Blinded by Grace

This sermon was delivered on April 3, 2019 at the Burgettstown Presbyterian Church for a community Lenten Service with the McDonald Area Ministerium. I am sharing it again now to participate in the ongoing discussion in Christian circles over the deconstruction movement. Were it not for Jesus deconstructing Paul’s faith, the greatest evangelist of Christian history would not have known the Grace of Jesus himself, let alone told others about it. I have found it helpful to read the New Testament account of Christian history after the ascension through this lens: Christians are the religious insiders of our day, as were Saul and his Jewish brothers of theirs. If we open our eyes to what Jesus is doing now through the Spirit, we might find that God is leading us into re-formation and a re-orientation toward those who are “outside” our circle.

Acts 9:1–22

We have no doubt heard this story before. It is one of the most dramatic accounts of God’s work in the Scriptures. Saul the persecutor of the early Christians becomes an apostle, missionary, and church planter who brings the good news of God’s Grace to those who did not know of God’s love. He becomes known, not by his Hebrew name, but by his Greek name, Paul.

Since this is a familiar story, we already know what to think about Saul before his conversion. He is the enemy. He is complicit in the killing of the first Christian martyr. We imagine his conversion as a 180-degree turn from pure evil to faithful service.

But let’s give pre-Damascus Saul some credit. Saul was a devout and faithful believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. He was part of God’s chosen people. His family brought him to synagogue every week. His family was named on the synagogue memorial plaques, honoring those who had been part of its construction. He had a deep, rich heritage of faith.

From birth, Saul heard the story of creation and knew it was God who made everything that exists. He heard of God’s promise to Abraham and the miraculous way that promise was fulfilled. Saul knew that his people were once slaves in Egypt, but their loving God had set them free and given them new life in a land of promise.

Saul knew how God could be accessed. He faithfully studied the Scriptures to draw closer to God and even studied under one of the greatest teachers of his generation. He prayed every day. He confessed his sins and atoned for them. Saul worked diligently with his hands, making tents, and faithfully gave his tithe to God. He even gave from his gross income and not just his take-home pay, just to make sure he was doing all that God required. If there was a divine commandment to follow, he obeyed it to the letter.

Saul did everything God asked of him and more. When he heard of those who were blaspheming the name of God, he knew something had to be done. Saul wanted to defend the faith. How dare someone claim to be the Son of God! Idolatry was a sin of the highest order, deserving of capital punishment.

We might label Saul a murderer prior to his conversion, but that’s not exactly fair. He wasn’t going around lawlessly killing people. Saul, Acts tells us, was rounding up those who were, by the law, idolaters. Saul was a man zealous for law and order. He found those who had committed capital offenses and bound them in prison so they would not pollute the body of believers with their heresies.

This capital offense Saul was so zealous to prosecute was the worship of Jesus Christ as the Son of God and King of the Universe. Saul knew who God was and it wasn’t anyone who had been publicly executed on a tree.

There was no possibility that Saul could save himself from this condition. You know why? Because Saul knew he was doing what was right in God’s eyes. He didn’t need saving. He couldn’t see his own blindness. Saul had no idea there was a veil over his eyes preventing him from seeing the new thing God was doing. There was no possibility in his mind that he could be wrong about God. The Scriptures confirmed to him that his zealous defense of the faith was a righteous cause.

Nothing other than a direct revelation to the contrary could change Saul’s mind.

A glorious light had entered the world and Saul had no way of seeing it. He wasn’t in the right place at the right time. He wasn’t one of the twelve who had been called to be disciples of the rabbi Jesus. He wasn’t one of the three who walked with Jesus up the Mountain of Transfiguration and saw the glory of God revealed in Jesus’ face. He hadn’t heard that it was God’s plan for this Jesus to die a shameful death at the hand of his own people so God’s mercy could be known through suffering. Surely those Saul threw into prison said something about a “resurrection” and new life through the crucified one, but in his mind they were just the babblings of the deceived. People do not rise from the dead, at least not until the consummation of all things. Saul knew this for sure. Dead people stay dead.

As he writes in 2 Corinthians, after his encounter on the Damascus road, the good news is “veiled to those who are perishing.” The extent of God’s grace is a scandal to the religious, the power of resurrection is nonsense to the skeptic, and the cross is outright foolishness to anyone who really considers its meaning.

Saul’s vision was fine, he thought. It took an encounter with the living God for him to realize that everything he knew was wrong. Ok, maybe not everything. Just the most important thing. 

Saul was going along, zealously looking for Christians to arrest on his way to Damascus, when a light from heaven flashed around him.

The sign is unmistakable. Since the beginning, God has been associated with light. In the beginning, God speaks and there is light. To Moses, God appears in a firey bush that won’t burn up. As the Israelites were led out of Egypt, God appeared in a pillar of fire to guide them by night. On Mount Sinai, the brightness of God was so powerful that the face of Moses shone with God’s glory.

A blinding light can mean only one thing—the presence of the living God.

Saul knows this. What a privilege to encounter the living God! Could this be Saul’s reward for his zealous defense of the faith?

But then, God asks a curious thing: “Saul, why do you persecute me?”

In Saul’s mind, nothing could be further from the truth. Saul is a righteous man, a devoted defender of the faith. He is only doing what is right, what the law requires of him. Saul is confused. This cannot be the same God he has known since his youth… or is it?

The voice, the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob says—“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

The veil has been lifted. Saul can see clearly for the first time in his life. And as a result, he’s rendered blind. Don’t you love the irony? Saul’s eyes are open, but he has been blinded by the glory of God, the glory of the one who was crucified.

For three days, Saul is without sight. Three days—the length of time between the suffering and death of Jesus and his resurrection. The time that is needed for Saul to die to himself and be raised with Christ into new life.

And it is through the waters of baptism that Saul is raised to a new life through his new brother in Christ. Ananias is initially scared. Saul is his enemy. He knows what Saul can do to him. But Ananias lays his hands on Saul and says, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”

All of this would have been ludicrous to Saul just three days earlier. He was so certain of his faith, convinced that God was pleased with his campaign of law and order.

But because of this encounter, the veil was lifted. Saul saw the glory of God and that glory looked like Jesus.

Saul later tells the church in Philippi that he had every reason to be confident in his status in his old life—he was circumcised according to the law, a member of God’s people, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee trained in the law, a zealous defender of the faith, blameless even in his rightousness.

Saul had done everything right. And yet, he comes to regard this pedigree, knowledge, status, and righteousness as rubbish. It’s all smelly garbage in comparison to Jesus, the one who blinded him along the road, the one who called him to suffer for the sake of his name.

Saul spends the rest of his life as Paul—relying not on the heritage of his Hebrew name, but putting his life on the line to proclaim God’s transforming grace to the Gentiles who had known nothing of God’s love.

Once the veil is lifted and we encounter the glory of Jesus, there’s no turning back. Everything else is dull in comparison. Our own righteousness is meaningless. It is only Jesus and his grace that counts for anything.

———

My guess is that none of us have a conversion story as powerful as Paul’s. But we may be able to identify with him prior to his conversion.

Most of us, since we are here in church on a Wednesday night, are “exceedingly religious in every way.” We have some reasons to boast in our righteousness. We are taking this Lent seriously, preparing ourselves for Holy Week and the story we’ve all heard time and time again. We’ve given our lives to Jesus—over and over again. We serve at every opportunity.

And yet—our eyes may very well be dulled to the glory of this good news, the scandal of the cross, the power of the resurrection.

We know Jesus, and yet our faith can be just as motivated as Saul’s was at keeping the right people out. Our zealous religiosity can be a veil that keeps us from seeing the Good News that God saves all sorts of people whom we would rather keep at bay.

Are we blinded by a veil that keeps us from seeing the extent of God’s good news for the world? Are there people whom we, like Saul, would rather see condemned than saved by the free grace of God? We might not want to throw them in prison, but we sure don’t want them in worship next to us. 

When Jesus encounters the Pharisees—Saul’s type and ours—in John 9, he declares, ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’

“Some of the Pharisees responded, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ And Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”

We are church people! We’ve been worshipping Jesus all our lives. We might be tempted to say to Jesus “We see! We know all there is to know. We have done all you asked of us.”

The season of Lent is a time for us to humble ourselves enough to say, “we do not see.” The power of this good news is often veiled even to us. 

Like Saul, we might go through life convinced of our own righteousness. We take pride in our religious pedigree. We thank God that we are not like the publicans and sinners. 

That is why we confess our sins—to open our eyes to the transforming power of knowing that we are yet forgiven, to see that it is only Christ and him crucified that really matters in the end. 

Thinking that our vision is fine, that we see things perfectly, that our supposed righteousness means anything, is the surest sign that we need God’s transforming grace. 

Look at what that transforming power did for Saul. Knocked off his feet, blinded by glory, transformed by God’s grace—he told everyone who would listen that they were children of God, that Jesus died their death, that Jesus had power to bring them into new life.

Paul ushered others into the glory of the light. He extended God’s grace to more and more people that they too might know God’s power. And ultimately, he laid down his life for the sake of this all-inclusive Gospel.

If the grace of God can lift the veil from Saul’s eyes, then surely God can open our eyes to the glory of the good news. If Jesus can save Saul, then who else can be saved by the glory of this gospel?

Our Lord has the power to make enemies into brothers and sisters. Jesus has the power to restore our sight—to show us the way of Grace for those who we have written off, and perhaps even harmed.

Only our God can knock us off our feet and commission us to see the true transformative nature of life in Jesus. Yes, our God even has the power to transform and convert us.

Open our eyes, Lord, that we might see, glimpses of truth you have for us. Blind us with the glory of your gospel. Show us who you have called us to reach with your mercy and love. Open our eyes, illumine your church, Spirit divine! Amen.

A Lenten Thought

Written at the start of Lent 2020, as the church remained blissfully unaware of the impending COVID crisis. This year, I feel the power of these words once again.

A week into your Lenten fast, you may find yourself having taken on a burden too heavy for you to bear. This Lent, I intentionally set a relatively low bar for myself as a way to compensate for the spiritual self-flagellation that is normally my downfall.

Sometimes we need a reminder: Jesus does not want us to suffer for the sake of suffering.
Yes, the Christian life will often lead us through times of wilderness, trial, temptation, and suffering. Yes, we should engage in acts of piety and mercy that help us to empathize with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are suffering in a real way. But these times in the wilderness should never cause us to lose sight of the good news.

Cain, after killing his brother, was ready to go into the wilderness with a target on his back, ready for his certain death. Yet, God placed a different kind of mark on Cain, that no one would dare kill him (Genesis 4:15).

Moses, after taking justice into his own hands and killing an Egyptian slave-master, fled from Pharaoh and his Hebrew kinsfolk through the wilderness into the land of Midian. This young man who had been full of promise became a lowly shepherd. Yet God did not abandon him. From the blazing bush that would not burn up, God called out to him and made him the shepherd of his people Israel.

The people of Israel, having followed Moses on his “damn fool idealistic crusade” (to quote Ben Kenobi), found themselves in the wilderness, fearing the uncertainty of food, water, and shelter. Time and time again, they cried out, wishing to have died in Egypt. In fact, when they got to the promised land of Canaan, the place of their deliverance, they refused to go, fearing the challenges that laid ahead of them. They remain in the wilderness for forty years, but God never ceases to provide for them.

David, after being called out on his sin by the prophet Nathan, is disgraced publicly for his private sin. David confesses his sin and is told by Nathan that he will not die. Yet, he had to endure the illness and death of his child through Uriah’s wife. His servants thought he might kill himself in response. But after he fasted and prayed, David returned to the house of the Lord and ate once again. Through Bathsheba, having endured the loss of their first son, Solomon is born and David is remembered as the anointed one, through whom God’s everlasting kingdom would come.

Elijah, the great prophet, was so zealous for God that he slaughtered the prophets of Baal by the sword. As word got to Jezebel, the prophet of Baal, Elijah’s life was threatened with the same fate: an eye for an eye. Elijah ran into the wilderness, afraid for his life. It was all too much for him so he sat under a bush and prayed that he might die. God didn’t leave him there, he didn’t allow Elijah to return to the dust. An angel appeared to him and gave him bread and water that would strengthen him for his journey to the mountain of God.

Time and time again, God’s people are called out into the wilderness. On quite a few occasions, their time there causes them to throw their hands up expecting death, expecting things to only get worse.

But God.

God sends Jesus into the wilderness, not so that we might follow him there to get stuck in our own suffering and self-pity. Not even so that we might give up enough things to be holy. God sends Jesus ahead of us to prepare a way for his people out of the wilderness of sin and death.

You know what seems to be the main barrier to the assurance of salvation by grace through faith for most Christians I talk to? Trying too hard. Starving ourselves of grace that we might turn God’s face to us. Beating up on ourselves that God might come and save us from our own self-flagellation.

The Satan tempts Jesus with that very thing. He took Jesus to the highest point of the temple and told him to throw himself down that God might save him. Wisely, Jesus answers, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Maybe this Lent you need to fast from starvation, fast from trying to be enough, fast from testing God. Take the mark of protection. Take up your staff of leadership. Face the challenge in front of you head on. Eat, worship, and rejoice in the Lord’s blessings. Eat the bread, drink the water.

“I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10)