Moving Roadblocks Aside
May 01, 2022
Third Sunday of Easter
Text: Acts 9:1-20
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Last Sunday, our focus was on roadblocks to the proclamation of the Good News, that is, the Easter message that Jesus is alive. (He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!) The primary roadblock in the account from Acts that we shared a week ago was the Sanhedrin and their demand that Peter, John, and the other disciples STOP preaching and healing in Jesus’ name.
Even though they suffered for doing so, they did not stop and the “Jesus Movement,” also referred to as “The Way,” flourished. In response to which, a roadblock developed in the person of a Pharisee named Saul, an adherent to the laws and traditions of the Jewish faith. He saw the followers of “The Way” – of Jesus - as a threat and was determined to stop them. (Remember, at this point, what we call Christianity was still considered a sect of the Jewish faith.)
He even intended to hunt down his enemies in the distant city of Damascus. The first sentence of today’s passage says it all: “Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
Suddenly, as he traveled there, Saul’s life and the future of the Way changed. He was blinded by a bright light, fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” So it is that Saul discovered that the person he thought was a hoax – the resurrected Jesus - actually existed, was aware of what he had been up to, and was about to help him see the light in a dramatic way.
One of the many interesting details of this story is that, unlike many conversion stories, when people make a choice to recognize their sinfulness and ask for forgiveness, Saul’s conversion was not his idea. As commentator Doug Bratt notes, Saul did not recognize that he had made himself God’s enemy by persecuting the followers of Jesus because he assumed they were God’s enemies. Saul’s conversion is strictly God’s idea and came from God’s initiative. (1)
Interestingly, a similar thing is true of Ananias, who was sent by Jesus not only to heal Saul’s blindness but set him on the right track as a follower of Jesus. The idea of purposely assisting the faith’s number on foe was so inane that Ananias actually argued with Jesus, thinking it was a mistake: “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” In other words, Jesus must have picked the wrong guy.
But, no, Saul is God’s chosen instrument, who will suffer for Jesus’ name. With those astounding words ringing in his ears, Ananias prayed for the one he longed to avoid. As was true of Saul, his part in all this was not his idea. Ananias was not quite as helpless as Saul in the face of Divine activity, but he probably felt that was the case. So it is that he prayed for Saul, even calling him “brother,” asking that he would regain his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.
Listen to a summary of the situation by commentator Scott Hoezee: “You wonder what Saul thought when the scales fell from his eyes only to have those eyes then fall on the kind – if somewhat wary – face of Ananias. A few days earlier, Saul would have seen red to behold such a Jesus person, but now he sees instead the face of a brother in the Lord.
“If Saul turned Paul became the early church’s biggest champion of grace, you know full well that it was this dramatic turn-around in his own life that was the wellspring of every syllable of grace Paul ever preached or wrote about in the coming years.” (2)
We see in this story a profound transformation between Saul’s opening threats and his concluding preaching in the synagogues that Jesus is God’s son. In it, disciples and non-disciples alike are swept up in God’s plan.
That takes us back to where we ended last week, that the Christian faith will live on because it is of Divine, not human origin. Remember how the Pharisee Gamaliel advised his fellow members of the Sanhedrin, who were so enraged at the disciples that they wanted to kill them? (Talk about a roadblock!)
“…if this plan (the Jesus movement) is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – that case you may even be found fighting against God!” (Acts 5:38-39)
As important as Saul/Paul will be to the Christian faith – it’s not an understatement to say that he was the greatest Christian missionary and champion of God’s grace – this is still God’s story, and it is God’s power that makes things happen. Consider this; Saul was persecuting the followers of Jesus because he thought he knew exactly who was who in God’s grand scheme of things.
In his pre-conversion faith construct, the good guys, the ones headed to heaven, were the pious, observant Jews keeping track of those 600+ laws and traditions. The band guys headed the other direction, who needed to be rooted out before they infected the faith, were the followers of a morally sloppy rabbi named Jesus of Nazareth.
He was wrong. As Christian writer Frederick Buechner put it, “Paul set out as a hatchet man for the Pharisees and returned a fool for Christ.” Or, quoting Scott Hoezee again, “Paul had to eat crow the rest of his days, proclaiming that everything he had believed once upon a time was bogus, a lie, the opposite of what he now knew to be the truth of grace.”
Isn’t it interesting that in his mind the Kingdom of God transformed from a highly exclusive “Members Only” club to a hope expressed in the book of Romans that all nations on earth would believe? (3)
There’s a message or two here for us. One is to realize that we are privileged to be a part of God’s ever-unfolding drama, but it’s not about us; it’s about God, who will use us to accomplish God’s purpose.
The other message is that we should not be too sure of ourselves in terms of identifying God’s will or determining who is “in” and who is “out” when it comes to the Kingdom of God. Thankfully, that also is in God’s hands, and God seems to specialize in grace.
What we must do is leave room for Jesus to surprise us. As he did Saul and Ananias, so that we, too, by the power of the Spirit, move aside roadblocks to the proclamation of the Good News. AMEN
(1) “Sermon Commentary on Acts 9:1-20” by Doug Bratt, April 10, 2016, www.cepreaching.org
(2) “Sermon Commentary on Acts 9:1-20” by Scott Hoezee, May 1, 2022, www.cepreaching.org
(3) Same as #2