Psalm 30; Acts 9: 1 – 20; John 21: 1 – 19
Recently I was watching the news when a politician stated that “Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world today.” This was affirmed in an article written by 2 rabbis and a minister from the PCUSA from the Simon Wiesenthal Centre; secular newspapers tell the same story. The article noted that out of the 193 countries in the world Christians are persecuted in 131 of them, particularly in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Between ½ and 2/3 of Christians in the Middle East have been pressured from their homeland or been killed. Such statistics don’t really paint a picture of what this means. Recently in Syria an Islamic cleric legitimized a fatwah (edict) stating that Muslims are to “capture and have sex with non-Sunni (i.e. Christian & Alawi) women”. He is quoted as saying, “capturing and raping Christian and Alawi women is not contrary to the precepts of Islam”. Christian women and girls are being captured, tormented and violated. This past week in the Coptic Cathedral in Egypt, hundreds of Christians, who were attending the funeral for 4 men who had been martyred, were attacked by gunfire, hand grenades and a by a mob throwing rocks. Few police were present and some of them joined the mob. When more police arrived they fired tear gas into the Cathedral grounds creating panic among the women and children locked inside. “This is an Islamic nation with an overwhelming Muslim majority,” said Mr. Hamza a representative of the Muslim brotherhood, “The minority doesn’t have absolute rights, it has relative rights.” Over 1.5 billion Christians in the developing world live under some form of persecution, ranging from execution to being banned from public places. N. Korea, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan top the list of the countries most hostile to Christians*.
(*These are included as illustrations of Christian persecution today and in no way are intended to condemn the people in these countries or those in any religious group who also stand against such acts of inhumanity.)
Unfortunately Christian persecution is not something new. It began shortly after the resurrection of Christ and was advanced by a man named Saul, a Jew who was a citizen of Tarsus. While the scale was much smaller Christians lost their lives and were imprisoned because the depth of hatred was the same. We do not know the extent to which Saul was involved, but he was known throughout the Middle East as a persecutor of Christians. Saul’s sense of mission against the Church was so strong that he went to the high priest in Jerusalem and asked for letters giving him permission to go into synagogues and arrest any Jewish believers he found. We might say this determined young zealot had tunnel vision. As he was going along on his travels towards the city of Damascus, Saul was given another vision. He was struck by a bright light from heaven flashing all around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4) Saul responded, “Who are you Lord?” (vs. 5) And the voice replied, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” (vs. 5) (NB to persecute Christians is to persecute Christ). Jesus then commanded Saul to go into the city and wait for instructions. When Saul got up, he was blind. He had gone from being a man with a narrow vision, to one who saw a vision of Jesus, to one with no vision. He remained blind for 3 days. During this time he had another vision (vs.12) and telling him a man would come to tell him Christ’s vision for his life. This man was a Christian named Ananias and the Lord appeared to him also in a dream telling him to go to Saul so that he might restore Saul’s sight through the laying on of hands. (vs. 12) Saul’s reputation had preceded him and Ananias was fearful. But Christ told him to go, so Ananias obeyed. Ananias walked into the room and addressed Saul. At that moment “something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes and his sight was restored.” (vs. 18). Like a snake shedding its skin, this was a rebirth for Saul. As Christ died and was resurrected after 3 days, Saul had endured three days of darkness. He “resurrected” a new man with new vision. After this Saul was baptized. Then we’re told he had something to eat (the first sign he was a full fledged Church member). Christ had a new mission for him and a new vision for his future. Saul was “Chosen to bring Christ’s name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” and he was to “suffer for the sake of Christ.” (vs. 15f) Saul who is known as St. Paul became the greatest evangelist in history, spreading the good news of Jesus Christ throughout the Mediterranean world, making converts and planting churches. A brilliant theologian, he was the most prolific writer in the New Testament.
Paul’s conversion was very dramatic. Some here may resonate with that, others not so much. Regardless of that, the story raises many points for each of us to reflect on. Saul never lacked a vision or purpose in life; he thought the one he had (to wipe out the spread of Christianity) was pleasing to God. He was wrong. What about you? What is your purpose in life? If you were to write a personal mission statement what would it include? No matter what age we are there’s always something we’re doing with our lives. For some it’s watching TV, or hating their spouse, or being lost in the internet, for other’s its work or parenthood, for someone else prayer or acts of service. Some build organizations to help starving children around the world; others build bombs and threaten their neighbours. Does your vision for your life align with God’s vision for you? Is what you’re doing pleasing to God?
As Saul journeys to Damascus, Jesus stops him in his tracks. Now and then someone tells me a profound story of a personal encounter with Christ. Often this happens through circumstances, intuition or synchronistic events. You’re driving in a car and feel the Spirit urging you to see someone. You have an intense sense of God’s presence through nature or in another person. Or you’re looking for guidance and the same scripture comes up repeatedly. At other times the encounters are even more direct and dramatic. I had an experience once while praying with a woman when I sensed Christ standing in the room. After the prayer ended the woman said to me, “Did you feel him? He was standing right there” and pointed to the same spot where I had discerned him. These stories are much less rare than we imagine, however we share them infrequently out of fear that we sound crazy. Where and when have you encountered Jesus in your life?
Sometimes Jesus appears to us in ways which are unusual. To Paul he was a vibrant, blinding light. To Ananias he came in a dream. Do we recognize Jesus when he comes in unusual experiences? I read a book recently about a Muslim woman named Bilquis Sheik who had two dreams. In the first she dreamt of John the Baptist; in the second of Jesus giving her perfume. She had no idea who John was or what either dream meant so she went to a Christian missionary who explained John’s roll and showed her 2 Corinthians 2:6 “to those who are being saved, we are a life giving perfume”. The woman was able to recognize the call to follow Christ’s and be a life-giving perfume to others. She became a Christian.
Jesus also comes to us through other people. He appeared to Paul directly the first time and then sent Ananias. Sometimes Jesus uses unexpected messengers. This past week an elderly Jewish woman accepted Jesus as her Messiah which is awesome news for which we give praise to God! She told her son that she had been teetering on the edge of faith in Jesus but had gotten confirmation from a newspaper article which spoke about the fact that Jesus was a Jew. Not to diminish the excitement of her conversion, perhaps to add to it, the article was written by Tom Harpur, who although he is ordained has written articles and books which deny both the divinity and/or the existence of Jesus of Nazareth. Christ shows himself through other people and sometimes through those we would least expect. Are you open to those whom Jesus sends? Does the messenger ever keep you from hearing the message?
Ananias responded to his vision of Christ with fear and for good reason. His initial reaction was to argue with Jesus, but in the end he obeyed. After she became a Christian, Bilquis Sheik was criticized by friends, threatened by strangers and shunned by her family. She had many times of fear and loneliness which were heightened by her sense of desolation. She learned that when she obeyed Christ’s direction he remained present to her and she to him. She recalled in her book hearing of the death of her favourite nephew through one of her servants. She was crushed that the family had not called her and no one had invited her to the funeral the following day. Throughout the night she discerned Christ telling her to go to the funeral, she was fearful and argued but in the end she went. No one spoke to her; people gave her dirty looks and moved away. After a while she went and spoke to her nephew’s mother, gave her a hug and expressed her sorrow. She didn’t speak of Christ with her words but her actions certainly showed the courage and compassion of Jesus. A few weeks later the young man’s mother came to see her and thank her saying that her presence at the funeral had brought her the greatest comfort. Bilquis was able then to speak a little about her faith. Over time her actions dissolved some of her family’s hostility towards her. Given the pervasiveness of Christian persecution in our world today and even the hostility of many people towards Jesus and his followers, there are easily times when Christ calls us to do something that requires courage and obedience. While Christ’s vision for Paul’s life was vast and wonderful – remember he was the one “Chosen to bring Christ’s name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” part of that vision included suffering and suffer he did. Christ’s vision for us is always wonderful and to some degree it always includes suffering. What do we say when Christ calls us with a new vision? What do we do?
The recounting of Saul’s conversion is a thrilling story, not only because Saul had a vision of Christ but because united in Christ’s death and resurrection, he began a new life with a new vision. Today Jesus has a new vision for each one of us. This week as you walk along the road of your daily routines to accomplish whatever it is you hope will please God; I pray that Christ will come to you. May you have the vision to recognize him and the courage to live the new vision to which he calls you.