From Opponent to Proponent
Grace United Methodist Church
April 25, 2010
Acts 9: 1-20
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ 5He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ 7The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ 11The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12and he has seen in a vision* a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ 13But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ 15But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ 17So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul* and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ 18And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’
An old farmer liked to brag around town that he could command his mule with nothing more than a few soft words; no whips or prods necessary. She would respond, he claimed, with nothing more than gently spoken commands. Of course people were skeptical, so one day his buddy down at the feed store asked for a demonstration. “Prove to me that your old mule will respond with nothing more than gentle language.”
Out in the field they went; the farmer, his buddy, and the mule. As the friend watched, first in awe and then in horror, the farmer took a huge piece of lumber, a two-by-four about six feet long, and swung it with all his might, hitting the mule on one ear! When the animal stopped braying and bellowing and prancing around, the farmer then said, quietly, “Come here” and the mule came. “Sit.” and the whimpering creature sat. “Back up.” and she backed into the harnesses of a plow and waited calmly for him to hook up. “You see? She’ll respond to a simple voice command.” But his friend objected, “Whatever are you talking about? You said all you had to do was talk to her, but you hit her with this huge two-by-four! What do you mean, you just command her with words?!? That’s not what I saw!”
“Oh, that,” said the farmer. “Well, first I do have to get her attention!”
It seems that quite often God uses the proverbial two-by-four to get our attention because without it we would not listen, we would not follow. We get so busy going about the routines of our lives that God often has to do something dramatic or we wouldn’t even notice that God is calling us. God is calling us to do something. God is calling us out of our mulish stubbornness and is urging us to adjust our lifestyles, and we don’t even notice until that two-by-four thuds against our heads; or in Saul’s case, until a flash of light knocks us to our feet.
In his book, Experiencing God, Henry Blackaby says that you must make major adjustments in your life to join in God’s work. And sometimes, coming to a point where we make those adjustments requires some “prodding” from God. Saul of Tarsus found that out very quickly as he made his way to Damascus, and Ananias just a short time later. Saul was a tentmaker and a devout Jew; he was intelligent and relatively wealthy. There was no reason for Saul to make any changes in his life; things were going pretty well for him. And Ananias, a follower of the Way, a Christian; he was experiencing the abundance of life under the new covenant of grace. There was no reason that Ananias’ path would cross with Saul’s, at least not willingly; a Christian would not just go seeking out a persecutor of Christians! But in an instant, both of these seemingly comfortable existences were blown out of the water and dramatic change happened, a change that would inaugurate the greatest missionary movement in the history of Christianity. If we are going to join in God’s work, we have to make major adjustments.
As we easily recognize, Saul made some major adjustments, a 180-degree turn, even! Saul’s dramatic turn is indeed remarkable in and of itself, but there’s something about Saul that’s even more fascinating and noteworthy to me. Saul thought he was following God. Up until that moment when a flash of light interrupted his stroll to Damascus, Saul thought he was doing exactly what God wanted him to do! He was a devout Jew. He knew the Hebrew Scriptures, and he thought these Jesus followers were getting it all wrong. So, as the passage tells us, “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Saul thought he was going to get people “back in line, back on track.” As Saul set off for Damascus with what essentially amounted to an open arrest warrant for any Christian, he thought he was doing what God wanted him to do! He was probably even meditating on the Scriptures as his horse plodded toward Damascus, and then BOOM!, a flash of light and a question, “Why do you persecute me?” And when Saul asks who it is, the voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Suddenly, everything that Saul thought is turned on its head, and he sees that he wasn’t actually doing what God wanted after all.
Have you ever come to such a realization? I think the story of Saul’s conversion affords us a good opportunity to consider the possibility that we aren’t necessarily following God as we think we are. Or perhaps we are not dedicated to God in the way that we should be. I mean, Paul was devout, but it turns out he was devout in a bad way. We can be devout too and still be harming the church; we can be devout and still be acting contrary to Christ. This is what Saul learned as he made his way to Damascus, and it is what you and I must learn if we are to be true disciples of Jesus Christ. We can come to church every Sunday and think ourselves devout. In fact, in this day of declining church attendance, we would certainly be considered among the most devoted. But our life as followers of Christ is about more than just being in the church when the doors are open; it’s about sharing Christ in the world outside of the church! This is the message of the Damascus road experience! And with that message comes the question: How are we opposing Christ and the church rather than building it up?
John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, once said, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist…But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power.” We fail to build up Christ and the church when we have the form of religion without the power. We fail to build up Christ and the church when we walk out of the church doors on Sunday morning and do not think about our commission as believers until we walk back through those doors the next week. We fail to build up Christ and the church when we talk badly about our church or our church family in our social circles. We fail to build up Christ and the church when we cross to the other side of the street so we don’t have to walk right by the beaten traveler; or the ragged-looking homeless person. We fail to build up Christ and the church when we hoard our personal resources rather than giving generously to God and God’s purposes in this world. We fail to build up Christ and the church when we do not actively seek out opportunities to serve in Jesus’ name and to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. And the suddenly, BOOM!, Christ asks, “Why are you persecuting me?” And all this time, we thought we were following Christ.
Saul had to make a radical change, and so do we! We have to think in terms of a whole new life, a whole new identity, because this is precisely what Christ offers us! Saul was so changed and so adjusted that he even changed his name! And Saul the old Pharisee became Paul the new man in Christ. Saul the old persecutor became Paul the new preacher. Saul the old struggler against sin became Paul the free spirit, Paul who talked about his joy in Christ. Saul made a major adjustment, a total adjustment, got a new name and a new identity, in order to join in God’s work. And God calls all of us to major adjustments.
There is a chorus to a favorite praise song that goes like this, “O the Wonderful Cross/O the Wonderful Cross/Bids me come and die/And find that I may truly live.” When God grabs our attention and calls us to change, parts of our lives have to die away so that we might truly live. We’re not talking about minor “tweeking”; we’re talking about a 180-degree turn, total change; all of us. Not just those who already want to change, not just those who aren’t doing anything else anyway; God calls all of us to major adjustments in our lives; to come and die so we may truly live. And after Christ grabs our attention with a whack to the head, or a flash of light from the sky, or whatever it is, he says to us as he said to Paul, “[G]et up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” Get up and enter the city. That is the word for those of us to need to make some major adjustments so that we might join in God’s work. Get up and go, get to work, and the next steps will become clear.
I believe we do know, deep down, what we as a church have to do to really join in God’s work. We have to get up and enter the city. We have to know the people around us. We have to give of our resources. We have to open our hearts and our lives to children, to youth, and yes, even to adults; the sinner, the outcast, the downtrodden. We have to feed the hungry. We have to offer support to the addicted, and help to the ill, the grieved, and the burdened. We have to be kingdom-proponents; God’s greatest cheerleaders, and God’s greatest servants. We are to be the hands and feet of Christ at work. We have to go into our community, with all its problems, its sickness and its sin; and wherever God wants us to be, I am determined that there we shall go. Whatever God shows us to do, I am persuaded that we are able to do, because God promises, right here, that we will be told what we are to do. God promises to go with us, and whenever God wants to use us to reach out and share good news with hundreds of homes in the Soddy-Daisy community, though it may take an adjustment on our part, a major adjustment in the way we invest our time, our energies, and our money, when we get up and enter this community with the good news, God in Christ Jesus will give us all a whole new life!
 John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley, vol. 13 (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007), 320.
 Chris Tomlin, “The Wonderful Cross.”