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Sermon for 14 April 2013


1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment 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 evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, 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.” 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength. For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”

PSALM Psalm 30

1 I will exalt you, O LORD, because you have lifted me up and have not let my enemies triumph over me. 2 O LORD my God, I cried out to you, and you restored me to health. 3 You brought me up, O LORD, from the dead; you restored my life as I was going down to the grave. 4 Sing praise to the LORD, all you faithful; give thanks in holy remembrance. 5 God’s wrath is short; God’s favor lasts a lifetime. Weeping spends the night, but joy comes in the morning. 6 While I felt secure, I said, “I shall never be disturbed. 7 You, LORD, with your favor, made me as strong as the mountains.” Then you hid your face, and I was filled with fear. 8 I cried to you, O LORD; I pleaded with my Lord, saying,
9 “What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness? 10 Hear, O LORD, and have mercy upon me; O LORD, be my helper.” 11 You have turned my wailing into dancing; you have put off my sackcloth and clothed me with joy. 12 Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing; O LORD my God, I will give you thanks forever.

SECOND READING Revelation 5:11–14

11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.

GOSPEL John 21:1–19

1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing. 4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” 6 He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off. 9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” 11So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead. 15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” 19 (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

A New Kind of Authority

Right after leaving office, the Former President, George H. W. Bush, was speaking to an appreciative audience about what it was like, to go from being the vice-president for 8 years, then president for 4 years and then back to being a private citizen. He said, “The first day I woke up, I reached over to push the button to get somebody to bring me some coffee, but there was no button, and there was nobody to bring any coffee.” Then he added, “Barbara said, ‘get out of bed and make the coffee yourself.’” One can imagine the adjustment in lifestyle that had to be made; one moment you’re the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. The next, you’re an average, albeit highly protected, everyday American.
I guess you could say that that’s the beauty of democracy. We spread the privilege of serving. Not that our elected officials take that to heart. They most certainly have not taken our Lord’s words to heart; Jesus said to His disciples, “just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Matt. 20:28a). And far too many in positions of leadership forget, that everyone works or serves someone else. Everyone, even those in positions of leadership answer to someone in a higher position. Even the president answers to congress and the American people, or is supposed to. The point is, no one is completely autonomous; even those in positions of leadership serve and those with authority still answer to a higher authority. If nothing else they will answer to God.
There’s an old Peanuts comic strip that shows Linus who is upset over the news that one of his school teachers is about to be fired. He turns to Lucy and says, “They can’t fire Miss Othmar! I’ll write a letter of protest! I’ll blow this thing wide open! I’ll write to someone in authority! I’ll write to someone who can really do something!” In the next frame we see Linus compose himself for a moment as he prepares to set his pen to his paper. It’s obvious he doesn’t know anyone of authority. Finally he asks Lucy, “How does one go about getting a letter to the Apostle Paul?”
For those who have studied the letters of Paul, we recognize that the Apostle Paul did have a certain kind of authority. Because of their importance to the Christian faith, Paul’s letters or epistles are read many times during the 3-year lectionary. As an Apostle called by Jesus in a vision, Paul was sent with the authority of Christ to preach the good news to the Gentile world. Of course, as we are reminded in our first reading for today, there was a time when he had a different kind of authority, an authority that sent chills down the spines of Christian believers.
As you well know, before his conversion, Paul had a different name, Saul, and he was a man to be feared, especially if you were a Christian. Saul, it would seem, took delight in persecuting the followers of Jesus. He was zealous in his task because of his fierce devotion to the faith in which he was nurtured. Saul was a devout Jew. You could say that he was a religious leader even to a fault. He called himself a “Pharisee, descended from Pharisees”, a Hebrew among Hebrews. Ne was so fervent in the faith and traditions of his own people that he stood by and watched over the cloaks, as the mob dragged Stephen off and stoned him to death. Of course the crime that Stephen was guilty of was preaching the good news of Jesus Christ (Acts 7:55-Acts 8:3).
Later on, Saul had risen to such prominence and respect with his own people that he could go to the high priests of the Sanhedrin and receive letters; decrees that gave him the authority to persecute and arrest any Christians he came across. Saul was a big, self-righteous man with immense, ambitious plans. He probably felt very special, very important, as he traveled along, tall in the saddle as it were, on the way to Damascus. Luke, the author of Acts, describes the situation like this: As Saul neared Damascus 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,” the voice replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but didn’t see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he couldn’t see a thing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. Suddenly, Saul didn’t seem all that big and fearsome, did he? He came face to face with the One he answered to and was held accountable. The same thing happens in life frequently.
A pastor writing on the Internet tells about a man he knew, a very proud man who was well off financially. He had an attractive young wife, a good job, lived at the beach, the whole nine yards. He came to church sometimes and was always friendly and supportive. One day this man read in the newspaper that one of his sons was being sought for committing murder. The man talked to his pastor, at first convinced that his son didn’t do it. As the years went on, the son went to trial and was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole. The father continued to support him, always convinced of his innocence.
The father didn’t want his son to be alone at the other end of the country so he found a church, of his denomination, near the prison and the church folks began to minister to the son. When the father visited the son, he attended that church himself. He said to his pastor, that nothing had ever humbled, him like the shame of having a son in prison and at the same time finding more love from God than he’d ever known.
Saul could have related to that father. He had been riding high. But he met Jesus on that road and was taken down a notch; literally brought to his knees. Luke tells us that for three days Saul was blind and refused eat or drink anything. Instead, Saul prayed; and as he prayed, he experienced the love of God. And what we read next, is so typical of how God chooses to work, isn’t it? God’s love and mercy came through an ordinary Christian disciple, one living there in Damascus, named Ananias. This is the only time this particular Ananias is mentioned in scripture, except for one other time later in Acts when Paul describes Ananias as “a devout observer of the law and highly respected by all the Jews living in Damascus” (Acts 22:12). Other than that we know nothing. What’s important here is, that Ananias was faithful and responded to God’s call even when it seemed like the request was extreme.
We might know little about Ananias, but the little we know is sufficient. Ananias didn’t need Paul’s impressive credentials and connections to be used of God. As Saul lay blind and helpless Ananias had a vision in which the Lord called to him, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. I tell you guys all the time that the key to a happy marriage is to respond, “yes dear”, when our wives ask us to do something or to agree with them. Remember guys, “yes dear” equals happy marriage. And the same is true when responding to God’s call. The key to faithful discipleship is to always respond in faith, “Yes, Lord.”
The Lord told Ananias, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.” Evidently, being stricken as he was, had humbled Saul to the point that he was calling on God for help. The Lord continues with His instructions: “In a vision Saul has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” “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.”
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 . . .” Then Ananias, hesitantly I’m sure, went as God directed. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here, has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Luke records that immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see again. He got up and was baptized into the very faith he had set out to destroy, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Then Luke adds these very descriptive words, “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.”
I think we can agree this transformation was literally one for the books! Saul could sing quite literally, “I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” So Saul, a man with authority and ambitious plans, comes face to face with the real authority and it brings him to his knees. In a very brief time, Paul realizes his whole world has changed. He recognized that his focus for the past few years has been one big mistake. And through the touch of an ordinary man named Ananias, responding to God’s call, Saul’s life was radically changed, and he becomes an Apostle of Jesus, whose followers he had persecuted. Do such things happen to people in the real world? Do ordinary people experience that kind of radical life-change? Sure they do. Psychologists call them significant emotional event.
Some of you will remember the name Eldridge Cleaver. At one time Eldridge Cleaver was the much maligned leader of the Black Panthers, the violent militants of the early 1960s. But something significant happened in Eldridge Cleaver’s life. Pastor Ray Stedman tells of a conversation he had with Cleaver sometime back. In that conversation Cleaver gave one example from his former life. He said that while he was a Black Panther he was filled with a terrible feeling of hatred and violence against any law enforcement agency. He couldn’t help himself.
Every time he would get near an officer of the law, he would feel this terrible sense of anger and murder and rage within him. But one night in the south of France, in a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Eldridge Cleaver had a vision, an inner view, of the face of Jesus Christ, coming out of his boyhood to him. It drove him to reading the Scriptures. He read Psalm 23 over and over again. He said that ever since that time on the balcony, he’s never had that feeling of hatred again. He’s looked for it, and expected it, but instead, there’s been a feeling of love for everyone he meets. Again, a wonderful transformation!
Even though we could never mention Eldridge Cleaver’s name in the same company spiritually with St. Paul, nevertheless their experience of Christ, shares some similarities. Both were delivered from feelings of hatred, to feelings of love and acceptance by their experience of the risen Christ. Notice something else here; something that I feel is significant. Sometime after his experience in Damascus, Saul changes his name to Paul.
Saul, in Hebrew, means “asked for” or “prayed for.” You’ll remember that the people of ancient Israel asked God for a king. God gave them a king. The first king anointed to rule over Israel was Saul. Saul was “asked for,” “prayed for” by the people of Israel. Undoubtedly, this New Testament Saul, was named by his parents after this first king of Israel since they were both of the tribe of Benjamin. They also had something else in common, pride.
Pride and ego drove both these men. The Pharisee Saul was driven to his knees, king Saul was driven mad in his determination to destroy young David who, you’ll remember, was becoming more popular than he was. His ego also led to his death on the battlefield. Maybe Saul’s name was part of the problem “asked for,” “prayed for.” Such a name could cause a person to develop an overly inflated sense of self-importance.
The New Testament Saul, like his namesake, the former king of Israel, was a man who became haughty in his power and authority enforcing Jewish Law and had to be brought low. So, Saul either chose or was given a new name, Paul. Now here’s what’s fascinating: Paul, a Latin name, means “Small” as in tiny, little, insignificant. It’s interesting to me that the Apostle chose to identify himself in this way. The once “big man,” identifies himself after his conversion, as “Small.” But that’s not all that unusual.
A 300-lb. lineman will be called “Tiny” by his teammates. It happens normally as a parody and I believe it’s significant in Paul’s situation. He wanted people to know he wasn’t the same man he’d been. In fact, later Paul may have been making a pun on his name meaning small, when he refers to himself as the “least of the Apostles.”
Sometimes, as adults, even Christian adults, who are also parents or bosses or leaders in our churches or communities, can let a little bit of authority or power or success go to our heads. We may think because we’re used to making decisions, that we’re somehow in charge of our lives, running things, and we may forget that every job we do, every dollar we earn, indeed every step we take and every breath we draw, is all by the grace of God. A person may be anointed and commissioned to do a task for God, but if he or she ever forgets that it’s God who empowers us and God to whom we should look to direct our steps, we run the risk of getting far off track.
Saul thought he knew what he was doing. He believed he was serving the God of Israel by carrying out his own hate-filled agenda. Saul thought he knew everything he needed to know about God. He had no idea that God had revealed so much more through Jesus of Nazareth. Saul thought he had power and authority, but God took away his autonomy and independence. God literally knocked him down and blinded him in order that he might see more than he had ever seen before. Saul was brought low, forced to recognize not only the true Jesus, but also the truth about his own actions. Instead of serving God, he was persecuting God’s only Son. And now, upon realizing that Jesus is Lord, the one with true power and authority over everything, Saul was humbled to the point that he could become a magnificent ambassador for Christ.
Saul had a reputation . . . but he received a revelation, a revelation about himself and a revelation of God in Christ Jesus. From this day forward he would subject his reputation and his authority to the will and glory of Jesus Christ. The converted Saul, who once thought he had it all figured out, now sees himself as an unimportant and weak “vessel,” and a mere slave to an all-important and all-powerful Lord (2 Cor. 12:5-10).
And the same thing can be true of us. Until we submit ourselves to the Lordship of Christ, each of us finds ourselves traveling a dangerous, difficult road. Up until we yield ourselves to God’s leadership, we live our lives puffed up with an inflated sense of our own authority or power, and warped by our own selfishness and self-importance. Even though we may believe we mean well or see ourselves as good people, until we enter into a living relationship with Jesus, until the Lord introduces Himself to us and enters in, to live and love through us, then we’re like Saul. We might think we’re doing well, but sober reflection will reveal that our lives are empty.
Lee Strobel once knew that emptiness. Though he was a successful journalist, by his own account he was not a happy man. He describes himself at that stage in his life as “profane and angry.” To prove his point he cites a time when he came home one night and kicked a hole in the living room wall just out of anger with his life. Think of the impression his conduct made on his five-year-old daughter? But Jesus Christ came into Lee Strobel’s life and changed his life radically. He says that five months after he gave his life to Christ, his little girl went to her mother and said, “Mommy, I want God to do for me what he’s done for Daddy.” It’s hard to argue with a testimony like that. Strobel says that God changed not only him, God changed his family and changed his world. Today he’s a well-known author and pastor.
Can we give the same kind of testimony? Saul was a big man with big plans. But he was an angry man who took out his wrath on others. Christ humbled Saul and gave him a new name, Paul, a name that means small. Ironically, after becoming small, after becoming the least of the Apostles, Paul became one of the most influential men who ever lived, after Christ Himself. After his blinding experience on the road to Damascus, he became a man who could see the purposes of God so clearly that to this day we study his words with rapt devotion. Even more importantly he became God’s instrument. It was in dying to his former self, that he became alive to God’s plan for his life. And God used him in a mighty way. God can use each and every one of us as well; whether it’s in a quiet way like Ananias or in a world changing way like Paul. The key is to be ready to say “yes Lord” when called and to humble ourselves and believe the Gospel.

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