JANUARY 14th, 2018 PASTOR DON PIEPER
IN PAUL'S FOOTPRINTS ACTS 9:1-9; 10-21a
“FROM SAUL TO PAUL”
This morning we step out and into the footprints of Paul – only in this first reading, he's still Saul, and his footprints heading to Damascus are not to make Christians but to arrest, even kill them.
Luke tells us that he doesn't go alone. 'Some men traveled with Saul.'(Acts 9:7) Who are they? Are they his friends or merely folks from Damascus on their way home? Was it by choice or by cir-cumstance that they traveled with Saul? Seems to me that it's wise to know your traveling buddy.
Years ago the story of Jonah was told by the Veggie Tales characters. Jonah, played by a large cucumber, is heading the wrong direction, kind of like Saul, and gets hooked up Carlye, his new travel-ing buddy. To identify himself, the strange looking fellow explains, “My mother was a caterpillar but my father was a worm – but I'm okay with that now.”
As it turns out, Carlyle's a big fan of Jonah. He even has a Jonah doll that when squeezed, says, “A message from the Lord.” Very nice, but as it turns out, he's a slightly, annoying traveling buddy...
Maybe like me, you're a big fan of this guy heading to Damascus. But what do we really know about him as we hit the road, walking in his footprints, as it were, as his proverbial traveling buddies?
He's identified to Ananias simply as “a man from Tarsus named Saul.” (9:11) Ananias has heard plenty about this notorious man from Tarsus. As Saul later states: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, and I was brought up in Jerusalem under Gamailiel. As his student, I was carefully trained in our Jewish laws and customs and became very zealous for God. I persecuted the followers of the Way, hounding some to death, arrest-ing both men and women and throwing them in prison.” (Acts 22:3-4)
Gamaliel was a leading pharisee held in high esteem in Jerusalem. It was he who intervened on Peter and John's behalf when they had been arrested for healing a cripple in Jesus' name. So Saul has surpassed the zeal of his own teacher, kind of like Darth Vader and Obi-wan: '...Now I am the master!'
“I am a pure-blooded citizen of Israel” he later wrote, and a member of the tribe of Benjamin – a real Hebrew if there ever was one, and a member of the Pharisees, who demand the strictest obedience to the Jewish law.” (Philippians 3:5)
While under arrest, Paul would identify further himself as a Roman citizen. When asked by a Roman commander, “'Tell me, are you a Roman citizen?', Paul replied, 'Yes, I certainly am.'
'I am too,' the commander muttered, 'and it cost me plenty!' To which Paul answered, 'But I am a Roman citizen by birth!'” (Acts 22:27-28)
So Saul had some serious clout, and the reason he's heading to Damascus, a city 150 miles north of Jerusalem, a trip that would've taken 3-4 days to make by foot, is that he seeks to crush this move-ment known as “The Way”. The followers of The Way are in Damascus after fleeing Jerusalem when intense persecution broke out following the stoning of a young disciple named, Stephen.
Luke identifies Saul initially as the pharisee who stood by giving his stamp of approval to the illegal stoning of Stephen: “As they began to stone him..., they laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul... While they were stoning Stephen...Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”
(Acts 7:58; 8:1)
I share all this because this Saul fellow is going to be our traveling buddy for a while. It's on the road, after all, that Saul has a life-changing encounter with the risen Nazarene, Jesus. It's not a vision he sees but Jesus himself, evident in that his traveling buddies saw the flash of light too and “heard the sound but did not see anyone.” (Acts 9:7) But Saul did... He clarifies this later in his letters, when he writes, “(Jesus) appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me....” (1 Corinthians 15:7-8)
It is his encounter with Jesus that turns Saul's life upside down and inside out. How ironic that it is only in being blinded by Jesus' light that Saul comes to truly see. And when Jesus returns sight to his blinded eyes through the prayer ministry of his new brother, Ananias, Paul's perspective is radically altered. “Filled with the Holy Spirit..., he got up and was baptized...and at once began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God! And all those who heard him were amazed...!”
I bet they were! I bet they were! Can you imagine what that was like for his traveling buddies? They'd seen the blazing light but had not been blinded by it. They'd heard a voice but could not make out what was being said. They could see Saul talking to someone but couldn't see anyone.
Along the way their traveling buddy had been constantly “breathing out murderous threats against the Lord's disciples”, and now, just three or four days later here he is passionately preaching that this same Lord, “Jesus, is the Son of God...proving (in Scripture) that Jesus is the Christ!”
(Acts 9:1, 20, 22)
They must've been stunned. Why would Jesus appear to Saul – the persecutor? There must be some mistake? Maybe Saul had gone mad. I mean, why would God choose Saul, of all people?
Luke later informs us that “When (Saul) went back to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples there, but they did not believe he truly had become a disciple.” (Acts 9:25)
Who can blame them? This didn't seem like God's way. God faithful, people like Moses, Abra-ham & David men - whose faith was legendary. But Saul was responsible for the death of countless Christians. Why in the world would Jesus choose such a man as his disciple,to spread his gospel?
Isn't God constant and never changing? As Scripture declares: “But you, O Lord, remain the same and your years will never end.” (Psalm 102:270 And again, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)
Yes, it is true. God is constant and Jesus remains the same – steadfast and unchanging is he, but that doesn't mean God's ways of engaging us are unchanging. Scripture reveals that our changeless God is constantly doing a new thing, inspiring us to sing a new song, revealed in unexpected ways!
One of the great names or metaphors for Jesus is that of the Lion of Judah. Mmm – powerful!
This Judah evokes images of strength, faithfulness, promise. But in my devotions this week I read the only story that focuses on Judah and his character outside of the story of his brother Joseph, for whom he conspired with his brothers to murder and eventually sold into slavery.
In Genesis 38 one learns how Judah abandoned his brothers, disobeyed his father by marrying a foreigner, lied to his daughter-in-law, only to sleep with her later thinking she was a prostitute, and then tried to cheat her again, finally admitting, “She is more righteous than I...!” (Genesis 38:26)
At least in that, he was spot on! Yet it was from his family tree that the messiah would come. And talk about unexpected – this long promised messiah, the anointed one, who was destined to rule over an eternal kingdom, was not born in a palace, but in a barn, wrapped not in silk, but placed in a feeding trough. He would go on to hang out with sinners and traitors, tell his followers that he came not to be served but to serve, to bring good news to the poor and would die the death of a criminal.
No wonder people didn't recognize him! He was totally outside the box! As John bore witness: “The world did not recognize him. He came to his own people and even they rejected him.”
Jesus came as the unexpected, unrecognized messiah. Saul, like his messiah, wasn't recognized and was also rejected by his own people. He was the unexpected messiah's unexpected missionary, and when he was sent from Antioch as such, he went from being called Saul to Paul – a new creation!
Saul as a pharisee thought he had God all figured out. But this Lion of Judah is God in action, a God of surprises, moving in new, unexpected ways. In C.S. Lewis' Narnia stories there's a repeating refrain said about this Lion of Judah, articulated to those struggling to understand His ways...
[DVD clip from the film, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe; 2:07:53 – 2:08:55]
Indeed, this Lion of Judah is not a tame lion. He remains the same yet is totally outside the box we tend to try and keep him in. And he chooses the most unlikely of candidates, the most unexpected instruments to reveal his love and grace through – instruments like a pharisee called Saul, of whom Jesus said: “Saul is my chosen instrument to take my message to the Gentiles and to kings...” (9:15); or former fishermen like Peter and John, who turned the heads of their adversaries, who “saw their boldness, and could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures and yet recognized them as men who had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)
And our changeless God is still moving in unexpected ways, through the most unlikely instru-ments, instruments like an ordinary man and his wife with no church background who God's been send-ing to Eastern Europe to share Jesus' love with the children there, or a former agnostic who had a close encounter with God and now greets at the door, or a former convict and meth adict who invites the un-churched into his home and with his wife provides meals and serves up Christ, or a massage therapist who had new age music and literature in the room the first time I went and now turns on Christian radio and offers to pray over her clients, or a homeless couple practicing Buddhism who, having been filled with the Spirit, are now running our Alpha Course and serving as Evangelism chair on council!
God is on the move doing a new thing, working in unexpected ways thru ordinary folk! We too are to be God's chosen instruments of God's grace, taking his message to those who've yet to recognize it, seeking to meet people's needs and share the love of Jesus as we walk boldly....in Paul's footprints!