Reading Acts 9:1-22
As we turn the pages of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles we see something that I believe is truly remarkable. It appears to me the greater the persecution became the greater the determination of those who wished to spread the good news, which may be expected, but the remarkable thing I am reading is this growing persecution in many ways is adding to the numbers who are believing and coming to this new faith in their thousands. In the previous chapter to our reading this morning Philip is spreading the word in Samaria. This morning we move onto the counter action of the spreading of the teaching that is the spreading of the persecution. Ingrid and I have stood at the Damascus Gate on the walls of the city of Jerusalem. By the end of his journey on the road where Ingrid and I were standing, Saul will become Paul.
It is quite an experience to get your head around that from that very spot Saul set out to bring about the downfall of this new church movement. In the early days it was given a few names. This morning we hear them described in verse 2 as members of the way. Elsewhere they are called ‘brothers’ or ‘all the believers’ or even ‘the Nazarene sect’. It is in the city of Antioch they are first called Christians. Roman writers often using this in a derisive manner, once again underscoring the hostility with which these first believers were greeted and a very early example of institutionalised bigotry. Paul’s mission is to silence these people who were, according to him, making the word of God impure. Along the way he became utterly convinced that Jesus was the Messiah spoken of in those scriptures to which he held dear. Of course not everybody accepted this new Paul and his understanding of Jesus from that moment without question. In fact, for a while, Paul will find himself in some sort of no-man’s land as both sides question him knowing the reputation he once had as an aggressive persecutor of the church. As his multiple imprisonments, involvement in riots and many beatings suffered will testify to.
Our encounter with him this morning, although very much life changing, is quite fleeting. We will not meet with him again until a few chapters further on. I wonder if during this early period in the history of the church it is beginning to experience something that was many years later, in many other walks of life, coined the well-used saying. ‘Attack is the best form of defence.’ We could debate that old saying and the merits of it for the rest of today and beyond. No doubt we would be split in our conclusions. And in some scenarios there is fantastic irony as the saying itself can bring about an attack on those who disagree with it. Just as the spreading of the word and the teaching of Jesus spread out from Jerusalem through his Apostles and Disciples so too did the persecution of the church as we discover this morning when we interrupt a rather ordinary journey from Jerusalem to Damascus that took on an extraordinary twist which resulted in a major life change for one man and a huge change of mind-set to the early church and those from out with who witnessed its growth and the conviction of those who chose to believe and follow the ways of Christ. Paul did not confine himself to preaching only to gentiles. Whatever city he found himself in he firstly visited the synagogue and preached there before going out to preach to the others. Once again this morning we read about the laying on of hands this time by Ananias a devout observer of the Jewish law and highly respected by all who lived there. He had converted to Christianity and had this vision of God telling him to go and visit Saul. By the close of this visit and the laying on of hands not only was Saul’s sight restored to him but his entire life had been given a new start and a fresh way of being through the Holy Spirit.
I used a modern day saying earlier that may or may not fit the bill of the early history of the church and I am going to close in similar fashion. ‘That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.’ The reality is this. All of that came into focus nearly two thousand years after the original steps of Saul now Paul began to alter the path of history forever. There is another Neil Armstrong quote that would sit well with Paul in his new way of understanding things. And I wonder would it sit well with us too this morning. ‘Mystery creates wonder and wonder is the basis of man’s desire to understand.’ This brings us to the closing verse of our reading. Saul grew more and more powerful proving that Jesus is the Christ. He quoted from their own scriptures and as a Jew himself he declared ‘I have seen the risen Christ with my own eyes.’ The mystery that is God, revealed through the son who is God and empowered by the Holy Spirit who is God. Wherever our Damascus Road experienced happened, however long that journey took for each of us as individuals, we thank God for the revelation of his love to us and to the world.