Almighty Father, who in your great mercy gladdened the disciples with the sight of the risen Lord: give us such knowledge of his presence with us, that we may be strengthened and sustained by his risen life and serve you continually in righteousness and truth; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Risen Christ, you filled your disciples with boldness and fresh hope: strengthen us to proclaim your risen life and fill us with your peace, to the glory of God the Father.
Living God, your Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: open the eyes of our faith, that we may see him in all his redeeming work; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.
Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’
[ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, ‘Ananias.’ He answered, ‘Here I am, Lord.’ The Lord said to him, ‘Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.’ But Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord said to him, ‘Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.’ So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’]
Acts 9.1–6 [7–20]
1 I will exalt you, O Lord, because you have raised me up
and have not let my foes triumph over me.
2 O Lord my God, I cried out to you
and you have healed me.
3 You brought me up, O Lord, from the dead;
you restored me to life from among those that go down to the Pit.
4 Sing to the Lord, you servants of his;
give thanks to his holy name.
5 For his wrath endures but the twinkling of an eye, his favour for a lifetime.
Heaviness may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.
6 In my prosperity I said, ‘I shall never be moved.
You, Lord, of your goodness, have made my hill so strong.’
7 Then you hid your face from me
and I was utterly dismayed.
8 To you, O Lord, I cried;
to the Lord I made my supplication:
9 ‘What profit is there in my blood, if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you or declare your faithfulness?
10 ‘Hear, O Lord, and have mercy upon me;
O Lord, be my helper.’
11 You have turned my mourning into dancing;
you have put off my sackcloth and girded me with gladness;
12 Therefore my heart sings to you without ceasing;
O Lord my God, I will give you thanks for ever.
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice,
‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!’
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!’
And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ And the elders fell down and worshipped.
Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.
Sermon on Sunday, Easter 3
“Saul went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus.” What is not said in this sentence? It is clear that Saul went to the high priest to ask for something. But what is that “something”? Saul asked for letters. Was this the alphabet? Did he want a parchment with an aleph or the sacred name of God written on it? What are these letters? Don’t we know about these letters in our own lives? They must have been letters of introduction.
They might have said “Here is Saul, my friend. Treat him as if you were to have me visiting your community.” We know about these letters, don’t we? Haven’t you written to someone saying a friend was coming to their village and you wanted them to have a warm welcome. Well, this must have been the start of those letters Saul asked for, don’t you think?
However, these letters were to ask for a specific thing.
“ … if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”
When we read this verse, what do we think is happening? Is this fellow who was “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord”, about to truss up these men and women with ropes and drag them to Jerusalem so that they might be brought bound before the high priest?
That cannot be true, can it? We can believe this of the cruel Roman soldiers occupying the land, but Saul would not deal with his fellow Jews in this manner, would he? What could the writer have in mind when he wrote that verse? Consequently, this verse got me thinking about other verses that use the word “to bind”. A few came to mind quite quickly, Jesus’ promise which we read last week:
Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.
And it also reminded me about what Jesus said to Peter in Matthew (16:19).
I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
One commentator wrote:
To bind and to loose simply means to forbid by an indisputable authority and to permit by an indisputable authority.
So Paul’s letter of introduction transforms into a letter of authority in the matter of those who might be following “the way”, as Christianity was called at its very birth, that is before Saul became Paul, the man who proclaimed the message of universal salvation. The old Saul was given the authority to make judgement on those who might find “the way” true, when compared to the legalism of contemporary Judaism, where Torah, Haggadah and Talmud stood written in an indelible ink, an ink so black it could not be erased.
The traditional authorities would write judgements which would become binding on the inheritors of the Law. There were some authorities who would write judgements which would loose the people from the shackles of an oppressive legalism which all decry whatever the era. Wouldn’t the later Paul pass judgements on the tradition of Law which would transform the Jewish followers of “the way” into newborn faithful people? Wouldn’t the reborn Paul promise that the Holy Spirit would come to free all from the tyranny of sin, as did the OT prophets – as did Jesus?
However, Saul here is asking for letters of authority, so that he could decide matters of the Law as regards those men and women who belonged to the way. Saul wants the power to bind and loose with respect to “the way” and all those who might be followers of what he considered a most dangerous way of life.
If we could, would we grant authority to someone “breathing threats and murder”? Surely not! But we see this happening all too often, don’t we? Many laws are passed in the white heat of fearful anger, aren’t they? And then we realise that they were unjust so many years later. Fear has always produced a second class person, because of something in ourselves which is wholly un-righteous, something which will eventually be seen to be evil. Often those unjust laws are ignored, as often during the covid lock-down so many regulations were flouted. Anxiety is not the state in which to write laws, and anger and fear do produce a very high anxiety. Lawmakers should be seen as stoic, not affected by emotion, and they should be insightful. Those who create regulations should have the foresight to judge themselves and their laws in the light of “indisputable authority”.
Last week I droned on about faith as “ultimate concern”. I think authority derives from that. I think Saul became Paul because of it. The weight of binding was too much for Saul to bear. Paul rejoiced in the power of the Lord to loose the individual from anything which would bind to the world of immediacy. Paul rejoiced to allow people faith, that attitude which bares all to the judgement of ultimate concern. This was the person whom Saul became – as Paul he preached with the authority faith revealed.
So, I have to ask, who has “indisputable authority” in our lives today? I don’t know, do you? People just don’t bow to any authority today, do they? They don’t want to feel bound by any authority, nor do they feel as though they have been loosed from it all. And as for “undisputed” – surely no one today will grant any one person that title.
However, we do act as though there is an undisputed authority in our lives. We have to ask ourselves: What constricts? What frees? These questions lie behind making sense of any authority in our lives. The figure of Saul—Paul struggled with these questions just as we do today. And he came to two very different conclusions before and after that trip to Damascus, just as we do in our lives.
It seems life is very complex today. So many things get in the way of living well. We are distracted and get ourselves in a real state, don’t we? What is the better course of action? What will free us from all this worry and anxiety? Paul tells us faith will do that – he says that by recognising the freedom in submitting to the authority of an ultimate concern, the joy of a life lived well will be ours. This is the authentic binding and loosing of ourselves. We can be free from sin by living bravely, by taking responsibility for all our actions because everything we do should be done with the authority of love, that undisputed cause of all life.