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Saul | Beacon of Hope

Black and white image of a ring that is lit on the inside by a beam of light going through the centre. Black background

Sermon for St Edward’s 9 June 2024.

Readings: Acts 8:1-3, Acts 9:1-22; John 6:44-51

NB: This passage and sermon talks about blindness and spiritual blindness as referred to in the Bible. I am aware for some with sight impairment this is a problematic phrase and I acknowledge that the language used may be difficult for some. I have not yet found a more suitable alternative for rephrasing this but I remain committed to trying.

We are continuing in Acts this morning after a break last week for Environment Sunday. So just to remind us where we are at: Acts is the second part of the Luke-Acts narrative – it follows on from Luke’s gospel, written by the same author.

It begins after or with the Ascension of Christ, then is followed by the disciples waiting for the Holy Spirit as Jesus promised. Which arrives in power at Pentecost as we celebrated a few weeks ago, equipping and empowering them to go out and share the gospel. And we see many people coming to faith as a result. This is the birth of the church.

Then we have a few chapters of them doing the work, getting out there, miracles happening, but there is also persecution and arrests. This comes to a head as last time we saw, as G preached, Stephen, the first martyr who was stoned for his faith. And as Stephen is stoned there is this line in Ch 7:58 that says:

Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul

Acts 7:58

So we are introduced to Saul in the most horrendous way, condoning the stoning of Stephen. A brutal death for a man who simply loved Jesus. And this goes on at the start of Ch 8 as we heard:

That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.

Acts 8:1-3

This is the kind of man Saul was and we read later after his conversion that he talks of how he used to be:

In ch 22 and 26 the then Paul tells of his earlier self:

‘I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison

Acts 22:3-4

I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities

Acts 26:10-11

So this Saul that we read about here in Ch 8-9 was a murderous thug with a cause, basically, doing so in the name of God because he thought he was doing God’s will. I was trying to think of a current example without being too political, but essentially think of a dictator who uses their influence and power to overcome what they think is wrong, to supress others beliefs with violence, threat of prison, death even. Hitler perhaps? Putin? Leaders of Boko Harem? Pick your own example. A dangerous and ruthless man, as he said: filled with zeal for his cause.

And it’s important that we understand what kind of man Saul was, to know quite how significant was his transformation.

So we read in Ch 9 that he was on his way to find and arrest more followers of The Way of Christ. As an aside it’s also interesting to note that both men and women were being sought out – most likely these were leaders and people of influence which included women…

But on his way to Damascus he had this amazing, life transforming experience. He has a vision of Christ, is struck blind and then God sends Ananias to restore his sight – who understandably is scared, he’s been sent to this man who is like his biggest enemy and as far as he is concerned would probably have him killed.

And we see how his sight is restored as something like scales fell from his eyes. I’ve talked a lot about metaphor recently but this is perhaps one of the most obvious ones in the bible! He was actually blind before God struck him so – spiritually blind to the truth of who Jesus is.

Jesus refers to the blind pharisees – in John 9 we see a similar parallel where a blind man is healed and Jesus goes on to say v 39: Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.

The pharisees question, does he mean us?! well yes here directly he is not just making the comparison vocally, but physically in Saul.

This idea of being people spiritually blind is throughout the gospels. And with Saul we see it fully lived out. He was blind to who Christ was, and now he is set free to see the truth spiritually. As we sang – I once was blind but now I see.

So we see this amazing transformation of Saul, goes from being a Christian hating killer to a man filled with faith, preaching the gospel with power. And later we read in Ch 13 he is now also known as Paul – presumably to distinguish from his former life, as a new person in Christ.

And we know Paul goes on the spread the gospel far and wide across the Mediterranean, and he himself becomes the persecuted. His writings form a huge part of the New Testament and give us a picture as to how the church grew in those early years.

So what does this mean for us?

Paul is a controversial figure. A bit like marmite – either love him or hate him! But you know I like him, I don’t think he’s misogynistic as some claim, I think there is a lot of evidence to say that he supported women leaders in the church. He might come across a little grumpy or directive but we need to remember we only see one side of the letters he wrote – we don’t know the full situations he was writing into or what he was replying to. And on top of that he is responsible for the spread of Christianity across Europe and beyond – Asia Minor – Turkey, Syria, Cyprus, Europe.

So Saul/Paul should be an example to us – a figure of hope: that no one, that no situation, no person, is beyond God’s reach…

Paul had the blood of hundreds, if not thousands, of people on his hands and yet God forgave him, loved him, gave him a purpose, and lifted him up. Paul shows us that whilst none of us are worthy of God’s love it is there for us anyway. Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, like Paul…

And I know for many of us there are people on our hearts that we long to have this kind of experience, to have the scales removed from their eyes and to know Jesus for themselves. Or perhaps we have our own situations that we long to be transformed, something we are dealing with, something we are facing and we need to know God’s transforming power within it, or within us.

So I’d love is to just take the opportunity now to bring those things before God and before X leads us in prayer we are just going to take a minute of quiet to hold that person or situation before God and ask for transformation. All you need to do is sit and quiet and think of that person of situation…

we led into prayer at this point.

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