Saul encounters the risen Jesus
9 Meanwhile, Saul was still spewing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest,2 seeking letters to the synagogues in Damascus. If he found persons who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, these letters would authorize him to take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. 3 During the journey, as he approached Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven encircled him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, “Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?”
5 Saul asked, “Who are you, Lord?”
“I am Jesus, whom you are harassing,” came the reply. 6 “Now get up and enter the city. You will be told what you must do.”
7 Those traveling with him stood there speechless; they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 After they picked Saul up from the ground, he opened his eyes but he couldn’t see. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. 9 For three days he was blind and neither ate nor drank anything.
10 In Damascus there was a certain disciple named Ananias. The Lord spoke to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
He answered, “Yes, Lord.”
11 The Lord instructed him, “Go to Judas’ house on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. He is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias enter and put his hands on him to restore his sight.”
13 Ananias countered, “Lord, I have heard many reports about this man. People say he has done horrible things to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 He’s here with authority from the chief priests to arrest everyone who calls on your name.”
15 The Lord replied, “Go! This man is the agent I have chosen to carry my name before Gentiles, kings, and Israelites.16 I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
17 Ananias went to the house. He placed his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord sent me—Jesus, who appeared to you on the way as you were coming here. He sent me so that you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 18 Instantly, flakes fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized. 19 After eating, he regained his strength.
He stayed with the disciples in Damascus for several days.
Thoughts on the passage:
There is an expression in the English language, “the scales from one’s eyes.” You may or may not realize that the origin of this phrase comes right here from this passage in the Book of Acts. If you are not familiar with the expression it means to suddenly see things clearly. If you are not familiar with the story of Paul on the road Damascus, then do I have a treat for you, because that is what we will be looking at today as we finish up our sermon series on what it means to be a church of resurrection.
The story of Paul on the road to Damascus is perhaps one of the most profound and compelling conversion stories in the Bible. It demonstrates once again the life-changing power of the message of Jesus. Through an encounter with the risen Christ, Paul’s perspective and really whole worldview, are changed and he becomes a new person. Prior to his encounter with Jesus, he was one of the leading figures in Jerusalem who was persecuting the early Christians. Believing them to be heretics, he was bringing them to trial in the Jewish courts and calling them to account for what he believed was their false teachings. After his vision of Christ and the “scales falling from his eyes,” Paul continues to be a zealot, but now he is working to help more people share in his amazing encounter with Christ.
For me, a lot of what makes the story so powerful is how much of a 180 Paul does. He goes from being one of the fiercest critics of the Christians to becoming one of the two best evangelists (along with Peter). He plants churches throughout the Mediterranean and changes the world through his letters and teachings. We have all been frustrated at times when people just do not seem to “get it” and when I read the story of Paul I am reminded of the awesome power that comes from an experience with Christ that can turn our whole lives around if we are willing to let it.
What happens on the road to Damascus that transforms Paul? I would like to think what really converts him is not simply his encounter with Christ, but rather his encounter with Christ’s love. Paul is struck blind by his vision of God, but no where does Christ offer anything but love and grace to him. He does not accuse Paul, but merely asks why he is trying to cause such harm to him. Jesus also reaches out through his followers to offer Paul the healing he needs. When the scales fall from his eyes, what he sees clearly is not the world around him, but rather he sees clearly how God acts in the world.
Paul was both a citizen of Rome as well as a pharisee, a teacher of the Law. He was someone who had enjoyed the benefits of the legal system in his life. Roman law was built to privilege its citizens over others. In the same way, Jewish law tended to benefit the teachers and religious leaders who understood it and had the power to interpret it. The law had not simply been a guide for Paul. It was a tool to help him and in many ways had become an idol to be worshipped over and above God.
The problem with the Law as it is written in the Old Testament is that it is largely devoid of grace. It sets up clear expectations for how we are to live but offers little recourse for us when we fall short except to pay the cost for our sins. Perhaps this is why Paul’s encounter with Jesus is so striking. Rather than be judged for his actions and be forced to pay for them, instead Paul encounters a loving God who is willing to forgive him, even though Paul has been doing his best to fight against God’s son. This understanding of God as a loving God and his experience of divine grace transforms Paul and how he sees not only Jesus, but all of scripture.
All of us are probably familiar with the hymn “Amazing Grace.” Its words paint a compelling story of how an encounter with God’s grace can transform us. It reminds us of the power of God to help the blind to see and to find those who have been lost. It was written by John Newton, a person who came to faith when sailing on the Atlantic and thought himself about to be lost at sea in a storm before he prayed to God. Newton’s full sense of salvation took years to develop. Unlike Paul’s near instantaneous conversion, the scales took a while to fall from Newton’s eyes. Despite his inspiring experience it would be years before he felt he was really living a Christian life. It would be still several more years before he was able to see the harm he was causing in the slave trade and repent of it, finally writing, “So much light has been thrown upon the subject, by many able pens; and so many respectable persons have already engaged to use their utmost influence, for the suppression of a traffic, which contradicts the feelings of humanity; that it is hoped, this stain of our National character will soon be wiped out."
One of the lines that I love from Amazing Grace is the beginning of the second verse that starts “’twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Both Newton and Paul were so sure they were doing what was right. Newton was convinced that there was nothing wrong about the slave trade and Paul was so sure of his understanding of scripture that he could not believe in the teachings of God’s own son. I think most of us have felt that piercing fear in our lives that we might be wrong. Suddenly we are forced to reflect on everything we have done and our own sense of certainty is lost. When Paul encounters Jesus on the road to Damascus, he must confront the fact that not only has he been wrong, not only has he been teaching others wrongly, but his teachings have caused harm, and even death to people who were faithful followers of God. Surely, he is filled with fear of what will happen to him. Thankfully, it is God’s grace that wipes away his fears. Despite his terrible crimes, he is still loved by God and Jesus still wants to redeem him. Now Paul truly understands the teaching of Christ, and the message of God’s love which is woven, not only throughout the Gospels, but through the Old Testament as over and over God’s unending love for humanity is seen in the stories of faith.
We are heirs to the sins and failings of Paul. Like him, we have all have had moments in our lives when we have been so certain of something and yet we have been wrong. Like Paul and Newton, our mistakes have probably caused great harm to someone else if not also to ourselves. Like Paul and Newton, we are in need of God’s amazing grace. We need to know that we are still loved even when we get it wrong. We need to see the world through God’s eyes which see things not with judgement, but instead sees everything and calls it very good.
For me, being a church of resurrection means living into that grace that God offers to us and showing that grace to others. Over the last year we have been talking about how we can be a community of love and celebration. Showing God’s love and grace means that our actions are not first to rush to judgement but instead to be rooted in love. When someone does something that hurts us or offends us, rather than rush to condemnation and judgement, we try to see things through their eyes. Even if we cannot do that, we need to see things as God does and be ready to offer them grace.
We live in a world that is filled with hatred and that is quick to judge. We live in a world where people are so sure they are right, and others are wrong that we will not even enter into conversation with each other anymore. We live in a world that is so in need of God’s grace and God’s love. We need to be a church of resurrection because what the world needs right now is that new life that is offered in Christ. What the world needs is to know that all of the mistakes of our past, and there are so many, can be given over to a God who still loves us and longs to redeem us.
Like Paul, God is ready to take the scales from our eyes if we are ready to trust in the Lord. The Amazing Grace that Newton encountered after years of searching is available for us as well. God’s grace has been with us from the very beginning, it has “brought us safe thus far.” If we are ready to be a church of resurrection, I know that it will be with us as we seek to “sing God’s praise” and share the message of Easter with all the world. Amen
Questions to Ponder:
What does it mean to be a church of resurrection?
How have you experience grace in your life?
When was a time when you were forced to admit that you were wrong about something you were so certain of?
Is there a time where you knew what the right thing to do was but struggled to do it?
God, you are the resurrection and the life. Thank you for walking along side us in the dark times of our lives. Fill us once more with the joy of the new life that is promised in Christ’s resurrection. Help us to be a church of resurrection that shares that joy and new life with others. Amen