The following is the sermon manuscript I used on July 30, 2017, the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost. It will vary in places from the actual sermon preached.
For more on this series, see our Introduction.
Sermon Text – Acts 9:1-19a
There is at least one question our text this morning begs you to answer.
Do you see Jesus?
Every morning I wake up and I stumble to find my glasses. I hate it. When I was in the third grade, I remember wanting glasses so I could look cool like I thought my best friend at the time looked. Sure enough, in the fourth grade, I started having to sit closer to chalkboard. I had to go to the eye doctor, and I had to get glasses. Now, I can’t see the big “E” on the eye exam chart without them. I always say the same thing: “I know it’s an ‘E,’ but I can’t see it.” I can’t even see my glasses in the morning before I put them on! If I don’t put my glasses in the exact same place each night before I go to bed, I stumble around like an idiot trying to find them. I kind of want to go back and slap my third-grade self for making such a stupid wish!
My reality is that I cannot see without them. The world is so distorted to me without my glasses that I cannot function without them. I would be a serious danger to others if I tried to drive without them.
At the start of this passage, Saul is a blind man barreling down a crowded highway in a semi-truck. In verse one, he’s not physically blind – yet – but make no mistake: Saul is just as spiritually blind here as he will soon be physically. And dangerous. Yes, Luke chooses to introduce this famous apostle, whom we most often call Paul, Luke’s friend and traveling companion, the man who would go on to write half of the New Testament…as a murderer. Because that is who Saul is. His blindness is no excuse.
As we saw from a couple of weeks ago, he approved the murder of Stephen, and now we see him breathing murder. Like Cain (the first murderer who rose against his brother) Saul’s lungs are filled with the breath of hatred and death instead of the Spirit of life that comes from God. What makes it worse is that he has legal (and what he thinks is godly) justification for what he wants to do. There is no one and no conscience within himself to stop what him.
If you were watching this narrative as a movie or a TV show, you would think that the director was setting up Saul to be the great villain of this story. Here is the man whom the heroic apostles must struggle against and endure. Here is the one who is going to create some dramatic tension for us to see the great heroism and perseverance of these Christians in the face of the persecution.
But as Derek and I have said many times before, the apostles are not the heroes of Acts. Though church tradition has called this “The Acts of the Apostles,” there is no main character here other than the Holy Spirit. The great villain of Acts doesn’t become the great villain he’s set up to be! Instead, Saul defeated by the real hero of this book – Jesus – just as this villain’s persecution is about to get started in earnest. And he is defeated not by Jesus killing him (though certainly we should talk about this being the time that the old Saul dies and the new Saul in Christ is born). But Jesus defeats Saul by causing him to see.
The light of almighty God shines on him. And in that light, he sees that by persecuting Jesus’ followers, he is persecuting Jesus himself. And in that light, he sees that by persecuting Jesus himself he is murdering the very God he thought he followed. But this light that shines isn’t clear to everyone. We know from the details here and from the other places Luke recounts this story in Acts, Saul’s companions see the light, but they don’t see Jesus. They hear a voice, but it’s not clear that they’ve heard or understood the words. How is it that Saul saw Jesus?
One of the symptoms of severe sleep deprivation is hallucinations. One military school I attended is infamous for this, and there are stories of students trying put imaginary coins in trees thinking they’re coke machines. I have not had a Damascus Road experience quite like Paul, but I have had an I-85 experience. This might come as a bit of a shock to you, but I was a nerd in college. My poor college decisions don’t involve drinking and driving but driving after being up too many hours studying and writing. I remember one finals period when I drove from my home in Lanett to Auburn and stayed on campus two nights to try to finish everything. I had some periodic naps on couches, more 5-hour energy drinks than I’d care to admit to, and took a shower at the gym. When I had finally turned in my last paper, I started the drive back to go to bed. It normally took about 35 minutes. At four in the morning after being more or less awake for 60 hours, driving back felt like three hours. Thankfully, there weren’t many cars on the road, but the ones that were – I swear looked like space ships!
Saul did not hallucinate this vision of Jesus. When Saul was knocked down into the dirt, he was snapped out of his hallucination to see reality. This was not some vision that was somehow separated from the “real” world we live in. No. Saul was given a glimpse of something – or should I say, someone – who was more real than the dirt on the ground he felt when he fell. John in his Gospel tells the story of the disciples who were gathered together in a locked room after Jesus had died. Suddenly, Jesus appeared amongst them – not as a ghost or a vision, but as a flesh-and-blood human being who allowed Thomas to touch and feel his wounds. How did Jesus get in the door? The risen Christ was more real than the door and could not be contained or stopped by it!
So too, the risen Christ could not be contained or stopped by Saul’s hallucination of how he thought the world really was. The Holy Spirit opened Saul’s eyes to see! The others experienced a real event, but without the Spirit, they were more blind than Saul.
Do you see Jesus?
Sisters and brothers, everything that Saul did in the passage that was worthwhile and good – his obedience in entering the city, his praying, his fasting, his baptism, the breaking of the fast – was done because he had seen Jesus.
It’s not the other way around. Saul didn’t find Jesus by preaching Jesus, or suffering for Jesus’ name, or being baptized, or praying, or fasting. All of these things are very good, but they did not come first! Saul did not get baptized in a t-shirt that said, “I have decided!” No one told Saul, “Congratulations!” or “I’m so proud of you!” after he was baptized. Jesus saw Saul first and by the Holy Spirit, Jesus caused Saul to see him. That murdering Saul, who was killing Jesus all over again by sending the followers of Jesus to be killed was chosen by Jesus to be the Apostle to the Gentiles.
No wonder Saul later wrote, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Do you see Jesus? Squinting will do you no good – sisters and brothers, he is here in this place! He is here because he has promised to be where two or more are gathered in his name. He is here because he has promised and not because we’re so great apart from him. He didn’t say he would be here only if the hymns were ones we liked, or the people were people we liked, or if we thought the preaching was inspired or inspiring. He is the Lord who decides where he will and will not go.
He is here, whether we experience him or not, and the times when we don’t feel like we experience him in worship are the times we most need to be knocked down in the dirt! Those are the times we need to be blinded by his light! Those are the times we need to have the scales fall from our eyes.
So often, we try to chase after some worship “experience” where we feel close to Jesus and don’t see the Jesus standing right in front of us, calling us by name. We nit-pick. We lose our contentment in the present Immanuel, God with us, because we become so focused on chasing experience or complaining about what’s not right that we fail to thank God for his very presence. We think what we do here is mundane. Not miraculous. Certainly far from the Damascus road.
But that distance is in our mind’s eye – not God’s. We need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes. We need the Holy Spirit to show us Jesus.
And indeed he is here. “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” If Jesus is so intimate with his disciples, so close to them that when they are faced with persecution and murder and death, he says that it is his own persecution and his own death – as he says to Saul – then how can we doubt that he shows up to what seems like an ordinary, peaceful Sunday morning? And if he is here – how can we do anything but fall to the ground, shaken by the light of his presence.
How can we not – like Ananias – see Christ at work in our sisters and brothers, especially those sisters and brothers whom we don’t like, whom we criticize, even those who have wronged us in the past. Paul had people Ananias loved handed over to be killed. And the first word Ananias says to Paul is “brother!”
Sisters and brothers, the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see Jesus. He has opened our eyes to see Jesus standing right in front of us, telling us that he will never leave us nor forsake us. He calls us by grace – not what we have done! Even the vile things we did this week cannot separate us from the reality of Christ’s presence with us now and always. Just as Saul later wrote: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord!”
Sisters and brothers, see the risen Christ at work here and in one another and be at peace. Amen.