Who Are You, Lord?
Acts 9:1-19 – August 2, 2015
Sometimes, asking good questions can be difficult.
In the 1400’s and 1500’s, the astronomers in Europe were discovering wonderful things about our solar system. It wasn’t until 1543 that astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus asked, “Could it be that the Earth orbits the Sun?” This was a dangerous question to ask, in his time. Common knowledge and expert opinion were in agreement, in the 1500’s: the Earth was the center of everything. But Copernicus had the courage to ask this simple—and profound—question, which turned the scientific community on its heads, and changed the world.
We turn to our Scripture passage for today. Acts chapter 9. Saul, a Pharisee of the Pharisees, was one of the chief persecutors of the early Church in the area of Jerusalem. He had been a witness to the stoning of Stephen, a short time before this reading today. Saul’s zeal in pursuing these “Jewish heretics,” these followers of “The Way” had become legendary. Let me read the Acts passage from an excellent translation by J.B. Phillips.
“1-2 But Saul, still breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord, went to the High Priest and begged him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he should find there any followers of the Way, whether men or women, he could bring them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.”
That was the situation. Saul was filled with religious zeal! It wasn’t enough that he had been instrumental in kicking out most of the believers and breaking up the Jerusalem church. He was going to round up these Jewish heretics in Damascus, more than one hundred miles away. Nab these false believers! And, extradite them. Bring them back to face the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.
Who was Saul, anyway? Born a Roman citizen in Asia Minor, he was one of the graduates of the equivalent of an Ivy League school—the University of Tarsus, one of the finest universities of the first century. He had been a student of the Rabbi Gamaliel, one of the most prominent Jewish scholars of that day. As far as knowledge and book learning was concerned? Saul had it, in abundance! He was trained as a Pharisee, in every aspect of the Jewish religion. And, he was on fire to haul in every upstart Jewish heretic he could lay his hands on!
Just like the scientific establishment in the 1500’s in Europe, Saul had his mind set, for once and for all. He knew he was right, and nothing could make him swerve from his desire, his zeal to see justice done. Let’s go back to our reading from Acts. “3-4 But on his journey, as Saul neared Damascus, a light from Heaven suddenly blazed around him, and he fell to the ground. Then he heard a voice speaking to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?””
Whoa! Wait a minute, here! Saul is one of the top religious law-followers in Jerusalem. As he said himself, a Pharisee of the Pharisees! But, BAM! Here is a clear, Heavenly event happening to Saul. You might have heard about “a Damascus road experience,” meaning a sudden, dramatic conversion experience? This is it. Right here, right now. Paul’s—I mean, Saul’s dramatic conversion experience.
Time after time in the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophets have encounters with the living God. We can see from descriptions in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel, just to name several. And the most significant—that of Moses, in Exodus, at the burning bush. Just as God called Moses twice: “Moses, Moses!” So the risen Lord Jesus also calls twice: “Saul, Saul!”
I have a suspicion that Saul immediately “got it.” The mental puzzle pieces started falling into place. Saul finally asked a really good question: “Who are you, Lord?”
Isn’t that the way it is with you or with me, sometimes? Here we are, headed down Life Road, going about our business. When, boom! A sudden event happens. Maybe not as serious as Paul’s Damascus Road encounter, but all the same, earth-shaking. It could be something that happens to our health, or our jobs, an accident or some type of traumatic or sudden happening. Or, if it doesn’t happen to us, it happens to one of our loved ones. Our best friend. Or a next door neighbor.
Even if it’s something really fantastic, it can still be earth-shaking. Just as much of a shift or a change in life. Similar to the dramatic shift in the scientific world after Copernicus proved that the Earth really did orbit the Sun. He turned the whole world’s attitudes and ideas on their heads and paved the way for a whole new way of thinking. New frames for good questions.
As Saul was lying there in the dust of the road, I am sure a few new thoughts broke into his mind. “Who are you, Lord?” As one commentary says, Saul’s really good question was that “of a devout Jew who understands the significance of his experience from reading Scripture.”
Let’s continue with our reading: “6-7 “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting,” was the reply. “But now stand up and go into the city and there you will be told what you must do.”
His companions on the journey stood there speechless, for they had heard the voice but could see no one.”
Do you understand what’s going on here? The others in this vigilante posse can hear a voice, but have no idea Who is speaking. On top of that, Saul is suddenly struck blind. The companions don’t have a clue what is going on. They need to lead Saul by the hand into Damascus, blind and helpless. There he sits, and fasts, for three whole days.
I need to finish the narrative. It doesn’t end here! Not by a long shot!
“10 Now in Damascus there was a disciple by the name of Ananias. The Lord spoke to this man in a dream. calling him by his name. “I am here, Lord,” he replied. 11-12 Then the Lord said to him, “Get up and go down to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man named Saul from Tarsus. At this moment he is praying and he sees in his mind’s eye a man by the name of Ananias coming into the house, and placing his hands upon him to restore his sight.” 13-14 But Ananias replied, “Lord, I have heard on all hands about this man and how much harm he has done to Your holy people in Jerusalem! Why even now he holds papers from the chief priests to arrest all who call upon Your name.” 15-16 But the Lord said to him, “Go on your way, for this man is My chosen instrument to bear My name before the Gentiles and their kings, as well as to the sons of Israel. Indeed, I Myself will show him what he must suffer for the sake of My name.”
17 Then Ananias set out and went to the house, and there he laid his hands upon Saul, and said, “Saul, brother, the Lord has sent me—Jesus who appeared to you on your journey here—so that you may recover your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18-19a Immediately something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got to his feet and was baptised. Then he took some food and regained his strength.”
We see how a persecutor of Christians became the foremost preacher of Christ. By asking a really good question.
John Holbert mentions in his study on Acts 9, “Luke seals his portrait of the great apostle by reminding us that God is forever in the business of choosing the least likely of persons to do the great work of God.” Remember God’s “chosen instrument” mentioned in Acts 9:15? Paul refers to himself again as a cracked pot (in Greek, skeuos) for Jesus, in 2 Corinthians 4:7. We are all flawed, cracked pots. Each of us is a chosen instrument for God, yes! And a less-than-perfect cracked pot, too.
Do I have the amazing gifts of planning, leadership and public speaking that the Apostle Paul had? Not likely. However, I do what I can with what God has given me. You can, too! God calls each of us. Some to small tasks, others to larger ones. We are all flawed vessels—less-than-perfect cracked pots for Jesus.
Saul—shortly to become the Apostle Paul—was called by God to go to the Gentiles. To go to the nations, and not to just preach to Jews. I wonder. The Lord has called each one of us. God has welcomed each of us into a heavenly relationship. I wonder. The nations are coming to us—to Morton Grove, to Glenview, to Niles, to Des Plaines, and all over the Chicago area. Is God calling us to be God’s chosen instruments to our neighbors? To those we work with? To the person at the coffee shop or the clerk at the grocery store?
I offer you—I offer all of us the opportunity to hear God’s call! Chances are, it won’t be as dramatic as Saul’s conversion. But can you hear God’s call with gladness? God calls each of us. Some to small tasks, others to larger ones. Paul’s conversion narrative fires the imagination! May we find in its depths a call on every single one of us, for change and new possibility.