Saul lives on the Edge
Acts 9 : 19b - 31
In Galatians 1: 15 - 24, Paul gives his own account of exactly what he did after his conversion.
'But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Then I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they praised God because of me'.
Luke’s account was no doubt based on Paul’s own memory plus the testimonies of Ananias, Barnabas and others who met and who knew Saul. Luke does not say that Saul went to Arabia however. Only Saul himself testifies to that. He went on a retreat to work things out, to pray and learn what the Lord wanted him to do. Then he returned to Damascus for a period of about three years during which he preached and taught with great conviction. Saul did not waste any time. He began in the very synagogues to which he had intended bringing extradition writs for the arrest of Christians in the area. His message was ‘Jesus is the Son of God’. Jesus is. Important. Not Jesus was. Jesus is. A living reality for Saul now that he had met Him, found forgiveness and salvation, been baptised and had received the Holy Spirit.
Verse 21 says the Jewish members of the synagogues of Damascus were astonished to hear what Saul was saying to them. 'Isn’t he the man who caused havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name'. Havoc is a strong word. It means to create destruction or devastation or ruinous damage. It comes from medieval French and was the word used to order pillaging during war. That was Saul’s reputation. But now he was preaching for what he had been against. 'And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests? Instead he has joined them and is one of them and is proclaiming their Gospel'. The text says 'Saul grew more powerful in his presence and skills of communication'. Actually, he was more and more filled with the Holy Spirit. It was a benevolent presence which left the Jews who heard him baffled initially. Confused, bemused, non-plussed. Saul was no longer a hateful character as he appealed to his fellow Jews to accept that Jesus as the Messiah. He won people over. He had become a likeable man. Infused with the grace of God. He would have said ‘I am a changed man - I am not ashamed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ - Believe in Him and be saved’.
The initial surprise and tolerance began to change among some of the Jewish community to suspicion, fear, spiritual jealousy and hatred. When they began to realise that Saul was not preaching a renewal of Judaism but an alternative to Judaism and when he asked for decisions for and commitment to Jesus Christ and when he began to be successful in his evangelistic conversion seeking ministry, then opposition rose against him. It is hard for us to understand the extreme reaction to Saul which was to seek to kill him. But we are not passionate about our Christian Faith today as others have been in the past. And Christianity does not allow us to be violent towards those who disagree with us. Today it is Muslims who show and exemplify bitter and uncompromising hatred for those who disagree with them. Jews even Zionists are more rational but neither do they turn the other cheek.
Yet today there is a subtle persecution of Christianity in this land. The views of Christians are not regarded as being of equal value to the views of others. The Church is not respected for its living faith in Jesus Christ nor for its contribution over the centuries. Christianity is relegated in description to the word ‘religion’. TV and radio newsreaders and presenters cannot bring themselves to mention someone’s ‘Christian Faith’ - they refer to someone’s religion. This is a politically correct pigeonholing of the largest Faith expression in the world. It is inaccurate, belittling and condescending. It is ungrammatical, unspecific and unscientific. No such lack of definition is tolerated in other areas of discourse or letters. It is actually an insult and an abuse. I don’t want anyone talking about my religion. To be courteous, fair and accurate they should talk about my Christian Faith.
A few Christians in this land have been prohibited from wearing crosses at work. But Sikhs can wear turbans even if they are in the Police. And Muslim women can wear headscarves and niqabs at their work in public places. Even orthodox Jewish men can wear the kippah - the little skull cap. We know well enough that Christianity can been insulted in entertainments but Islam is protected. A recent Channel 4 TV programme on the history of Islam is at the centre of a storm. 'Islam: The Untold Story' triggered nearly 550 complaints to both the television regulator Ofcom and Channel 4 itself. It has also sparked a bitter war of words on Twitter involving leading historians and Islamic scholars. Since it was screened, presenter Tom Holland, a historian with a double first from Cambridge, has been subjected to a torrent of abusive tweets, some of which have included physical threats. He is accused of distorting the history of Islam by claiming the Koran makes little or no reference to the religious city of Mecca. One Twitter user accused Mr Holland of trying to destroy Islamic history while another called him a ‘fool’ for suggesting Islam is a ‘made-up religion’.
The threat of Islamic offence and violence is a major political factor in Britain today. Local authorities quake before it. Police policy takes it into account. Broadcasters mainly avoid the real issues. Even the law of the land is subverted with Shari’a courts in England’s towns and cities. Christianity still has a favourable place in the nation’s life. The Church has a high profile in times of need such as the funeral services for the two Manchester policewomen and the search for little April Jones in Wales. But where is the strong Christian challenge to the values of the days? A petition of nearly 700,000 signatures is at Downing Street from those who wish to preserve the meaning of marriage. Will the politicians listen? Did they listen in Scotland?
Saul became a marked man. He was recognised and word spread that a contract had gone out on his life. This intelligence no doubt came from a convert from Judaism to Christianity who warned Saul that his life was in immanent danger. Damascus was a walled city. The walls of these ancient cities were sometimes the width of one side of our main roads. Horses and chariots could be driven round them. Houses were cut into these walls also - and some had window openings. The Jews had set guards on the main gates to catch Saul if he sought to escape. But some of those who had become Christians through his ministry used a large grain basket tied with ropes to let him down from one of the windows during the night so that he could flee for his life. Being Saul he did not go for a holiday or seek some more peaceful place to spread the Word. He headed for Jerusalem. He knew that that would mean more trouble and difficulty but that was where he felt called to go. He was fearless.
The first Christians Saul met in Jerusalem did not trust him. They were afraid of him still. They remembered his persecution. They thought he might be a spy. But Barnabas, no doubt, led by the Holy Spirit as Ananias had been in helping Saul in Damascus, decided to take the risk of welcoming Saul, befriending him and introducing him to Peter and James, the Lord’s brother. There were three important people so far in Saul’s Christian life, Stephen, Ananias and Barnabas. Without them we would probably never have heard of Saul and we would not be Christians. We cannot measure the effect our Christianity may have on others and we may feel we have not been successful in our witness for Jesus Christ. But - the Lord can use even our weak and stumbling confessions of faith for his purposes and these go on long after us.
Saul spent two weeks in Jerusalem with Peter. He does not tell us anywhere what he discussed with Peter and James. It would indeed be interesting to know. Being Saul he would most likely have talked more than listened. He might have checked that ‘his Gospel’ was acceptable to them, that is, his interpretation and understanding of Jesus Christ. He might have discussed Jewish customs, diet and practices and if they should have any place in Christianity. Saul joined the band of Christian evangelists working in Jerusalem and went specifically to the Greek-speaking synagogues. However, the reaction he got was hostile and violent and he had to be spirited out of the city for his safety. He went to the coast and then to his home town of Tarsus in Turkey to tell his family and the people there about Jesus Christ. Then he continued on his missionary outreach to Syria and Cilicia.
With Saul gone, the Christians in Judea, Galilee and Samaria had a time free from trouble and persecution. And the Church expanded and multiplied in this time of peace. But the text also adds 'It was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit…living in the fear of the Lord'. Reverence for God is not much in evidence in our society today. It once was. Not so long ago. Christians at best are not fear filled people but rejoicing people. But God is not mocked in vain and any society which has neither knowledge of or reverence for God is one without soul or values, driven by every idea and whim and nonsense that attracts attention. Trivia and lesser and greater idols take the place of wholesome Christianity. Let us be thankful for the gift of faith and the knowledge of the love of God in Jesus Christ our Saviour,