Praise and Persecution

Acts 9:1-6
David A. Davis
May 5, 2019
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“I am Jesus”, the voice said. A light from heaven flashed around Saul, he fell to the ground, and a voice said “I am Jesus”. Saul, who was soon to be the Apostle Paul, Saul who would soon go from “breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord” to an instrument chosen by God to bring the name of Jesus before the Gentiles, Saul heard the voice say “I am Jesus.” “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Saul asked, ‘Who are you. Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.’” I am Jesus.

It is the only time he said it, said to anyone. It’s the only time recorded in scripture that he said, “I am Jesus”. The Risen, now ascended into heaven Jesus and the voice said to Saul, “I am Jesus.” You will remember that the gospel of John is full of “I am” statements from the lips of Jesus. I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the gate. I am the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life. I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I am the vine. But not “I am Jesus”. The Risen Christ doesn’t say it to Mary in the empty tomb when she doesn’t recognize him. He didn’t have to. He just said, “Mary”. He doesn’t say, “I am Jesus”. He doesn’t say it to Thomas either. He showed him his hands and his feet. No “I am Jesus”. He doesn’t say it in Luke to the two men along the Emmaus Road who didn’t recognize him that first Easter afternoon. “He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Their eyes were opened and he recognized him.” But he doesn’t say, “I am Jesus.” Only here in the 9th chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. He says it to Saul somewhere along the Damascus Road. “I am Jesus….whom you are persecuting.”

The biblical account of Saul’s transformation is iconic, biblical hall of fame worthy. A disciple in Damascus named Ananias also hears a voice. Ananias had heard how much evil Saul had done to the believers in Jerusalem but the voice from heaven told him to go and find Saul whose eyes were blinded back there along the road. “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.” As Luke writes in Acts, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and he could see. Saul got up and was baptized. After taking some food and regaining his strength, he started proclaiming Jesus in the synagogue as the Son of God. The telling of the Apostle Paul’s conversion is epic. It’s foundational. So important to the New Testament Church and the Apostle evangelizing ministry among the Gentiles that Paul himself tells it again in Acts twice. He preaches about it, almost word for word, twice. He records it in the beginning of his Letter to the Galatians.

But something even more profound, more foundational, more theologically epic has already happened prior to Paul’s conversion. So easy to miss, easy to skip over, easy to underestimate there along the Damascus Road. As earth shaking as a bright light from heaven flashing. More essential to Paul’s preaching and teaching then maybe even his own baptism. As crucial to the followers of Jesus, the men and women of the way, to the disciples of the Lord as the Apostle Paul’s call, transformation, conversion, and his own proclamation of the gospel. It’s already happened and everyone who takes the name of Christian ought to stop right here and ponder the overwhelming, wondrous, mysterious, lasting revelation of it all. “‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ Saul asked, ‘Who are you. Lord?’ ‘I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.’” The women and men of the Way, the disciples in Jerusalem, the followers of Jesus are already the Body of Christ. “I am Jesus….whom you are persecuting.”

Yes, prior to the Damascus Road. Before Paul writes to the Corinthians, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it,” before Paul tells the Ephesians about the gifts of the Spirit that are intended “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of come to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ”, before the preacher in Hebrews describes being “surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,” before our fore bearers in faith celebrated the Lord’s Supper and began to pray “Gracious God pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these gifts of bread and wine that they may be for us the body and blood Christ so that we may be his body for the world, before all of that when his crucifixion and his resurrection still seemed like it was just yesterday, the followers of Jesus were already his body. The body of Christ in and for the world.

Easter morning just past didn’t start for me with a rush of joy and spirit and enthusiasm. Early that morning, when it was still dark, I confess to you that I wasn’t feeling it. It wasn’t because I was up early. It wasn’t because I wasn’t prepared. It wasn’t because I wasn’t looking forward to Easter. No, it was because the day before, that Saturday had some bumps along the way in the Cook David household. Saturday afternoon Cathy and I were both in the kitchen preparing the fixings for an Easter dinner for 25 folks who were coming to our house early Sunday afternoon after worship. We had some last minute shopping to do, some cooking to do, and some cleaning to do.

A couple of hours into the preparation of our feast, I noticed the refrigerator didn’t seem as cold as it should be. We figure it was from the door opening and closing and from some of the warm food we were putting in. But then it just kept getting warmer. I pulled the appliance out from the wall and went and grabbed the vacuum cleaner to clean up all the dirt and dust behind thinking the necessary air movement wasn’t happening. It didn’t make a difference. The digital temperature display just kept rising. I went online and called 24/7 emergency appliance repair places. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones having an appliance crisis the day before Easter. On the third try and with a bit of begging, I was able to schedule a visit. The really nice repairman showed up around 6:30 in the evening and quickly pronounced the fridge dead and unfix-able. We went to some version of plan B, C, and D and everything worked out for our celebration the next day. Just a bit of aggravation and inconvenience.

So yeah, at 5 the next morning when I was about leave the house, I wasn’t in the greatest of moods for preaching and proclaiming “Christ is Risen!” As I headed out the door before dawn, just for the heck of it, I opened the now empty fridge. It was cold again. Our refrigerator had an Easter morning resurrection. I was so offended by that metaphor and by my refrigerator taunting me, that I grumbled and shook my head all the way to the Sunrise Service in Princeton Cemetery. But then something happened that morning. Len Scales and I were the first to arrive in the cemetery, having walked down from here. We walked in the gate on Witherspoon Street just near the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church and we waited; sort of keeping our voices low there, still in the dark. Then people started to arrive. First Pastor Mjumbe from Witherspoon. Then someone with a head lamp bringing carrier chairs. And then more, and more, and more. Just as day was breaking you could start to see across the cemetery and back to road, you could see the people coming. From all directions; some from the cemetery parking area, some walking along the cemetery drive, others coming on the grass through the stones, some from cars parked out on Witherspoon Street, students walking from campuses, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50….they just kept coming. As the light continued to come, you could then start see faces coming. People I recognized from our congregation. People I recognized from Witherspoon. Students I recognized. And some folks I had never seen before. As the hour drew near, folks were moving quicker to get there. One saint, with other saints on either side, struggled on a walker through the dark, on the bumpy, wet terrain. In fact, people kept arriving through the whole 45 minute service. A few just for the benediction.

Every Easter Sunday, I lift the blinds in my office just to watch the crowds coming to worship at 9:00 and 11:00. Children, families, out of town friends, folks I have not seen for a while. I just stand in my office and watch folks coming in all their Easter finest. But I have to tell you, that sunrise experience was different. that Easter morning, my soul was lifted, hope just sort of filled me, the light of joy sparked inside me. I got a bit teary. Not because it was such a great turnout, indeed it was. What moved me as the light conquered the darkness, what struck me right then, was that I was seeing the Body of Christ come from every direction, from east, and west, from north, and south to whisper together that Christ is Risen. The people of the resurrection, surrounded by all the trappings of death, rushing to the grave to proclaim together that Christ is Risen. No stone rolled away down there. No grave clothes rolled up in a ball in a corner down there. No bright light or voice from heaven down there. But his body, Christ’s body, it was there. It is here.

Jesus said to his disciples, “Take, eat, this is my body, broken for you.” He said it them, to us, to all who would then be his body in the world. “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” I can’t tell you over the years how many people have asked me about “the bodily resurrection”, as in “I believe in the resurrection of the body”. His body? Our body? It is, as we say in the communion prayer, part of the mystery of our faith. I guess people will always ask about it. Scholars will always write about it. We will always disagree about it, doubt it, discuss it, argue about it. What on earth it all means. Christ is Risen. How on earth it all means. Christ is Risen. But now, and for a long time, we I say “I believe in the resurrection of the body”, I’m going to remember, I am going to think, I am going to see again in my mind, that Easter Sunrise Service at Princeton Cemetery.

The body of Christ rushing from every direction, rushing to the grave, to proclaim, Christ is Risen. You and I and the followers of Jesus, we are his body in the world. What calling, what a humbling responsibility, what a challenge, what a gift.
Christ is Risen! So we better get going.