April 10, 2016

On the Conversion of Saul

Passage: Acts 9:1-20, Psalm 30, Revelation 5:11-14, John 21:1-19
Service Type:

Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’

There is a new alarm clock designed to wake only you. In 2015 Lucera Labs released Wake, a new breed of alarm that targets individual users and wakes up one sleeper without rousing others. Here's how it works. After it's mounted to the wall above the bed, the device uses an infrared temperature sensor and special body-tracking software to discern where each person is lying. When it's time to wake one person up, Wake silently takes aim, rotates into position, and then directs a tight burst of light and sound at their face.

To keep from rousing other sleepers, the device uses a set of parametric speakers capable of focusing sound into a narrow beam. Think of it as a spotlight for noise. If Wake is pointed straight at your head you'll hear it loud and clear, but if you're outside of the beam's small radius, the sound will be extremely faint.

1. I am not sure if Wake’s inventors got the idea of waking up people individually from the Bible but we see this often in scripture in how God wakens people to his presence in their lives. Saul of Tarsus (aka Apostle Paul) was knocked to the ground by a bright light and heard a voice speaking to him. Everything was aimed at Saul. Others travelling with him witnessed the event and didn’t know what to make of it.

In many places in the Bible people are individually addressed by God. Moses in the desert at the burning bush, young Samuel at the Tent of Meeting while trying to go to sleep, the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah in their calling to prophetic ministry, Mary as she is told she will bear a son, and even Jesus at the river Jordon as he comes up out of the water after being baptized hears the voice. The disciples of Jesus were all personally called.

And in places where we see a more collective sort of announcement like the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem; such announcement is responded to individually—each shepherd has to answer will I go to Bethlehem and see? In that great Psalm we refer to by its first line—The Lord is my shepherd—there is a clear witness to this personal embrace of relationship with God. Consider the opening lines of Psalm 121; “I lift up my eyes to the hills—from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.”
The witness of the scripture is that this awakening is our Lord’s doing—it is something God initiates. Saul of Tarsus is not looking for God as he is on this road to Damascus. In fact he is convinced that he is engaged in protecting God’s name from the slanderous heretics of the Way who confess that Jesus, a mere human—and a crucified low-life human at that—is Lord. The gospel asserts that in the prison house of sin in which we humans dwell we do not perceive ourselves to be in a prison. Someone from outside needs to intrude and show us otherwise. This same man Saul, also known as Paul (Acts 13), will come to write that “Christ Jesus has made me his own.” (Philippians 3:12)

Not every believer has been knocked to the ground by a bright light but each believer has been individually awakened to Christ’s presence in our lives by Christ himself. It happens in as wide a variety of ways as there are individuals. How the burst of our Lord’s light and voice came to be focussed on you or on me varies but what we all share in common is that this awakening is his doing. Some will witness, like me, that you have never known a time in your life when you did not believe. Others will confess a more gradual experience. Some come suddenly like Saul. All come at our Lord’s initiative.

I grew up in a church where the pastor routinely put questions like “Have you been born again?” or “are you saved?” to the congregation. These questions were aimed at pressing upon hearers the importance of saying yes to the call of the Lord on our lives. “I stand at the door and knock” says our Saviour—such question were aimed at encouraging people to open the door. Faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. Note Saul’s response—who are you Lord? He needs to know more. I suppose that Saul could have walked away from this experience. The point I make with you is that he said yes. He may need more information but he knows enough to call this one who accosted him “Lord.”

2. Saul is a Jew born in Tarsus of the Roman Province of Cilicia—today a region of southern Turkey. He studied under the great Jewish Rabbi Gamaliel excelling in his studies and then made his way to Jerusalem for further studies. A reading of his letters is enough to reveal his sharp mind and outstanding academic abilities. He advances quickly as a rabbi himself and at an early age becomes a member of the Sanhedrin. We first meet him holding the coats for those who stone to death Stephen, the first Christian martyr. (Acts 7:58) He then leads the charge for persecution of the church imprisoning men and women of the Way. (Acts 8:3)

Not satisfied with making miserable the lives of Jerusalem Jews who believed in Jesus he purposes to take his show on the road and get after the believers in city of Damascus that contained a large Jewish population. I said to you a moment ago that Saul is not looking for a religious experience as he is making his way to Damascus. In fact, he believes that he has this religion thing all figured out. He sees himself as defending God’s name. It was utter heresy to call any human God. Saul knows that God is not his creation so any human claiming to be God was blasphemy against God. So these believers in Jesus needed to be shut down.

Note with me that he is a very religious man. Meticulously so. But being religious in and of itself does not necessarily equal relationship with God. It is true that Saul worshipped the same God before and after this conversion experience. Before this experience Saul put his trust in his own legal, moral and religious achievements—and they were impressive. After, it is Jesus who determines his thought about God; it is Jesus on whom he solely relies. This is a radical reorientation of his being. All that had constituted for him a value paradoxically became, according in his own words, a loss and refuse. (Philippians 3:7-10)

In Paul’s letters, after the name of God which appears more than 500 times, the name most frequently mentioned is Christ’s (380 times). Paul was a zealous Jew who revered the name of God and was ardent to keep the command to have no other gods before him. You can imagine, then, that something very profound has happened to him such that he now will confess that the human Jesus is both Lord and Christ; he will write to the Corinthian church “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2) In relating this Damascus road experience it is clear that Luke wants his hearers to know that Saul meet the risen Jesus on that road.

It also important to note that Jesus does not change Saul into some other person—the intellect he possessed before is the one he has after; it is just redeployed in a new direction. In Christ we become our true selves not some other self. Our true humanity is bound by sin, according to the gospel, and set free by him. In telling us the story of Saul of Tarsus Luke wants us to know that what counts is placing Jesus Christ at the centre of our lives.

3. In December of 1737 John Wesley (founder of Methodism) returned to England following his Georgia fiasco. As a young Anglican clergyman Wesley and his brother Charles had gone to the Georgia colony in 1735 at the request of the colony’s founder General James Oglethorpe. It did not go well. Wesley, like the Apostle Paul, possessed a very sharp mind. He was a graduate of Oxford University and had been elected a fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford on 1726. As an example of his academic ability, Wesley met some German Moravian colonists on the ship travelling to Georgia and taught himself German so he could preach for them.

On April 22, 1738 after meeting Peter Bohler Wesley wrote in his journal: “But I could not comprehend what he spoke of an instantaneous work. I could not understand how this faith should be given in a moment; how a man could at once be thus turned from darkness to light, from sin and misery to righteousness and joy in the Holy Ghost. I searched the Scriptures again touching this very thing, particularly the Acts of the Apostles; but to my utter astonishment found scarce any instances there of other than instantaneous conversions—scarce any other so slow as that of St. Paul, who was three days in the pangs of new birth.

About a month later, on May 24, 1738 Wesley wrote, “In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s Preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

This experience marked a complete reorientation of Wesley as Jesus Christ became central to his preaching. Prior to this time Wesley was a moralist—preaching humility and other Christian graces as a pathway to human improvement. Following this he preaches Jesus Christ. Wesley preached over 40,000 sermons in his life and the greater share came after 1738 because of daily itinerant preaching. He has a new urgency. According to his journal Wesley preached a sermon on the text of Mark 1:15, 100 times. This text is the summary of Jesus’ proclamation of good news—“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” In this sermon Wesley wrote, “Wheresoever therefore the gospel of Christ is preached, this his 'kingdom is nigh at hand'. It is not far from every one of you. Ye may this hour enter thereinto, if so be ye hearken to his voice, 'Repent ye, and believe the gospel.”

4. We have explored two conversion experiences. John Wesley was listening to someone read the preface of Martin Luther’s commentary on the New Testament book of Romans. Paul was travelling on the Roman highway that linked Jerusalem and Damascus. Something happened to them both that reoriented their minds and hearts around Jesus Christ. Both were met by Jesus Christ—albeit in different ways. The result is that Jesus comes to the centre of both their lives effecting a profound reorientation.

Such reorientation isn’t just for them but for any who would believe. Another angle of vision onto this that our Lord works in the believers heart is to say that for the believe Jesus Christ names the categories for life and living. From another angle we observe that his love for us lifts and orders all other loves. From yet one more, the believer knows that in Christ she has been set right with God—the fact that when you pray you sense someone is listening witness to the actuality of this relationship.

I have been thinking about the blessing of life oriented by Jesus Christ. In what are known as our Lord’s beatitudes he promises a profound sense of happiness as he names the categories for our life and orients love with his love.

We live in an era that has deified the id. The id, according to psychoanalysis, is part of the psyche that is the source of instinctive impulses. Take, for example, that how biology has been uncoupled from the concept of gender. In February Alberta’s Education Minister Dave Eggen announced new gender guidelines that say students and teachers should be able to choose which bathrooms they want to use, what names and pronouns they should be addressed by, and what clothing they wish to wear. This inner sense of who you are is treated as if it trump’s everything else.

On February 6, 2015 the Supreme Court of the Canada declared the law prohibiting physician-assisted death to be void because it was deemed to infringe on the a person’s rights under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which states that “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of the person and the right not to be deprived thereof except in accordance with the principles of fundamental justice.” Again I note how the desires of the individual are seen to trump everything else.

For the believer living in times like these it is life-giving and freeing to cling to Jesus Christ as the one who will name the categories for our lives. Jesus knows us better than anyone and living in relationship with him as center of our lives helps navigate all these changes happening in our society even as we look forward to that future our Lord has for us.

On April 21 Queen Elizabeth will turn 90 years of age. A book has been published by the Bible Society , HOPE, and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity in honour of her birthday The Servant Queen and the King she serves. Queens Elizabeth wrote a Foreword:

I am touched that Bible Society, HOPE and the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity have published this book to celebrate my 90th birthday. In my first Christmas Broadcast in 1952, I asked the people of the Commonwealth and Empire to pray for me as I prepared to dedicate myself to their service at my Coronation. I have been — and remain — very grateful to you for your prayers and to God for His steadfast love. I have indeed seen His faithfulness.
As I embark on my 91st year, I invite you to join me in reflecting on the words of a poem quoted by my father, King George VI, in his Christmas Day broadcast in 1939, the year that this country went to war for the second time in a quarter of a century.
I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year
“Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.”
And he replied, “Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.
That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.”