Third Sunday Of Easter April 30 and May 1, 2022
“Saul to Paul” Acts 9:1-22
Rev. John R. Larson Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
If you’ve been to a funeral, odds are that you have sung the hymn, “Amazing Grace”. It is performed at least 10 million times annually. You know the first verse. Sing it with me. “Amazing grace – how sweet the sound- that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see!” (LSB 744)
The story behind the hymn is as fascinating as the hymn. It was written by John Newton in 1772 – 250 years ago. It is a personal account about a God who saved him. His mom died when he was six- years-old, and understandably, he had a rough childhood. He had a distain for any type of authority, and he landed on board a ship that took slaves from Africa to England. But on a return trip to England a violent storm hit, and it almost sank the ship, and it would have put him in the bottom of the ocean. At that time, he cried out to God to save him, and his ship, from the storm. God, miraculously saved him and his ship. This event started his religious conversion.
But, upon his return to England, Newton became a slave ship master, a profession he continued for several more years. He said that there were times when he mistreated the slaves terribly. But in 1754, at 29 years of age, after becoming violently ill on a sea voyage, God rescued him once again. Soon after this, Newton gave up being a slave trader and the slave trade, and devoted his entire life to the service of God. He went from a Saul to a Paul.
John Newton, close to death numerous times, blind to the reality of the great harm he was doing to others for many years, would not have written “Amazing Grace” if not for a past that haunted him and a rescue that saved him.
Do you know that those who have the strongest witness to the saving hand of Jesus are those who have come face to face with the ugliness of their sin? Some of the strongest pro-lifers are those who have participated in abortions. When you hear from a mom or a dad who agreed to an abortion, only to think later of what happened to their child, some become the strongest witnesses to the sanctity of life. Some doctors or nurses who have performed abortions – and now live in the healing warmth of God’s forgiveness – have come to be some of the most effective advocates for the unborn. From a Saul to a Paul.
Paul, the Greek name of the Hebrew Saul, once hated Jesus Christ and anyone who were followers of Jesus, or followers of the Way, as they were first called. Listen to what he did and how he described himself:
When one of the early witnesses to Jesus, a man named Stephen was being stoned to death we find Saul (Paul) approving of this brutality, “At this they covered their ears and yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him (Stephen), dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet on a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.” (Acts 7:57-8:1)
Later in the book of Acts Paul is honest about what he did, “I too was convinced that I ought to do all that was possible to oppose the name of Jesus of Nazareth. And that is just what I did in Jerusalem. On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. Many a time I went from one synagogue to another to have them punished, and I tried to force them to blaspheme. In my obsession against them, I even went to foreign cities to persecute them.” (Acts 26:9-11) Paul would say that he was a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a violent man. (See I Timothy 1:13)
But God took a Saul and made him into a Paul. Acts 9 is the great word about the conversion that came to St. Paul. The first words of that chapter are familiar, “Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murdering threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked 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.” (Verses 1-3)
Saul was as lost as could be. Saul was as much a wretch as one could be. Saul was as blind as anyone could be. And God wanted to change that dead heart and perverted mind to a living soul. But, tell me, can a person really change? Can a person who has turned violent, evil, self-centered, and has no place for God, change? In the book of Jeremiah that very question is raised, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.” (13:23)
I know the heart can be obstinate and resistant to God’s call, but God’s Spirit is stronger. A Saul can become a Paul. God did it on that day when Saul was going to bring Christians from Damascus to Jerusalem, imprison them, kill them, and let their families suffer the consequences. Saul had no heart. But Jesus was going to give him a new one. “As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me.’ ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Paul asked. ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what to do.’” (Acts 9:3-6)
Saul became Paul. The scales on his eyes fell off. He could once again see. In fact, he saw for the first time. He saw the person of Jesus Christ. He knew about the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was baptized. He came to faith. “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.”
This word that we read is not just a history lesson about someone long ago who God took from a Saul to a Paul, from a terrible man to the one who would speak and show the very love of God to all. This is about us. In one way or another we are Saul. But through Jesus, by the persistent call of God’s Holy Spirit, we are converted. Saul to Paul. In Ephesians we read of God’s work in us, “Like the rest, we were objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions – it is by grace you have been saved.” (Ephesians 2:3b-5)
God can bring the ultimate change from one plunging to the horror of hell to skipping to the heights of heaven. And God can bring the change of what someone does in life. God said of Paul, “This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” (Acts 9:15) Saul to Paul was much more than a personal religious experience – it would impact everyone who would know Paul. This is what God said to Paul on that day of his conversion, “I am sending you to them to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they might receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.” (Acts 26:17)
John Newton, that man who wrote the words for “Amazing Grace” became an Anglican Priest 10 years after renouncing slave trade. He would work with William Wilberforce, one of the leaders in the British Parliament, to pass the Slave Trade Act of 1807, the year when Newton died. Saul to Paul was true for Newton, for me, for you, but also for so many others. God can use me and you to bring this conversion and change of life to the lives of many others.
We started this message with a hymn that hits its 250th birthday this year – ‘Amazing Grace’. We conclude this message with a hymn that is just a new one – only 41 years old. It asks God to use us in the bringing of the grace of Jesus to many. The hymn is “I, the Lord of Sea and Sky.” (Aka – “Here I Am, Lord”) (752 “With One Voice”)
I, the Lord of sea and sky, I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in deepest sin my hand will save.
I, who made the stars of night, I will make their darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them? Whom shall I send?
Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night. I will go, Lord, if you lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.
Saul to Paul. For him. For me. For you. For them. Amen!!