Bible Reading Acts 7:58-8:1, 9:1-2 The background leading into today’s text begins with the stoning of Stephen…
They took him out of the city and began throwing stones at him. The men who told lies against Stephen gave their coats to a young man named Saul. As they were throwing the stones at him, Stephen was praying. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” He fell on his knees and shouted, “Lord, don’t blame them for this sin!” These were his last words before he died. (ERV) And Saul approved of their killing him. Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. (NIV)
Message Jesus and Ananias Accept Saul Acts 9:1-20
Last week we were going to hear how God doesn’t give up on us who strive to follow his path, the way of life that Jesus forged for us. People like Peter. Jesus keeps on teaching, restoring, and equipping and strengthening so that, hopefully, we will pick ourselves up, move on, and do better next time.
When I was young, I liked to bike on the trails behind our quiet suburban subdivision. That was back when you went faster and slower and handled hills by adjusting the speed of your muscles not gears, and you had pretty much the same kind of tire no matter what terrain you were crossing. I usually rode for fun and had no destination in mind except to end up back home before I was too worn out. In spite of having a basic work horse bike with no specialized gears or tires, and often rode on ungroomed trails filled with natural jumps and potholes, I was rarely thrown off.
Once in a while I had a specific destination such as a friend’s house, or a large store that was about 5 miles away. Those destinations put me on smoothly paved paths but had the different danger of heavy traffic. Not usually a problem, but I do remember once an old high schooler who just learned how to drive wanting to show off for their girlfriend and instead of giving me clearance and going around, moved behind me and ran their car bumper within inches of my bike’s back tire. Finally pinning me behind a parked car when I had to stop. Then they laughed and went on. The paved roads also lead to overworking oneself. One day, I flew to the store in 90+ degree heat, and then walked like we all walk after a long session of roller skating. I wobbled with rubber legs, overheated, underfed, and sopped through in sweat -- into that store -- that happened to be frostily air conditioned. My body didn’t react well -- lightheaded, dizzy, and tingling, and if I had had a heavy lunch, I probably wouldn’t have kept it long... They didn’t have benches for the tired and weary in stores like do these days, but in my meandering, I finally found a display shelf that happened to be empty and I managed to sit on that until my body began to calm down as it adjust to its new environment.
Imagine life is a bike ride. Now really stretch your imagination and pretend it is actually a hot day. (I know, hard to imagine up here 😊). A car chases you, or you hit a bump, or you’ve overexerted your own limits; and you end up falling from your bike, short of your intended destination. How do we normally respond? Do hang our head, pick up our bike and drag it back home and get on the bike and start all over again -- and say, this time I’m going to make the trip right? Or do we effect the needed repairs to our body and bike, and move forward right from where we lost our way on the path?
On our journey toward heaven, at times our environment makes us uncomfortable, circumstances create bumps and holes that threaten to wipe us out, pressures and conflicts want to run us off the road, if not run us down. We try to accomplish it all in our own strength but realize we are not built to do it on our own. We are unsteady on our feet, cut off and tossed about, and we fail on our Christian journey. So, do we have to start all over, or do we pick ourselves up, learn our lesson, make as right as we can what is damaged, and keep moving from where we fell?
Do we start over or adjust and move on?
This is what Jesus was trying to do for Peter. Peter boldly forged ahead doing what he thought was right, and because of that he made mistakes that were sometimes more visible than others. And it is easy to sit on the sidelines, or more likely, our easy chair -- seeing --- after-the-fact, in slow motion, things the camera captures that the players can never see from their angle in that critical moment -- and feeling good because in our superior position and our expert analysis, we know what would’ve, could’ve, should’ve happened and believe that if we were in that moment we could have done better. Maybe we could have, but maybe we’d do worse in other areas of our life. The point is, Jesus didn’t give up on Peter or make him start over. He went to great lengths to keep his follower moving forward in the right direction after every set back. This is the good news for those who are speeding, or stumbling, down the life path of faith in Jesus.
Now today’s question is, What do we do with those who are not on that path, and are perhaps even the one in the car trying to run the faithful off of the road? (Pause)
What about the others?
Suddenly, out of nowhere, a young man named Saul appears in bible history approving the murder of Stephen. Saul continues to approve this death, and breathing murderous threats against other Christians, (though that was more his wishful thinking than his authorized right).
Many who believed in the way of life exemplified by Jesus, the way of God to God; had fled Jerusalem’s persecution to Damascus 150 miles away -- that’s a long bike ride.
Damascus was an important city with a significant Arab and Jewish population. The high priest in Jerusalem had some authority with concern to internal affairs and with what was in the interest of public order. Therefore, he was probably able to grant Saul the ability to injure, kidnap, and imprison these Christian refugees and drag them back to Jerusalem. But killing them might have negative repercussions with Rome.
Saul was not just faltering along the right path, he was zealously, religiously, pursuing what he thought was God’s will and work on earth, yet it was a completely different and opposite path.
Many scholars think the reason Luke introduced Saul at Stephen’s stoning is that Stephen’s forgiving witness planted a gospel seed that allowed the Spirit to begin to work deep in the heart of Saul, priming him for this encounter in Acts 9:3-9.
3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. (NIV)
Parallel accounts of Saul’s conversion as he retells it later in Acts tell us in was about noon, so the heavenly light must have been really bright, and is a common expression of God’s glory, and since humanity (in common thinking of the day) cannot safely behold God’s glory, blindness is not a surprising result.
The parallel account adds to Jesus line about persecution, his observation that it is hard to kick against the goads. Goads are sharp pointed sticks that are used to spur oxen on to do their work.
In Paul’s case, then, the goads are sharp spiritual pangs of conscience and conviction, perhaps begun by the witness of Steven, perhaps felt in his daily meditations and prayers, or as one scholar suggested, he was kicking against the advice of his widely respected mentor Gamaliel (pronounced Gah-male-lee-el), who said of the Christians, “Let these men alone!... For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourself fighting against God.” (See Acts 22:3 and 5:38-39)
Saul, intent on binding the followers of the Way and lead them to Jerusalem, instead finds himself bound by blindness and led to Damascus. More importantly; through his Jewish mentor, through Stephen’s forgiving ways, perhaps through pangs of meditative conscience-- he is spurred - goaded - by these acts of acceptance and love. Instead of imprisoning the people of the Way, he encounters the Way, the Truth, and the Life - he encounters Jesus himself.
What do we do if we discover our path isn’t leading to God’s destination for us? You can’t undo what’s been done, bringing your bike back to the starting point doesn’t mean the first trip didn’t happen, it just makes the trip longer because you have gone back before going forward… George Eliot wrote: "It's but little good you do, watering last year's crop." A lost crop is a lost crop. The farmer doesn’t try to resurrect a bad season but lets go of what is behind and turns over the soil in preparation for the new season that lies ahead. In the same way we turn it over to the Lord and like he did with Peter, we get up, dust ourselves off, fix what we can, and keep moving forward.
He sends us to others
That is easier said than done. Paul fasted and weakened for 3 days over the shock of being physically blinded and spiritually awakened. Dawning on him was the enormity of realizing that his life was at odds with the will of God he was so passionately chasing. It had to be overwhelming -- and that is why Jesus continues to call his people to be with Saul.
See Acts 9:10-16
For time, I won’t read the text but this is the essence… Ananias, a Christian native to Damascus; but certainly acquainted with the refugees, has a vision in which the Lord tells him to go to Judas’ house on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, Straight Street. In this vision, the Lord tells Ananias that he has given Saul a vision that Ananias would come and lay hands on him to restore his sight, so he needs to go and do that.
Ananias protests, not out of disobedience, but out of confusion. He knows all about the peril Saul was placing on Christ followers. The Lord explains Saul is his chosen instrument to proclaim Christ’s name to Gentiles, their kings, and the people of Israel. The order is unusual. Normally you would put God’s people first, then kings of the nations, then their Gentile people (if you mentioned them at all. Luke ordered them this way to indicate that Paul’s primary thrust of ministry would be to the Gentiles, and their kings (which he goes on to describe later in Acts).
Clearly, Jesus has a bigger vision for the potential of people than we ever imagine -- and his insight wasn’t after the moment, or even during the moment, but it was before Paul even got on the field -- the mission field.
See Acts 9:17-19
Ananias obeys so obediently that when he sees this dangerous man, he addresses him warmly in brotherly friendship. He lays hands on Saul and says that the Lord has sent him so that he could see and be filled with the Holy Spirit, in essence anointing and commissioning him into Christ’s mission. Paul is again able to see, is baptized into the faith, ate and regained his strength, and began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. He is transformed from hunting Christians to proclaiming Christ, from persecutor to ambassador.
You need to see this as it is happening! In the moment, with no hint of the rest of the story, Saul was breathing murderous threats to Christians and is now arrived in the city, and you are ordered to greet, welcome and commission him into Christ’s mission. Do you see, logically, how crazy this is?
I wonder what would have happened to Saul if Ananias believed what most of us, without the benefit of hindsight, would believe. Oh, we believe that in theoretical principle, no person is beyond God’s grace. But in practical, logical application -- Paul was not savable -- people don’t change like that - especially overnight. So surely this alleged vision was (in Dicken’s paraphrased words of Scrooge) a bit too much spice in last night’s chili.
See Acts 9:26-28
We know that doubts would be the norm because as we push the story forward we find that when Saul returned to Jerusalem, those Christians feared and rejected him, not believing he was a true disciple, but had gone undercover to catch them.
What if Ananias had not come, what if he had not offered his healing words and hands to Saul? What if he had refused to believe that this hater of the Way could become one of its biggest instruments?
Ananias does this one thing then disappears again from the pages of history. It was Barnabas who stood up for and with Saul in Jerusalem, introducing him to the apostles, telling Saul’s story and how he had preached fearlessly in Damascus.
What would have happened to Saul if it weren’t for Stephen, for Gamaliel, for Ananias, for Barnabas? Where would we be if it weren’t for those kind of people in our life? For some of us it was our mothers who demonstrated a self-sacrificing love, who encouraged us in our faith and never lost hope in us, and who encouraged us to press forward to our God-given dreams.
Whoever were those mentors and extraordinary examples, those Ananiases and Barna-“by”; we should be thankful for them.
I’m convinced that Saul’s Damascus Road experience is not just an extraordinary event that happened to someone long ago, nor is it a guide (even metaphorical) on how to be converted - albeit we all do need to find Christ’s path for us.
This story is as much about how we too easily view people as beyond even God’s reach, versus what potential Jesus sees in what he can do through anyone, even us. Perhaps it is call for us to do more than simply look at people differently, but to become the Gamaliel, the Stephen, the Ananias, the Barnabas, the examples, teachers, the healers and encouragers that make a difference in the life of another.
So as we see people struggle along on their life’s path -- do we like to “run them down” from our “more powerful, superior” position? Try to scare them so we can have a good laugh at their challenges? Do we hide all the benches so they lose their lunch and we can nod in judgment at what we assume is their self-inflicted pain? Do we seek to be stumbling blocks in their struggle even if, like Saul, they don’t see it as a struggle? OR, do we demonstrate self-sacrificing love, offering rest for the weary, and obediently offer the words hope and the hands of healing?
Let’s pray… God, you grace people in this world through your people in this world. One of the most amazing things about your grace is that you work it through sinful human beings such as ourselves. You don't wait for us to become "perfect" before you begin to achieve your great purposes in and through us. Every Saul needs an Ananias. Every Timothy and Titus need a Paul. We all need someone to lift us from the depths so that we are not destroyed, or gloated over, so that instead of being hurt, we may be healed, so that wailing is removed, and the joy of salvation is experienced.
Salvation often comes to people because of the trusting obedience of people like Ananias, who offered grace and encouragement even though every human evidence pointed to a logical skepticism and rejection. Forgive us when fail to see your potential in people, and in our skepticism make their journey to you and with you harder instead of lighter. We are grateful for the people who, when we saw no potential in ourselves, saw potential in us and encouraged us along our way. We need each other to see and give the potential of grace that lays deep within each of our hearts. Gift us to be a positive force in the lives of others. Amen.
Our final song reflects the hope you bring to us in our brokenness and pain, and hope that sets aside our past and reaches out in healing and new life for us and for all generations to come. Let’s stand and sing…
Closing Hymn (Projection) We Can Not Measure How You Heal
( to tune of Sweet Hour of Prayer )
Closing Blessing And so now Lord, as we prepare to leave, may we hear your call and see nothing but your light, enabling us to bring the light of your healing hope to your world. Amen.