A Guy Named Paul - Acts 9
Click here to download the Word Document..
Click here to download the PDF..
A Guy Named Paul – 01.09.2022
Little over a year ago, one of the guys on the worship team and I had an opportunity to go visit a mega church and see their tech set up. How do they have the instruments plugged in, monitoring, cameras, livestream. We wanted to see what it takes to do worship in the digital world with really high quality. Through a friend of a friend we were able to go and sit in the back during a practice, then we went up front and saw how everything was plugged in, what does backstage look like, how’s it all wired. I learned a lot. And this church we visited, it was like an hour away – but they did a fabulous job. Everything was pristine. They had 16 people working in their sound booth. They had a whole station just for lights, like one guy his only job was to click through the transitions on the lights. Incredible performance level. They had countdown timers for each speaker – like, “your announcement has thirty seconds left before the next video rolls.” It was very impressive. But we walked out of the church, got in the car and the team from our church, we kinda looked at each other and said, “eh…” They weren’t doing anything wrong. I want to be clear about that, I’m not saying anything bad about that church. Wonderful people, great church. But what we walked away with that night was – we wanted that level of quality, without turning Sunday into a production. Without turning it into a performance designed to entertain people. Because here’s the thing, when I became a Pastor I thought that was the definition of success. Big church, phenomenal performance – success measured in numbers. Like I said earlier in the service, everything we measure is attendance and budget – money and butts in the pews. And when I started out – I figured, I can do that. I could build a mega-church. I knew the formula, leadership pipelines, programs, good budgeting. I knew the recipe, and I thought that was success. Lots of people equals success. Quantity means success. But over the last few years we’ve realized something. Quantity doesn’t change people’s hearts. In America, you can build a successful mega-church without the Holy Spirit. You can build a giant platform and be incredibly “successful” and push nobody closer to Jesus. And this isn’t about mega-churches – size is not the issue. You can have little churches that push nobody closer to Jesus, and there are big churches that do a really good job. But what I’m trying to say is that size does not equal health. And so for the last couple of years I have been re-evaluating what successful ministry looks like. One thing Pastor’s have seen in the last two years is that we cannot compete with all the influences and voices in your life with an hour and a half service on Sunday. Christianity has to be more than a performance for an hour on a Sunday. People are being shaped far more by their choice in news network and their social media feeds than they are by scripture or Jesus. I have become obsessed with transformation. I don’t care if something is big or if it’s small, I just want to know – are people becoming more Christlike? Is this church community healthy? Are people growing closer to God through their savior Jesus Christ in this place?
Today we are returning to the book of Acts. If you’re not familiar by now, what we’ve been doing is four chapters of Acts, and then we go do something else, and then we come back to Acts do another four chapters and in this way – we’re reading the entire book about the birth of the early church. The book of Acts covers all the stuff the disciples did after Jesus went back up into heaven. We’re in chapter 9 and we’ll be doing a chapter a week for the month of January. Let’s dive in.
Chapter nine can be broken up into basically four big stories, I’m going to breeze through them pretty quickly. As always I recommend you take some time this week to read the chapter for yourself. There’s a lot of good stuff in there – spend some time with these stories. But we start out, [read v.1-2]. This is such a great way to start the story, because Paul is basically depicted as this like raving madman. Breathing out murderous threats – I mean, that sounds like something you would use to describe a pirate. Paul doesn’t like Christians. He goes to the church leaders and gets a letter, a letter that gives him the power to arrest anyone he wants, if they follow Jesus. Basically, Paul is actively hunting for people who follow the Way, people who follow Jesus. [read v.3-6]. Now I know this is a familiar story, but there’s something I want to point out. Paul on the way to Damascus is struck blind. Now remember where we are in the story. The book of Acts is AFTER Jesus. Right? Jesus has already died on the cross, rose three days later, and then 40 days after that ascended into heaven. Paul and Jesus never bump into each other. Paul is attacking the people who follow Jesus, but he’s never actually met Jesus before right? This is obvious. But look closely at the question Jesus asks Paul in verse 4. He says, why do you persecute ME? Do you see what that means? Jesus is equating persecution of his people, with persecution of himself. This means two beautiful things. First, when you are going through hard times. When you are struggling and overwhelmed – Jesus is walking with you. Jesus is experiencing your pain and your struggle right next to you. Your pain is Jesus’ pain. That’s the first thing. Second, when we attack one another, when we treat God’s people poorly, we are attacking Jesus. The way we treat the people God created, is the way we are treating Jesus. When Jesus says, “why do you persecute me” he is revealing a level of solidarity with his people. He walks with us in our pain, and the way we treat each other is the way we treat Jesus. I have a buddy from a different church who once said, “you only love God, as much you love your least favorite person.” This community that they were building in the first century – it was not just individuals focusing up at God. Jesus identifies with us. He struggles with us in our persecutions, and that means that the way we treat others is the way we treat God. When you’re hurting people, or gossiping about them or mocking them or belittling them – you’re hurting Jesus.
Paul gets up in that moment, and he has been struck blind. So the people with him on the road, lead him the rest of the way into Damascus, and for three days he has no food. He fasts and he prays. I can’t imagine what’s going through Paul’s mind. He thought he was defending his faith, he thought he was doing the right thing – and it turns out he was hurting the son of God. Turns out the son of God, Jesus is real. All the stories are true and the savior of the world has truly come. Then we move to the second story. Ananias. It start out, [read v.10-14]. So Paul is over in Judas house, doing some thinking about his life, and meanwhile God says, “hey Ananias, go over to Paul and heal his blindness.” And basically Ananias says to God, “what are you nuts?” I heard what he did in Jerusalem. And I heard about the letters he’s carrying. He could arrest me. He could put me in jail. He could destroy me. He could ruin my life. I think there’s two levels to this. First, I think Ananias is afraid. Paul could hurt him. But the other side of it, Ananias just doesn’t LIKE Paul. Ananias digs in his heels because Paul is a bad guy! Paul is on THAT side. There’s bad guys and good guys, and he’s one of the bad guys and I’m one of the good guys and I’m not going to blur those lines. I like my safety over here on the good guys side.
Now bring this into the modern world for a second. Think about the ways we draw lines. Those people. Think about politics. What do we have? Conservatives and progressives. And if you’re over here with your conservative buddies, “why would I help a progressive person?” Or if you’re over here with your progressive buddies, “why on earth would I reach out to a conservative person?” And we do this in all sorts of ways. We’ve managed to draw lines in almost every social area. COVID lines, racial lines, financial status, blue collar, white collar, even in churches we have managed to draw lines. There’s THOSE Christians over there. But we’re the good Christians over here. And don’t get me wrong – I understand the nuances of disagreement between different groups, but we don’t have to hate each other about it. We have become really good at drawing lines. At divvying up people into teams. We are Ananias, saying “I don’t want to reach out to the jerks on the other side.” But God INSISTS. God says GO [read v.15-16]. From the earliest days, this community of people who follow Christ is a group that doesn’t draw lines. They cross them. They don’t take Paul’s past and hold it over his head. They forgive, and walk with him into a better future. Ananias comes to Paul, he lays his hands on him, and scales fall from his eyes and he can see again. Paul gets baptized, and he starts hanging out with the disciples in Damascus. He has joined the community that he was trying to destroy.
First Paul meets Jesus, then Paul meets Ananias. But here’s the problem. When you “switch teams” – when someone reaches across the lines that our culture draws and you find your life transformed and you start following Jesus…your old team is not going to like it very much. Paul meets Jesus and he starts changing his entire life to match what Jesus taught. This is what all Christians do. When we meet Jesus in our lives, we begin a process of transformation where we look at our lives and say, “Oh, that’s not how Jesus taught me to live – I gotta change that, I need to do this, I want to start that.” The Holy Spirit starts like a spark in our hearts and the fire spreads throughout all of our life. And at first the people around him were baffled. Wasn’t this the guy who came here to grab prisoners, what on earth is he doing? [read v.23-25]. When Paul left his old life behind – he stopped hating Christians, and started following Jesus, his old Jewish buddies felt betrayed. They were plotting to kill him, and he literally has to escape in a basket out the window, and then he goes back to Jerusalem. But there was a problem in Jerusalem – just like Ananias, the people who follow Jesus were really nervous about Paul. It says [read v.26-28]. Paul shows up, and everybody just kind of looks at him all nervous. But Barnabas vouches for Paul. Barnabas leads Paul to the apostles, tells his story, helps him be accepted by the community. Okay, this is a long chapter and there’s a lot of stories – but I just can’t get over how much it parallels bringing a new person to church.
Years ago I was talking to someone who visited a church. It was a woman, and her husband came to church all the time, but she didn’t come much. And he finally got her to come one Sunday, and the church was so excited. “It’s so good to see you, we haven’t seen you in so long.” And I spoke to her afterwards and she said, “That was a terrible day, everybody was so mad at me. They kept mentioning that I hadn’t been there in a long time.” And I’m really glad she told me that, because it really gave me some insight into her perspective that day. I don’t think anybody was mad at her. Nobody was mean or judging or anything. But she was carrying this expectation, a fear in her heart and that twisted what folks actually said in her hears. You see, coming into church, when you’ve never been to church or it’s been a really long time – it’s really easy to misunderstand what’s going on. In my experience people outside the church are terrified to come in here. They assume we’re going to judge them, we’re going to be mad at them, we’re going to guilt them – have you ever heard that line, “if I step into church, the walls will probably burst into flames.” They think that’s how it works, “I’m a sinner, and church is where the good people go, and I’m not good enough.” That’s why I spend so much time calling y’all sinners. Calling myself a sinner. I don’t want anyone to get the idea that the people inside this building are better. The people inside the church and the people outside the church – we are all starving people, the only difference is that we know where the bread of life is. So the third story is Paul getting death threats from his old buddies and Barnabas vouching for the new guy. We need to be Barnabas for the people in our lives. If you want to bring someone to Jesus, don’t just dump a bible in their lap, or hand them a brochure. Walk with them. Sit with them. Literally. Introduce them to the community, help them to feel welcome and accepted. Show them the bread of life we find in Jesus.
Alright, there’s one final story in the chapter. We do three stories with Paul, and then we shift over to this guy Peter. The whole rest of the book of Acts is basically just jumping between Paul stories and Peter stories. So Peter is travelling around the country and he went to a place named Lydda and healed a man named Aeneas. Now, nearby that city there was another city named Joppa. And in Joppa there was a woman named Tabitha. And the end of chapter nine is this really beautiful picture, and honestly I didn’t know this story. Now Tabitha was a good woman who was always helping the poor. She spent her life helping people, but then she got sick and died. So they called for Peter and said, “please come and help us” and when Peter arrives, he goes upstairs to the room where Tabitha has been laid out on the bed. And the room is full of women, widows who Tabitha took care of. Tabitha’s Greek name was Dorcas. Listen to this, [read v.39]. Peter walks into the room, and all these women are holding out there cloaks and robes and shawls – showing Peter the literal evidence of Tabitha’s life and love as he moves to her bedside. The chapter ends with Peter healing Tabitha, bringing her back to life. The message I want to get from this final story is that just like hurting people, hurts Jesus – loving people, loves Jesus. We saw that with Paul – when you persecute Jesus’ people, you are persecuting Jesus. But with Tabitha, we see that when we are loving Jesus’ people, we are showing love to Jesus.
It’s a long chapter, with a lot of powerful stories – but all of it centers around one key truth. God communes with us. God is in community with and through us. The way we treat each other demonstrates how much we love God. If we’re not loving one another, it shows that we don’t love God that much. God created you and that gives you value. You are created and loved by God, and so are they. Whoever “they” is – the people on the other side. The people you argue with on the internet. The people who vote different than you. The people who make more money than you, or less money than you. City people, Country people. God created us all and the way we love other people shows how much we love God. Here’s why this matters. Christianity is a team sport. You can’t “Christian” alone. Christianity is a team sport. Because you can’t LOVE alone. You can do anything in this world by yourself except love. You cannot grow in your character, in your ability to love without other people to practice with. The church, and I’m not talking about the building, I’m talking about the people, the gathered body of followers of Jesus is a gift to help us work on our love.
So here’s my challenge for you. This week I want you to take Acts chapter 9, and I want you to find yourself in this story. There’s like five major stories in this chapter, and all of it centers around community and how we treat other people. And right through the middle of it is the obvious transformation of the Holy Spirit. Paul is called from a life lived in sin and darkness into a world full of following Jesus. And if we walk through these stories I think you will see yourself in the characters we meet. Jesus meets Paul and shows him his hatred, shows him his sin. In our lives we need to show people their sin, people need to show us our sin. Paul meets Ananias – and Paul has to humble himself, to have his eyes opened to new things. Ananias has to get over his disgust of “people like Paul” and learn to welcome a new brother to the Christian family. Paul gets cancelled by his old buddies because he wants to live a life following Jesus. have you ever had that? People who don’t want to hang out with you anymore because you’ve decided to try and model your life after the teachings of Jesus? Barnabas has to vouch for Paul, introduce him around, help him feel welcome into a new community. I’ve been both of those characters at different times in my life. Tabitha, knitting robes for the widows of her community – it’s like the perfect metaphor for the pillowcase ministry.
We are the church, and the people of a church are a gift to help us work on our ability to love. So find yourself in the story, find how you can better commune with God – like Jesus, like Ananias, like Paul, Barnabas and even Tabitha. Christianity is a team sport, and I really like our team. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you remember that Jesus walks with you in your struggles. May we challenge ourselves to see Jesus in the people we love and the people we hate. May you find a way to commune with God in and through the community around you. Because we are the church. Amen.