Sunday, April 10, 2011

Eye-Opening Grace [Third-Day Stories]

Over the past 12 weeks, we’ve been exploring some of the greatest stories of redemption, restoration, and rebuilding in scripture: Third-Day Stories. And before we look at the greatest third day story of all, the Easter Story, beginning next week, we’re going to look at a story that could not have happened but for the miracle of Easter: the story of how Saul was converted from a sworn enemy of Jesus and his movement to its greatest missionary in Acts 9.  When Ananias meets Saul in Acts 9: 17-20, after his encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus, "he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank" (you guessed it) "...for three days."   He is blind and in shock. Listen carefully to the words of eye-opening grace that Ananias speaks to this shattered man, and to all those who seek his healing today: "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" (Acts 9:17).

It was a forgiving wordAnanias…entered the house and said, “Saul, brother’….”  Did you catch that?  Ananias called Saul his brother - a word that spoke of the forgiveness of God, and his total acceptance as a member of Christ’s family. I imagine these words shook Saul to the core.  If Ananias had somehow come across Saul before his Damascus Road experience, he would have been immediately arrested, even killed; but now, confronted with his sin by the Risen Christ – he was ready to hear the stunning truth: “Saul, you are my brother, and you are forgiven."  Some people think that forgiveness means pretending bad things never happened.  What it means is choosing to live as one of the truly forgiven… and treating others likewise. That’s what Ananias did! Ananias forgave because he knew he was among the forgiven… and Saul, discovering the same, was able to communicate God’s grace from that day forward, with incredible power. 

Not long before her death in 1988, atheist Marghanita Laski said: “What I envy most about you Christians is your forgiveness; I have nobody to forgive me" [John Stott, The Contemporary Christian. Christianity Today, Vol. 38, no. 7.But Saul later says, “Forgive one another, just as God in Christ has forgiven you/me” (Eph. 4: 32).  

Secondly, it was a restoring word. “…Jesus sent me so that you may regain your sight" says Ananias.  In v. 17 we read that Ananias “laid his hands on Saul” as he prayed for God’s restoring touch.  When Jesus blessed the children (Matt. 19) he placed his hands on them.  When Jesus set his disciples apart for ministry (Luke 24) he placed his hands on them.  When Jesus healed the sick (Luke 4:40) he placed his hands on themSometimes God brings restoration through hands folded in prayer.  Sometimes God brings restoration through the hands of a doctor.  And sometimes God uses both at the same time.  I often pray before I take my insulin…just as I would advise someone to do before taking a medicine to regulate normal brain chemistry.

Two elders I knew at a previous church experienced a sensation of heat and power flowing through the top of their heads and out through their hands as they prayed for a woman who was filled with anger and had left the church three months before.  When she came back one evening during a prayer service, feeling led to return out of a great sense of personal need, she experienced God’s healing both in her body and in her relationship with her adopted son!  A few weeks later she stood up in the worship service and made a public confession and testimony to her newfound faith.  There is an epilogue to this story: one of the men who prayed for her that night was addicted to tobacco, and he later confided in me -- as he looked at the hand which often nervously held a cigarette -- that he had completely lost the desire to smoke.  God had healed his hand, the hand that held a pack a day, as well.  No wonder David says, “I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.”  As we use our hands to bless, to hug, to inspire, to pray and praise God…we will experience God’s healing touch too.
Thirdly, it was an empowering word. For Ananias says to Saul, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit.”  Luke tells us that up until this moment, Paul had been “breathing threats and murder against Jesus’ disciples” (Acts 9:1).  The word Luke uses (Greek: em-pneuo) lit. means “to breathe in, to inhale.”  Don’t miss this!  Until now Paul had been breathing murder and hatred: that’s the atmosphere Saul breathed and lived on. Now listen to what Ananias says in v. 17, “Be filled with the Holy Spirit, that is, the Holy Breath (Greek: Pneuma) of Christ.”  In other words, “Saul, the Breath of Christ is about to fill that void which only hatred had occupied.  You are about to become a Spirit-breathing man, filled with the Spirit (Pneuma) of Christ!  

We may not need healing for our bodies, or a broken relationship, or the lifting of a financial burden… but all of us need spiritual healing.  We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way (Is. 53:6). Did Paul receive this healing?  Yes!  Luke tells us that “his eyes were opened…and immediately Saul began to proclaim Jesus….” (20-21). But before he was able to do that, I think Saul heard one more word…

Finally, it was a sensible word. “Take some food…”  No, Luke doesn’t  actually use these words, but Ananias must have said something like them, because we read that “after taking some food, [Saul] regained his strength.” Remember that Saul had not eaten anything for three days… and it was on this third day that he began to eat again.  Not long after this, Saul is welcomed into the homes of his new friends for several days (v. 19).  Food and hospitality is a basic expression of genuine care and concern; and the gospel doesn’t ring true without it. When you and I love one another in practical ways…we show that the healing and redeeming power of God is for real.

Kim Shin-Jo, a gentle pastor from S. Korea, used to be a trained killer. In Jan. 1968, Shin Jo and a team of assassins tried to kill the president of S. Korea. His team of 31 commandos came down from N. Korea to within a few hundred meters of the president's home before being intercepted. A fierce battle killed 30 S. Koreans and all the N. Korean soldiers, except one who escaped, and Shin Jo who was captured. After months of interrogation, and a surprising friendship with a S. Korean army general, Shin-Jo 's hard heart softened. Later he confessed, "I tried to kill the president. I was the enemy. But the S. Korean people showed me sympathy and forgiveness. I was touched and moved." The S. Korean gov’t eventually released him. Over the next 30 years he worked for the military, became a citizen, married, and raised a family.  Finally, he became a minister.  Reflecting on the day of his arrest, Shin-Jo commented, "On that day, Kim Shin-Jo died. I was reborn. I got my second chance. And I'm thankful for that."
Shin-Jo experienced the eye-opening grace of God through the power of Christ. But Christ came to him through the unexpected, surprising love of the South Korean people.  

When I think about the Apostle Paul, or my friend Jean, or Shin-Jo, I can hardly wait to see what God is going to do next; what God is going to do today!  Because on this day… we invite you to receive Christ’s forgiving word, his restoring word, his empowering word, and his loving word… 

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