, and mercy. It is never one of anger, persecution, and condemnation.
In Saul's zeal to defend God (who, by the way, never really needs to be defended) he uses the same tactics practiced by the brutal Roman Empire. Contrast this with the other character in today's story, Ananias. When God tells Ananias to go find Saul, he is afraid. He says, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." You know...like me. But despite the great risk to his personal safety, Ananias goes. And when he sees Paul, he reaches out to him, and he calls him "brother."
Love. Compassion. Mercy. If you want to know whether or not you are on the right road, going the right direction, for the right reasons, ask yourself if these things are at the heart of everything that you do.
Plenty of people in our world today look at the church, and all they see is anger, persecution, and condemnation. They see a church trying desperately to defend God, trying desperately to defend itself and its diminishing power and influence in the world. But that approach didn't work for Paul. Ultimately, it didn't work out so well for the Roman Empire, either.
What we need to remember, is what Saul learned from Ananias: Love. Compasssion. Mercy. These are the signposts, or (if you need a more contemporary metaphor) the GPS coordinates, that guide us on our journeys, along God's way.
Third Principle: God's road is a toll road. There is always a cost for following God's way. For Ananias, the cost is risking his life and freedom to take a chance on this dangerous stranger. But Saul, too, must pay a price. God tells Ananias, "I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” And Paul does suffer. Years after his conversion, reflecting back on his many journeys, Paul writes:
"Five times I have received the 40 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked."
What we need to hear is this: If your journey of faith doesn't cost you something--even if it's not your life, it might be a sacrifice of your time, your priorities, your abilities, your pride and dignity, your reputation, your resources--if your journey doesn't cost you something, you might be getting exactly what you're paying for, and your way may not be God's way at all.
The final principle is this: God chooses the most unlikely (and completely unworthy) people to use as instruments.
Saul wasn't one of the twelve apostles. He wasn't one of the seven deacons. He wasn't even a trustee. He wasn't there with Jesus when he healed the sick or walked on water. He never heard the sermon on the mount. He wasn't a witness to the crucifixion or the resurrection. He wasn't one of the thousands who flocked to the early church after Peter's sermon on the feast of Pentecost. In fact, when he finally did hear a sermon, the one preached by Stephen, it only made him more angry, more determined to eradicate this new threat to his beliefs.
Saul had blood on his hands and hatred in his heart. And yet, of all those whom God could have chosen--Peter, John, James--people who knew Jesus, the great pillars of the church! Of all these, Saul is the one God singled out, telling Ananias, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel."
This is what we need to hear, to know, and to remember: God chooses...and uses...the most unlikely (and completely unworthy) people as instruments.
People with baggage.
People with questionable records and reputations.
People with skeletons in their closets.
People with wounds and scars, with faults and failures.
People who have stumbled blindly down the road of life.
In short, people just like you and me.
Beautiful, broken instruments to carry love, compassion and mercy...
Down every road, on every journey, and into all the world.