Here’s my sermon from our series through the book of Acts: In Christ for the World: The Conversion of Saul from Acts 9.
The sermon should be near the top of the player’s list, but if not, click on the tab that says, “speakers,” click on my name (Tom Fuerst) and it’s the sermon titled, “Training for dying.”
In Christ for the World: The Conversion of Saul
As a kid one of my favorite, forbidden, television shows was the Simpsons. I remember, in one of those crazy, only in a cartoon, episodes the vile Mr. Burns uses his endless flow of money to build a canopy over the entire city ofSpringfieldin order to block out the sun. Mr. Burns is the owner of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant and thus, he has a vested interest in securing nuclear power as the only legitimate source of energy available to the people ofSpringfield. By means of this sun-eclipsing canopy, he establishes a private, solar monopoly. He took ownership over the sun and was making the citizens pay for something that was rightfully theirs for free. He took something that belonged to everyone, and by privatizing it, he left everyone else in darkness.
I know “the Simpsons” is not considered good childhood television, so I’m not recommending the show. But I will say this. The crazy thing about the Simpsons is that, even though it’s this wildly ridiculous cartoon world, the creators of the show are actually incredibly perceptive about human nature and our tendencies to grasp for power and privatize it. And there is no more dangerous power to privatize than the power of religion – To set up a monopoly on God…even inadvertedly…a monopoly that inhibits other people from seeing God’s light or feeling his love.
This is kind of where we find our main character in our passage today. Saul is not a bad, immoral guy like Mr. Burns. He’s a man of deeply rich religious heritage. But his religion has become one of self-focused pride and advancement and he doesn’t even know it. He cares nothing for God’s love for the rest of the world. He only cares about God’s love for him and his fellow Jews. He has taken something that belongs to everyone, the love of God, and has privatized it, putting a canopy over it, he leaves everyone else in the darkness.
Conversion of Saul
In case you’re not familiar with his story, this Saul fellow will later become the apostle Paul after God changes his name. We were briefly introduced to him last week in 8:1. Saul was serving as the presiding chairman of the Pastor Search Committee that stoned Stephen…apparently they didn’t like Stephen’s trial sermon. But Saul is not interested in only stoning Stephen, he wants to go after all who think and believe like Stephen.
So at this point in Acts 9, Saul has contacted the denominational leaders in an attempt to pass a resolution against the Christians. He reads it at the denomination’s annual meeting. It goes something likes this,
WHEREAS we believe that God is so holy that He could never take on human skin,
WHEREAS these Christians believe that God took on human skin and named himself Jesus,
WHEREAS we believe Moses prohibited idolatry – the worshipping of animals, plants, carved images, and especially human beings,
WHEREAS these Christians believe that this man Jesus is to be worshipped as God,
WHEREAS we believe that God cannot die,
WHEREAS these Christians believe that this Jesus, whom they worship as God, died at the hands of the Romans
WHEREAS such a belief is idolatrous and blasphemous,
WHEREAS Moses commanded that blasphemers and idolaters be put to death,
THEREFORE it is our religious duty in fulfillment of the law of God to put to death these idol worshippers who dare smear the name of God by their beliefs.
And the resolution passed without a single contrary vote. And Saul is charged to go out and find these idol worshipping Christians and bring them back to Jerusalem. So Saul just starts going house to house to hunting Christians down. Man, you thought the Jehovah’s Witnesses were annoying going house to house…at least they’re not dragging you off to Washington for execution.
So here he is, breathing in the air of anger and bitterness and breathing out threats and murder. The most dangerous man in the world is a man with a vendetta who believes God is on his side. And Saul is a very dangerous man. But God is not afraid of dangerous men.
All at once, as Saul is strolling down the road seeking Christians, Christ snares Saul by surrounding him with stunning, shining light that sears his very soul, shoves him to the ground, and leaves him sightless.
Saul’s first encounter with Jesus is not the tame Jesus of open-minded religion; Saul’s first encounter with Jesus is not a domesticated do-gooder Jesus; Saul’s first encounter with Jesus is not the safe Jesus of sentimental spirituality. No. Saul’s first encounter with Jesus was an earth shattering experience that left him so in shock that for 3 full days he ate nothing, drank nothing, and saw nothing. He could not, for all his religious efforts, block out the Sun. He could not prevent it’s rays from reaching other people. He could not prevent its penetrating gaze from setting fire to his soul.
And did you hear Jesus’ words to Saul out of the blinding light, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Did you catch that? He didn’t say, “Why are you persecuting the church?” He didn’t say, “Why are you persecuting Stephen?” He didn’t say, “Why are you killing Christians?” He says, “Why are you persecuting ME?”
I have a friend who when someone in her life is suffering, she feels their pain so intensely that it seriously becomes her own. Literally, as someone else’s life is falling apart, my friend will feel their pain so strongly that she, herself, will carry their burden just as much as they do. And sooner or later her very body starts to break down. She gets to a place where the stress is so much that she gets flu-like symptoms and will collapse if she tries to walk. Through years of this she’s realized that she has to draw better boundaries so as to be a healthy person, herself. It is unhealthy for her to SO identify with other people’s suffering that she cannot differentiate between theirs and hers.
But Jesus is different. He doesn’t need to draw the boundaries that you and I have to draw to be healthy. When his church suffers, he carries the weight of it all. He is so united to us in his love for us that when Saul persecutes the church, Jesus says that Saul is literally persecuting him. Jesus tells Saul, “By persecuting my church, by causing my church to suffer, by seeking the harm of my people, you are also persecuting me. They are my body. When they bleed, I bleed. When they suffer, I suffer. Yes, Saul, that’s how close I am to them.”
And Saul has no clue what is even happening. He asks, “Sir, who in the world are you?”
Jesus’ words in the Greek are literally, “I’m Jesus, fool, the one you are persecuting. Now get your rear end up and go into the city, I’ve got a job for you to do.”
Just before Saul arrives inDamascus, God sends a vision to a man named Ananias. He says, “Saul of Tarsus is coming, he’s been blinded by the light of Christ, go lay your hands on him and restore his sight.”
Ananias doesn’t want anything to do with that, man. “God, are you kidding me? I’m assuming because you’re God and you know everything, that you know that this guy has been massacring Christians right and left. I’m pretty sure it’s a good thing that he can’t see anymore.”
And God’s response is to Ananias in vs. 15 is the climactic part, most revealing of this passage, “Get your rear end up and go! This man is my chosen instrument to take my name to the entire world!”
Both of these guys, both Saul and Ananias have the same problem, though it looks slightly different for both of them – they both assume they have a monopoly on the God. They both assume God is their private property and that they can withhold access to others as they see fit. Saul has a monopoly on God because He thinks he’s got God figured out and God is on his side. Ananias has a monopoly on God because he thinks some people aren’t worth sharing the gospel with.
But the larger point of this story is that we have received the light of the Christ, but that light doesn’t just belong to us. We don’t get to privatize it. The sun belongs to everyone. God has hopes and plans and dreams that transcend and go beyond me. They are hopes and plans and dreams for the entire world.
- Jesus did not enter into Saul’s heart only for Saul; Saul was in Christ for the world.
- Jesus did not enter into Ananias’s heart just for Ananias, Ananias was in Christ for the world.
- God is not in Tom Fuerst for Tom Fuerst, Tom Fuerst is in Christ for the world.
- Christ is not in you for just you; You are in Christ for the world.
His light cannot be monopolized. Christ cannot be privately harnessed by any individual. That would be as absurd as a doctor that goes to medical school, gets straight A’s, graduates at the top of her class, and then chooses, with all of her talents at her disposal, to only practice medicine on herself, ignoring suffering, sick, and hurting people all around her. We would say, “C’mon, share your knowledge with the world, help someone else, do something for someone other than yourself. God didn’t give you those talents just for you! Stop blocking out the sun! Let others have access, too.”
God tells Ananias, “Christ is not your private property; go to Saul. I will reach the world through Saul. But first, I want to reach Saul through you.”
You see, God was not calling Ananias to Billy Graham. God was calling Ananias to be Billy Graham just to Saul. That’s it. And God may not be calling you to be Billy Graham or a world missionary. But God is calling you to start somewhere. He is calling you to shine the light of the gospel in someone’s life. You may never reach thousands, but you can reach someone. Because the light of the gospel cannot help but overflow from your heart to the people you encounter on an everyday basis.
Just as the Sun spreads warmth and light all over the world each day, just as the sun shines on the wicked and the righteous, just as the Sun defeats the darkness each morning, so too the gospel alive in you cannot help but spread the warmth and light of the love of God on all people, defeating the darkness wherever it’s light shines.
For Ananias this started with one man – Saul. So where does this start for you?
I think it starts with us as we encounter everyday situations. In everyday situations we need to be asking ourselves, “What does Jesus have to say to this? How might Jesus inform how I go about my day?” Let’s take something common to all of us, okay. Let’s take going into a restaurant. How does the Jesus inform the way you, say, tip the server?
Now, you say, “Man, that’s ridiculous, the gospel has nothing to do with tipping.” But that’s not what the waitresses think. I remember working at a restaurant through high school and college and I cannot tell you how often I heard my co-workers complained because of how cheap the Sunday church crowd is. Or, when I waited tables, I would have people leave gospel tracks on my table, but no tip. And as a Christian, I was insulted by the hypocrisy of saying, “I ‘care’ about your eternal destiny, but not the family you’re working hard for.”
I think the gospel calls us to show love to our waitresses through tipping well. Christians ought to be the most generous people in the world because we don’t believe that this money has any eternal value. Is there a better way to show the love of Christ to a waitress than saying, “I care about you and the family you’re supporting, so I’m going to tip you well?” What a testimony! And if you intentionally choose the same waitress each time you go in a restaurant, if you ask for their section, and tip them well over and over, you will get a relationship started that can continually show them the love of Christ. Just imagine the report you’d have with a person! We need to understand that Christ is not in us just for us; we are in Christ for waitresses and servers and their families.
And, I mean, we could park right here in the restaurant world for a while if wanted – the way you treat those workers behind the counter says something about your faith. Do you treat them like your slaves, “Yeah, uh, get me a number 6.” Or do you treat them like people created in God’s image, people worthy of love and respect…worthy of a ‘please’ and a ‘thank you’? They are the reason we are in Christ. We are Christ’s chosen instruments to bear the gospel to fast-food workers.
A few weeks ago I went up toMontgomeryfor the District Annual Conference. On the first morning, before I went to the meeting, I went in this McDonalds. I saw one of the employees come out from behind the counter and she was wiping down the soda machine. And out of nowhere, this random guy comes up and says to her, “Has anyone told you today that Jesus loves you?” I thought to myself, “Well, that’s probably not the tactic I would’ve taken, but to each his own. At least he’s spreading the love of God.”
“Then he marches up to the counter and starts ordering. Says to the lady taking his order, “Has anyone told you today that Jesus loves you?” Now, at this point, I’m just thinking to myself, “Please don’t talk to me, man. I’m not a morning person and I wonder if God loves me in the morning.” The lady behind the counter doesn’t respond to his question, she just turns and walks away. So he turns to me. “Has anyone told you today that Jesus loves you?”
“Uh…ehem….uh…no, sir. I don’t think so. Now, all of the sudden, out of the blue, this guy changes the subject and tells me that he has been coming into this McDonalds everyday for years and years and this girl who just took his order has the worst attitude and never smiles and never acts like she enjoys her job. And he was just ripping on this girl that he just told ‘Jesus loves you.’ And I thought to myself, ‘First, she can probably hear you gossiping about her. Second, don’t tell someone Jesus loves them in one breath and in the next breath put them down in front of a complete stranger. You’re building a canopy over the sun and only letting it shine on people who are just like you.
Shining the light of the gospel in this dark world takes more than just going up to people and saying, “Hey, has anyone told you today that Jesus loves you? It means patiently loving people who are “beneath” you, who don’t smile at you, don’t get your order right, or don’t, maybe, even like you at all. You are in Christ for them.
You don’t have to start by taking the gospel to thousands of Souls like Billy Graham. But you have a responsibility to let your line shine before other people in such a way that they glorify God, not wonder if he’s cheap, that they glorify God, not wonder if he’s a gossip. You are in Christ for world. And that might cost you some pocket change.
I think a really good example of this is one of my wife’s old bosses, Rob Holifield. Rob was the manager of the bookstore on Asbury’s campus and Rob saw his job, not merely as selling of books to students, but as a pastor to seminary students. And since his staff was full of seminary students, he wanted to be the hands and feet of Jesus to them, even in little ways. As their boss, he could’ve just treated them like little minions and go-fers. He could’ve talked down to them…or worse, talked ‘at’ them.
But, man, Rob never did that. He always treated all his employees with the respect that they deserve. He saw his job as being in Christ for those employees. And so he’d do little things for them – he knew that seminary students are often too poor to buy little pleasures in life like sodas and candy bars. And so a couple times a week he’d purchase the entire staff sodas and candy bars. Because when you’re in Christ for someone else, when you’re trying to shine the light of the gospel in the lives of others, the little things matter. Tips. Thank you’s, Dr. Peppers. They matter…if not to you…to the people you’re serving.
And only when we can see that we are in Christ for our neighbors, only when we can see that we are in Christ for our waitresses, and only when we can see that we are in Christ for our employees, only then can we see that we are in Christ for the entire world. You don’t have to start out being Billy Graham for the world. But you can start out being Billy Graham to the people in your everyday life. Christ is not in me just for me. We are in Christ for the world. And sometimes that starts with just one person.