Saturday 6 October 2018

Still angry (Acts 9:1-31)

I watched Spider-man four times this summer with friends who hadn’t seen it before but whom I was keen to watch it with. It’s a great movie. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. But I noticed something watching Spider-man four times with my friends. Everyone thinks they’re Spider-man. No-one ever thinks of themselves as the villain.

Come with me to Acts Chapter 9.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem.
Acts 9:1-2

Saul is the bad guy. No doubt about that. He is breathing out murderous threats against Christians (verse 1). He literally wants them dead.

The thing is, Saul thinks he’s the good guy. That’s what makes him so interesting and so dangerous, I guess.

He goes up to the high priest and says “I’m going to help you deal with this Christian problem. I’m going to save the day.” He thinks he is being the hero by offering to catch all these Christians who have run away to Damascus. “I’m going to bring them back.”

Yet, at the same time, he has an agenda. It’s not justice, it’s hatred. If you’re a Christian, he hates your guts. If you’re a Christian, Saul is coming to get you.

What do you do with someone like Saul? You call the police, right? Except Saul is the police; you’re the criminal. “He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus” - like a warrant - “so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem”. In Saul’s mind, you’ve broken the rules, he’s keeping the rules. In Saul’s mind, he has every right make your life miserable. Because in Saul’s mind, he is the good guy, not you.

What do you do with a guy like Saul? Saul’s anger and hatred is the kind that can never be satisfied. Notice the word “still” in verse 1. He’s still angry. Stephen is dead but he’s still angry. The church is destroyed but he’s still angry. Jesus once said, “The time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (John 16:2). That’s Saul. He’s angry because he thinks, “God wants me to be angry.”

No, he doesn’t. No, he doesn’t.

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.
Acts 9:3-5

Who does Saul really hate? Jesus. No, that can’t be right. He’s persecuting Christians. God wants me to kill these Christians. But Jesus says, “The one you are persecuting is me. The one you are trying to kill is me.” How can that be?

Jesus is so connected to the church that if you hurt anyone in the church, you hurt him. The church is his body. When you hurt someone here in the Chinese Church, Jesus knows it. Jesus feels it. The church is a part of him because he died for his church. He gave his life for the church.

But take it a step further, Jesus is saying: The one you hate is me. “Saul, Saul,” he begins. He is speaking to a man deeply angry at God, deeply frustrated with God.

And when Saul says, “Who are you, Lord?” he knows and he doesn’t know. I mean, he knows it’s God - the light from heaven, the voice from heaven - Saul knows enough to call him Lord. But what Saul doesn’t know is that Jesus is Lord. What Saul doesn’t realise is that Jesus is God, though, maybe part of him did.

Martin Luther once said, “Love God? Sometimes I hate him.” People look at you and see a good guy who is serving God, who is so in love with God but on the inside, if you’re honest, you hate him. That’s why you hate Christians. That’s why you hate churches. And there on the road of hatred, as it were, the risen Lord Jesus appears to Saul and says, “That’s enough.”

“Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men travelling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.
Acts 9:6-9

This really happened. These witnesses confirm that what happened really happened, it wasn’t just in Saul’s head. And yet, only Saul could hear Jesus and see Jesus. This encounter was just for him.
“Get up. Go to the city.” All commands from Jesus. Saul is no longer in charge. “You will be told what you must do.” He gets it. He gets up and realises he’s blind. He has to be led by the hand into the city. Is he being punished - struck blind for his sin? More likely, it’s a sign of lifelong blindness towards God. Saul gets it. For three days, he did not eat or drink anything.

This event - Saul’s conversion - is recorded three times in the book of Acts. That’s worth saying. We find it again in Chapter 22 and again in Chapter 26 - it’s a big deal. Here’s a guy so blind to his hatred until he met Jesus; so blind to his sin until he met Jesus. And any Christian worth their salt will say the same thing: Meeting Jesus opens our eyes. To our lifelong blindness. To our lifelong rejection of God.

For Saul, it was literal. He was struck blind and for three days, he did not eat or drink anything, meaning, he was repentant. He knew he needed to change. He knew Jesus was Lord.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”
“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”
Acts 9:10-12

I love Ananias. Jesus appears to him, calls him by name and what does he say? “Yes, Lord.” Not, “You’re real?” (Or in Cantonese: Hak Sei Yan!) Not even, “Who are you, Lord?” which is what Saul said. “Yes, Lord.” He’s ready to do whatever Jesus wants him to do.
Except when Jesus says, “Go help that man Saul.”

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”
Acts 9:13-14

Ananias never says, “No.” But you get what he’s trying to say. “Are you sure, Lord? That guy, Lord?” I recently learned what passive-aggressive means and now that I’ve learned it I’m doing my best to unlearn it. It’s saying no without saying no. It’s not very nice and not very Christian. Ananias is essentially saying no to Jesus.

And Jesus has to tell him a second time. “Go!”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”
Acts 9:15-16

“Acts is about God using unexpected people to do unexpected things,” one friend said to me recently and that’s true. God can save anyone and use anyone to reach everyone.

But there is something special about Saul. “This man is my chosen instrument,” Jesus says. You see, Saul is not simply an unexpected person, he is the most unexpected person ever! I think that’s the point. God loves to do this. He loves to show his grace, his love and his goodness to the most unlikely person ever - the kind of guy who will never become a Christian, the kind of girl who will never accept Christ - they are precisely whom God loves to reach.

Saul writing later as Paul would say, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners - of whom I am the worst” (1 Timothy 1:15) I am sinner number one!

And what Jesus is saying is: I know what I am doing. When Ananias questions him, when we question him, we forget that God is God in sovereignty and in salvation. People like Saul are exactly the kind of people God wants to save.

So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptised; and taking food, he was strengthened.
Acts 9:17-19

What does it mean when I call you “brother” or “sister” here in church? It means I’ve forgotten your name. Hey, brother!

But for Ananias, it meant forgiveness. Everything you did in the past was paid for by the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. God forgives you; I forgive you. You are family. Ananias places his hands on Saul and immediately he is healed physically (“he regained his sight”) supernaturally (“immediately… scales fell from his eyes”) and spiritually (“that you may be filled with the Holy Spirit”).  He was baptised - no delay - Saul was now a Christian. “Brother Saul.”

The story should end here. In fact, the story should end with verse 31: “Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace.” They lived happily ever after.

Except it doesn’t. Jesus says, “This man is my chosen instrument,” and he means it.

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who caused havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’ Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Messiah.
Acts 9:20-22

Saul preaches. Saul grows more and more powerful proving that Jesus is the Messiah. And that sounds great until you realise not a single person becomes a Christian. Instead, what we see is a lot of people wanting to kill Saul.

After many days had gone by, there was a conspiracy among the Jews to kill him, but Saul learned of their plan. Day and night they kept close watch on the city gates in order to kill him. But his followers took him by night and lowered him in a basket through an opening in the wall.
Acts 9:23-25

By the way, Saul (aka Paul) recounts this in one of his letters as possibly the most embarrassing, humbling experience in his ministry (we find it in 2 Corinthians 11, where he says, “I am not lying.”) Epic fail.

But Saul is Jesus’ chosen instrument. Maybe things will be better in Jerusalem.

When he came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Hellenistic Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the believers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
Acts 9:26-30

Interesting, isn’t it? The same thing happens. He is viewed with suspicion by the church (as Ananias did earlier). He preaches Jesus but they try to kill him. He runs away and only after that does the church experience peace (verse 31). What’s going on?

Two things. Firstly, we see the same anger we saw in Saul in others, specifically, the people who try to kill him; specifically the people who try to stop him from preaching about Jesus. We see it in Damascus in the synagogues he was sent to by the high priest. We see it in Jerusalem, interestingly, in the Greek/Hellenistic Jews - the significance being these were the same people who killed Stephen and the same people Saul supported when they were killing Stephen. Now they wanted to kill him.

Why? Because Saul’s anger is our anger when we are offended, when we are frustrated with God and the spark that lights that anger is God’s word about Jesus. That’s the first thing we see.
But secondly we see the same suffering the church experienced now in Saul. Jesus says, “I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” That’s important because it’s not a punishment but a reflection - an identity that Saul now bears as a Christian and as a member of the body of Christ. In a word, it’s rejection. Rejection from within and without. Rejection from his old family - the Jewish religious order, the synagogues. Rejection, in part, even from his new family - viewed with suspicion by other Christians, understandably so, but still. What’s the point? Saul would forever bear the marks of his conversion and commission. Saul would forever bear the marks of Jesus in his ministry to outsiders, the Gentiles.

Only then do we get to verse 31.

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.
Acts 9:31

The question behind verse 31 is: What is peace? Peace is life without Saul, we might think. Peace is God getting rid of Saul, we are tempted to say. He is kicked out of Damascus, kicked out of Jerusalem in order for us to have peace.

Friends, this is peace at the end of a war. Peace is not a quiet Saturday morning sipping tea on the verandah. Peace is the opposite of conflict, of war, and as we’ve seen, this was a personal war between Saul and God. And the way Jesus ended this war was by dying on the cross for Saul. That’s what it means, by the way for someone like Saul to become a Christian. On the cross, Jesus takes all the hatred, all the sin, all the punishment of Saul on himself and in exchange a man like Saul receives all of Jesus’ righteousness, love and blessing. That’s what it takes for us to have peace, not just with one another, but with God.

And in case we forget that, the verse ends with the church living in the fear of the Lord (as opposed to living in the fear of Saul). Jesus is Lord. Jesus knows what he is doing and we as his redeemed people live rightly under his rule.

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