August 28, 2016 “In Reverse” – Acts 9:1-22

Acts 9:1-22
“In Reverse”
August 28, 2016 – Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

What if Hitler had won? Is anyone here watching “The Man in the High Castle” on Amazon? It’s an alternate history story based on a novel by Philip K. Dick, imagining what the world would be like if the Nazis and Imperial Japan had won World War II. It’s a standard science fiction theme. What if Julius Caesar had not been assassinated? Would Rome still rule the world and all of us be speaking Latin? Or what if Napoleon had avoided Waterloo? Would our language be French? Or what if Abraham Lincoln had survived? Would our country be stronger and less racially divided?

That whole science fiction sub-genre depends on the idea that there are crucial turning points in history, moments where a single person or event has a decisive role in determining how history unfolds. Saul of Tarsus was one of those people. If he had not taken that road to Damascus to be met by the risen Lord Jesus somewhere around 33 A.D., our world would not be the same. You and I might not be Christians, might not even have heard about a man named Jesus.

F. F. Bruce says, “No single event… has proved so determinant for the course of Christian history as the conversion… of Paul.”[1] I would go further and say that there would be no Christian history if not for Paul’s conversion. There were other Jewish religious movements in the first century. The Essenes were a few thousand devoted people centered around a charismatic leader, waiting for God’s judgment on the world. If they had not preserved what we call the Dead Sea Scrolls, no one would know about them or what they believed. The same would be true of Christianity… except for Paul.

Paul changed history, changed our lives. Because he believed that God had made him what verse 15 says, a “chosen instrument” to spread the message of Jesus beyond the Jewish community, you and I are sitting here today in a church building on the other side of the world. Without the Pharisee from Tarsus taking the Gospel to Europe, it’s anyone’s guess what the primary religion of our world would be. But it would not be Christianity.

You can see how crucial the Damascus road is when you re­member that, as Saul, Paul was first headed in exactly the opposite direction. If Saul had continued the course on which he began, the church might have survived only a few years. He did everything in his power to stamp it out.

Saul did not merely dislike Christianity and Christians. He hated them. In these first few verses he gained authority to imprison Christians. He would have liked to see them all dead. A few weeks ago in Acts chapter 7, we read how Saul held coats for a mob while they threw rocks and murdered Stephen. He supported that killing with his whole heart. He would have gladly exterminated all Christians.

What happened there near Damascus was not just a course correction for a man slipping off the track. Saul was not an otherwise nice guy who simply needed a bit of faith in Jesus to make him perfect. When Saul became a Christian it meant an absolute reversal of his direction in life. His world was turned upside down and backwards.

Saul was a scholar. Telling his story in Acts 22, he mentions he was edu­cated by a rabbi named Gamaliel. But Saul was not like his teacher. In Acts 5, Gamaliel was the voice of reason and toleration in the Jewish court. He advised against drastic measures toward Christians. “Wait and see” Gamaliel advised, just in case God really was behind it. Saul changed all that. In verse 2 he convinced the high priest to ignore Gamaliel’s advice and to provide letters authorizing him to throw Christians into jail.

Picture him on the road. He’s a small man puffed up with new power. He struts down the road, those letters of authority clutched firmly in his hand. He is headed to Damascus where thousands of Jews live with the single purpose of stopping this Christian cancer before it spreads further. He will cut it out with surgical precision. There is fire in his eyes and ice in his heart driving him forward to do what he believes is God’s work.

Saul was almost there when God knocked him down. When the light from heaven flashed around him as verse 3 says, he was like a man on ice skates running into a wall. He crashed to a halt and went down. He heard a voice speaking to him. And he answered.

Various scholars attempt to give Saul’s conversion a natural, psychological ex­planation. Some suggest he had symptoms of an epi­leptic seizure. They point to historical figures whose religious experiences are linked to mental illness. But nothing in epilepsy or mental illness accounts for the complete and absolute reversal in Saul’s course of life.

The only possible answer is his own conclusion. He met Jesus Christ. What he had taken to be the lies of a few deranged fishermen from Galilee was sober truth. Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified, was alive and speaking to him from heaven. In that flash of light, he saw what the other apostles had seen, the risen Christ.

The Damascus road was the pivotal event in Paul’s life. He constantly referred to it. Whenever he was questioned, Paul went back to a basic fact: He had seen Jesus. In chapters 22 and 26 of Acts he tells the story twice more. In I Corinthians 9 and 15 he mentions seeing Jesus. Writing to the Galatians and to the Philippians he explains how much he changed, from persecuting Christians to preaching Christ. He is his own example of what he preaches—Jesus makes you a new person. Even his name changed—from the Jewish “Saul” to the Roman “Paul.” As a missionary to Gentiles he took a Gentile name.

Paul’s conversion is a paradigm. Christ changes who you are and what you do. It’s no wonder he says so confidently in II Corinthians that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old is gone, the new has come!” He changed totally, from hatred to love, from persecutor to persecuted, from living by law to depending on grace. Physically he went on toward Damascus, led by the hand in verse 9. Spiritually his course altered 180 degrees.

In the history of cars, there was a brief flirtation with steam power. The most notable was known as the Stanley Steamer. It was the fastest and most powerful automobile of its time. One unique feature was no transmission as such. But you could shift a Stanley Steamer into reverse while moving forward at a good speed. One moment steaming straight ahead and with the pull of a lever – Bam! – you would be moving just as fast backward. That’s what happened to Paul when He met Jesus. To meet Christ is to be turned around, full reverse. And Jesus wants to reverse us like he reversed Paul.

Not all of us have Damascus road experiences. There’s no flashing light. Some of us grew up in church and came to know Jesus gradually over time. Others met Christ later in life and made dramatic changes. But Jesus calls everyone to turn toward Him. Turn from where our own wills take us. Instead of seeking our own good, seek the good of others. Instead of gathering riches on earth, store treasure in heaven. Instead of pursuing pleasure, suffer for His sake. Instead of re­sponding in anger, forgive in love. Over and over, Jesus Christ speaks to us as He spoke to Paul, turning us around to follow Him.

That is what the Christian life is all about. We travel through this world reversing course whenever we find ourselves going our way rather than God’s way.

You often hear that all religions are paths up the same mountain. They’re all going the same direction. But Sundar Singh in India early in the twentieth century knew that was not true. He was raised a Sikh, which combines Hinduism and Islam. He was very spiritual, constantly reading Hindu and Sikh holy books and practicing Yoga. After a brief exposure to Christianity in a Presbyterian school, he hated Jesus. At the age of fifteen he began mocking and abusing Christian missionaries. Once he burnt a New Testament in public.

Yet Sundar Singh found no peace. On December 7 of 1904 he told his father he would commit suicide before breakfast unless he heard from God. He decided to throw himself under a train. Before the train came, he took a cold bath ac­cording to Hindu custom and prayed to God to reveal Himself.

Sundar was astounded when a light appeared in his little room. In it he saw a face, not one of the traditional Sikh or Hindu gods or spirits, but the face of Jesus Christ. Though he had not then heard the story of Paul, he heard a voice saying “Why do you persecute me? Remember that I gave My life for you upon the Cross.”

He wrote later, “What I saw was no imagination of my own. Up to that moment I hated Jesus Christ and did not worship Him. If I were talking of Buddha I might have imagined it, for I was in the habit of worshipping him. It was no dream. When you have just had a cold bath you don’t dream! It was reality, the Living Christ!”

Sundar Singh’s life reversed. His family rejected him and drove him away. One of his friends who also became a Christian was poisoned. Singh went to a medical mission and studied the Bible and then was baptized. Then he heard God calling him to go out and preach Christ. Like Paul wearing a Roman name, Sundar wore the saffron robes of an Indian holy man, a sadhu, and walked about teaching Jesus. Eventually, he became the most famous and dynamic evangelist of his time. The last anyone saw of him he was walking over the Himalayas to preach the Good News in Tibet.

Great dramas of conversion like Paul’s and Sundar Singh’s are reassurance for you and me that Jesus is what Sundar wrote, reality. When we meet Jesus Christ in the Bible and in prayer, we are meeting a living person who speaks to us clearly. It’s no delusion to let Him change our lives and reverse our course.

It was no delusion for Paul. His companions on the road heard the sound of the voice speaking to him. In Acts 22 he says some also saw the flash of light. It was not just in Paul’s head. But only Paul saw clearly and understood the question, Jesus asked: “Saul, Saul, why do you perse­cute me?”

That question became foundational in Paul’s theology. Members of the church are part of Christ. Saul persecuted Christians. Jesus spoke as if Saul was harming Jesus’ own body. As Augustine put it, the head of the body cried out from heaven on behalf of its members on earth. To know and follow Jesus is to be part of Him. To persecute His followers is to persecute Jesus. Christians as the body of Christ.

That’s the key. Paul’s faith was not merely a private vision granted to him alone. The second half and necessary part of the story happened after he got up and went on to Damascus. The body of Christ met him. In the person of a man named Ananias, Paul met the people, the “body,” whom he had been attacking.

Ananias didn’t want to help. Jesus spoke to him and ordered him to find Paul, but he held back. In verses 13 and 14 he argued with the Lord. Saul was the enemy. He was coming to arrest Christians. How could the Lord possibly want Ananias to help him?

Jesus was emphatic. Verse 15 begins with the simple command “Go…” So Ananias went, and when he found the house Saul was in he extended the warmest possible welcome. He called him “brother.” Saul’s blindness was healed, he was baptized and given food. The community he had tried to destroy reached out to him and showed him love.

The community, the body, was instrumental in Paul’s conversion. Becoming or living as a Christian is not a private or individual matter. Even the great­est missionary who ever lived was not converted by himself. He needed the touch and companionship of the rest of the church. Verse 19 goes on to tell us Paul stayed there with the Christians in Damascus for several days, learning the faith from them.

It’s easy today to think you can be a Christian on your own. We each have our own Bible. We sit and read alone. You can go on Amazon and order Christian “self-help” books. Not in Paul’s time. To know the Bible, to know Jesus you had to listen to others. You had to be with those who had been with Him.

It’s still true. Faith grows in the body. You learn about Jesus by talking about Him with others. You meet Christ by finding Him alive and at work in His people. It was true for Paul and it’s true for us. To be in Jesus you have to be in the church.

It was true for me. The only way I know to tell how I became a Christian, how I became a pastor in a Covenant church, is to talk about other Christians. My mother took me to church and taught me the Bible. A Sunday School teacher named Ted became my friend. Our pastor asked me to accept Jesus as my savior and baptized me.

Coming into the Covenant was the same story. Howard invited me to visit his church. Pastor John and his wife Betty took me out to dinner. Monte got me to join the choir. They invited me to preach, then encouraged me to go to seminary. There the same story was repeated. Eldon and Klyne and Rob and John and Wes and a whole church full of people supported and loved Beth and me through the process of answering God’s call to ministry.

Yes, you can meet Jesus all by yourself in your room or on some lonely road. Paul did. But when you meet Him, He will send you back to His body, back to church. It’s like meeting someone with a huge family. You can’t know Him without knowing the rest. You cannot keep going His direction without joining the flow of people who follow Him.

I have two questions for you. First, how are you like Paul? How are you headed in the wrong direction? How do you need Jesus to reverse your course? Paul changed history because Jesus changed Saul’s history. Will you let Him change yours? Will let Him throw whatever lever is needed right now to turn you in His direction?

Second, how are you like Ananias? Whom do you know who might need you to teach them? Who might be wait­ing for you to come and take them by the hand and lead them a little further into faith? How can you help to bring someone to Jesus? Maybe as a parent, maybe as a Sunday School teacher, maybe as a small group leader, maybe as a friend. If you are a member of the body of Christ, there is another member who needs you.

The Lord turned Saul around. Then He sent Ananias to keep him going the right direction. May God help us to be Jesus’ body on earth, to encourage each other to con­tinue in that new direction, the one which verse 2 calls “the Way.” That Way gives a new course to history because it gives a new course to anyone who follows it. May it be your course. May Jesus be your Way.

Amen.

Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1973), p. 75.