Conversion & Co-mission: A Sermon on Acts 9

Another sermon I did for my preaching class:

(You can watch it here)

My cousin, Eli, just arrived from Jerusalem with terrible news.

Saul is on his way to Damascus.

Yes, that Saul.

Saul, the one who happily watched as the crowds stoned Stephen to death.

Saul, the one who caused all kinds of turmoil for our brothers and sisters in Jerusalem by ravaging their houses, arresting women and men alike, and throwing them into prison.

Saul, the one who breathes threats and murder against all those who follow the Way.

Saul is on his way here.

He has letters from the High Priest granting him the authority to have us arrested and brought to Jerusalem to stand trial for blasphemy.

I know that Jesus always told his disciples “Do not be afraid”. But the truth is that I’m terrified of Saul and what he will do to us.

How are we supposed to follow Jesus’ command to make disciples when the disciples are being persecuted?

What are we going to do?

                                                                                                                    

Although this short vignette is fictional, it is easy to think about what might have been going through the hearts and minds of the first Christians in light of Saul’s persecution of the Church.

How could they not be afraid?

While the text gives us no clear motivation for Saul’s actions, it is clear that Saul is convinced that the followers of the Way pose a threat.

         They claim that Jesus was crucified and rose again.

They claim that Jesus is the Son of God.

         They offer a different interpretation of Torah.

         They are blasphemers and heretics.

Therefore they must be dealt with harshly.

Do you see Saul on a mission, a holy crusade to destroy the Church?

Luke wants us to see that Saul is an enemy of God, someone who does not deserve God’s grace.

                 

Saul assumes that he is doing God’s will.

But then God stops him in his tracks.

Listen to Luke’s description of what happened: “Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him”.

Do you see the irony Luke creates?

Saul is on the road with what he thinks is a God-ordained mission to destroy the followers of the Way. However, it is on the road that he is confronted by the one who calls himself the Way.

Listen to Christ’s words to Saul, the persecutor of the Church.

Listen to Christ’s words to Saul, an enemy of God.

                  “Saul, Saul”

Do you hear Christ call Saul by name?

Do you hear the echo with others whom God has called: “Abraham, Abraham” (Gen. 22:11), “Jacob, Jacob” (Gen. 46:2); “Moses, Moses” (Ex. 3:4)?

In the past, God has called a liar, a cheat, and a murderer to fulfill his purposes.

And now we hear God calling a persecutor and an enemy to fulfill his purposes.

Why would God call a liar, a cheat, a murderer, and, later, someone who would deny him, to fulfill his purposes?

Because God is a God of transforming grace.

Listen to Jesus’ words to Saul and notice what he does not say. Jesus does not say “Why do you persecute my Church?” Jesus says “Why do you persecute me?”

Do you hear Jesus identifying himself with his Church?

The Church; those who are Christ’s body on earth; those who are called to be his hands and feet.

The Church; those whom Christ calls blessed;

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you…on my account” (Matt. 5:11).

The Church; those who were once God’s enemies, but have been called and transformed by God’s grace to fulfill God’s purposes.

Now, listen to Jesus’ instructions to Saul: “Get up and enter the city and you will be told what you are to do”.

Do you hear Jesus calling Saul to end his persecution of the Church and to await a new mission?

Saul could have pushed back and argued his case. He could have, like Jonah, tried to run away.

But Saul and his companions are at a loss for words. Saul, blinded by Christ’s light, gets up, goes into the city and waits for further instruction.

Do you see Saul’s response of trustful obedience and patient waiting?

Gone is the merciless wrath. Gone is the hatred.

Clearly Saul is a transformed man.

Saul could no longer carry out his original purpose in Damascus; rather he had to be carried into the city for a wholly different purpose.

Listen to Luke’s description of what happens next:

“Saul got up from the ground and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they lead him by the hand and brought him into Damascus”.

Do you see the irony Luke creates once again?

The divine light leaves Saul blind. And yet, as the story continues, we know that when Ananias restores Saul’s sight, Saul is commissioned to bring Christ’s light to the world.

When we are converted, when we are transformed by grace, we learn to see the world through the eyes of the one who is the light of the world.

In Saul’s encounter with Christ, do you hear Christ calling Saul to conversion? Do you hear Christ calling Saul to change his convictions about who Christ is?

         Christ, the one who identifies himself with his people.

Christ, the one who identifies himself with the persecuted.

Although this story is often called “the Conversion of Saul”, there is little in this text that we can identify as a conversion, at least in the typical sense in which it is understood.

Saul does not make a conscious decision for Christ and he does not “get saved”. Saul’s conversion is entirely based on an encounter with the risen Christ.

It is an encounter that transforms Saul’s identity.

Conversion occurs when Christ calls us to himself. Conversion is not something we do; it is something God does to and through us.

Saul’s conversion is pure gift and pure grace.

Saul, who was once an enemy of God, is now forgiven. His past is not held against him. Such is the nature of God’s grace.

         God says to Saul: your failure to follow me is not the final word.

                  God says to us: your failure to follow me is not the final word.

Rather, God says, my grace is sufficient for you. My grace is the final word.

Saul’s conversion, his transformative encounter with Christ, will later allow him to proclaim “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Ga. 2:20).

But Saul’s conversion is not simply about conversion. Saul’s conversion is about a commission. You see, conversion always results in a commission.

Listen to what God tells Ananias, who remains skeptical of God’s purposes for Saul. God tells Ananias that Saul “is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (Acts 9:15).

Do you hear Christ giving Saul a commission to proclaim the gospel?

Do you hear the echo of the commission given to Peter in our Gospel reading for today?

Feed my sheep.

Do you hear the echo of the commission given to all who follow the Way?

Take up your cross and follow me.

It is when we take up our crosses that we follow Christ’s commission to the Church.

In taking up our crosses, we identify ourselves with Christ and, therefore, we identify ourselves with those who are persecuted.

In taking up our crosses, we learn to love our enemies with the same love God showed to Saul.

         In taking up our crosses, we remember that Christ died for the persecuted and the persecutors alike.

In taking up our crosses, we anticipate and participate in the transformation of the universe, a transformation that began on Easter morning.

Conversion and commission are both the results of God’s transforming and electing grace, where the Holy Spirit forms us into Christ’s body and sends us to proclaim and embody the good news of God’s love, a love that transforms enemies into friends.

My friends, may you experience the transforming love and grace of Christ Jesus and may you boldly go from this place, taking up your crosses and following Christ to show that same love and grace to the world.

Amen.

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