November 28, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Take
An Honest Look at Ourselves
Acts 9:1-18

Do you remember a time when someone rudely woke you up in the middle of the night by abruptly turning a light on? How did you react? If you are anything like me, you probably fussed a fair bit and ducked your head under your pillow. Moving from darkness into light can be a traumatic experience, to say the least. It certainly was for Saul, otherwise known as the Apostle Paul, as we learn here in Acts 9.

The disciples, you will recall from Acts 1, were informed that, once they received the Holy Spirit, they would be Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. By the time we come to our text here in Acts 9, Luke’s account of the ministry of the church in Jerusalem is now complete. The word of God spread with great effectiveness in Jerusalem, with many people coming to faith in Christ (6:7).

Luke next turns his attention to the first concentric circle beyond Jerusalem, and we wonder how effective the Gospel will be in Judea and Samaria. Quickly, Luke passes on three stories to answer the question. We read in chapter 8, first of all, of the conversion of an Ethiopian official who was virtually chomping at the bit to hear the news of Jesus. “How can I understand the Scriptures?” he asks Philip, “unless someone guides me.” Then in chapter 10, Luke recounts the remarkable transformation of the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and his family. The Gospel of Christ, Luke announces, is no less effective among Gentiles outside of Jerusalem than it was among Jews in Jerusalem.

Sandwiched between these two stories is this moving and quite familiar description of Paul’s conversion. “Even our most vicious and blood-thirsty opponents,” Luke seems to say, “are fertile soil for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” The church, we readily notice, does not lose momentum when it spreads its wings throughout the region.

In looking more closely at our text here in 9:1-18, we can’t help but sense the sheer importance of the event. Paul’s conversion is of such significance, in fact, that it is repeated on two separate occasions in Acts (chs. 22 and 26). Paul’s conversion literally took the early church’s breath away, and it surely gave all of the disciples added courage and confidence as they carried out their work.

Saul was born into a Jewish family in the city of Tarsus. Tarsus, located in what is today Turkey, was a city of considerable importance during Saul’s day. At some point during his early years, however, Saul was sent by his parents to Jerusalem, where he received an impeccable Jewish education. “I am a Jew,” Paul later announced in the courtyard of the temple in Jerusalem:
born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city (Jerusalem) at
the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law,
being zealous for God….
And Saul, make no mistake about it, meant what he said. He was serious about his faith. So much so that he developed an increasing intolerance of anyone who he considered to be a threat to pure and unadulterated Judaism.

From what Luke tells us about Saul here in Acts, he increasingly became what we today term a religious fanatic. The descriptions of his attitudes and actions leave us with a picture somewhat like that of—and I choose my words carefully—a contemporary Islamic fundamentalist running around the Middle East. Or perhaps of a fundamentalist Christian at some point in church history killing either the Muslims or other Christians because of what they believe. Saul approved without apparent hesitation the stoning of Stephen (8:1). Saul went through the streets of Jerusalem, knocking down doors and dragging Christians off to their imprisonment. (8:3). And when the challenges of persecuting the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem no longer satisfied his thirst for violence, Saul received permission from the authorities to travel some 140 miles northeast to Damascus so that he could capture any Christians there who had fled from his scourging (9:2). Saul was a Jewish fanatic, the kind of person who you would try very hard to avoid if you held to other views.

But something profound happened to him as he made his way to Damascus. A flashing light of some sort—this has to be more than the epileptic seizure that some scholars suggest—blinded him, leaving him lying in the dust. And a brief and seemingly simple conversation threw all of his assumptions and beliefs into chaos:
“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
“Who are you, Lord?” Saul responded.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Think about this brief exchange with me for just a moment or two. In about the amount of time that it takes for one of us to snap our fingers, Saul’s entire world view was called into question. For one thing, his life’s work was brought under frightening scrutiny. Saul had spent endless amounts of time and energy preparing himself for a life of service to the Jewish faith, and he had spared no expense later in stamping out the threat posed by those renegade Jews who had decided to follow Jesus. Saul had given himself completely to the task. He was committed. Passionate. And just like that, his life’s work flashed before his very eyes—“Why are you doing this, Saul?” Imagine how you would feel if the validity of your cause, your work, your passion, was so blatantly called into question.

Perhaps even more disconcerting than this, however, is the fact that Saul’s core belief, his view of God, is likewise dismantled in this brief moment of time. Saul, as you know, did not go through the rigorous training solely to secure a job. He did not track down and persecute Christians simply for something to do. Saul’s passion arose in large measure out of his commitment to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He thought that in defending Judaism, he was at the same time defending God. How alarming it must have been, then, for him to realize that the very God he was seeking to defend turned out to be the primary recipient of his ruthless acts. “I am Jesus, Saul, whom you are persecuting.”

One can scarcely evaluate the impact that this encounter had on Saul. When the light of Christ’s love fell upon him, and the probing words of Christ rang in his ears, Saul was left with no choice but to take an honest look at himself. Who he was. What he thought and believed. How he lived his life. When Moses turned aside to see the fire of God, and was himself addressed, “Moses, Moses,” he “Hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God (Exod. 3:6).” When Isaiah witnessed the glory of God filling the temple, he helplessly responded, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,… (6:5).” And when Saul encountered the light of Christ during his journey to Damascus, and he heard his name spoken twice, “Saul, Saul,” he fell limp, no longer capable of even finding his way across the street. When a person encounters the overwhelming love of Jesus Christ, he can hardly help but see himself for who he really is.

This new ability to see himself as he really was, however, was never intended for Saul’s ultimate harm, any more than similar though typically less dramatic experiences are for ours. In Saul’s case, the scenes immediately following this blinding experience do not cast him as in incorrigible sinner who lived outside the realm of hope. He was not left alone to suffer and die. Just last night, around 9:00 or so, a woman called me here at my office. She had been in contact with the Capital Area Pregnancy Center and wanted to talk with a pastor. She sounded so pathetic, lonely and completely distraught. As we talked, she told me that she had had an abortion and found herself completely unable to forgive herself. Her inability to forgive herself, as you might well imagine, prevented her from experiencing the grace of God in any meaningful way. When I asked her when this abortion took place, she told me that she was 20 years old at the time. When I pursued the matter further and asked her how long ago that was, she responded, “I’m 54 now!” When Cathy took an honest look at herself, she came away totally distraught and paralyzed.

That, I want you to know, is not love of Christ working in her. When the love of Christ compels us to take an honest look at ourselves, that same love, through the Holy Spirit, enables us to begin looking beyond who we really are and to see who we can become. Saul, as you will notice, was blind and helpless for just a short time. We don’t find him wallowing in self-pity or despair, nor do we see him constantly lamenting the horrors of his past. Before long, Ananias and other believers nurture him to spiritual health, and Saul is back on his feet. One gets the impression that after Saul saw who he really was, he welcomed this gracious and loving visit from Christ, repented of his evil ways, and moved on with excitement. “True repentance,” Frederick Buechner has suggested, “spends less time looking at the past and saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ than to the future and saying, ‘Wow!’”

Look at Paul after this experience. The Lord assigned him a new mission in life—a new purpose—to replace the one that he had just given up. The persecutor of Christ became a preacher for Christ. The defender of Jews became a witness to the Jews. Just glance at 9:22: “Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah.” And the soldier fighting for an archaic and provincial God now announces to the whole world: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17).” The love of Christ compelled Saul to take on a honest look at himself, and he was an infinitely richer person because of it.

It is, as I mentioned earlier, often difficult to move from darkness into light. We prefer, at least for the moment, to fuss and hide our heads under our pillows. But once the initial shock of the light passes and our eyes focus, we can see like never before. The same light that blinded Saul, you must notice, actually enabled him to really see for the very first time.