Acts 9:1-22 (Easter 3C)                             

St. John, Galveston 5/1/22

Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The message this morning is based on the first reading from Acts 9. During His life and ministry, Jesus spoke chilling words of prophecy to his disciples, telling them that they would be brought before kings and rulers for “His name’s sake.” Discipleship, as free and liberating as it is, ultimately has a cost. Persecution is certain to come, but it offers the disciple an opportunity to confess the name of Jesus, to proclaim the “excellencies” of “Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light.”

Jesus’ disciples would experience persecution countless times from countless people. Christian martyrs would grow in numbers as the world proved unable to silence their message. As John wrote in his Gospel, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has never been able to put out the light.” In frustration, the world would ramp up its attack. Things would go from bad to worse.  Be ready, Jesus says. Consider it a privilege to be mistreated for My name’s sake, for “as they persecuted Me, so they will persecute you.”

St. Stephen was brought before a violent mob of persecutors. Though it must have been an extremely fearful moment for Stephen, by the grace of God and by the power of the Holy Spirit, he rose above that fear. He defended his faith. He stood fast, refusing to deny the blessed name of Jesus. “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears (he said)! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” 

In a violent rage, Stephen’s persecutors hurled stones at him, and they kept on hurling those stones until his body slumped in death. Those who stoned him to death saw themselves as justified in the eyes of God. Their actions though, in the witness of Stephen, were both rebuked and forgiven in a single cry of the martyr who died firmly in the gracious hands of Christ.  “Father, forgive them (he said), for they know not what they do.” 

And there, on the sidelines, stood one Saul of Tarsus. He watched the gruesome stoning of Stephen as if he had ice in his veins. Pity didn’t move him to intercede. The love of truth didn’t move him either. Rather self-righteous indignation convinced him that the mobs were doing the right thing in killing Stephen. As one stone after another found its mark on the torso and head of Stephen, Saul considered it god’s work. It was right! It was just! It was God’s will!       

Saul would soon find out though the true will of God. As he traveled to Jerusalem to get permission to persecute more Christians, he went by way of Damascus. And as he walked along the road, Jesus came to him in a miraculous way, ultimately converting him to the faith that he so wanted to destroy. “Suddenly a light shone around (Saul) from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?” “Who are You, Lord (Saul asked)?”  Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” 

Persecution, in whatever form it takes, isn’t ultimately about you. It is about Christ. When Saul persecuted the Church, when he persecuted Christians, he was persecuting Jesus. The Church, after all, is the body of Christ. Its battles are His battles. Its sufferings are His sufferings. Its joys are His joys. And more importantly, His victories are the Church’s. You can’t persecute the Church without persecuting Jesus. 

When you consider what Saul had done to destroy the Church you can only conclude that he should have had the book thrown at him! He should have been in Stephen’s place! He should have had no mercy shown to him, no pity! He should have died the death of a thousand martyrs, but fully and truly forsaken by God! 

And yet, God interceded, literally stopping Saul as he walked the path to hell. “Brother Saul (said Annanias), the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me that you may receive your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” Immediately there fell from his eyes something like scales, and he received his sight at once; and he arose and was baptized.” In that life giving water, Saul was judged innocent, not guilty in Christ Jesus. Even as those scales fell from his eyes, so his sins were washed from him in the cleansing blood that had flowed from Jesus’ hands and side. God’s justice, you see, is different from ours. As Luther was later fond of saying, Jesus is our righteousness, and we are His sin. He took upon Himself what He was not, and He has given to us, to you, what you were not. That is God’s justice. 

Paul, of course, is revered and honored in the Christian Church today. We honor him, not for his personal qualities, or his leadership qualities, or even for his conviction and boldness. Rather we honor him because he brings us, by God’s grace, the wondrous life changing message of the cross. “God (he said) made Him who knew no sin to be sin that you might be the very righteousness of God in Him.”  “God was in Christ reconciling the whole world to Himself.”

Perhaps nowhere else does Paul speak of the glory of Christ and of the profound impact the cross had on his life than when he writes to the Christians scattered throughout the region of Galatia. Listen to the words of a changed man, a man touched by the grace of God in Christ Jesus. “I have been crucified with Christ (he said); it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.” 

The persecutor would himself be persecuted. Paul, like Peter and Stephen, and many other martyrs before him, would come face to face with the cost of discipleship. Having appealed to Caesar when he was accused of sedition, Paul was sent to Rome to stand trial.      

When he knew his time to die was near, he wrote to Timothy, his good friend and son in the faith. “For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me  the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing.” 

When his time came, Paul was taken out to the Ostian Way, a road outside the city walls or Rome. There, he was beheaded. “Who will set me free from this body of death (Paul once asked).” His conclusion, given to him by the Holy Spirit, he would proclaim throughout the rest of his life. “Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +