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A persecutor converted (Acts 9:1-9)

What takes you aback? What stuns you into silence? What makes your jaw drop? A beautiful view, a last gasp goal, a surprise birthday party perhaps?

Whoever we are, whatever our walk of life, there will be unexpected events that stop us in our tracks. Events that we had not planned for. Opportunities that we had not foreseen in advance.

Well our God is a God of surprises. A God who doesn’t always act as we might expect. He’s a God who changes hearts, who acts in grace and who always works to advance the Gospel.

That’s certainly what we see in Acts 9 today. So I’d like us to look at Saul’s experience, and learn lessons from his example.

As we join our passage, Saul (or Paul, to give him his Greek name) is the arch-persecutor of the Christian church. He had approved of the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and verse 1 today tells us that Saul was “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.”

Such was Paul’s zeal that he sought the high priests’ authority to travel 200 miles north to Damascus, where he intended to identify any Christians believers and bring them back as prisoners to Jersualem.

But what followed was arguably the most dramatic conversion in church history. Paul came to Christ in the most spectacular and supernatural way. So much so that we still use the expression “a road to Damascus experience” to describe a dramatic change of allegiance.

Imagine arch-atheist Richard Dawkins suddenly announcing that he’d come to believe in God – or an Islamic extremist suddenly professing faith in Christ – and you get some idea of the scale of the change that Jesus worked in Paul’s heart & mind that day.

Unless the risen Jesus really met Paul on that road to Damascus, his conversion is completely inexplicable. So let’s look at the features of Saul’s Damascus road experience.

Saul’s experience: A vision, a voice and a vocation

Most of us will be familiar with the story of when Moses’ met with God at the burning bush. It appears in Exodus chapter 3 and is a story many of us will have known since Sunday School. Moses’ famous encounter with God at Horeb included a vision, a voice and a new vocation.

Moses saw a vision of a burning bush, heard God’s voice speak to him, and was given his vocation to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt. It marked the start of his great life in God’s service. A life that brought God’s people to the brink of the Promised Land.

As a well-trained Pharisee, Paul would certainly have been familiar with that story in Exodus. And it’s a story that was repeated for him in his own experience. Because as Paul travelled along that road to Damascus he too received a vision, a voice and a vocation. A vision, a voice and a vocation that changed the direction of Saul’s life just as comprehensively as it changed Moses’ life over a thousand years before.

The vision Paul experienced was not a burning bush but “a light from Heaven”. A light that “flashed around him”. A supernatural light stronger than the sun. A dazzling light that forced him to his knees and blinded him for three days.

Paul also heard a voice. A voice from Heaven that knew his name. “Saul, Saul” it said, “why do you persecute me?” Saul did not know who was speaking to him – so asked ‘Who are you, Lord?’. The reply he received must have left him speechless. Totally taken aback. Because the voice said: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Those words turned everything Paul believed upside down. Rather that being a false prophet, this heavenly voice showed that Jesus really was God’s Son. And rather that being dead and buried, this voice proved to Paul that Jesus was very much alive!

You might have thought that Saul’s mistake would have led to him being condemned by Christ. We might expect that he would be struck dead right there and then on that Damascus road.

But no – he was shown amazing grace instead. And not only was Paul’s life spared, he was given a new vocation. Three days later, through the mouth of Ananias, the Lord gave Paul a new ministry and mission.

• Rather than being an opponent of the Christian church, Paul was now under orders to join it.
• Rather than trying to silence the Gospel message, Paul’s role was now to proclaim it boldly.
• And rather than living by his own strength and zeal, Paul would now have the Holy Spirit within him. A Spirit to strengthen and sustain him in his great new vocation.

And as we all know, it’s a vocation that Paul took to with gusto. Starting at Damascus, he would spend the rest of his life boldly proclaiming the good news about Jesus to Jew and Gentile alike – travelling thousands of miles by land and sea in the process.

Taken together, the vision, the voice and the vocation turned Paul-the-persecutor into the Paul-the-apostle.

You see, having seen and heard the Risen Jesus, Paul was now amply qualified to be an apostle:
• He had become a first-hand eyewitness to the resurrection.
• And he had personally received his commissioning from the risen Lord.

Paul’s experience in Damascus made him the authorised leader and pioneer of the church’s mission to the Gentile world. A mission and ministry we are called to continue here in Havering.

Saul’s example: Grace, Unity, Suffering

Before I finish this morning, its worth reflecting on what lessons we can learn from Paul’s experience on that Damascus road. Lessons we can apply to our own mission and ministry today.

For a start, Paul’s conversion is a wonderful reminder that no one is beyond the reach of God’s grace. No one, not even Paul the persecutor, is beyond the bounds of God’s forgiveness. Wherever you live, whoever you are, whatever your past, anyone can receive God’s forgiveness if they repent and put their faith in Christ.

Whatever their past, people on the streets of this parish can experience the same salvation that Saul enjoyed. Paul’s conversion should give us confidence to share the Gospel with everyone and anyone we know. No one should consider themselves beyond the reach of God’s grace. Christ’s gracious invitation to follow him extends to all. Simply pray that people will accept it.

Secondly, Paul’s experience should remind and reassure us about the importance of the church in Christ’s eyes. In verses 4 and 5, Paul was told that when he persecuted the church he was persecuting Christ himself. Every Christian is part of Christ’s body and precious to him.

All Christian believers belong to the body of Christ. Our shared responsibility is to be his mouth, his hands in the place God has put us. Our common vocation, our shared responsibility as the Body of Christ is to bring his Gospel, grace, and his love to non-Christians we know.

Thirdly and finally, Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road reminds us that Christian discipleship is costly. Paul’s conversion came at a price. As Jesus says in verse 16 today, Paul would “suffer for the sake of my name”.

And so he did. Paul’s social status collapsed. He went from being a persecutor to being persecuted himself. He went from being an agent of the state to an enemy of the state.

On many occasions Paul’s ministry cost him his liberty. And right from the start – in Damascus and then in Jerusalem – people plotted to kill him.

And perhaps most painfully, Paul was often wounded by his Christian brothers and sisters:
• Fellow Christians who doubted he was a disciple
• Fellow Christians who questioned his apostolic authority (as they did in Corinth and elsewhere)
• And fellow Christians who challenged his teaching (like those we read about in Galatians).

Paul had partners in the Gospel that had to learn to love. Fellow Christians that he had to become patient with. Fellow believers that he had to learn to forgive.

So as Christians, let’s be willing to carry our crosses and pay a price. Let’s expect to make sacrifices for the cause of Christ. Let’s be willing to forgive and be forgiven by one another.

We are a congregation of fallible, fallen people. But as Paul discovered on that road to Damascus, we are one body of Christ, united by the Gospel, sinners saved by grace alone.

So together –as one body – let us serve our glorious, risen Saviour!