We celebrate this Easter morning the resurrection of Jesus and his triumph over death. In the John passage that was read this morning (John 20-1-21), Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, then to ten of the disciples, and then to Thomas who was absent when Jesus appeared to the other disciples. But this was not the end of Jesus’ resurrection appearances. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth: (1 Corinthians 15:3–8)
For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6 After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
When I arrive in heaven, by the grace of God, I am looking forward to hearing the stories of these men and women. I want to hear from James what it was like to discover that his brother was the Messiah. I want to hear from Mary, the mother of Jesus, what it was like when the promises that came with her pregnancy and birth of Jesus were fulfilled. And, I am looking forward to hearing Paul tell his story.
I was at a conference in Malta in January 2003 when I first read Walter Wangerin’s book, Paul: A Novel. After this I read it to an elderly Scottish woman, Noreen Maxwell, who I visited each week. The first time I read the book I read quickly, eager to find out who Wangerin understood Paul to be. The second time, I read it slowly and Noreen and I marveled at Wangerin’s writing skills. I also fell in love with Paul. I had always viewed Paul as a cold, hard intellect who used his debating skills for the gospel. But after reading this book, Paul took on flesh and blood for me and reading his letters became a new experience.
Wangerin’s book helps me to use my imagination to picture Paul as he traveled from place to place, preached, was beaten, and got up to preach again. I am eager to come into heaven and hear Paul speak firsthand of his experiences. I want to hear the longer version of his stories. I want to hear Paul’s stories that did not make it into the books of the Bible.
This morning we will look at Paul’s call to follow Jesus. There are four main characters in this account from Acts 9. In order of appearance they are: Saul, Jesus, Ananias and the Holy Spirit. In this story we see the ongoing, patient, pursuit of Jesus, the truth seeking of Paul, the risk taking of Ananias, and we will learn that we are saved to serve, not absorb.
The account begins with,
Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.
This is not the first time we read about Saul (this is his Hebrew name – his Greek name is Paul) in the book of Acts. The first time we hear about him, he is standing as a witness to the stoning of Stephen. (Acts 7:59 – 8:3)
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison.
In modern terms, Saul was like ISIS, Boko Haram, and El-Shabab who are determined to destroy followers of Jesus. Because we know Paul, we are tempted to minimize what he did before he became a follower of Jesus. But to speak the name of Saul put fear into the hearts of the early followers of Jesus. After his conversion, when Saul came back to Jerusalem from Damascus, he tried to join the disciples but, Luke writes in Acts 9:26,
they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple.
When the Islamic terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Towers of New York City and into the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., I began praying for Osama bin Laden, that he would, like Saul, turn from being a persecutor of followers of Jesus to an evangelist for Jesus. I am continuing to pray for the leaders of ISIS, Boko Haram, El-Shabab, and Al-Qaeda.
I do this because I know how patiently Jesus pursues those he created to be his sons and daughters in his kingdom. Saul was killing the children of Jesus and Jesus could have killed Saul on the road to Damascus, but he did not. Jesus’ work to rescue and redeem has no limits. Peter wrote: (2 Peter 3:9)
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
“Everyone to come to repentance.” Not just nice people or mildly bad people, but everyone.
If we are followers of Jesus, we need to follow him in the way he views the world. There are many wicked people doing terrible things in the world, but Jesus is working to bring them into his kingdom. We need to forgive, as difficult or as impossible as that seems, and pray for the repentance of those who are doing evil. If we are filled with hate and bitterness toward people in the world, we are working against the work of Jesus. I understand that this is easy for me to say and much harder for me to do, but this is what we are called to do.
I have never killed a follower of Jesus but when we sang “What Wondrous Love Is This?” at the Good Friday service, one of the verses reminded me of the way I have rejected Jesus and worked against his kingdom.
Behold the Man upon a cross,
My sin upon his shoulders;
Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice
Call out among the scoffers.
It was my sin that held him there
Until it was accomplished;
His dying breath has bought me life
I know that it is finished.
Despite my sin, Jesus did not reject me. He pursued me and welcomed me into his kingdom. I am grateful for his patient pursuit of me and I am grateful for his patient pursuit of you. Jesus pursued Jacob who swindled and cheated his way through life, until he met the Lord at Peniel. There is no follower of Jesus who is perfect, no follower who deserves to be saved. We all are beneficiaries of the patient pursuit of Jesus who loves us with a deep, eternal love.
As we move on in the story of Saul’s conversion, we learn from Paul that we are to be truth seekers, not religious followers.
Saul was a truth seeker. Hear his testimony as he defended himself after being attacked by Jews in the Temple in Jerusalem, 19 years after the event. (Acts 22:3-10)
“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. Under Gamaliel I was thoroughly trained in the law of our fathers and was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. 4 I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, 5 as also the high priest and all the Council can testify. I even obtained letters from them to their brothers in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished.
6 “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’
8 “ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked.
“ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied. 9 My companions saw the light, but they did not understand the voice of him who was speaking to me.
10 “ ‘What shall I do, Lord?’ I asked.
When he was confronted with the truth that Jesus had risen and was who he had claimed to be, Saul did not continue in the direction he had been going. Saul did not continue to persecute followers of Jesus. Saul submitted and redirected himself toward the truth he had discovered. What shall I do, Lord? This shows me that Saul was not following an ideology; he was following what he believed to be true. And when it became clear that he was off the path of truth, he submitted to Jesus, who is the way, the truth, and the life.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul described himself as zealous for the traditions of his fathers.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. 14 I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.
When Saul went from house to house, dragging off men and women who were followers of Jesus to prison, he did so because he was absolutely convinced of the truth of what he believed. His name struck terror in the hearts of the followers of Jesus. Are there truth-seekers among the terrorists of the world? These are the ones I am praying for because it is more likely to find a truth seeker among those opposed to the gospel than among those who are quietly indifferent or uninterested.
My oldest sister became a Christian in her freshman year of college in 1964. She came home at Christmas telling us all about what she had discovered. She had all the enthusiasm of a new believer and she expected we would all turn and follow what she had discovered to be true.
Instead we rejected and ridiculed her. I was the worst. There were nights she went to bed crying because of the things I said. She had five siblings and two parents and thought I was the least likely in her family to turn and make a commitment to follow Jesus. But I was the first.
Underneath my ridicule I was thinking and what she said influenced me more than I allowed her to know. Truth seekers can often be antagonistic to Jesus because they are not yet aware that he is the truth.
There are those who are simply angry and do not want to dialog about what is true and any discussion will be fruitless. But I am attracted to those who are antagonistic to the gospel of Jesus but are willing to talk about it.
Who do you know who is antagonistic to the good news of Jesus? Don’t be discouraged. Pray that they will see through you, through others or through the revelation of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is Lord. Be patient in discussing the pursuit of truth. Don’t be defensive about what you have discovered to be the truth.
Peter wrote in I Peter 3:15-16
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, 16 keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.
If the people you speak with are truth seekers, they will be lead to Jesus who is the truth. They will turn and begin to use their energy and creativity and intelligence in service to Jesus, the truth they discovered.
As we come to Ananias in this story, we learn that we are called to be risk-takers.
Ananias was one of the leaders of the followers of Jesus in Damascus. How do I know this? Look at the gifts Ananias had and how confidently he used them. This is the mark of a leader. It had been about three years since the resurrection of Christ. How long the community had been in Damascus we don’t know but it had been there long enough that it had grown to the point that Saul heard about it and wanted to put an end to it.
Ananias had heard about Saul, what Saul had been doing in Jerusalem, and that Saul was coming now to Damascus to arrest followers of Jesus.
You can imagine that when the believers in Damascus heard about Saul’s impending visit, they began to fast and pray. Some probably prayed that Saul would somehow be detoured and turn around and go back to Jerusalem. Maybe somebody prayed he would be attacked by robbers or wild animals. Did anyone pray Saul would meet Jesus on the road and have a change of heart?
What did Ananias think when God told him to go to Saul on the street called Straight?
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.
11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Was he excited that the Lord spoke to him and eager to jump up and do what he had been asked?
“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
Are you sure Lord? Are we talking about the same Saul? Isn’t there someone else I can go visit?
Who wants to walk into a lion’s den? When you know someone has come to arrest you and take you to prison where you might be killed, would you go to that person? It’s simply too risky. Saul had arrived in Damascus. It was time to run and hide, not time to go and seek.
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
And then Ananias went to the house of Judas where Saul was staying and did what the Lord had asked him to do.
How did Ananias feel as he walked to Judas’ house to go to Saul? Was his heart pounding as he approached the door to knock? Did he walk past the door a couple times before he had the courage to stop and knock?
It may be that he was anxious, but when he came to Saul, he did not hesitate.
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
When the angel told Zacharias his wife would have a son, Zacharias questioned how this could be because of his and his wife’s age, the angel took away his speech for not believing what he had been told. In this case, in the vision Ananias received, the Lord was patient with him and when Ananias questioned the wisdom of what he was being asked to do, the Lord reassured him.
I think God was patient and reassured Ananias because he understood the risk involved for Ananias and it had to be clear that Ananias knew it was the Lord speaking to him.
Ananias was a risk taker. This does not mean he did not have some anxiety as he obeyed, but he was confident the Lord had spoken to him and so he went with boldness to Saul. When we are confident God has directed us to do what we are doing, the risk is not really that great.
I want to throw in a word of caution. There are Christians who get an idea and then go out and do something unwise or foolish and believe they are doing a great thing for God. Some years ago a group of foreigners were visiting Marrakech and after Bible Study and prayer decided they would go out into Djamaa El Fna, the big square, and hand out Bibles. They were quickly arrested and sent out of Morocco.
Being bold when God directs is wonderful. Being bold when it is just your idea is foolish.
When you sense God telling you to speak to someone, don’t be afraid. When you sense God encouraging you to take responsibility to lead a Bible Study or to gather people for prayer, step out and take that responsibility. When you sense God leading you to go somewhere, have confidence that because God is leading you, it will work out.
In September 2012 RIC had a day of prayer and fasting to seek God’s leading about whether we should step out and find a building of our own. Within two weeks I was certain that God was telling us to find a building to rent. This was a daunting prospect because it meant we would have to raise 2 ½ times our budget in the next year for the increased costs of renting a building and setting up chairs, sound system, and other things needed. As we moved through the next six months I carried the confidence that because God had led us to do this, we would be successful and we were. We finished our year having met all our expenses.
Don’t be afraid to obey God’s leading, but be sure it is God who is leading and then your action will not really be that big of a risk.
There is one more lesson that I want to take from this story: We are saved to serve, not to absorb.
The resurrected Jesus appeared to Saul in a blaze of light.
He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.
“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
Jesus called Saul to a task. Jesus called Saul to serve him. What was his call?
But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Saul was called by Jesus to take the Good News of Jesus to the Gentile world. And from the beginning, Jesus let Saul know this was not going to be easy; he was going to suffer in the process.
Immediately, Saul took his knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures (the only Scriptures that existed at that point) and with his great intellect and new, redirected vision, began to preach.
Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. 20 At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 21 All those who heard him were astonished and asked, “Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?” 22 Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.
Perhaps you view Paul as an exceptional person (which he is) with an exceptional call (which it was). But I don’t think you can dismiss the truth that Jesus calls each of us to serve him. Paul was called to be sent out into the Gentile world, but not everyone Jesus called to follow him left their home to take the gospel to the world. When the Gerasene demoniac in Mark 5 was delivered, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. But Jesus gave him other instructions. (Mark 5:19–20)
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. 19 Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” 20 So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
We do not all have the same call, but we are all called to serve Jesus. You have not been rescued by Jesus at a great price so you can relax and coast until you come into his kingdom. You have been called by Jesus to serve with him. It may be at your work, in your home, in your neighborhood, in some other part of the world. Jesus is in charge and he will tell you what he wants you to do.
When he tells you, when you sense his direction for your life, be bold and step out with confidence, as Ananias did when he went to see Saul and as Paul did when he took the gospel of Jesus one his missionary journeys.
There are many Christians who think Jesus died so they could have a better life. They think Jesus died so they could have nice clothes, a nice house or even two or three houses, and even more cars, nice vacations, plenty of money in the bank. Is this what happened to Paul, Peter, James, John and the other disciples? They heard the call of Jesus and spread out through the Mediterranean world, carrying with them the Good News of Jesus. Church tradition tells us they were all martyred for their faith, all except John. Do you deserve a better life than they had? Are you more loved than they were?
Jesus did not die to make you comfortable. Jesus died to rescue you and bring you safely into his eternal kingdom. Your life may be easy or hard, but that is not the point. Easy life or hard life, we will all die and enter heaven, and the only thing we will take with us is the faith that has been grown in the years of our life on earth.
We are called to give, not to absorb. But our human nature is to absorb, not to give. We are selfish creatures, thinking more of ourselves than others. The devil is also a selfish creature. The hints of Scripture about the devil reveal him to be a created being that absorbed all praise and thought too highly of himself.
The nature of God is to give, not to take. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit had all their needs met in their triune relationship, but because the nature of the Triune God is giving, they did not keep the joy of their relationship to themselves, they created the universe and created mankind to share with them their joy.
We are created in the image of God and that means we were created to be giving. We have to work against our human nature and against the influence of the devil. When we work with Jesus, we find our greatest joy because we are doing what we were created to do. God calls us into service with him, to think more of others than we do ourselves.
Easter is a joy-filled celebration. We have great reason to celebrate. Jesus continues to work, revealing himself to those who seek truth. The world is full of selfishness and evil. The suffering of the world is overwhelming. But we have hope because Jesus is at work. There are many today who will come into his kingdom. I pray that among them will be fighters in the terrorist groups.
Hear Jesus’ call to you. Who does he want you to love in his name? Where does he want you to go with the good news of his triumph over death? How does he want you to serve him? Don’t look at what others do and copy them; listen to his calling and discover what he wants you to do.
Don’t be afraid to respond when you hear his call. Be a risk-taker, confident of the call you have received.
I want to conclude by reading Walter Wangerin’s account of Ananias’ visit to Paul. This account is written from the perspective of Judas who owned the house where Saul was led when he came blind into Damascus.
Ananias entered my house and passed me by and went to him and placed his hands on Saul’s shoulders.
“Brother Saul,” he said, “the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
I watched the two men touching each other, and I saw the crust on Saul’s eyes crumble and flutter down his white cheeks like fish scales, and then he was blinking, and then he was seeing.
My eyes wide open, I watched Saul bow his head, shining, shining with a strange white fire! Ananias began to unwind the bandage I had given him.
Ananias was saying: “You, Saul, are a chosen instrument of the Lord’s, to carry his name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. And the Lord will show you how much you must suffer for the sake of his name.”
Sight and light and a giggling joy in Saul! And he was beaming on Ananias. …
The two men walked back into my house, Saul on his own feet leading the way.
They went into the atrium where my little fountain trickled into a shallow pool. I did not follow. I didn’t move, still standing by the open door. But I heard water splashing, and I heard the voice of Ananias say: “I baptize you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” – and then that high voice of Saul, hooting: “Jesus Christ is my Lord!” – and then laughter.
With all his heart, soul and mind, Saul had served and protected the Torah, the law God gave to Moses. This was his pure and sincere devotion to God. When he discovered that Jesus had risen from the dead and was who he claimed to be, it shook him to the core of his being.
His mind raced with the new information that Jesus was Lord and he stumbled into Damascus considering the implications of this. Saul did not speak. His mind went back, over and over again, to who he had seen in the noonday sun. If Jesus had been resurrected, then what were the implications? What about all that he had understood?
Then he had a vision that a man named Ananias would come to him to restore his sight. While he was thinking this over there was a knock on the door and there he was! Saul had been knocked off his feet and this was an aftershock, keeping him spinning.
As Ananias prayed for him, his eyes began to see and as he received the Holy Spirit he began to understand and make sense of all the questions he had been asking himself since that moment on the road outside Damascus.
The joy of seeing with eyes and heart and the beginning of understanding filled him with joy that bubbled up from within. That joy sustained Paul through all the suffering of his life.
When I sold my business in 1999, I had a dream of buying a house on a lake and enjoying the peace of that life. But instead I used that money to support myself as pastor of RIC over the past fifteen years. I don’t have any regret about losing that dream of a house on a lake. I am a far richer man now than I was then because of the relationships and experiences of these years in Rabat. I gave up so little to gain so much.
Jesus wants you to work with him as he rescues the lost. Ask as Saul asked, “What shall I do Lord?” Follow the call of Jesus for you and you will bubble up with an internal joy that will sustain you as it has sustained followers of Jesus through the ages.