Man, Mission, Master
The Sunday of the Conversion of St. Paul
Acts 9:1 Now Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest, 2 and asked for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, both men and women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 And it came about that as he journeyed, he was approaching Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him; 4 and he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?" 5 And he said, "Who art Thou, Lord?" And He said, "I am Jesus whom you are persecuting, 6 but rise, and enter the city, and it shall be told you what you must do." 7 And the men who traveled with him stood speechless, hearing the voice, but seeing no one. 8 And Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; and leading him by the hand, they brought him into Damascus. 9 And he was three days without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a certain disciple at Damascus, named Ananias; and the Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." And he said, "Behold, here am I, Lord." 11 And the Lord said to him, "Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for behold, he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him, so that he might regain his sight." 13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much harm he did to Thy saints at Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon Thy name." 15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine, to bear My name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; 16 for I will show him how much he must suffer for My name's sake." 17 And Ananias departed and entered the house, and after laying his hands on him said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road by which you were coming, has sent me so that you may regain your sight, and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 And immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he regained his sight, and he arose and was baptized; 19 and he took food and was strengthened. Now for several days he was with the disciples who were at Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 And all those hearing him continued to be amazed, and were saying, "Is this not he who in Jerusalem destroyed those who called on this name, and who had come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" 22 But Saul kept increasing in strength and confounding the Jews who lived at Damascus by proving that this Jesus is the Christ.
I. Life of Saul
No one questions the zeal of Saul, some might question his motives, but no one wants to get in his way. This is a man who sincerely believes in his mission. He's not a reckless vigilante; he has direct orders from his superiors and the papers to prove it. Much of the population agrees with him; he's well respected. But Saul isn't really worried about public approval; first and foremost, he’s operating with the utter conviction that he’s on a mission from God. If God is for him, who dare be against him?
So Saul departs on his first, and last, missionary journey as a Pharisee. His mission is to find anyone who calls upon the name of Jesus the Christ; and when he finds them, he’s going to arrest them and bring them to the chief priests for a quick trial. If they have to die, so be it, because they're destructive to the state’s religion. Saul's a great admirer of Moses and the law, and he's based his whole life on keeping the rules. God spoke directly to Moses on Mt. Sinai with His shining glory what else could be clearer? How good to be Moses, or at least to follow those same rules. But these followers of the Way, as they were called, have a different, destructive message. They teach faith in this Jesus, who was crucified and who supposedly arose from the dead. Rather than insist on perfect obedience to the Law they declare that Jesus forgives them of their sin. Saul won’t tolerate this, for it threatens the rules that he lives by. Saul fervently believes that his way is God's way. In the name of the almighty God, Saul will destroy this plague called Christianity.
Saul will straighten out these Christians, or kill them. How narrow minded and arrogant to call themselves the Way. And then to insist that it is the only way.
It's on the road to Damascus that Saul finally gets to be like Moses: In the midst of a glorious bright light the Lord speaks to him. But there’s no comfort in it at all. The voice identifies Himself as the Lord saying I am “Jesus, whom you are persecuting"- this is the very one whom Saul is out to destroy. When Jesus leaves Saul on the road, Saul is blind and in utterly broken. Saul thought he had it all figured out. He was God's instrument, doing the Lord's will. But before he gets into Damascus, he finds out that he’s God's enemy and persecutor of the true believers. As Saul is led to Damascus, his entire life, his creed, his rules and precious regulations crumble to dust.
Three days later, the Lord speaks to a man named Ananias and sends him to Saul. Ananias isn’t thrilled with the task of visiting a man who had planned his execution, but the Lord is persistent. God tells Ananias to go and make a disciple, baptize and teach him. So the reluctant Pastor Ananias, called by God, goes to Saul. He lays his hands on him, speaks God's Word, and Saul can see. Saul is baptized, and Saul receives the Holy Spirit.
From there, behold the grace of God at work in Saul. The former persecutor didn’t crawl into a hole or run away from the situation. Rather, by God's grace, he went to the synagogues and preached that this Jesus, he once despised, is the Christ is the Son of the living God. Where he had once used Moses and the Law as a reason to stamp out Christianity he henceforth would use it to show how Moses pointed to Christ.
Paul went on many missionary journeys as the Lord's foremost missionary to the Gentiles, to kings, and to the Jews. He preached to Jews in the synagogue wherever his travels took him. He debated with the intellectuals of Athens about their many gods, and he worked with the permissive, immoral Corinthians. He testified before the greatest rulers of his day. People like Felix, Festus, Agrippa, even Caesar himself. He even set his sights on the far reaches of the world, like Spain. He proclaimed Christ to different races and different social orders. And throughout his preaching and his epistles, the message was the same. He proclaimed Christ and Him crucified and risen! He emphasized the importance of pure doctrine and Holy Baptism. He writes about the Lord's Supper and insists that it be kept according to God's Word.
And Paul knows the importance of pure doctrine; when his Biblical teaching was impure, he used it to kill Christians, but God’s pure Word of grace saved him. He knows the importance of the Lord's Gospel and means of grace, because that's where God delivers salvation. Before the road to Damascus, he knew God's commands inside and out but there was no salvation in them. Outside of Damascus on the road, the Lord was with him but it was a terrifying ordeal without grace. But when the Lord came to Saul by His Word of Absolution and Baptism Saul was forgiven for all of his sins.
That's what Paul would be all about, keeping the Lord's Word pure with the focus on Christ and His means of grace, for that is where you will find the Lord. Paul’s mission was to get that message out to the ends of the earth.
II. Lessons from Paul
Turning to our present time, there are many important lessons to learn from Paul. Quite a few of them have to do with knowing God's will - if you don’t know God's will, how can you proclaim it?
First, the approval of rulers and leaders is no proof that something is God's will. Paul had signed letters from the chief priests that authorized him to persecute even kill the Christians, but it was still wicked before the eyes of the Lord. Regardless whether one has authorization from a leader or supervisor, the most important question is this: What does God’s Word say?
Secondly, popular opinion is no way to assess God's will, either. This should be obvious enough: If the majority of people support immorality, this doesn’t make immorality right. If a TV program runs many years, if a movie series has many sequels, it doesn’t mean the content is correct. Whether or not Paul had the blessing of a lot of people, his mission was still an evil one. Popular opinion will often be the opinion of a sinful populace, and it will sway with every spirit that blows through society. The question again is this: What does God’s Word say?
Thirdly, inner conviction isn’t good proof of God's will. When Saul left for Damascus, he was utterly convinced that he was on a mission from God. That God’s desire was for him to persecute and execute Christians. Be warned: The claim that "God told me to do this" isn’t proof of the Lord's blessing. In fact, it's prudent to be suspicious of the speaker that claims such. Don’t let anyone persuade you that some teaching is right because they're personally convinced of it; and don’t try to interpret God's will by what you feel. Many times, false teachings seem very sensible; and sometimes it can make God's Word feel totally foreign or alien. Don’t rely only on convictions that you've constructed inside yourself. The question again is this: What does God’s Word say?
This leads us to the fourth lesson, an important one: It’s not enough to have the Word - one must be able to rightly divide the Word of truth. In other words, one must properly distinguish between Law and Gospel. Paul had God's Word. He knew the Old Testament backwards and forwards far better than you or I ever will. But for him, it was a closed book because he didn’t have faith. He clung to the laws, but he saw no Gospel. That is until his conversion. He based his life upon the Scriptures; but because he didn’t properly interpret them, his understanding of the Scriptures led him to kill Christians. This teaches us that, like it or not, Christians must always be vigilant. It’s tragic that so many churches have simply dispensed with the Word of God and gone with the laws and rules of man. By doing so they claim authority over God’s Word. But even when a church still claims the Bible as its authority, it can still preach a wrong message if it doesn’t properly divide the law and Gospel.
Another point a related that is the fifth lesson: Just because someone claims to do something in Jesus' name doesn't mean that the Lord approves. Throughout history, many ill deeds have been committed in Jesus' name by those who call themselves Christian; this doesn’t make those actions right or those responsible into believers. Today, many abominations are still committed in Jesus' name, as His name is often abused to justify false teachings.
The sixth lesson is far more comforting. Faithfully, as promised, the Lord makes disciples and forgives sins by His means of grace. He might have knocked Saul over on the road with a bright light, but He forgave Saul's sins by the Word and Holy Baptism. When you strip away the spectacular parts of the story, here it is: Saul was a violent sinner who was forgiven by Jesus, through simple means of Word and water.
Until the end, people will claim that God is at work in all sorts of supernatural and paranormal ways; but if you want to be forgiven, be baptized. Hear His Words of Absolution. Receive His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins. Don't look for God's grace in bright lights or anything else: Go where the Lord has promised to be for you.
And make no mistake: You do have the Lord's favor. This is the final lesson for today. Behold the great mercy of God that He would forgive the likes of Saul the Persecutor for his sins of false doctrine and violent practice. He extends that same mercy to you. You have the Lord's favor because Christ has died in your place on the cross (T) and risen from the dead. You have the Lord's favor because, just as He did for Saul, the Lord has made you His own in Holy Baptism. You have the Lord's favor because, just as He did for Saul, the Lord continues to forgive your sins, continues to proclaim, "My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in your weakness." You know the Lord is with you because the Lord comes to be with you: He gives you His own body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins. Saul's past and his circumstances and life experiences might be far different from yours or mine, but the Lord treats him the same way He treats us. He calls us to repentance with His Law. Then He makes His own for the sake of Jesus the Christ. He keeps us by continuing to be with us through the means of grace. Yes, for Jesus sake, the Father proclaims that all your sins are forgiven by the price paid in full on Calvary (T) cross. For all you sins are forgiven in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, For Jesus sake and in Jesus name, amen and amen!
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. AMEN