Power In Unexpected Places

Acts 9:1–19 Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest 2 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. 3 As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. 6 “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” 7 The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. 8 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. 9 For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. 10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!” “Yes, Lord,” he answered. 11 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. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.” 13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.” 15 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. 16 I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.” 17 Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. 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.” 18 Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

There are a lot of things that could be said about Paul’s conversion. I could tell you that it’s apparently so important that a whopping nineteen verses of Acts aren’t enough to cover the event. Not according to Luke. Because it comes back again later in Acts. And then as if two recountings and now 39 verses of it weren’t enough, Luke hits us with it a third time in Acts. Depending on which verses you count, we’ve got 50 verses and a full three different tellings of Paul’s conversion. Luke obviously thinks it’s pretty important that we sit and think about that single fact for a while. I think if we did it’d bring up pretty healthy questions like: what does that tell us about the theology that Paul gives us? What does that tell us about how the Spirit feels about his teachings? For now, though, I think what we really need to deal with is the Jesus who appears in this account and how he heals Paul in it.

Because the fact of the matter is that this is an appearance of the resurrected Jesus to Paul. We have to see that. Just like when Jesus showed up to doubting Thomas. Just like when Jesus showed up to Mary. Just like how Jesus showed up to more than 500 folks. Jesus appeared to Paul just like that. By the way, that’s not just my emphasis. That’s Paul’s. Paul talks about that ALL THE TIME. That’s, in fact, the reason why Paul can claim to be Jesus’ own apostle. He saw personally and was personally sent by the risen Christ. Here’s the deal though. This post-resurrection appearance of Jesus is unlike any other. Every other time Jesus shows up, he acts like – well – Jesus. He breathes the Spirit on people. He tells people they have peace from him. He gives hungry people fish. He lets the disciples touch his crucifixion wounds to give them confidence. Every other time Jesus shows up, he acts just like we expect Jesus to act. Except here.

Except here. When he shows up here he’s not breathing Spirit or telling people they have peace or frying up fish. Here he shows up alongside something resembling a devastating lightning bolt. Luke describes it saying, “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.” (v. 3) And then when Jesus starts talking he’s as emotional as you’ll ever see him. Seriously. You can just feel the pain dripping from his voice as he says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (v. 4) Like every time Paul had grabbed a Christian woman by the hair. Jesus had felt the tug. Like every time Paul had dragged off the daddy of a Christian child Jesus was the one seeing the whites of their eyes and feeling the pain in their souls. Like when Paul was standing there approving that the life was draining out of Stephen Jesus was the one there having his heart ripped from his chest. Like Jesus just loved the people in his church. And now Jesus was showing up to charge Paul with his crimes against them. And, yes, Paul was charged.

You just have to watch Jesus in action to get that. Everything that Paul had intended to do to Christians was done to him in that moment. Paul wanted Christians down and on the ground. That’s where Paul found himself. Paul wanted Christians tied up and led away in chains. And that is what happened to Paul. Jesus blinded him and Luke says that as a result, “They led him by the hand into Damascus.” (v. 8) So let’s get this straight. Jesus shows up to Paul in an angry lightning bolt; charges him with crimes; knocks Paul to the ground; blinds him, and forces him to be led humiliatingly into the city Paul had intended to persecute. Sound like the typical healing post-resurrection appearance of Jesus? No. Not exactly. And, yes, it is true that it had to be that way since Paul wasn’t a disciple yet. And that’s putting it lightly, Paul was actually the ultimate un-disciple. Luke says that he was quite literally snorting his rage against the Lord and his disciples like a bull in a bull fight. He says, “Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.” (v. 1) Paul wanted Christians dead. That is until Jesus showed up and totally ruined him.

And shockingly, that’s the only personal and physical interaction Jesus has with Paul. That’s it. The resurrected Christ came and left Paul totally in ruins. He was convicted of heinous crimes, blind, and helpless. Why do I point this out? For one clear reason. I want you to get post-resurrection Jesus. And, no, I don’t mean that in the way you might think. I’m not saying Jesus likes to ruin people. He never, ever does. He wants to heal them. Always. And he does heal Paul. This murderous, awful, assassin does become here an overwhelmingly powerful apostle. This Jesus hater does become the most prolific and most aggressive missionary of Jesus. This fear-inducing assassin does become a mighty apostle. What’s strange and shocking and striking is that Jesus isn’t the one who technically and in the flesh does it. He ruined him, but he doesn’t heal him. You know how he does it? Through the most unlikely of ways. And I do mean unlikely. Never in a million years would Paul have expected it.

I’m not sure we do either. Whether it was a gift to me or not, I grew up as a child immersed in the culture of the 90’s. You know what the means? It means all my friends had lunch boxes with Homer’s mug on them and everybody had t-shirts with Bart saying, “Don’t have a cow, man!” Whatever you think about the Simpsons I can tell you this, that show was a big time cultural barometer. For the first time in our culture, Christians were pictured as Neanderthals like Flanders and pastors were lazy, droning, cultural ninny’s like Pastor Lovejoy. In other words, ministers had no wisdom for you about human nature; no vision to offer of how to heal your soul; and they had no purpose to offer you in life. They were those who put on robes, accommodated to culture like chameleons, whose most profound transformational achievements were the likes of Ned Flanders. Now I don’t know what to make of that. Did the Simpsons simply mirror the culture or did they influence it? I don’t know. My point is that if you’re like me and come from that cultural background then you’re going to be just as shocked as Paul is at how Jesus healed him.

You know how Jesus very strikingly and shockingly heals the ruin he brought to Paul? A minister. A minister. Now once you’ve let that sink in also let another fact of this case sink in. You know where the minister was from? Damascus. Do you see what that means? A minister that Paul had been about to capture and probably kill – a minister that Paul had been hunting to squelch out of existence was sent to heal and forgive Paul. Think of the grace in that and let it blow you away. Jesus used the ministry that Paul was trying to murder to bring him life. And so some guy, a minister by the name of Ananias shows up and says to Paul, "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.” (v. 17) So the Jesus who had physically shown up and left Paul on the ground, blind, and charged with horrible crimes did heal. He always does. It’s just that he didn’t do it personally or physically. The post-resurrection Christ heals and fills people with the Holy Spirit through ministers.

This is, by the way, something that Ananias understood quite well already in that moment. He said, “Jesus has sent me.” (v. 17) And then he went on to say, “That you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (v. 17) Jesus sends ministers, who are just people. Think of it. They’re always real flesh and blood people. Jesus cares about people so he sends people. The shocking part is that these ministers are all nobodies. Who’s Ananias? Ananias comes and goes in Scripture like a ghost in the night. Ministers are nobodies. And then he makes the ministry of those nobodies really and divinely matter. That’s exactly what Ananias said to Paul in that very moment. He said, “Jesus has sent me so that you may be… filled with the Holy Spirit.” (v. 17) Shocking stuff. That some nobody can go to some other nobody with Jesus’ words and with Jesus’ baptism and fill them with the Holy Spirit. That some nobody can come in and do for Paul the exact thing that we expected Jesus himself to do in his appearance to Paul. In fact, what Jesus does is ruin Paul so that one of his nobody minister could heal and fill Paul with the Spirit. If that isn’t one big, massive commendation of Christian ministry straight from Jesus, then I don’t know what is.

The Spirit wants everybody to have someone they call pastor in their life. Everybody gets pastored. Even one of Jesus’ apostles got pastored. Everybody needs someone they call pastor. Here’s the trouble. Once you have one sin will always try to distort his ministry to you. And that always happens in one of two ways. You will either think so highly of a pastor that you will miss Jesus. Or you will think so lowly of a pastor that you will miss Jesus. By the way, Paul here is the perfect example of how to avoid either extreme. After Ananias had healed and forgiven Paul in Jesus’ name, Paul didn’t say, “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you, Ananias! You have saved me!” Neither did Paul throw him to the curb and say, “Come on, Ananias, let’s get real. You can’t act for Jesus. Where’s Jesus when you need him?” There wasn’t a denial that Jesus had sent Ananias and there also wasn’t a destructive idolizing of Ananias either. There was only Jesus. And frankly that’s how it is with every pastor. There’s only Jesus. There’s the Jesus who graced and gifted that pastor. And there’s the Jesus who went ahead and somehow fit that minister right into your life.

And so you know what you do with a pastor? First order of business? Hear Jesus forgive you through him for the times you missed Jesus in him and this time listen when he says, “you’re forgiven in Jesus’ name.” Then don’t think so lowly of him that you don’t seek his counsel or bother listening to his sermons or so highly of him that he disappoints you when you notice he’s just a nobody – a sinner too. The Spirit makes it clear that he calls pastors who only give the grace they themselves have received. That’s how it’s always worked. Jesus called a scriptural nobody named Ananias to minister to Paul. He called Paul, the assassin, to minister to thousands in the ancient world. He called that denier known as Peter and that doubter known as Thomas and that runner named Jonah and the weakling named Jeremiah and those two brother James and John who needed anger management therapy and that highway robber named Matthew. All sinners. All given grace. All eager and driven to share that same grace with others. And do you see where that leaves us? With Jesus and his grace and a world full of nobody pastors who give grace the same way they receive grace.

So today Jesus has some of you looking for a pastor. Now you know why. And today others of you know why you have one. And today still others are getting one for the first time in many years. And now you know what Jesus is up to in it. You know why I point this out? I want you to see Jesus in your life as plainly as the pastor who’s standing in front of you in the moment. Because when you see Jesus at work in your life nothing is more powerful or beautiful or comforting. And I want you to see that today for yourself. I want you to see that just like Paul did in Ananias. I may be a fresh faced thirty something, but I can still hold the hand of an octogenarian who’s just lost her husband and speak words that matter. I may be skinny as a pole, but I can be the guy who gets a text or an office visit from someone whose conscience is just killing them and I can say, “Jesus forgives you.” I may be a guy who Jesus had to die for too, but because I know he did I can preach a sermon or offer a word of counsel that sets someone free. I may need even more grace from Jesus than you, but I can still commune tired souls; baptize sinners; and teach truths that will carry you all the way from this life to the next one.

At the end of the day, there’s only one person I know who could build a grace-filled system like that. Only Jesus. Only Jesus could take a former nobody like Ananias and light on fire the world’s greatest missionary. Only Jesus could use a Peter, a Thomas, and a Jonah; a Jeremiah, a Matthew, and in a far, far, far lesser way a me. Only Jesus could make it so that at the end of the day the exact same thing is always happening. One sinner is giving another sinner the same grace he’s received himself so that everything’s always and only about Jesus. Amen. 

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