St Michael’s and St Barnabas, 14th February 2010
Of all the stories in the book of Acts, the one about the conversion of Saul is surely one of the best-known and best-loved of them all. There is something so exciting and so dramatic about this account of a persecutor who find himself confronted with the glory of the Lord, and something so thrilling about his total change of heart from a murderer to a missionary, that even folk who know very little of the Bible will sometimes – without perhaps realising the origin of the phrase – talk about a Damascus Road experience to describe a sudden and unexpected shift in someone’s position. For example, a player who one week vows never to play for that particular club signing up for them next week on an extended and no doubt lucrative contract. A politician who has constantly opposed a planned piece of legislation at the eleventh hour throwing his weight behind the proposals. We all know what a Damascus Road experience is, or at least we think we do.
But the question I want to ask this morning is this: why was Saul’s Damascus Road experience necessary in the first place? After all, there are plenty of examples of folk coming to the Lord in the book of Acts often in quite unspectacular and completely unremarkable fashion. The thousands at Pentecost, for example, who simply accepted Peter’s message and believed, or as we saw a couple of weeks back, the crowds in Samaria who were persuaded of the power of Philip’s preaching. Why is it that the Lord had to meet with Saul one-on-one and overpower him in such a dramatic and overwhelming fashion?
Well, to answer this fully we need to step back for a few moments and consider what we know about Saul – or as he was later known – Paul. And as we sift carefully through the various pieces of evidence we find in the New Testament, there are three particular facts that stand out about him.
First of all, he was brought up as a high-ranking and highly-educated member of the Jewish religious elite. Paul himself tells us in Philippians 3:4-5: If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee. And not just any old Pharisee, but as Paul himself reveals in Acts 22:3 a Pharisee trained and educated in Jerusalem by the greatest religious teacher of them all, Gamaliel. Paul in other words was a top theologian steeped in the law and traditions of the Jewish religion. If anyone knew the Scriptures, it was Saul, a.k.a Paul. He would have been thoroughly acquainted with the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah, and he would have also known that the penalty for those who falsely claimed to be the Messiah or worshipped just such a person was death.
Secondly, he was someone well-acquainted with the Christian faith. Of course, talking about the Christian faith in this stage of the story of the church is rather out of place. It is not until the gospel reaches Antioch in Acts 11:26 that the followers of Jesus are first called Christians. At this time as verse 2 of our reading tells us they are simply known as people who belonged to the Way. And Saul well understood what this meant. Because in his interrogations of the men and women he arrested and then put to death, he would have learnt all about Jesus’ teachings, and how this carpenter from Nazareth claimed that the way to God the Father was not through religious ritual and meticulous observance of the law but through faith and trust in Him. It was perhaps not that surprising, then, that 1 verse tells us how Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. The followers of the Way quite simply challenged everything Saul stood for.
And thirdly Saul had also witnessed the willingness of the Lord’s disciples to die for what they believed. We in fact first come across Saul at the end of chapter 7 where those who are about to stone Stephen to death take off their outer garments – because, after all, stoning is hard work – and give them to Saul to look after. Saul himself would have seen Stephen’s willingness to die for what he believed, and he would have heard Stephen commit himself to the Lord as he drew his final breath. But instead of being moved by what he saw and heard, he took Stephen’s death as his cue to start his own one-man crusade to round up anyone else who followed these strange teachings. Maybe he thought that arrest and imprisonment would persuade them to repent of their error. If so, he was sorely mistaken. He quickly realised that most of those he dragged off to prison would rather die than change their mind.
But nonetheless he continued in his quest to root out and destroy the rapidly growing new faith that was spreading out from Jerusalem and Judea to cities further afield like Damascus. Now it may be an extreme example but I believe Saul’s background reminds us – if we indeed need the reminder – that being a Christian is not, as many people think, about being all religious or knowing all the facts of the Christian faith or even seeing other people practising their faith. It is possible to have a top class degree in theology and not believe. It is possible to come to church and be fully educated in the truths of the creed and not believe. It is possible even to admire other people for their faith and still not believe.
Because in the end, – and this is the first lesson we need to take away from this reading – we are only saved by a personal encounter with Jesus. And that is a hard lesson for many people to accept. For although at one level there is nothing simpler than to ask Jesus to come into your heart, at another it is the most difficult thing you can ever do in your life. For asking Jesus to be your Lord and Saviour means being willing to admit that you have been wrong, that your life needs to be changed, and that you need to submit to Jesus’ authority. And there is a stubbornness and pride in all of us that makes this just so hard. For Saul it was especially difficult because to accept Jesus would mean overthrowing all he had worked so hard to achieve, would mean repenting of all his hatred and anger. And that is why Jesus had to meet with him in just such a dramatic fashion.
But there is a sense in which Jesus has to by break down our defences – whatever means necessary -so that we are prepared to meet with Him. Because unless we get to that point where we realise we need to be saved, and that salvation only comes through faith in Jesus, we will remain outside the Christian faith. With the result that on the day when we appear before the throne of God the question will not be, “How many times did you go to church?” “How much theology did you understand?” “How many Christians did you know?” but “Do I know you? Have we met before?” And unless at that point Jesus claims us as His own, then the answer will be “No”.
So may I ask: have you met with Jesus? If you have not yet made that step of claiming Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, then there is action that you need to take. We have simple booklets that explain the Christian faith and gospels that tell the Christian story available at the back of church. Even better, talk to someone about what you need to do, and ask them to pray for you and with you. I know from my own experience it is possible even to go to church for many years and not realise that you need to make a step of faith to become a follower of Jesus.
We are saved by a personal encounter with Jesus. Now I guess that many people here this morning have heard this message many times. I reckon there are probably not a few people who like Saul can point to a definite time and place where Jesus met with them and entered into their lives. But if that’s the case for you, please don’t dismiss this story of Saul as something you already know and a lesson you have already taken on board. Because there are two other aspects of Saul’s conversion which have ongoing and permanent significance for the whole of our Christian lives.
First of all, we are saved for a purpose. Now after Jesus appears to Saul on the Damascus Road verse 9 tells us For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. What was it that was happening over these three days? We get something of a clue in verse 13 where the Lord tells Ananias that Saul is praying. We get rather more of a clue in verses 15-16 where the Lord reveals that Saul is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. It seems therefore that Saul was fasting and praying as the Lord showed him the special plan that He had in store in his life.
Of course as we have already seen Saul is an extreme example and the job he was called to do was a unique one within the life and the history of the church. But I wonder, have we ever spent time praying, and yes, maybe, even fasting to find out what the Lord wants for our lives? You see, I believe the problem in this country is not that people fail to hear and respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. Despite the fact that our church nationally is weak and divided and ineffective, it still does a reasonable job of calling people to faith. The problem is, once people accept Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, their priorities do not change. Their main focus in life still remains providing for their family, or holding down their job, or having a good time. With the result that after the initial excitement and thrill of coming to faith, these other priorities crowd in on their lives and they gradually drift away again.
Why is this? Because we – and I mean myself as much as anybody else – have failed to teach that confessing Jesus as Lord is not just about a one-off response to His death on the cross for us – but about giving Him authority over every area of our lives – for example, our work or our marriage or our money – and learning to live for Him and for Him alone. In our gospel reading this morning what did that voice from the cloud mean when it said, This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him? Surely far more that we simply hear and learn what Jesus says. If you look carefully at the Old Testament you will find that listening to the voice of the Lord is shorthand for a life of radical obedience, of responding to God’s call to righteous and holy living. And it was the charge of the Old Testament prophets that this is exactly what they had failed to do.
I realise in saying all this that discerning God’s call on our life is not easy. That is why we need to be there for each other. We need to meet together to pray with one another, to read God’s word together, to support one another in the joys and challenges of each new day. Our faith, you see, was never meant to be solitary affair based on me and my relationship with Jesus. Yes, the story of Saul shows us that each of us need to have a living personal encounter with Jesus, and rightly generations of preachers have stressed this point. But that relationship with Jesus needs to be nurtured, sustained and deepened by fellowship with other Christians, and indeed if you are to do justice to our passage from Acts you have to look at the way the newly converted Saul was incorporated into the life of the church in Damascus.
Which leads to the second vitally important point, namely we are saved into the people of God. Verse 18 tells us that once Ananias prayed for Saul to receive the Holy Spirit Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptised
and I guess for those of us who are cradle Anglicans it is easy to miss the force of these words. Because in those days baptism wasn’t – if I might put it this way – about coming to church and having a quick splash of water on the head. It was a radical, public act, probably in the local river, where you declared your willingness to be known as a follower of Jesus and a member of God’s people. It involved declaring that Jesus – not the Emperor – was your Lord. It involved leaving behind the security and safety of the old Jewish religion and a willingness to live by faith. It involved severing old ties of friendship and family and recognising the church around you as your new circle of family and friends.
That is why I love the little detail in verse 19 that after Saul was baptised, he took some food and regained his strength. It tells us that the first thing the church did after Saul was baptised was to make sure he had enough to eat, and helped him recover from the dramatic events out on the road. Indeed, if you read the rest of verse 19 (which is the start of a new section in our church Bibles) you will discover Saul spent several days with the disciples there. Why? Because they were his new family. And we can sure that those days would have been spent studying the Scriptures, praying together, and worshipping the Lord who had worked so powerfully in Saul’s life. The more I read these few apparently insignificant words the more I see a picture of what our churches need to be like.
Now I want you to imagine for a moment you have a friend who for a long time has tried to convince you to travel to a place you don’t know but which he tells you is really beautiful. He says you can just turn up at the airport and hop on the plane. The tickets, have apparently been paid for, and you will be given a passport at the terminal. Eventually you decide you will take the friend up on his offer. You travel and, yes, when you reach the place you discover it is indeed more wonderful and more beautiful than you could ever possibly imagine. But after a while you begin to wonder what exactly you are supposed to be doing there. It’s all very well enjoying the view but you can only enjoy the view for so long. You try to ask the people who live there, but you find you don’t speak their language and they all seem terribly busy and distracted. Wouldn’t you in the end reach a point where you were tempted to find a plane and fly back to where you came from!?
And that I believe is what many people who discover the Christian faith today are also tempted to do. It is of course right and proper that we pray for folk we know to have their eyes opened and come to meet with Jesus. But our prayers must not stop there. We need to be willing to invest our time and energies once they begin expressing at interest in the Christian faith. To help them discover the purposes to which God has called them. To welcome them into the body of Christ and spend time worshipping, praying, and yes, eating with them. Because if in the end we are like those first disciples going to be followers of the Way this means not only recognising Jesus as the way to eternal life. It means supporting and encouraging one another in our Christian life together. For while Jesus can and does work still by a Damascus Road experience today, His more usual way of revealing His glory and splendour is through the church. Through us. Through you and through me. Through St Michael’s and St Barnabas being such a radically different community with such a deep sharing of our life together that others ask Who are you, Lord? and we reply by showing them Jesus in word and deed and worship.