Understanding What God Expects of Us / Third Sunday of Easter

Acts 9:1-22

But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel. For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My name.”

Can you remember the last major misunderstanding you had with someone? You said one thing, they heard something different, and the result was a mess. It may turn out to be really funny when you look back on it years later. But not in that moment. In that moment, it was frustrating.

A man named Norm shared a misunderstanding he had at his local library when he requested copies of two books by the same author, titled That’s Not What I Meant. Another is titled You Just Don’t Understand. He  went to the library and asked the clerk to check the availability of these two books.

“What’s the first book?” the librarian asked.

That’s Not What I Meant,” he said.

“Well, what did you mean?” she asked.

“That’s the title of the book,” he replied.

“Okay, and the other book?” asked the librarian.

“You Just Don’t Understand,” he replied.

“Excuse me?” said the confused librarian.

It took a while, but Norm finally got his books. Seems to me like the classic “Who’s on first”

Misunderstandings can be frustrating. They waste our time and energy. But our Scripture lesson today is about a dangerous misunderstanding. It’s about a young Pharisee named Saul who misunderstood the nature of God, and this resulted in great sorrow and suffering for the new community of Christians.

We’re introduced to Saul here in Acts 9 with the words, meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.

Do you need to know anything more about Saul beyond this sentence?
Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. It’s not like you could read that sentence and say, I’m sure he’s got some good qualities. I could still hang out with him. No. After reading this one sentence, you would probably un-friend Saul on Facebook and block him on Twitter.

Many years ago, I heard the craziest thing about who you would choose for president. It was the who would you rather have a beer with? poll. Every four years, some organization polls the American voters on this all-important question: which Presidential candidate would you rather have a beer with? I can tell you, with this one-sentence introduction, meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. Saul would lose the “who would you rather have a beer with?” poll.

Saul was a member of the Pharisees, a religious group that advocated a strict following of Old Testament law, especially the laws of purity. His mission in life was to protect the purity of Judaism by destroying this heretical cult of Jesus-followers known as The Way. Verse 2 in our Scripture lesson reads like this, He went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues in Damascus, so that if he found any there who belonged to the Way, whether men or women, he might take them as prisoners to Jerusalem. It’s ironic.

Saul didn’t believe he was an evil person; Saul’s colleagues among the religious elite didn’t think he was an evil person either. In Saul’s mind, he was doing God’s work. But God obviously disagreed.

With or without religion, good people can behave well, and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil, that takes religion. What a sad thought, for good people to do evil, that takes religion. It was true in Saul’s case. He thought he was doing God’s work by persecuting Jesus’ followers. How sad. How can we ensure that we don’t fall into that same trap?

Saul and his men were on the way to Damascus to persecute Christians when a bright light flashed around them, and the voice of Jesus spoke to Saul and said, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?

This is one of those Scripture lessons where we might be tempted to question Jesus’ methods. When Saul encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, it wasn’t the gentle, humble carpenter and rabbi, God in the flesh, Jesus. On the road to Damascus, Saul met Jesus Christ, the Lord, the Messiah, awesome in power and glory and authority. Jesus, the final Judge over humanity. The Almighty. The Alpha and Omega. The Amen. And that’s just the A’s. I could keep going through the alphabet, all the way to Wonderful Counselor.

If I had been the Lord Jesus, I wouldn’t have asked Saul any questions. I would have simply said to Saul, Stop it! Or maybe, Stop it, you fool! Or I could have just smote him. That’s an old English word for a heavy blow with a weapon or the hand.

In other words, Jesus didn’t have to show grace to Saul. What does this tell you about Christ’s character, that He showed grace to a man who was His enemy? Jesus could have used His divine power and authority to stop Saul. Instead, He used grace and truth to change Saul’s life. And billions of people all over the world have learned about the grace and truth of Jesus Christ because of this one changed life, that of Saul, whom we know as St. Paul. So maybe Jesus’ methods do make sense. Jesus redeemed the situation with one question, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?

The first question we should ask ourselves from today’s scripture lesson would be this, what kind of God do you believe God is? Do you see how messed up Saul’s mission had become? His primary motivation for persecuting Christians wasn’t hatred and destruction. His primary motivation for hunting down and arresting the followers of Jesus was his desire to serve God. Scary, isn’t it? Serving God whose very nature is love but doing it by killing innocent people. On the road to Damascus, Saul needed to confront his entire approach to life. He needed to see that any mission that isn’t aligned with the heart of Jesus isn’t from God.

A mission that is divorced from the heart of Jesus may have noble intentions and tragic results. Such a mission will drive people further from God rather than draw people to God. Paul’s faith wasn’t in God; it was in the misunderstanding of the kind of god God is. He served the law, not the Lord. And we Christians can be just as short-sighted and destructive if we don’t align our lives with the heart of Jesus.

There’s something comfortable about reducing Christianity to a list of do’s and don’ts . . . you always know where you stand, and this helps reduce anxiety. (It) has the advantage that you don’t need wisdom. You don’t have to think subtly or make hard choices. You don’t have to relate personally to a demanding and loving Lord.”

If you are a fan of The Simpsons cartoon, then you know that Homer and Marge Simpsons’ next-door neighbors are the ultra-religious Flanders family. In one episode, Homer asks the Flanders where they have been. Ned answers, we went away to a Christian camp. We were learning how to be more judgmental.

It’s funny, and sad, because it’s true. Too many Christians are passionate about the laws of God but completely missing the love of God. If we truly desire to honor God, then the first question we must ask ourselves is, why do I believe what I believe?

The second question we should ask ourselves from this Scripture lesson is, who is Jesus and how does He expect His followers to live? The only way to understand our own identity and purpose is to understand the character and will of God. And the best way to understand the character and will of God is to look to Jesus, God in the flesh. In Him, we don’t see an angry, condemning, punishing God. We see a man who ate with sinners and welcomed outsiders and loved the least, the last, the lost and the lonely. Does your life reflect that kind of character, actions, priorities, and values? Then you are in tune with the mind of God.

You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do. That’s a real danger for Christians, the desire to create God in our own image. It’s so easy to take Bible passages out of context, or to assume that God hates the same people or issues that we hate. It’s so easy to think that our anger honors God. It doesn’t. James 1: 19-20 reads, my dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. Think about that real hard before you lash out at anybody in Jesus’ name. Human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

So, the first two questions that will lead us closer to God and to God’s purposes for our life is, what kind of God do you believe God is? and who is Jesus and how does He expect His followers to live?” And the final question we should ask from this Scripture lesson is, LORD, what do You want me to do? Our Bible passage for this morning ends with a new challenge for Saul. After he has been struck blind, knocked to the ground, and confronted by the voice of Jesus, then Jesus says, Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do. Now that you know Jesus is the Lord, the only logical thing is to do what He wants you to do.

It was Easter Sunday, and the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle Church, was exhausted after church. He was ready to get some much-needed rest. Then he spotted a homeless man sitting in the sanctuary. The man asked to talk to him.

The man’s first name was David. He was thirty-two years old, although he looked much older. His clothes were filthy and he smelled horrible. As the pastor asked him about his life, he also reached for the money clip he keeps in his back pocket. He was ready to hand over some money and send David on his way.

But when David saw the money, he stopped him. He said, I don’t want your money. I want this Jesus . . . the One you were talking about, because I’m not going to make it. I’m going to die on the street.

He was so struck by David’s words that he began to weep. He realized that, instead of ministering to David as someone made in the image of God, he was trying to get rid of him with a few dollars. The pastor cried and asked God to forgive him for failing this man, David leaned his head against the pastor’s chest and began to cry too.

After their conversation, David chose to become a follower of Jesus. The staff at Brooklyn Tabernacle found him a place to live and hired him to do maintenance around the church. David began memorizing Scripture. How else did David’s life change? A year later David got up in church and talked about his conversion to Christ. The minute he took the mic and began to speak, everyone realized that this man was a preacher. This past Easter he was ordained and is now an associate minister of a church in New Jersey.

The most important thing you can do with your life is to discover who God is and what God’s purpose is for your life. And just because we are in church this evening/morning doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve discovered the answers to these questions. Throughout history, some Christians have driven people away from God with their anger and condemnation and misplaced priorities. How do we align our life and mission with Jesus? By asking ourselves why we believe what we believe, by asking who the Lord is, and by asking what the Lord wants us to do. And when our mission is aligned with Jesus’ heart, then our life will have an eternal impact.