2nd Sunday after Easter
St Barbara’s Church; 10.04.16
Rev Tulo Raistrick
Think of someone unpleasant, unlikeable, indeed pretty obnoxious. They may be a colleague at work, or someone down the road, or they may be someone in the news.
Magnify that by ten and you begin to get a sense of how the Christians may have regarded Saul.
Indeed worse. For Saul was a man intent on wiping out the Christian faith, happy to contemplate beatings, imprisonment, killings, possibly even genocide to achieve his ends. This was a man to be feared and loathed in equal measure. This was more than Trump to Muslims; this was more akin to Milosevic in Serbia.
He had watched Stephen, the first Christian martyr get stoned to death, and he had looked on in approval. He was intent on stamping out the Christian faith wherever it raised its head, and hence a journey to Damascus 150 miles away. He “breathed out murderous threats”. Indeed, the words used to describe Saul in this part of Acts were more customarily used to describe wild animals.
And yet God loves him.
Jesus loves him so much that he stops him short in his tracks, knocks him off his horse, and blinds him in order to get his attention and convince him that he loves him.
And this is no mistake. Jesus calls him by name “Saul, Saul.” Jesus is not loving some abstract idea. He is not loving some “generalised” enemy. He is loving this person in particular, this person who in persecuting the church has been directly persecuting him.
Saul is hardly someone deserving of love. And yet God loves him.
We may at times think God cannot possibly love us, cannot possibly love me, but if he can love Saul he can love anyone. God’s love for us does not change, whether we are good, bad or indifferent.
As a parent I have discovered that there is one thing I can’t stop doing. I can’t stop loving my children. No matter how impatient or tired I am, there is something deep within that means I love them instinctively and deeply. If that is true for me, how much more our perfect Father in Heaven looks upon his children.
Philip Yancey puts it this way: There is nothing we can do to make our heavenly father love us more. There is nothing we can do to make him love us less. We are loved as fully as it is possible for the God of love of the whole universe to love us.”
Once Saul experiences the power of that love, his life is transformed.
He had set out on the road to Damascus intent on turning round those known as the followers of “the Way”. Yet when he encounters Christ on the road, he becomes convinced that it is he who is going the wrong way.
He goes from persecuting the church to joining it; from denouncing the Gospel to proclaiming it. It is a dramatic change.
Saul does not receive a personality transplant however. He still remains very passionate and intense, an uncomfortable guest at any dinner party I would imagine! He still remains with quite a few rough edges – he remains quite abrasive, stubborn and over-bearing, as some of his letters give hint of. But the direction of his life is turned around.
It raises the question for us: what direction are we travelling in? Do we need to do a U-turn like Saul, maybe for the first or for the umpteenth time in our life? Do we need to re-align our direction more with God’s direction, living a life of greater love, kindness, thankfulness, prayerfulness, service?
The wonderful truth Saul discovered, and that he continued to preach and write about for the rest of his life, was that we live our lives not to gain God’s love, but in response to the love that he has already freely poured out upon us.
Saul who became Paul shows us that life is about pure grace. God’s love given to us unconditionally, with no strings attached, is the very heart of life; our love for him, given freely in response to his overwhelming generosity, is our fitting life-time’s reply.