• Pastor Michael Brown

The Story of Damascus Road (May 10, 2020)

Acts 8: 1-3, 9: 1-9

The Story of Damascus Road

So our story for today is the conversion of Saul into a man named Paul, who you probably know from our church history. And the story really begins for me when Saul was first introduced to us. And that is at the stoning of a man named Stephen. Briefly, what is going on here is that the church has continued to grow through the disciples, led by the apostles, going out into the city and spreading the Good News: this person that the Jewish religious leadership had put to death was actually raised from the dead by God, he was the Messiah, and that they need to submit themselves to following the way set forth by Jesus. They call themselves the followers of the way. This is a movement within Judaism of those seeking to follow who they claim is the Messiah: this Jesus and his teachings, which they claim to be “the way.”

Of course the religious leadership is not overly happy with this turn of events. They don’t like that people are out there saying that this person they put to death, this person that they claimed was a threat to society, was actually God‘s chosen one. That doesn’t speak great about them, and so they are trying to quell the movement. We see them at various points bring in Peter and John and James, the leaders of the church, for questioning. And we see them chastise the apostles; and their response slowly escalates as they try to quell the movement. Of course, this doesn’t work, and the story of Stephen is the culmination of this escalation.

Stephen is attacked by a mob of angry supporters of the religious leaders. The mob accused Stephen of blasphemy, the same crime that Jesus was accused of. And the punishment remains the same: death. But this time they don’t wait for Rome, they take matters into their own hands. They drag him into a side alley and they stone him to death. Now, if you own a cloak, you know that it’s really difficult to throw with any kind of force if you are wearing a cloak. And so, what they have to do is take the cloaks off. Now, a cloak is very valuable, and so they don’t want the cloak to be stolen. So someone has to guard the cloaks while everyone else is stoning the blasphemer. And we are introduced to the man who guards in the cloaks: his name is Saul. Saul is a young aspiring apprentice to one of the Pharisees, and so he is zealous for the Lord. And he believes, because of what his rabbi had been telling him, that this movement of people who are claiming Jesus to be the Messiah are a threat to God and to the people. Saul’s zealousness for God manifests itself into a crusade against the church, this small movement within Judaism.

I want you to pick up a couple of things. Number one, we are still only a few months from Pentecost. We haven’t gone very far into the history of the church. So if Saul was an aspiring and leading disciple of one of the Pharisees, it is likely that he was still a disciple of that Pharisee when Jesus was crucified. It’s highly likely that Saul was in the crowd yelling “crucify”{ at Jesus‘s trial. Saul has seen the story play out from the very beginning. But he’s seen the story play out from the feet of the religious leadership. The difference between Saul and Peter is merely a difference of who the teacher was. So, one lesson from the story could be simply to make sure you pick your mentors well, and examine your mentors to ensure that what they are telling you is quality stuff to learn.

We see Saul become the leader of the persecution of the church. He’s doing so under the authority of the religious leadership, which means that his authority to do this only goes as far as the authority of the religious leadership of Judaism. That goes through Judea, maybe Galilee, but definitely nowhere beyond that. So this is the area he is operating in. And any people who are claiming Jesus to be the Messiah, anyone who is worshiping in a church setting, holding the Eucharist, things like that is subject to Saul’s persecution. And he would go into these worship services, he would drag every one of them out in chains, and he would throw them in prison.

Now, it does not say what their fate was in prison, but my guess would be that Saul is demanding at the point of a sword that they recant what they are saying; that they publicly go out and say that Jesus is still dead, that he’s not the Messiah, that they have gotten this wrong, and that no one should follow the way. If they do that, they walk home that very moment; don’t do that and they’re stuck in prison until he decides to release them. I would anticipate that would be the fate of most of these Christians. Not a good fate. Not stoned to death, but still not a good fate. And the church flees in fear. They leave in droves away from Judea, back into the Diaspora, out of the reach of Saul.

At this point, the followers of the way are not yet creating a new religion, they are trying to reform Judaism within the old religion. They still are all Jews, they still call themselves Jewish, and they believe that this is a Jewish movement following a Jewish Messiah. It is led by the apostles who remain in Jerusalem. Most everyone else has now left in fear, but the apostles remain in Jerusalem. It is led by Peter, John, and James (whether this is the James the brother of John, the son of Zebedee, that was one of the 12, or whether this is James the brother of Jesus, son of Joseph, who writes the book of James and is the leader of the Jerusalem Council in Acts chapter 15 we don’t know). These are the three main Leaders of the church. And honestly, John begins as an equal of Peter in Acts like chapters 3, 4, or 5, but by now John has been lowered and it’s mostly Peter and James, and then Paul will join them. This is kind of the situation of the church right now.

And Saul is still zealous for his reign of persecution to try and crush this movement. So Saul goes to the Jewish leadership and he says, “I want to go beyond the borders, and I want to get them and drag them back here.” And the Jewish leaders give him an OK. So he leaves Judea, and he goes to some of the other provinces. We’re told that the first place Saul goes is the province of Syria; he’s going to go to the town of Damascus in Syria, which is north of Galilee. He’s going to find all the followers of the way there in Damascus, and is going to arrest them, and he’s going to drag them back to Jerusalem and throw them in prison; likely to force them to recant their faith.

On the way he receives what might be the most famous vision in Scripture. There are some who can challenge it, but this is certainly one of the most famous visions in Scripture. Paul’s vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus is the most famous conversion story in Scripture, I think I’m safe with saying that one. Paul sees a blinding light; he’s knocked down by the blinding light, and he receives a vision of Jesus and voice from the light saying “Saul, why are you persecuting me.” Saul asks who it is, and the voice says it is Jesus, the one you were persecuting. The vision disappears, and we see that Saul is blinded and completely helpless on the road.

Those who were around Saul were able to hear the voice. We’re not told they understood the words, or if there was just a big loud noise, but they were not able to see the vision. Now, those who were following Saul; and keep in mind these are people who were headed to drag the church off, these aren’t exactly friends of the church. They may not have quite the zeal of Saul, but they still enemies of the church. And they are kind of shaken by this. And we know that because when they get to Damascus they don’t start their mission. Their leader is now helpless and blind; they have to help him navigate into the city. They go to the house, presumably it was waiting for them and was owned by a friend by the name of Judas. Not the same Judas, but the name is interesting. And they stay there in the house for three days. Saul, during these three days, fasts. Presumably they try to get him to eat or drink, but he won’t do it. He's trying to understand this vision he has had.

I’ve often wondered about these men that were around Saul in that moment. We know that they don’t go off and attack the church when they arrive, so they had to have been affected by the vision in some way. I don’t know if they understood that this vision came from Jesus in that moment, I don’t know if Saul began to speak to them, or if Saul’s words begin to work on them. What I do know is they didn’t persecute the church. And when a Christian shows up in their midst to preach the Gospel; literally in their house, he walks out. As does Saul after he has converted. I presume that these men are converted around the same time, and that they become Christians. But I’ve often wondered about these men who see this all happen with Saul, and just have to work it out on their own.

Now the story moves to another man who is in Damascus by the name of Ananias. And Ananias is a Christian, and he receives a vision himself from Jesus that he needs to go down to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, and there he will find a man named Saul from Tarsus, and when he does he needs to preach the Gospel to him. Now, Ananias knows all about this Saul. Presumably he knows about Judas and his opinion of the church. He knows for sure, or Scripture tells us blatantly, that he knows about Saul that his reputation has preceded him; that he has caused the entire church in Damascus to sit at home in terror simply by walking in the front gate. “Jesus, we’re not even talking to each other. You want me to to walk up directly to him?” And Jesus says, “Yes. Go to the house of a man who shares the name of the man who betrayed me, and preach the gospel to the largest and greatest enemy of the church.”

Ananias is understandably terrified, but he does it. He walks up to Saul, says he’s been sent by Jesus, and preaches the Good News to Saul. Saul receives the Holy Spirit, is converted, and changes his name to Paul. Scales fall from his eyes and he is suddenly able to see. And he stands up rejoicing, and he begins immediately to go and preach the Good News to all of Damascus. The greatest persecutor of the church has become the greatest evangelist around the church. In an instant he’s gone from trying to purge the gospel in Damascus to trying to preach the gospel in Damascus. A true definition of a miracle.

This story has a lot of lessons to teach us, but there are a couple lessons I really want to focus on today. The first is that this is a story of redemption. This is a story of forgiveness; both of God‘s forgiveness of a person, as well as human forgiveness of a person. And those both have very important things to teach us. First, we see that God forgives Saul, who was the greatest persecutor of the church. Saul was killing, or at least imprisoning, Jesus himself. That’s what the vision says: “why are you persecuting me?” And yet, Jesus forgives Saul. It is another example that there is nothing you could’ve done that puts you beyond redemption. No one is beyond redemption. Everyone can become forgiven. Now, it can involve changing your current behavior. Certainly Saul has to change what he’s doing in order to be a disciple. But he is not beyond redemption. And you, sitting there right now listening to this, you are not beyond redemption. That is the first thing: no one is behind the ability of God to forgive.

But the second part of this is the story of human forgiveness. This whole story doesn’t happen, or at least doesn’t happen in the same way, if Ananias is unwilling to forgive Saul. Keep in mind, my definition of forgiveness is simply surrendering to the right to vengeance. Saul has done horrific things to Ananias’s friends. And Ananias is terrified that he’s going to do the same to him in Damascus. And yet, he put all that aside and offers the good news to this man when God tells him to go. We can compare that to what Jonah does with people of Nineveh. Ananias forgives, and says “if God wants to forgive this horrible person, then I will forgive him as well.” And he goes and preaches the Good News. And Saul is converted as he is preaching the Good News. Not by the vision on Damascus Road, but as Ananias is preaching. God could still have converted Saul without Ananias, sure, but Ananias is a part of the story. And you might be an Ananias to someone today. There could be someone out there who is not beyond redemption, but maybe thinks that they are. And maybe God is working on the heart, but they need someone to come in and just tell them in words that they are forgiven in order to truly accept Christ and repent. That is the story for today: go preach the gospel of forgiveness, of salvation, of acceptance in the eyes of God. And hear it as well. Amen.

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