4th Sunday in Lent
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
Acts 9:1-22 Sermon
March 5, 2005
Hymns (from The Service Book and Hymnal):
134 "Father Most Holy"
78 "Go To Dark Gethsemane"
376 "Jesus Thy Blood and Righteousness"
392 "More Love To Thee, O Christ"
“PEOPLE TOUCHING PEOPLE”
TEXT (vs. 20-22): "And in the synagogues immediately, [Saul] proclaimed Jesus saying, “He is the Son of God.” And all who heard him were amazed, and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem of those who called on this name? And he has come here for this purpose, to bring them bound before the chief priests.” But Saul increased all the more in strength and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ."
Have you ever heard anyone question why Christians try to convert people of other faiths to Christianity? It just doesn't seem to set well with many people. In this day and age, with the focus being upon religious freedom and political correctness, conservative churches are criticized more and more for trying to Christianize heathen cultures.
And so, you hear comments like, "You have no business sending missionaries to Africa to change their ancient ancestral religions." Or maybe, "The people of the Far East have been served for centuries by their religion. Who do you think you are to try and change them?" Or perhaps, "The Jewish people have suffered so much. How dare you insult them by trying to make them Christians?"
And then people tend to get even more upset when Christians say that there is a heaven and there is a hell and the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ. The person who rejects Jesus Christ is destined for hell. And then you hear the criticism, "How does anyone dare to think that they have a corner on the truth?"
I remember having such a conversation with someone who was a Universalist; that is, someone who believes that there are many roads to the same god. I very patiently explained the way to salvation, and that a person’s faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour was the only way to enter heaven. I even backed it up with the passage from John 14, where Jesus says, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one cometh unto the Father but by me." I also quoted other passages that very clearly stated that Jesus Christ was the only way to heaven, and that all who did not believe in him as their Saviour would be damned.
His comment to me was, “Well, that’s true for you, but not true for the person with a different religion.” And as much as I tried to belabor the point, he just couldn’t get past the issue that salvation through Jesus Christ was merely my subjective idea. And to him, the thought of Christianizing people with perfectly good religions was dead wrong. Who was I to say that people would go to hell if they didn’t have faith in Jesus Christ?
But we know, that the truth of Christianity is not subjective truth or something that is true only for Christians. Christianity is objective; it is God’s truth, irrespective of whether or not someone believes it.
There was a time when the apostle Paul was upset with Christians for promoting their faith as the only saving faith. You may remember that Paul, or Saul of Tarsus as he was originally called, hated our Christian message.
Do you know what his problem was, and why he was so bitter? What angered Paul, was that the Christians were proclaiming that the crucified Jesus Christ was the Saviour promised by God in the Old Testament.
Now Paul, being the good Jew and student of the Scriptures as he was, he had been looking for the Messiah who would be the Saviour. Even that someone from Nazareth named Jesus might be the Messiah didn't anger Paul.
But what upset Paul, was that this alleged Saviour had been crucified. What kind of Saviour is it who suffers and dies? In Paul's opinion, "saviours" are supposed to be glorious, not executed! A crucified Saviour didn't fit Paul's job description for a real Messiah.
So Paul (Saul) persecuted the Christians for saying that there is no other way to be saved than by the crucified Jesus Christ. And what made it worse, was that the Christians were claiming that Jesus had risen from the dead! Nobody rose from the dead! The story that Saul had heard, was that his disciples had stolen his body from the tomb and were just making this false claim.
This Christianity stuff had to be stopped, and Saul was doing all he could to bring this new-fangled religion to a stop. It seemed to be spreading so rapidly. So, Saul heads for Damascus on his continuing quest to try to bring Christianity to an end. Trying to stop the Christian mission led Saul to Damascus.
At this point, I’m reminded of an expression I heard an older pastor say once. He said, “Sometimes God has to whack you up-side the head with a 2 x 4 to get your attention.”
That's what God did to Saul. As he was traveling to Damascus to stop the Christian mission, God "whacked him up-side the head with a 2 x 4," as the saying goes.
Let's hear Paul's own description. It's reported in Acts chapters 9 and 26. "On the way (to Damascus)...at noon I saw a light brighter than the sun, flashing from heaven around me..." Paul "fell to the ground and reported," 'I heard a voice asking me in Aramaic, "Saul, Saul! Why are you persecuting Me? You are only hurting yourself by kicking against the goads."'" "I asked, 'Who are you Lord?' 'I am Jesus,' the Lord answered, 'whom you are persecuting. But get up and stand on your feet. I showed Myself to you to appoint you to serve Me as a witness of what you have seen about Me and of what will be shown to you by Me. I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles to whom I am sending you, in order to open their eyes and to turn them from darkness to light and from Satan's control to God, so that they may receive the forgiveness of sins and a share in the inheritance of those who are made holy by believing in Me.'" (Acts 26:12-18)
When Saul got up from the ground, he opened his eyes but could not see. He had been blinded! His companions led him to Damascus. Paul remained blind for three days until God restored his physical sight (Acts 9:8-9).
The restoration of Paul's physical sight was nothing compared to the light that the Holy Spirit had now poured into his soul. His hatred for the Christian mission was his unbelief that the crucified Jesus Christ is the Saviour of the world. That is the most terrible thing that Paul, or you, or me, or any human being could ever experience.
Jesus himself struck Paul with the blinding truth, the truth that the crucified one, is most importantly the resurrected one, who now lives. The Christian Church is his Church, the Christian mission is his mission, and opposition to that mission is opposition to Jesus Christ. That light of Christ drove away the darkness of Paul's misplaced religious ideas. Paul, or Saul of Tarsus, who had so hated the Christian mission so much, had the eyes of his soul opened and he became the greatest missionary of the early church.
The rest of Paul's life was the fulfillment of Jesus' commission to open people's eyes and "to turn them from darkness to light and from Satan's control to God, so that they may receive the forgiveness of sins and a share in the inheritance of those who are made holy by believing in Him."
Every person in this world needs to have their eyes opened. I'm not talking here about physical eyesight. I'm talking about God's light coming into the darkness of our own souls. This is a world of sin. Evil, hatred, greed, betrayals, jealousy, slander, crime, destruction...these things are all about us. And lest we forget, we are a part of this dark, sinful world. St. John says, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 John 1:8).
There are so many people in our world today who do not know the truth, and are still in their sins. In the Bible, John records that truth is not automatically within us. The idea that some people have that all religions are basically true, that one religion is finally no better than another, rests upon the notion that religious truth is a common property of all people.
But John says that the truth is not automatically in us. The Bible says that the truth is not in us if we do not admit to our sin. Avoid confessing your sin, and you are not in truth, not in the light, but rather you are deceived and you are in spiritual darkness.
Is it easy to see this sin that so infects us? Sometimes it is, and sometimes it’s not quite so easy. Sometimes we deceive ourselves by thinking our sin is somehow permissible, and that God will understand our logic.
But think again. When we try to justify our own sinful actions, then we are still living in darkness. Remember that both Adam and Eve tried to justify their sinful actions in the beginning by not accepting the blame for what they did. And of course Saul of Tarsus rationalized his abuse of Christians, thinking in his own mind that what he was doing was God pleasing. Of course God didn’t think so.
But Saul of Tarsus, the Apostle Paul was enlightened by the Holy Spirit through the Gospel and was sent to turn people "from darkness to light and from Satan's control to God, so that they may receive the forgiveness of sins."
That spiritual sight comes because of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Saviour of sinners. On a dark Good Friday Jesus died on a cross and endured the anger of God as payment for our sins. Jesus, while he hung on the cross was punished with the fury of hell so that we need never experience God's wrath. He endured the greatest darkness of all, death and separation from God, so that we can now live in his light and be illuminated by his Word.
The terrible darkness that shrouded the world on Good Friday gave way on Easter morning to a bright light. On Easter, God raised his Son Jesus from the dead. He restored him to life. By the resurrection of Jesus Christ, God brought life and immortality to light. By the resurrection, God showed that the crucified one truly is the Saviour, who alone is the light of the world. By raising his Son, God proved Jesus' words that the Christ had to suffer and rise, so that repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached throughout the world.
The message of Christians to people of other faiths, the message that we Christians continually would share with one another, is to simply believe and trust God's Son Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. St. John says, "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
Although some people are offended by the missionary nature of Christianity, that's the way it is. The Bible is very clear on this. Remember Jesus’ words, "No one comes to the Father except by Me" (John 1:6). That's very clear. The apostle Peter says in Acts 4:12: "Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." That is also very clear.
Unfortunately many people, even Christian groups don’t see things that way. In some church bodies, teaching missions are being pushed further and further into the background. Teaching isn’t as important as food and medical aid.
Now don’t get me wrong, the church’s world relief efforts are very important parts of our mission program. We don’t believe in preaching the Gospel to people who are starving to death, nor do we try to minister to a person’s spiritual needs while withholding medical aid. We also don’t believe in trading food for religion by saying, “Okay, you believe in my God and I’ll give you dinner.” That’s something like the old rescue mission approach, where they’d make people sit through an hour of preaching before giving them a bowl of soup.
What is important though, is that we bring Jesus Christ to the world. Our relief efforts are always part of our Gospel ministry. We minister to the body as well as to the soul. Through mission programs just within our fellowship, thousands are active and healthy Christians today.
So, yes, we are out to convert people from other world religions to Christianity. And yes, we are out to bring Christ to those people who practice no religion. And yes, we are out to convert people who think of themselves as Christians, but are blind to Christian truth; nominal Christians who don't know who Jesus Christ is and what he's all about. Yes, we are a missionary religion because Jesus told us: "Go and make disciples of all people by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and by teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you" (Matthew 28:19-20).
Some people say "Hands off", but we want to touch people with the story of Jesus Christ. We want to touch people, not clobber them. One reason why people advocate a "hands off" policy is because of past abuses. Many people in the past became Christians (at least, Christian in name) because some conquering army invited them to become Christians at the point of a sword. You might even know a situation where someone was bullied into Christianity, but in fact their heart was never touched.
I remember as a boy the TV commercials for Radio Free Europe. The intent behind their organization, was to bring the message of the free world to those who lived in communist-controlled countries, and who were being constantly fed communist propaganda, especially East Germany. Their slogan was, “The Iron Curtain isn’t soundproof.”
Remember too that the communist world was officially atheist, and efforts to spread the Gospel were at least attempted to be silenced by the government.
Some of you may be familiar with an organization called “Thoughts of Faith.” Pastor John Shep, who has Ukrainian ancestry and relatives still in the Ukraine, knew of their spiritual starvation. And so, following along with this idea of Radio Free Europe, that the Iron Curtain wasn’t soundproof, he started a weekly radio broadcast on a station directed into the Ukraine, called “Thoughts of Faith,” which brought the message of the Gospel into the country.
Now today, since the Iron Curtain is no more, they have very active missions in the Ukraine and in the Czech republic. The fruits of that small radio ministry became overwhelmingly evident, as that small mission has grown to enormous proportions.
When I think about those simple radio broadcasts, people weren’t being converted at the point of a sword. They weren't belittling people who were not Christian. There was nothing haughty or arrogant as they went about their work. The message of the Gospel was being preached to strengthen believers, and to bring those in unbelief to faith. The Holy Spirit, working through the Gospel, working through those radio broadcasts, brought many to know their Saviour.
Yes, we Christians are a missionary group. We have been commissioned by God to share His light with the world. In Luke 24 the resurrected Jesus told the disciples, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things" (Luke 24:46-48).
Our God is not perverse, ours is not a God who takes sadistic pleasure in afflicting us or in sending anyone to hell. Hell is indeed a stark reality; however, God doesn't want anyone there. God is good and God wants every person in the world to be saved and go to heaven. The Bible says, "God wants all people to be saved and to come to know the truth" (1 Timothy 2:4).
God wants us to know his light, to live in his light, and to enter his heaven. He wants to open the eyes of all people, just as he opened Paul's. He wants all people to be touched by the light of Christ. And he wants to use us to accomplish this task, in whatever way we can.