Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter

Text: Acts 9:17-19
Ananias went, entered the house where Saul was, and placed his hands on him. "Brother Saul," he said, "the Lord has sent meóJesus himself, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here. He sent me so that you might see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." At once something like fish scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he was able to see again. He stood up and was baptized; and after he had eaten, his strength came back.

Called, Changed & Commissioned

The story told in our first reading this morning is a great story. The drama and the action of this story are captivating but what is even more amazing is that it is a story of how God chooses the most unlikely people, at the most unexpected times, and in the most unpredictable ways.

Saul was the last person you would have expected God to pick as a proclaimer of the Good News about Jesus. He was enthusiastic about the Jewish faith, in fact he was so enthusiastic that he had made it his personal ambition to harass and persecute as many Christians as he could find.

Saul was a powerful, self-confident, influential person. He considered that he was in control of his life. He had a clear purpose. He stood by and watched when Stephen was stoned to death for speaking out and telling the Jewish authorities that Jesus is the fulfilment of all that the Old Testament promised; that Jesus is the promised Messiah they had been waiting for. From that moment on, Saul made it his personal ambition in life to inflict the cruellest persecution on all Christians. Acts records this, "Saul tried to destroy the church; going from house to house, he dragged out the believers, both men and women, and threw them into jail (Acts 8:1,2).

Then, at a most unexpected place and time, while on the road to Damascus, the resurrected Jesus appeared and spoke to Saul. Powerful, self-confident, controlled Saul has fallen on the ground!
A bright light flashed around him, a voice from heaven spoke to him and told him to go to the city and there he would receive instructions what he was to do (remember Saul wasnít one for doing what others told him to do, rather he was accustomed to giving the orders). The powerful and self-confident Saul is no longer in charge; he is a servant doing what he is told.
He was blinded and was led by the hand, like a little child back to Damascus. For three days he wasnít able to see, and he ate and drank nothing. His life had been radically disturbed and interrupted by the risen Christ.

Another man whose life was amazingly turned upside down and back to front by God was a ship's captain, John Newton. He was making a lot of money shipping cargoes of slaves to America. Then God at a most unexpected time dealt with him. Newton wrote "I can see no reason why the Lord singled me out for mercy unless it was to show, by one astonishing instance, that with him "nothing is impossible". He spent off-duty hours reading the New Testament and praying. God came to Newtonís cabin and dealt graciously and lovingly with the shameless, and immoral sailor. His life was radically changed and the shipís cabin became a place of conversion like the Damascus Road. Later John Newton penned these words that express what happened,
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretched like me!
I once was lost but now am found,
was blind but now I see.

John Newton is expressing exactly what Paul meant when he said, "For I am the least of all the apostlesóI do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted God's church. But by God's grace I am what I am" (1 Cor 15:9,10a).

There is no doubt that on that day on the Damascus Road Paulís life was changed. Unfortunately some people make the conversion of Paul the pattern for all Christians. Iíve met people who say that if you canít name the hour and the day and the place where you were converted to Christ, then how can you know if you are really a Christian. We might be led to feel inferior even doubt our Christian faith because we donít have a dramatic story about our conversion Ė like being a rebel, involved in crime, spent time in jail Ė then finding Jesus.

Most of our stories are far less dramatic than that. You might have been brought up in a Christian home and went to church reasonably regularly if not every Sunday. Like me, maybe you canít remember a time when you werenít a Christian. Maybe your journey of faith hasnít included a blinding light, a voice speaking to you and telling you what to do, a dramatic conversion to faith on a certain day and at a certain place. Maybe your faith journey has been a gradual awareness that God loves you and has plans for your life. Maybe your faith has grown through parents, teachers, friends and pastors who have slowly and steadily enabled your faith to grow without the razzle dazzle, the bright lights of a sudden conversion.

It doesnít matter finally how, when and where and how you came to believe in Jesus. There are three points that come from our text.

(1) This story is about Godís grace. Paul is a Christian, not by his own decision, discovery, or desire. Paul is called, chosen by the action of the living Christ. His relationship to Christ was Christís idea long before it was Paulís.

So is ours. Jesus once said, "You didnít choose me, I chose you" (John 15:16). You are here today, as his disciples, because, for some strange, surprising wonderful reason, he wants you to be a member of his kingdom, to enjoy knowing about Godís undeserved love and forgiveness. We are influenced by too many who want to take the credit away from God for their sudden conversion or their gradual journey to faith by putting far too much stress on what I have done, on what I think and believe. We hear it again and again, "I accepted Jesus as my SaviourÖ" or "I took Jesus into my heartÖ" "I gave my life to JesusÖ"

Paul didnít take Jesus into his heart. Paul didnít decide for Jesus. On the Damascus Road Jesus decided for Paul. In whatever way you have come into Godís kingdom, maybe at the baptismal font, maybe a gradual coming to faith, or maybe a dramatic conversion, it was Godís idea long before it was yours. My relationship to God does not depend on what I do, it is something that God has done and is doing for me. And thank God for that! I donít always think, act and speak like a Christian. Paul was arresting and killing the followers of Jesus. If it werenít for the grace of God neither he nor us would have any chance.

(2) The story of Paulís conversion is about new beginnings. Paul was a ruthless, influential, self-confident persecutor of Christianity. On the Damascus Road, he changed from a persecutor of Jesus to a proclaimer of the Good News.

It is true that God takes me "just as I am without plea". But he doesnít leave us just as we are. He changes us and keeps on changing us. Itís a continual process as long as we live on this earth. Just as Paul was now caught up in a lifelong process of change, we too are continually being changed
from lovelessness to love,
from pride to humility,
from a lack of self-control to self-control,
from impatience to patience,
from harshness to gentleness,
from apathy to commitment,
from stinginess to generosity
from a lukewarm faith to devotion.

Someone once wrote, "In our lives, in the movements, shifts, tugs and pulls of God upon our souls, people are still being raised from the dead. The church is the community of those being converted, being born again, and again, and again" (Source unknown). Likewise Martin Luther emphasises the ongoing changing process when he says,
"Because we are baptised we should keep on drowning
the old nature we are born with;
everything sinful and selfish in us has to die. Ö
And the new nature God has given us in baptism
should come to life day after day.
We should live as new peopleÖ . (Small Catechism 1996 Openbook Publishers page 27)

(3) This story about Paulís conversion clearly tells us that his transition from darkness to light, from evil to Godís kingdom was for a purpose. Paul wasnít converted to Christ to sit and do nothing. He was called, converted and then commissioned to be a proclaimer of Godís Good News. It wasnít easy. Paul felt like chucking it in on a number of occasions. Paul was no super-human; he suffered the same things that we do Ė he was ridiculed for his faith, thrown into prison, endured storms and shipwrecks, was beaten, stoned Ė in fact you name it. Life wasnít easy as a follower of Jesus but he used none of it as an excuse for giving up.

Life in the church can be tough sometimes.
We are called to be generous in our offering to further the work of God.
We are called to act with love and understanding even when we donít agree with someone and something that is happening in the church.
We are called to give generously of our time and energy to further Godís work through the church.
We are called to mission Ė that is to actively support and do it. Itís easy to leave it up to someone else.
Itís easy to give an overabundance of reasons and excuses Ė Iím too busy, too old, too young, too new, too whatever. In the Book of Acts, we see some of the apostles dragged, kicking and screaming into the work of the Church.
No way was Peter going to allow the Gospel to be spread among the Gentiles. This was Godís news to the Israelites, Godís people. But that idea was soon changed.
No way would Paul have ever given a second thought to the idea that he would actually be promoting the church.
Sometimes God calls us to work in his church, kicking and screaming. We may think we are the most unsuitable person for the job, but God has other ideas.

During the Second World War, a church in Strasbourg was destroyed. After the bombing, the members of this particular church went to see what was left and found that the entire roof had fallen in, leaving a heap of rubble and broken glass. Much to their surprise, however, a statue of Christ with outstretched hands that had been carved centuries before by a great artist was still standing erect. It was virtually unharmed except that a falling beam had sheered off both hands.

The people hurried to a sculptor in town and asked if he could replace the hands of the statue. He was willing, and he even offered to do it for nothing. The church officials met to consider the sculptor's proposition Ė and decided not to accept his offer. Why? Because they felt that the statue without hands would be the greatest illustration possible that God calls his people to be his hands in this world to do the work he has given. And not only our hands, but also our feet, our lips, our eyes, our ears, our intellect, our abilities, our money Ė God has given all of these to us to carry out his work.

Have you ever thought of yourself this way? Have you ever thought of yourself as the hands of Jesus? Jesus chooses to do his work through human hands. Sometimes they seem to be the frailest of hands, the least potentially successful hands, or the least qualified hands ó but those are the hands he uses. If he can use Saul who seemed to be the least qualified to be an apostle, he can also use you. If Saul can be his chosen servant, then so can you as well as those around you.

Just as Saul was called, and converted, changed and commissioned so also have you and I been called and converted; changed and commissioned to do the work of God.

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
29th April, 2001

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