Pinpricks or Crucifixions?
By The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
Sunday, April 19, 2020
Reading: Acts 9:1-19
I received many kind notes over the Easter period but yesterday I received an unusual one. It was from a colleague in ministry and said, “Happy Low Sunday.” I thought to myself, “Who wishes another minister Happy Low Sunday?” Yet I took it to heart with great joy. I don’t know why, but this Sunday is often called Low Sunday on the liturgical calendar of some denominations. Many people have speculated it’s due to some sort of ecclesiastical finery from the 12th or the 13th Century, but I think most of us realize it’s the Sunday after Easter when we’re all on a high, and now it seems that we have come down from on high. Yet for many of us it feels like the days are running together and we hardly know what day it is, let alone whether it’s a High or a Low Sunday. We don’t know whether it’s Trusser Day or Frome Day or Monday!
Low Sunday seems like a very strange phrase, but it isn’t really a low Sunday, and that’s what my friend was getting at. He wanted it to be a happy day, and I want it to be happy for you too. To make it powerful, I’ve drawn on a passage of scripture that occurred some years after the resurrection of Jesus, when he appeared to the Apostle Paul. While there were other appearances immediately after the Resurrection, it was this appearance that was striking because the Risen Christ had come into a person’s life and changed him. It was also a time when great fear was spreading within the earliest Christian community. Not only in Judea and Samaria but into Syria, and the burgeoning Christian community feared persecution.
Into the midst of all this comes the Apostle Paul, whose name at that time was Saul. Saul was given a very specific task. He was a Zealot, a Pharisaic Jew, and it was his responsibility to make sure that this new movement following the Risen Christ was put to rest. He was involved in the persecution of one of the very earliest Christian martyrs: Stephen. We are told that he had gone to the Sanhedrin, the official governing body, to seek permission to find other followers of this thing called “The Way” and to imprison them. He has set out on that task when we encounter him in our text today. He is on his way to Damascus, for he has heard that there is a community of followers of the way living there. He takes with him soldiers on his way to imprison followers of the way.
It was an incredible moment, but something unexpected happened and he was transformed. What makes it so striking is that Paul, at no point had what a lot of people call, “a conversion experience.” That is the language used, as if Paul somehow converted from Judaism to another religion in Christianity. I agree with the theologian James Dunn, who says, “What he let go of was his commitment to his Pharisaic Judaism. What he let go of was the exclusive notion that the law was only for Jewish people rather than Gentile people as well.” He let go of a zealous desire to put down those who were followers of the way, those who were following this Jesus of Nazareth. He put that aside, but he never ceased to be a Jew. He still says in the Book of Romans that the Covenant with God, with Israel, is irrevocable. It is always there. Paul always talked about his concern and his love for Israel and never ceased to love the Covenant that had first called him.
What transformed Paul was an encounter with Christ. We’re not sure precisely what happened: There is lightning; there is sound. The soldiers didn’t hear the sound,s but they certainly saw the lightning. We know that something incredible happened on the way to Damascus, and Saul was transformed. A voice says to him these words: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”
Saul says, “Who are you?” But then he used the word “Lord.” He knew that this was an authority; this was from God.
The voice says, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” Then Jesus gives him instructions. Paul is blinded for three days. But in this encounter with Jesus when he was on his way to do something terrible, Christ comes to him and changes him forever.
Jesus, remarkably in all of this, is identifying himself with the Christian community. He says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Why are you persecuting my people?” Therefore, the people, it seems to me, mattered a lot to Jesus. His followers were important to him. Paul though, needed to be blinded; he needed to see Christ in a whole new way. He had scales on his eyes through which he looked at the world, and that was the lens through which he saw everything. These scales, eventually we’re told, fell off. These metaphorical scales that prevented him from seeing things clearly stood in the way.
Jesus, in blinding him, is preparing to remove them. Paul had to go through a difficult time to see things in a new way and to allow Christ into his life. I think there is a similarity, though maybe not as striking or as individualistic as that with Paul, to our own era. This is a moment maybe for us to see with new eyes, to see the things that are truly important in our lives. Maybe we have scales on the lenses through which we’ve looked at life and thought that everything is dependent on our material gain or success.
As a businessperson said to me this week, “What good are our toys right now when there are people around us who are dying?” It put it so bluntly. Maybe we have taken things for granted. Maybe we’ve taken for granted the beauty of the world and forgotten how magnificent the open air is and how warm the sun can be, how the winds can blow and invigorate us. Maybe we have lost sight of the needs of people in our society. Maybe we’ve taken our faith for granted. Maybe we’ve taken our church and our community for granted. Maybe there is something good that can come from it. That the Lord can speak to us and say, “Focus on the things that really matter in life.”
My goodness, if there’s anything that’s doing it to us right now, it’s the confinement so many people are facing. It certainly draws home the reality of how valuable life is and how we have, at times, taken life for granted.
Losing one of our members this week to COVID-19 struck my heart. It struck to the heart of the value of human life. Maybe after this the world will be able to see things with new eyes and the Lord will speak to us and say, “World, come and see where I am taking you.”
I love a phrase that a South African friend of mine said when he was talking about people living in the townships who suffered greatly and compared it to those who often had a very soft life. He said, “We really need to make a distinction between pinpricks and crucifixions.” Oftentimes, we think the small things that cost us in this life, the hardships that we bear are crucifixions, when really they’re pinpricks.” Maybe discerning between small sacrifices that we make now for the greater good and the saving of others is an important distinction. We see the difference between pinpricks and crucifixions.
There is no question that after his encounter with Christ the Apostle Paul was changed. In his letter he says, “I compare the sufferings I have now as nothing to the crucifixion of Jesus. I compare the sufferings that I have now as nothing compared to the glory that is going to be revealed.” This from the man who was on his way to persecute the very foundation of that commitment. Paul was transformed by Christ. We can see things differently through Christ. It changed everything. It was not just Paul who was changed. I suggest to you that if you are sitting at home right now watching this, or wherever you might be, you are here because of the witness of the Apostle Paul. The fact that he went to Damascus, that he was received so graciously. We are here because of that. We know that it was Paul’s witness to the Gentiles that spread Christianity far and wide, that took God’s Covenant with Israel and expanded it through the Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ. It was the Risen Christ who empowered Paul to take the good news of God’s sovereign love and share it with the broader word. Paul became a Zealot – a Zealot not to imprison people but a Zealot for freedom, a Zealot for truth and for love and for Christ. My, how the world was changed.
Some of you know the television program Poirot and the actor, David Suchet, who plays him. Suchet had grown up in a Lithuanian-Jewish family. His father, I’m always pleased to say, grew up in Cape Town. Suchet, a British actor, had nominal faith or almost no faith growing up, but then he had an encounter with Christ. The Express newspaper interviewed him because foundationally for Suchet – and I have said this once before in a previous sermon – he found that the Book of Romans changed the whole way he looked at life, looked at Christ, and looked at faith.
When he did a series on the Apostle Paul for television he was interviewed. He said this, “Look, I am not an Evangelist like the Apostle Paul. I’m not here to try and convert anybody. It’s not for me to do that, but my faith in Christ has given me such an appreciation of people and meaningful relationships, and a world view which I didn’t have before, and although I fail every day, it gives me something to aspire to.” For David Suchet, the great actor, Christ had come to him and given him a sense of meaning and purpose like never before. That’s exactly what happened when Christ came to Paul. It was to remind us of this truth and to change us and the world.
There’s one last character I don’t want to leave out who I think sealed it all, and that was Ananias. We don’t know much about Ananias. He was sitting as a follower of the way in Damascus, but he is told to go to Straight Street to meet Judas, and a man called Saul. As soon as Ananias realized who this was, word had clearly got out that this Saul had come to persecute followers of the Way, followers of Jesus. Now, I’m going to interpret this and say Ananias said to Jesus, “You must be crazy to think that this man, who has come to persecute us, is now going to be coming to me.” But Jesus told him, “No, this is the man I encountered. This is the man who I have called to go to the Gentile world. This is the one who I am sending to you.”
Ananias heard the compassionate words of Jesus and responded. Then he uses two words, and they are two of the most loving words in the whole of the Bible. He says when he meets Saul, “Brother Saul.” then he prayed with him, and the scales came from the eyes of Saul and he could see after three days of darkness, like Jesus’ three days of darkness between the Crucifixion and the tomb. The Holy Spirit came upon him.
Then what happened? Ananias baptized him and they had a meal, some. What made this happen? The compassion of Christ touching Ananias’ life and Ananias having the grace and the courage to enact it.
Oh, if our world needs anything now, it is compassion and the wisdom of Christ as in Ananias. We have no idea what the world is going to be like once COVID-19 finally disappears as the major threat that it is now. Who knows how long that will take? You don’t know, I don’t know. We have no idea, but the world will always need compassion. There are still nine million people who die every year from starvation, more than those who suffer from malaria or HIV-AIDS or tuberculosis put together. Children throughout the world still die of malnutrition. There are still these incredible needs in the world. Compassion is not something that stops the moment that we find a solution to COVID-19. Compassion is something that should rise from us by the power of the Spirit in the glory of the Risen Christ. Just think what that compassion did for Paul. It changed him and it changes everything. Happy Low Sunday. Amen.