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The Murderer and the Messiah

April 11, 2016

“The Murderer and the Messiah” Acts 9:1-22 © 4.10.16 Easter 3C by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

When I was in seminary the first time, I played guitar for a singing group called “Damascus Road,” composed of the more talented of the youth from a larger choir at Alta Woods Presbyterian Church in Jackson, where my friend and classmate Bill was on staff. The band chose a name from the story of Saul’s conversion because its mission, as the members stated it, was to confront people with the claims of Christ and call them to commitment. Plus, everybody in their evangelical audiences would immediately understand, just from what the group was called, what sort of music and speech they were going to hear.

We’ll look in some detail at Saul’s story in a few moments. But for now, let’s acknowledge that his experience of a sudden, dramatic turnaround is the model of conversion for many, many Christians. I certainly grew up with it. I recall walking down the aisle at youth rallies, manufacturing feelings I didn’t have, because that was what was expected. I shared the “Four Spiritual Laws” with my peers when I was a student at Georgia, hoping for someone to pray the “sinner’s prayer” and accept Jesus as their “personal Lord and Savior.” Favorite hymns and songs assume the pattern. “‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear, the hour I first believed.” “I saw the light, I saw the light, praise the Lord, I saw the light.” “At the cross, at the cross, where I first saw the light.” A true Christian is expected to be able to name the day, the hour, the place, what he or she was wearing, and what was on the plate for breakfast that morning. We remember where we were and what we were doing when President Kennedy was shot, Challenger exploded or terrorists attacked on 9/11; we recall details of our wedding day or a great birthday or a success at school or in sports. Should we not recall a marker event more important than any of those, because on that day our eternal soul was saved?

So the thinking goes. And indeed a great number of people have known just such memorable reversals, described variously from being hit by a 2×4 to an epiphany to hearing the voice of Jesus. That latter was the experience of a minister in Alabama I once knew. He had lived a dissolute, debauched life as a jazz musician. In the wee hours of the morning, after a gig, he was sitting in a bar, where he heard our Lord tell him he had to give up the life he was living, go to church, and get involved with the Boy Scouts. That’s what he did. After that beginning, he was eventually ordained to ministry in 1975, serving almost twenty years until his retirement.

Of course, a problem arises when we make what happened to us the norm for everybody else. Another friend from back in the day was being examined by the old Mobile Presbytery for a position at Central Presbyterian Church in the city. He related his faith in what I thought was a very satisfactory way. But an elder from a church known for its latent fundamentalism got up and pressed him: “Yes, but when were you saved?” He wanted to insist that the new pastor conform to the Damascus Road model of conversion. If I recall correctly the response was a bit snarky, but true: “Two thousand years ago, at the cross.”

So, is Saul’s being struck down, blinded, and humbled the only proper model for conversion? Is his even a story of conversion? Is it really about something else?

Here’s what we learn from Acts and elsewhere that can give us some clues. Saul of Tarsus had participated in the stoning of the deacon Stephen. One detail in the story, namely, that he held the cloaks of those who threw the rocks, shows that he didn’t just look the other way. He approved of the murder. Saul recognized the threat posed to the old order by the followers of “the Way,” as Christians were then called. So, he set out with great zeal to destroy them. He “ravaged” the church, we’re told, and yes, that word was chosen deliberately by the author for its sense of extreme violence against the vulnerable and defenseless. Saul went from house to house, dragging off men and women to put them in prison for their faith. The Greek implies that his thirst for violence was insatiable. Eugene Peterson paraphrases as “Saul…went wild, devastating the church….”

The persecution in Jerusalem drove the followers of the Way into Judea and Samaria. Some made it to Damascus, in Syria, where there was a large population of Jews. Saul determined to follow them even there. So, he got letters from the high priest, Caiaphas, which would allow him to extradite followers of Christ to Jerusalem. Such documents could easily be justified on the basis of the maintenance of order. That Saul would trek 135 miles to Damascus in a day of slow land travel to arrest Christians demonstrates the utmost seriousness with which he regarded his task. Threats and murder were his life’s breath, his reason for being.

He wasn’t far from Damascus when a bright light shone from the sky, and he fell to the ground, some say thrown from his horse. In the solemn style of Old Testament call stories, especially that of Moses and Samuel, a voice said in Aramaic, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Saul had no idea who was speaking, and asked, “Who are you, sir?” That’s a better translation than a capitalized “lord.” The murdererand the Messiah there had their first encounter, as Saul heard the words: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” The risen Lord identified with the people who had been torn from their homes and thrown into prison by this man. And now, he would send Saul on a mission.

So Saul was led into the city by the hand—powerless, sightless, humbled. What a contrast to the powerful, fearsome envoy who hand was so ready to strike at the followers of Christ! Struck to the ground by the conquering love, the compelling call, of the risen Lord!

But the enemy of the gospel was not vanquished only to be left in humiliation and defeat. Our Lord appeared in a vision to a man in Damascus named Ananias and told him about Saul. Ananias was skeptical at first. There was an old prophetic saying: “Can the leopard change its spots?” As far as Ananias knew, the stealthy cat still had claws. Everything he had heard about Saul told Ananias he couldn’t be trusted. He should still be regarded as “armed and dangerous.” But Ananias was convinced to go visit Saul in a house of another believer. He went, welcomed the now-former persecutor as a brother, and baptized him.

But more than Ananias’ actions, it’s his vision of Christ that holds the key to understanding this account. Our Lord tells Ananias that Saul is to bring the gospel to Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel, and suffer for doing so. One commentator has shown that this speech stands in a central place in the flow of the narrative. If this is a conversion story, it’s even more about a calling.

By the way, here’s a news flash. Saul who became Paul was not a Christian, at least not in the sense we now think of the term, as typically a Gentile who believes a certain set of propositions about Jesus, and thinks of our Lord as an opponent of the Jews. Paul remained an observant Jew throughout his life, but one who had become convinced that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah promised by the prophets. From his own accounts, it seems that in fact his sudden conversion was actually the end point of a long journey of a good man who had let rage and fear get the better of him. He describes Jesus as saying to him in the vision: “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads,” (Acts 26:14), meaning the pangs of conscience about his actions, the doubts, the dismissed late-night thoughts that maybe this Jesus talk really was true. His arguments were with fellow members of his faith, about the identity of Jesus to whether and how the Gentiles were to be included to what part old laws and rituals were to play in following Christ. He was converted to Christ, not Christianity. The same can be said for Peter and John and Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, and the rest. They remained Jews who followed a Jewish Messiah. That put them at odds with most of their fellow covenant believers. Only late in the century did Christianity become a separate religion by a split from Judaism.

But I digress. The point of this story is that however and whenever we come to know Christ, we are summoned to mission on his behalf. God brings people into his realm through many different doors, through a whole network of roads, by a variety of means. Sometimes faith is a process, an evolution. A person cannot remember a time she or he did not know and love Jesus, because of the nurture in faith by parents and church and friends. There was no cataclysmic event marking the boundary between hostility and faith. For others, indeed, there was a definite, memorable moment when everything became clear in fear and tears that issued in heartfelt belief, a change of life when the truth about themselves became blindingly clear. But whatever brought us to our Lord, we are called for a purpose. Conversion is for something as much as it is from something.

God can and does change and use even the most unlikely folk for his work, including those we suspect and scorn, who don’t talk or think or look or dress the way we do. The power of the risen Christ was effective in breaking down the walls of hostility erected by a murderous religious zealot like Saul of Tarsus, who henceforth called himself by his Latin name: Paul, a man who became the great apostle to the Gentiles.

Our Lord harnessed Paul’s tremendous intellect, energy, and zeal, converted and applied them to a new and noble international mission in fulfillment of the great prophetic dream of nations coming to the God of Israel. Christ still touches, empowers, enlightens. Sometimes the touch is more of a slap, a stunning blow that knocks someone to the ground crying “Who are you?” Then the person is lifted up graciously and set on his or her way to work for God’s realm. For others, their hearts are melted, confidence is won, the courtship is sweet and gentle and long-lasting. They feel as if they’ve always been with Jesus. Whether you or I can pinpoint the time of our conversion or not simply doesn’t matter; the fruit is the same. We are called, like Paul, to “rise and enter the city…” and carry Christ’s name to the nations.

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