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Acts 9:1-6 (7-19)

Acts 9:1-6 Setting the stage for today’s passage, it’s important to place the text within the greater trajectory of the Acts story. We’ve already seen Philip, Peter, and John present the good news about the resurrection of Jesus to Samaritans (8:4-25), and most recently we’ve seen the Ethiopian receive this news as well (8:26-39). And so the gospel continues to pulse outward from the heart of the empty tomb in Jerusalem to the very ends of the earth, claiming even gentiles for the God of Israel. Now when we arrive at chapter 9, Luke hones in on the one whom God will make into His instrument to ring the gospel out even farther. At v1 Saul’s “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” The preacher could use this phrasing to flash-backward to the scene where Saul is “ravaging the church” (8:3) by entering homes and dragging disciples off to prison, or even farther than that to Saul’s approving nod as the first martyr, Stephen, is stoned (8:1). Luke’s goal seems to be to paint Saul in as menacing a light as possible. It could be interesting to trace, then, how Stephen’s last prayer for forgiveness of his murderers would soon lay hold on the unlikely Saul as well. As Saul is on his way to Damascus to find anyone who belonged to the Way (a very common descriptor of Christians in Acts), a light from heaven flashes around him and he hears a voice. By painting the scene like this, Luke intends to graft this revelation of God’s self into those more traditional theophanies of the First Testament, perhaps that involving Isaiah (Isa. 2:5; 60:19), or Moses (Ex. 19:16), or Ezekiel (Ezek. 1:4, 13). The risen Lord confronts Saul with the question, “Why do you persecute me?” And the query shows just how closely God associates himself with his people. From here a sermon could address how God always stands in solidarity with those afflicted and suffering (think of Jesus’ own ministry to the least of these, or Yahweh’s attention to the enslaved Hebrews back in Exodus 3:7-9). One might even suggest how, ever since Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent gifting of the Spirit to His people, the Church is now, in a mysterious way, the Body of Christ. While the heavenly light reveals the resurrected body of Jesus to Saul, and this encounter will help qualify his future ministry as an apostle, right now he’s left in the dark. “Who are you?” he asks. And so a preacher could play with the images of light and dark, of sight and blindness in this story. Ironically, the time when Saul thought he was most righteously in the light and seeing most clearly, zealously persecuting the church, is when he was actually most blind (a good caution to those confident they’ve got this whole Christian thing figured out…). If one were to use the road to Damascus as a sort of metaphor for conversion, he might consider John Wesley’s notes: “He was three days—an important season! So long he seems to have been in the pangs of new birth. Without sight—by scales growing over his eyes, to intimate to him the blindness of the state he had been in…”[1] This three-day period of rebirth, of waiting in darkness without eating or drinking—it brings to my mind two different but related ideas. First, it’s as though Saul were dead, a corpse left in the dark which does not require food or drink. And as disciples, you know, we’re supposed to die to ourselves daily (Gal. 2:19b-20)! A second track imagines Saul as a baby in a dark womb or as a helpless child being led by the hand to the city where he’ll be told what to do (v6). In his first letter to the Corinthians Paul talks about the time when he was a child; he spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. But then he became an adult. And so it’s interesting to me that after he becomes said “adult,” after he matures as a disciple, after Saul’s sight is restored, he still acknowledges that we see in a mirror “dimly” or “only in part” (1 Cor. 13:12). Could it be that our maturity as disciples is signified, ironically, by our humble acknowledgement that we don’t know it all, that we must constantly and persistently seek even greater degrees of Christlikeness? Can you imagine Paul’s inner turmoil along the Damascus road? Will I be punished? Will I be given grace? Sometimes the call of discipleship beckons us also into uncertain futures. But when the scene with Saul reaches this anxious climax, Luke suspends the tension and pans the camera over to Ananias. Here’s another theophany at v10, and we see again how Luke tells this part of the story to place it on that continuum of revelations we witness of God to the prophets in history. Note the way Saul responded to God (“Who are you?”) versus the readily obedient response of the disciple (“Here I am, Lord!”). And much like the prophets of old, Ananias proceeds to display some hesitation to God’s task for him (Gen. 15:1-3; 17:17; Ex. 3:13; 4:1, 10; Luke 1:18, 34). Of course, Luke’s only trying to reemphasize just how frightening Saul was to the Church. And this also helps to highlight just how different Saul’s life was before he encountered the risen Lord. “Brother Saul,” says Ananias, “the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Did you sense a contrast here? Could Ananias have been setting “your way” against the Way of the Holy Spirit? Saul’s way was characterized by zeal and righteous indignation and violence and murder, whereas the Way of the Spirit is characterized by meekness and humility and peace and non-violence. It’s a Way displayed here by the disciple, Ananias, who blesses his former enemy, and it’s the same Way on which Stephen died as he prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners. This is the Way Saul is baptized into (v18), and it’s on this particular Way we know that Paul, also, will suffer (v16). I think the ending of today’s story naturally lends itself to a response centered around the Table, for after Saul is baptized, he shares food with Ananias. It’s a beautiful image which challenges us to consider how we relate to our own enemies. As threatening and as murderous as their breath may reek, are we daring enough to Commune with those “enemies” in our own church? And how could our practice of Table fellowship during worship affect the way we relate to other kinds of enemies—denominational, political, national, or otherwise? A community which has been encountered by the resurrected Jesus and commissioned to spread His good news will need to evaluate where they stand on this part of the Way. [1] Christian Classics Ethereal Library