Saul (also named Paul) on the road to Damascus is one of the best known Bible stories, and also a difficult story to say what it means for us today. Many Bible passages are harder to apply than we think. What the author meant to say in the original contexts is one thing; what that passage says to us today is another. In this case, there are several themes we could look at.
We could examine the theme of Jew and Gentile in God’s reign. That would be a worthwhile examination, and fits well with the larger story of Acts. The way that our hero changes his name from Saul (a Jewish name) to Paul (a Roman name) reflects this idea. At different times in his ministry, Saul-Paul acts as a Jew or as a Roman citizen. In 1 Corinthians 9 he says that he uses whichever identity will help to bring people to Christ (verses 19-23). In today’s passage, God sends Ananias to Saul and God tells him that Saul is his chosen instrument to bring salvation to the Gentiles. This is a good theme worth exploring, but we leave it aside this morning.
We could look at the relationship of Law and Gospel. As a Pharisee, Saul had committed himself to the Law of Moses. That commitment fueled his anger when he set off on the road to Damascus to kill anyone following “The Way”, this new sect of people following the Rabbi Jesus. He saw correctly that Jesus challenged the central position of the Law in Judaism and replaced it with himself, so he set out to defend the law and to persecute Jesus’ disciples. Paul called himself a Pharisee to the end of his life, but here in Acts 9 he changes from being a Pharisee for the law (Philippians 3) to becoming a Pharisee for the gospel of God (Romans 1.) This is also a good theme, but we leave aside it as well.
We could consider the continued growth of the church in places like Damascus and Antioch. The persecution in which Saul participated led to the growth of the church outside of Jerusalem, fulfilling Jesus’ words in Acts 1:8—“You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God uses such terrible events as persecution to bring about good results, which encourages us in our own troubles. But this theme also we leave aside.
I want to look at something else: Why did God use miraculous dramatic phenomena to convert Saul? The drama is there for a purpose. Why is it there?
At one level this incident is too unusual to serve as a model for us. God does not strike most people blind as part of their conversion. When our baptismal candidates tell their faith stories, we don’t have many who heard a voice speaking to them from Heaven or saw a vision, while other people with them heard the voice but saw nothing. Our faith stories would be more exciting if they included the kind of supernatural phenomena that Paul experienced, but in fact such things are rare. So why did God appear so miraculously to Paul, and not to everyone else? Sometimes we may think that God does not appear to us like this because God is done with miracles. We may think that we should not expect to see such things today. I agree that we should not normally look for miracles, but it is wrong to think that such things no longer happen.
Last week I was at a meeting in Ontario. As we ate lunch, a visitor (I’ll call him John) started telling stories of an international church he had pastored in an Arab country. The church was made up of expatriates with no Arab believers, but over the years he said he saw about 20 Arab Muslims come to faith in Jesus—mostly through dreams of Jesus. Here in one such story. (Note: I may have the details right or not. This is as I remember the conversation. John gave me permission to tell the story, keeping it anonymous, but it is still his story.)
A man had a series of dreams in which he saw Mohammed. Finally he called out that he wanted to follow him. Mohammed turned to him and said, “Don’t follow me. Follow him”, and pointed to a shadowy figure. As the man looked, the figure turned to him, and he saw that it was Jesus. (John wondered what Jesus looked like, but this man could not tell him; only that he knew it was Jesus.) One Sunday as he was driving home, the steering wheel of his car locked up going through the intersection where he would normally turn. The steering wheel then turned on its own accord, through several more intersections, almost as if possessed. Finally he pulled off the road to find a telephone and call for help. He saw a church across the road and went to it to use the phone. It happened to be Easter, and John was conducting the Easter Sunday service. He said that they all saw this robed and turbaned Arab enter the service and sit down. When the service was over, John was greeting people at the door, but did not see the man. After everyone else had left, John went in to look for him. He found him prostrated at the cross. When he asked what was happening, he heard the story I have told. That man became the first Muslim-background believer in their church—because Jesus came to him in a dream.
John told another story similarly miraculous, one of about 20 he had observed. I believe that God still acts in miraculous ways in our world. Although such events are rare, they do take place.
A Hard Question
So why does God not intervene like this in everyone’s life? Surely then everyone would be saved! This is a hard question, and we do not know the answer. I can tell you only what I think is probably happening. God’s normal path for all of us is to invite us to come to him: “Come all who are worn out from carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Or, in the words that Jesus uses to the church at Laodicea (Revelation 3:20): “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” In context, these verses are directed to Christians, but they express the essential invitation Jesus gives to all. We have the choice to accept his invitation. This is why Paul describes his own ministry as one of invitation in 2 Corinthians 5: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and has given to us the ministry and message of reconciliation. We are Christ’s ambassadors, therefore I appeal to you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!” (My own free paraphrase.)
Now for choices to be real choices, they must also be free. If Jesus overwhelms us with his presence, so that we worship God by force, that is not conversion. That is judgment. But God knows everyone’s heart, so when God intervenes so dramatically, we can guess that the person involved was truly seeking God with all their heart. I believe that was true for Paul. He had committed himself fully to God’s Law because he wanted to know God. The Law says, “Love the Lord you God with all your heart.” Paul did that, and God intervened dramatically to turn him from the way of death to the way of life.
This is truly beyond our understanding. This is mystery in its fullest sense. When we push this idea out to its logical end, either Paul freely chose to follow God—and so he initiated his own salvation, or God chose Paul without Paul’s choice—and so God initiated his salvation. Would God save Paul against Paul’s will? I don’t believe so. Dare we suggest that somehow Paul earned God’s grace? Of course not. Both choices, it seems to me are wrong.
Paul himself describes what happens this way (Philippians 2:13): “Therefore, my dear friends, … continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose.” Work out your salvation—seek God with all your heart. God works in you—we can do nothing without God’s grace.
The question comes back now in a different way. We can see why God does not always save people this way—God leaves us with a choice to respond to the divine invitation. But why did God save Paul this dramatic way? Again, we really don’t know, but again I have a guess. The Pharisees were a major roadblock to the spread of the gospel, because they wanted to keep Gentiles outside God’s reign. By bringing Paul into Christian faith, God opened the door to the whole Gentile world. You can see this in the angel’s words to Ananias, “This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel.” Similarly in the story I told of the Arab seeker, there is a major population of our world who are closed to the invitation Jesus gives; their dramatic conversion through dreams breaks through the barriers that people have erected against the gospel.
I think, then, that God uses such dramatic conversions to open doors to the gospel so that more and more people can hear the invitation to come to Jesus and receive life. I don’t know this. Isaiah asks us who can know the mind of God (Isaiah 40:12-14), and I certainly cannot say that I do. I am only guessing, based on the simple truth that we do know: God wants to save sinners. God wants to save everyone. Hear God’s words to Ezekiel (33:11): “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” Again, as Jesus said about Zaccheus (Luke 19:9-10): Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Jesus came to save, not to condemn. You see that we can refuse the invitation, but Jesus desires no one’s death. Jesus wants all people to come to him and receive life. That is why he came to Saul so dramatically.
Years later, Paul remembered this coming with gratitude (1 Corinthians 15: 3-10): “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins …, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day …, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. For I … do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.”
Bring It Home to Us
So what do we do with Saul’s conversion today? What is God saying to you and to me this morning?
Some simple points.
1. Jesus, Be the Centre
Every one of us has placed something at the centre of our lives. For Paul, it was the Torah, Law of God. For you and me it may be our membership in the Mennonite Church. It may be the good name of SMC—or of one of the families here. It may be a commitment to be properly Evangelical, or Anabaptist. I must tell you and remind myself, anything other than Jesus at the centre becomes an idol and can separate us from God. You don’t have to be a renegade to push God away. All you have to do is put something other than Jesus at the centre of your life. I plead with you this morning, keep Jesus at the centre. Nothing else will do. A Spanish song I have come to love says, “Solo Dios basta”: Only God can fill us; only God can satisfy.
2. Jesus, Do This in Us
Sometimes we think that we can make this change—from one centre to another in our lives—on our own. We can’t. You cannot on your own place God fully at the centre of your life. Something else will always come in, and we cannot save ourselves. It is just not possible. Sometimes we call ourselves “Jesus-followers”. Our own congregation’s mission statement echoes this language: “Steinbach Mennonite Church is faithfully following Christ in worship and service by making disciples, building community and reaching out to the world.” We are Christ-followers. But this image contains a weakness; it can suggest that you and I just need to follow Jesus, and that we have the strength to do this. We don’t.
This past week we had a course on Anabaptist history and Theology at Providence. One of the members of the class recalled several different people in his congregations who said something like this near the end of their lives: “I hope I’ve been good enough to go to Heaven.” Ouch! Our hope of salvation rests in Christ’s work on the cross for you and me, not on anything we can do. I remember C.J. Dyck teaching the same course at AMBS about 35 years ago. One day in class he told us about an old Amish Bishop he had visited. C.J. asked him, “Brother, is your salvation by grace, or must you earn it with your life?” The old Bishop replied, “Oh brother Dyck, it’s all by grace! It’s all by grace!” He was right. This leads to my last thought.
3. Christ IN You
Conversion for Paul—and for us—is a complete change of heart and mind. We are reborn (to use the image from John’s gospel) so that Christ lives within us. Paul describes this mystery in Colossians 1 as “the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now revealed to the Lord’s people.… This mystery is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”
The mystery revealed in Paul’s conversion and in all of us is that Christ lives in us. Whether you come to Christ in a quiet way through your parents’ upbringing (my mother came to Christ at age five), or whether God breaks into your life with dreams and visions and lightning flashing—in every case it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of addiction or a life of good deeds, it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of heartbreak and pain or a life of ease, it takes a miracle. Whether you come from a life of fighting for justice or a life of success in all you do, it takes a miracle.
For Christ to live in you and in me takes the miracle of God’s grace. One thing for certain that the story of Saul-Paul tells us is that God will do whatever it takes to bring you to faith and give you new life. In the end, the Damascus Road is for everyone.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
22 May 2016Acts 9: 1-19