"Still breathing threats and murder"

Message preached April 29, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  Acts 9:1-20

Order of Worship

(note: this was what I intended to say. At the time, however, I put aside the manuscript
and spoke from the heart. Some of this was said, but much was not. It didn't seem to fit the moment.)

What a tremendous story of how an ardent enemy becomes not only a friend of the disciples of Jesus, but also one of the most eloquent voices for the Way of Christ! It may seem strange to connect this particular scripture to this particular day in the life of this particular congregation. After all, the one whom we just baptized this morning did not come among us "breathing threats and murder" like Saul, of whose conversion and baptism we just heard. No, Jason recently entered our fellowship as a wide-eyed young man, already thirsting for connection to Jesus Christ and the "family" known as his church. A blinding light was not needed to bring an about-face for Jason, to turn a "persecutor" into an "instrument" of the Lord. No, this "vessel" whom we baptized earlier, had already begun to be filled with the goodness and mercy of God - a process which will continue (we pray) for the rest of his life - the way of discipleship.

It is tempting to make the conversion of Saul (about which we just read) into a pattern that we all must follow in our walk with Jesus. However, to be honest, few of us fit the bill. With that in mind, let me lay down some "amazing grace." Our own conversion to Christ does not have to be as dramatic as Saulís. In fact, some of us may feel inadequate, or even somehow cheated, when we hear such stories as this one of Saul - for we may not have experienced any blinding light, revealing the awesome presence of Christ, in our own turning and receiving of him. Of course, some of us have - we needed a spiritual brick wall to run up against in our journey to Jesus, didnít we? Still, there is no "one-size-fits-all" approach.

Thatís especially true of this story of the conversion of Saul. And we can be glad of that! After all, Saul (that was his Hebrew name, the Latinized version was "Paul") entered the scene as an "enemy" of Christ. In fact, he is presented in the Acts of the Apostles as the worst persecutor of the early church. We first see him standing as an approving witness to the murder of a believer.

It happened like this. When the apostles (the early leaders of the church) figured out they needed help, they called forth "Deacons" to handle the day-to-day needs of the believers in Jerusalem, to make sure no one was neglected. One of these was a fellow named Stephen. Now, as is often the case, this Stephen went far beyond his calling. He became a convincing preacher in his own right. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it), his first and last sermon stirred up a hornetsí nest among those who hoped this Jesus "thing" would just go away.

It was almost a lynching. That is, there was a veneer of legality to the whole thing, but the reaction of the opponents of the church verged on a mob action (Acts 7:54-8:3). Stephen was dragged out of town and murdered. The official procedure, if they followed it to the letter, was to stand the accused naked at the edge of a drop twice his height and give him the opportunity to confess - that is, to repeat the blasphemous words for which he was being executed. Then a witness was to push him, head first, over that short cliff. If the fall didnít kill him, a second witness was to drop a large stone on his chest. If that failed to bring about his demise, everyone gathered there was to pick up a stone and finish him off. ...Nice tale, huh!

Well, Saul was there. At his feet were laid the outer garments of those who physically did the dirty work of killing Stephen. "And Saul approved..." In fact, that day marked the beginning of a systematic attempt to root out the followers of Jesus, and get rid of what was perceived to be a dark stain on the people of Israel. At the forefront was Saul. It says he went from home to home, dragging off both men and women, throwing them into prison.

Because some Christians have, over the centuries, used the persecution of the early church by certain Jews as a justification for pogroms, krystalnachts, extermination procedures, and other means of relocating or wiping out the Jewish race, we need to tread carefully through this scripture story. Followers of the Prince of Peace are not herein called to go and do as Saul did, only in reverse. No, this story merely points out that Saul was a head honcho when it came to wiping out the early church. His name became feared. He was "the enemy," pure and simple.

The crazy thing about it was that his actions were done in the name of a greater good. Sometimes the worst atrocities in this world are so committed. "Monsters" can appear to be "good" people. Saul was trying to preserve the faith of Israel by removing those who called upon the name of Jesus - getting rid of a heresy. His was a holy task, or so he thought. He was, after all, a very religious man, intimately acquainted with and trained in the Law of Moses.

On the road to the Syrian city of Damascus, with letters of introduction from the high council addressed to the synagogues there, Saul was firmly committed to his holy calling of cleansing the faithful. Unfortunately, or fortunately - depending upon "The Conversion of Saul," by MICHELANGELO di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni (b. 1475, Caprese, d. 1564, Roma) how you look at it, God had other plans. You heard the story. "Still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord," his way became blocked. A bright light. A voice. A question: "Why?"

"Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" Who is this voice? Itís the very source of the heresy Saul has been fighting. This is the voice of Jesus. What do you do when, all of a sudden, your deepest convictions are uprooted? Thatís what weíre talking about here, isnít it? Saul was a man firmly committed to a mission. He knew where he was going. Such men are rare. Many of us lack conviction, men and women. We donít know where weíre going or why. That wasnít Saul. You could say that on that road to Damascus, this man of conviction was uprooted from the soil of what he held as most sacred. This was a "radical" experience - "radical" meaning "getting at the root," (like a "radish" in which the meat of that plant is found where? - in the root!).

Reduced to the basics, Saul needed to be led away from that spot, for he was blind. "Unless you change and become like children," Jesus had said, "you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child (who sat in Jesusí lap) is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 18:3-4). Didnít he also then say, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (18:5)?

In the story as we have received it, thatís exactly what happened next, wasnít it? Saul, very vulnerable at this point, with a blindness that opened his inner eye to how blind he had really been before this, was received by a disciple named Ananias. You heard the details already. Ananias needed some convincing to reach out to Saul, but he opened his heart to this enemy. In the name of Jesus he came to his "brother Saul," and prayerfully laid his hands upon him. The channels left by those roots torn from the soil of Saulís faith were filled with the awesome presence of God. Saul, or is it Paul?, became Godís chosen instrument, his vessel, for a new mission.

If anything, this account of Saulís conversion may be for those of us who already think we have arrived, and who know just what God wants. Last weekend, at the youth Roundtable in Bridgewater, it became very clear to me that changes are in store ahead for the church. If I say that most every session began with a rock band, and clapping and cheering, do you catch the drift? Some of the high spiritual moments for generation x, y, or z are (and will be) very different from their elders - as if this has not always been the case, duh! Will we allow them (and their music) around the table? Will we try to force them out, by saying that God only likes quiet worship?

Forgive me for making this very personal, all of a sudden. Some churches are having real battles over this very topic. Worship wars. Lines are drawn, enemies clear. As for me, while I am appreciating the "softer" touch more the older I get, I also like variety. Iím not sure Iíll survive the six hours of Contemporary Christian music to which Iím being dragged with the youth in early June. [Iíve been informed my ticket is already purchased, and Iím going.] ...I wonder if the story of the conversion of Saul may apply here? Conversion is not only for the unsaved, you know.

Sometimes, we can stand in Godís way, even those of us who have chosen to follow Jesus. We can even actively oppose the way of Christ, albeit with good intentions. Now, donít hear me saying that if you are not a fan of Christian rock music that you need to be converted. Nor am I saying that I believe we should throw away the organ and hire a band - like some churches have done. Really, this isnít about music, or even about styles of worship. Itís about what God is doing in the world in and around us.

We are beginning a season of baptisms in our church today. Are we ready for what God is doing in and around us, brothers and sisters, even if itís not quite like what weíre used to? New believers are entering our fellowship. Are we open to the gifts God will give them? Every new generation brings the church of Jesus Christ into a new era, you know, whether it wants to be there or not. What I just said means something very different from when I said it at an earlier age. Then I was the new generation. Now, Iím....

Do we need some conversion? I know I do, probably every single day of my life. Otherwise I can still be breathing threats and murder against every bit of change around me, whether itís of God or not. The question is, does it need to be a brick wall, or a blinding light, that stops me in my tracks until I get on the right path? Or am I thirsting for connection to Jesus Christ and his church in such a way that Iím turning in his direction day by day, and not fighting what may seem foreign or unfamiliar? How about you?

Well, weíre not going to finish worship today with a rock song. But I would encourage you not to sing this very familiar hymn in the "same old" way. You know, dragging it out, making it into something that almost sounds like a dirge. Once upon a time, this was a new song, you know. Itís still can be. Letís sing as if it truly is "amazing grace!"

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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