Who Are You, Lord?

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Acts 9 conversionofsaintpaul - ethiopian icon

Acts 9:1-20 – May 5, 2019

Once there was a recent college graduate named Martin. He had enrolled in a doctoral degree program at the University of Erfurt, but he went home for a few days before the class session started. On his way back, not far from the town of Erfurt, a huge thunderstorm broke over the countryside. Martin was trying his best to get to shelter when a sudden lightning bolt fell to earth. BOOM! It struck the ground immediately next to Martin—so close he could feel it singe his clothing! He was thrown to the earth with great force. Frightened almost to death—literally—Martin made the immediate, passionate vow that he would change course in his life, become a monk and devote his life to God. All this happened while Martin was traveling, on the road. A true “Road to Damascus” experience.

Has anyone here ever known someone who went through a radical transformation in an instant? Or, at least, in a relatively short time? That is what happened to Saul of Tarsus, on the road to Damascus.

But, that comes after the end of our narrative, today. What is the beginning of the story? How did Saul of Tarsus get to this point?

The wonderful commentator Bob Deffinbaugh sets a vivid scene for us. He says, “Imagine for a moment that this is the week of Saul’s arrival at Damascus. By this time Saul has gained a reputation as the ringleader of the movement to make Christianity extinct. A devout Hellenistic Jew, of the tribe of Benjamin, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, Saul did not agree with his teacher, Rabbi Gamaliel, on how the Christians should be dealt with. Rather, he sought the arrest, trial, conviction, and punishment (with imprisonment the norm and death the ideal, it would seem) of those in Jerusalem. Saul was not content to punish some and to drive the rest from the “holy city.” He did not want to merely contain Christianity or to drive it from Jerusalem; he wanted to rid the earth of Christianity and its followers. His opposition to Christ and His church took on a ‘missionary’ spirit. Saul went to other cities where he sought to arrest Christians and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. Damascus, a city 150 miles to the northeast of Jerusalem, was one such city. Word was out that Saul would soon be arriving.” [1]

I don’t know about you, but if I heard of such a bloodthirsty, vengeful person coming to my home town, I might be scared to death, too. What are the followers of Jesus going to do? Ethnic hatred blended with and heightened by religious hatred is corrosive and hurtful, and greatly to be feared.

This was not just a problem in bible times. Seriously, there are many places in the world today where determined, devout people want to eradicate people who do not believe like they do. Not just run them out of town, or out of the country, but instead, put them to death. I am not just speaking about devout Hindus, or devout Muslims, but sometimes devout Jews, or devout Christians or Catholics or Orthodox Christians.

This was the situation with Saul of Tarsus! He was a religious, observant Jew, an up-and-coming rabbi, a “Hebrew of the Hebrews,” by his own account. And, he could not kill these “heretics” fast enough. He even had letters of recommendation to the heads of synagogues in Damascus, to let them know his official status as a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council.

This was early in the life of the Church, only a number of months after the great Pentecost happening in Acts chapter 2. And, the followers of “The Way” (as they were called) were spreading like wildfire!

But, similar to the situation with Martin in the scene I opened this sermon with, Saul was literally knocked off his feet. A heavenly light, brighter than bright, surrounded Saul. A shocking, out-of-this-world thing happened on the road to Damascus, indeed!

Just like Moses at the burning bush, just like Martin when the lightning struck, Saul had the presence of mind to realize that this was so huge, so stupendous, this could only be a God-moment! Have you ever had a God-moment? You, or someone you know? An instant when you know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is present? Did you get an answer to that question, “Who are You, Lord?” up close and personal?

I did. I remember it vividly. Itp was early in my first chaplain internship, right out of seminary. In Cardiac Care, I held the hand of a tiny, very elderly woman as she transitioned from this world to the next. The woman had no one—no relatives, or friends, or any one else, except for a state-appointed medical power-of-attorney. I could feel the presence of God. And, yes, God was there with us, as she died.

Saul got that answer from God in plain language. From our reading today from Acts: “Saul fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” He replied.

How stupendous was that response! And, how crushing! All the orthodox theological and religious scaffolding Saul had painstakingly erected throughout his education and training was tumbling around his ears, in that one moment.

Dr. Luke continues with the risen Lord Jesus’s words: “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 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. For three days Saul was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.”

“It was time for Saul to ponder what he had seen and heard. For now, he was told to proceed on to Damascus, where he would be given his next instructions.” [2] It was as if this revelation was going to come in several different pieces, or parts. Yes, his sudden conversion happened on the road to Damascus. However, Saul’s blindness allowed him the opportunity to think deeply about these events, and gave him the opportunity to wholeheartedly commit his life to the risen Lord Jesus Christ. How many of us would take something like this seriously?

Remember bloodthirsty Saul? Breathing fire and brimstone? Remember the shock and stunned reaction to the heavenly light, on the Road to Damascus? And, the follow-up question, “Who are You Lord?” Saul made a first-person testimony. We all can thank God for Saul’s—now, Paul’s—testimony and subsequent witness, too. Witness and Apostle to the world.

Remember Martin, almost struck by lightning? That was Martin Luther, and that was a true story. It really happened in 1505, and Martin’s life was forever changed, that day lightning just missed striking him. That was his Road to Damascus experience, sending Martin on the path to grapple with God’s presence and forgiveness in his personal life, and more.

It doesn’t matter whether you or I have had a Road to Damascus experience, or whether we more gradually become aware of God’s work in our lives, because there are countless ways to come close to God. These were the ways Saul (who changed his name to Paul) and Father Martin developed their relationships with the Lord Jesus Christ. The Lord Jesus has His arms open. He wants us all to struggle out of blindness, like Saul, and come into His heavenly light, the light of a loving relationship and friendship with Him.

Come to Jesus, like Saul, like Martin. Jesus has His arms open wide.

Amen, alleluia.

[1] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

[2] https://bible.org/seriespage/conversion-saul-acts-91-31

“The Conversion of Saul (Acts 9:1-31),” by Robert Deffinbaugh at the Biblical Studies Foundation.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

“Who Are You, Lord?”

Who Are You, Lord?

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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.

Alleluia! Amen.

@chaplaineliza

Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!