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Meeting Saul

Date: 01/05/2022/Speaker: Ps Gary Chan

Good morning, I am so glad you’re here with us as we go into the Word together. A huge shout out of gratitude to the worship team, production teams, our beautiful welcome team and every person that makes this hybrid Sunday worship services possible. It’s so wonderful that we can gather together, join our voices and hearts and lift our eyes to the worship the risen Christ on this second Sunday of Easter.

A big welcome home to you if you’re joining us for the first time whether you here physically with us in church, or joining us live online right now, or watching this sometime later in the week. We are so grateful you have made the time to join us to worship and receive the ministry of the Word together.

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In this season of Easter, we are learning from different encounters with the risen Christ as we following the lectionary readings in this season. Last week we looked at Jesus’ meeting with Thomas, and how doubt is actually essential to growing in faith. Today we are going to be meeting Saul, or Paul. Saul was his Hebrew name and Paul was his Latin name which he preferred to be known by later on. And we are going to meet up with Saul to see what we can learn from that encounter on the road to Damascus when Saul met the risen Christ.

I would like to invite Sophia to come up and read the Word to us this morning. As she reads this Easter encounter, I would like to invite you picture each scene as the story unfolds. Would you please give her a round of applause to encourage her as she comes?

[Sophia] Today’s Bible reading is from Acts 9:1-20.

Meanwhile, Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. He went to the high priest and asked him 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. 

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?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything.

In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

“Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”

Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” 

Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength. Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. 

This is the word of God.

[Gary] Thank you Sophia!

This is such a well-known story of a personal encounter with God that changed the course of Saul’s life. I hope you remember the scenes and I pray that we will hear the voice of the Spirit as we work through the three acts in this story, and be open to how the living Word encourages and challenges us in our own faith journey.

So let’s begin with the first act – “Meeting Jesus”.

We meet Saul at the beginning of the story breathing murderous threats against the disciples – the early followers of Jesus. Actually in the chapters before this, he actually didn’t just threaten them, he actually participated in the stoning, in the murder, of one of the disciples – Stephen.

Saul came from a very religiously conservative Jewish background – his family came from many generations of Pharisees. They were a very rule based, ritualistic movement within Judaism.

Later on in his letter to the Galatian church you see here on screen, he wrote that his mission then was to advance his understanding of Judaism, and he was very zealous or passionate in his mission of being faithful to God.

And the way he understood what he needed to do was that his responsibility was to protect his understanding of the truth at all cost. So he made his goal to pursue the followers of Jesus and the early church to make sure they were persecuted and destroyed.

Saul’s life and the decisions he was making then was literally heading in the wrong direction. It was the same scripture, worshipping the same God, but he had totally different and wrong understanding what was required of him.

Miak spoke last week about the times when he was so sure that he was right when he was giving directions while travelling, even though he was heading the wrong direction the whole time.

And so God needed to get Saul’s attention.

Acts 9:3-5

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?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied.

Here we see like we saw with Thomas last week, Jesus appearing to Saul. But unlike Thomas and Jesus’ appearance to the twelve, there’s something very different in this encounter. While Saul and his companions all heard the voice of Jesus, it was only Saul who saw a light flashing around him. This is the first time that Jesus appears not in the form of a body, but as light.

This encounter goes against everything Saul was taught. You see, the Pharisees wanted to keep God locked up in the holy of holies. They believed that if you wanted to encounter the presence of God, you need to be a priest and go through the ritual of cleansing and making yourself right before you can enter this holiest of holy place to encounter God and intercede for God’s people.

But God showed the world on Good Friday that the veil – the large, heavy curtain that separate the holy of holiest place in temple was ripped into two, and now everyone could experience this God who is always with them to the end of the age. And Saul was experiencing just that. The God who comes and appears to him.

Today’s first question I would like to ask you is “How has the living God appeared to you?”

While you are entering in your responses, I will share mine. I grew up in a Christian family but my first experience of meeting God was during times of worship when I was in my early 20s. As I sang to the music, it was like being lifted up, wrapped in love and love being poured into my heart till it is overflowing. That’s why I love to worship with music, and got involved in the music ministry so that others would be able to have an encounter with God in a similar way.

God appears differently to each one of us, just as God appeared differently to Saul. It could be in a time of prayer and meditation, and yet others, it could be while experiencing beauty or a having a mountain top experience, or in an everyday moment with people around them.

I remember Zihao sharing with me an experience while we were attending the Hillsong Conference. During an altar call at one of the sessions he asked God to show him God’s face, and God showed him a vision of the faces of every person placed in his life who loved him. And in that same moment, I asked God the same and I saw a vision of Jesus turning down a dark street and beckoning me to come follow Him.

Let’s see your responses.

Just as the resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples then, the living God indeed appears to each one of us, especially when God wants to get our attention. Sometimes it’s about us taking a moment to recognize who is this God who is with us, just like Saul asked “who are you, Lord?”, because it could be so different from how we imagined it would happen.

So what happens next?

Saul gets up from meeting Jesus, but loses his natural sight for three days as his companions hold his hand to lead him the rest of the way into Damascus.

I have wondered why God would afflict Saul with blindness. While I was preparing for this sermon, I was reading this amazing book “The Four Pivots: Reimagining Justice, Reimagining Ourselves” by Dr. Shawn Ginwright that I borrowed from our national library’s digital catalog.

It’s a truly amazing book where I learnt that having true sight can only begin when we take our eyes off what we see in the natural and start the hard working on looking within.

You see, Saul was very focused at the task he was very zealous of – persecuting the followers of Jesus. We read earlier that he was looking out for them on his journey to Damascus to arrest them and have them hauled them back to Jerusalem as prisoners.

Saul’s encounter with Jesus creates a situation where he loses his sight in the natural and he is forced to stop what he had set out to do so. All he could do is to let his friends to guide him towards Damascus and take time to be with his thoughts; to look inward for a time of reflection.

Before we get into exploring why spending time to look inward, to reflect is important, I would like to ask you honestly, how often do you set aside time for reflection?

So let’s dive in, why is setting aside time for reflection so important?

According to Dr. Shawn Ginwright’s research, he says –

Reflection allows us to get underneath the hood and explore our motivations, fears, dreams and insecurities from a place of curiosity.

Reflection also helps us uncover and begin understanding some of the wounds that pile up over time in our work, relationships and ourselves that we have been refusing to take a look at.

When we don’t take time to reflect, it is like not bothering to clean up our home of our hearts and minds. The pile of laundry, dishes and boxes become obstructions and we can actually become oblivious to the clutter and the obstructions. And having this obstructed view shows up in the way we relate with ourselves and others.

One of the ways this shows us very problematically is through our “implicit bias” – our unconscious attitudes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions about other groups of people. When we jump to conclusions because of implicit bias, we exclude and hurt, instead of including and healing.

When we don’t reflect, our obstruction spots grow and it ultimately leads to seeing the world from our own perspective as the one and only truth.

This was exactly what was happening with Saul – he had an implicit bias against the disciples, his own perspective was completely wrong and his actions sought out to exclude and hurt the disciples.

Saul’s loss of sight gave him an opportunity to reflect on his present, look back at his past, and imagine a future – and gave him another level of sight – true sight.

True sight is the real ability to see, and it actually involves a combination of hindsight, foresight, and insight. Together, these forms of sight provide a more complete exploration of our world and understanding of our place in it.

So what exactly is hindsight, foresight and insight?

Let’s first begin with hindsight. Hindsight is the process of reflecting on past events, dilemmas, experiences, conflicts, and invites us to draw lessons and new perspectives from the process.

I would like you to recall the last time you had a conflict with someone. Whether it is with someone at work, a colleague, with a friend, your partner or family member. Try to picture the scene, recall what happened, and then I would like to invite you to ask yourself these questions –

  • What contributed to that situation?
  • Would I have done anything differently?
  • What are the lesson or takeaways and why is this an important lesson?
  • What am I learning about myself that could help me in the future?

A great tool for this that some of you are already using is journaling. Journaling helps us to record and reflect on the situations and important moments through the day but also remember what you have learnt.

Here’s a snapshot of the journal template of a friend who I think is like a “best practice” for me. I got his permission to share this with you (as long as I didn’t mention his name) to show you that this actually a tool that works for him, and to inspire you to create your own version. You can see in his version, he gives himself cues to help him reflect through the day .

For me, I haven’t been so structured. I do most my journaling on my phone straight into the Microsoft OneNote application and this allows me to search and reflect back on the notes I over time, which helps me to understand the situations and my responses I have been through and then I capture the learnings and add that also to my journal, which have also become the inspiration for many sermons where I get to share what I have learnt! You see, nothing is wasted!

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Next let’s move on to foresight. Foresight is directly connected to hindsight. Foresight is the capacity to imagine what is possible in the future. Foresight pushes us to embrace the lessons from the past in order to reimagine and create what we want for our lives and for our world, and whether this is aligned to the will of God.

True sight doesn’t stop at hindsight. We often get locked into hindsight and never move past it. Sometimes trauma and painful experiences from the past bind us to the past as we mull over the anger, disappointment and pain until it determines, predicts and becomes our future. That’s why foresight is important. We have to learn from the past without it becoming our future.

True sight means that we see with both hindsight and foresight. We build foresight when we cultivate the ability to imagine, dream, and hope in one hand while holding our key lessons from the past in the other.

When you take time to reflect from the lens of foresight, ask yourself these questions –

  • How can my gifts, talents, abilities, experiences contribute to God’s will of shalom?
  • What is a clear picture of things when I am thriving?
  • What is going to take me to get there?
  • What am I like when I am at my best?

One great tool I have found for this is to create your own Personal Philosophy.

This was conceived by psychologist and high-performance coach Dr. Michael Gervais. It asks us to reflect on own values, the people we admire, what we want to influence our thoughts, words and actions in a short statement (preferably less than 25 words) of who you are when you are your best self.

Let’s do a quick practice together as a thought starter,  what words of phrases come to you when you are your best self? What is your purpose? How do you show up? What are your most important values in action?

Creating your personal philosophy will guide you in how you want to live, what you want your priorities to be, and creates clarity for you in how you want to make decisions.

Let’s see some of your contributions.

Whether we have taken time to reflect on it and articulate it or not, we all have a personal philosophy that we operate out. When we are live in alignment with it, we are at our best. Our personal philosophy will change as we grow and mine has changed many times over the years.

Here’s my current version of who I am when I am at my best self after many iterations and much reflection and gives me clarity of sight towards my future –

To inspire everyone to understand and care for one another and creation towards restoring a just and loving world where everyone can live out their best lives authentically.

This is literally who I am at my best self and how I want to show up with others and act in the world.

Dr. Gervais then encourages people to share this with others who we are in community with. If you are in a cell group, consider doing this activity together and sharing this with one another. This builds greater understanding and deepens relationships with others when they know what you are about and where your actions come from. Community is also the people who can speak into your life and hold you accountable when you are living outside of your personal philosophy.

So we have covered the first two elements of true sight – hindsight and foresight. Finally, the third element of true sight is insight.

With hindsight and foresight in each hand, insight gives us perspective for the journey. Insight is standing back to observe and understand ourselves as we go through experiences in the present. Insight allows us to sit with uncertainty, be calm in the midst of the storms of life, lean into the discomfort of conflict, and respond thoughtfully instead of reacting. Insight is wisdom in action.

Scripture says it like this.

Proverbs 4:6-7 says, “Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you; love her, and she will watch over you. Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

Some questions to draw on wisdom to gain insight in a difficult situation includes –

  • What is triggering me in this moment?
  • What is causing me to feel or react in this way?
  • What else do I need to understand about this situation?
  • What would, could, should I be doing to respond?

Insight is perhaps the most difficult and important sight to build because it requires us to build our capacity to observe ourselves in the grips of conflict, tension and oppression, while drawing on wisdom gained from hindsight and foresight.

So true sight begins when we lose our natural sight, but having true sight happens when through a process of reflection we gain hindsight, foresight, insight. So let’s continue the story where we see what happens next when we gain true sight.

While Saul lost his sight and was going through his process of reflection to gain true sight, there was another person in the same story who also sees Jesus in a vision, and that was Ananias.

Acts 9:10-15

10 In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, “Ananias!”

“Yes, Lord,” he answered.

11 The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. 12 In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.”

13 “Lord,” Ananias answered, “I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your holy people in Jerusalem. 14 And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.”

15 But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel. 

Jesus asks Ananias to go to Saul to restore his sight and while we don’t know the tone of the passage, if you were Ananias, you would be triggered, maybe in fear, maybe even hate. Jesus was asking him to go straight to the person who is either going to murder him or arrest him. Jesus was asking him to go straight to the person who had just had Stephen stoned to death.

At that moment of tension and conflict, Ananias had to draw on his true sight – hindsight, foresight and insight to decide what to do. Would he react in the natural or would he respond from a place of true sight.

Here, we see Ananias decides to respond first by seeking understanding – restating what Saul has been doing and listening to Jesus response before acting from a place of true sight.

Despite his fears, despite how he feels about Saul, he goes to the place where Saul is staying and verse 17 says Ananias ministers to Saul as a brother.

A brother! That’s the power of true sight at work! Let’s read on and see what happens next.

Ananias places his hands on Saul and something like scales – these obstructions falls from Saul’s eyes and he regains his vision. Now do you see the very next thing that happens? Instead of looking around to figure out where he was, trying to figure out who just healed him, trying to look for his companions, the very first action Saul asks is to get baptized.

You see, the process of losing his natural sight, going through a time of reflection leading to gaining true sight leads to the Saul’s repentance and transformation.

Pauline shared this a few weeks back and it’s an important reminder for us that repentance or metanoia in Greek is not self-punishment or doing penance or showing how unworthy you are. It means simply to stop, to reflect, and to change direction as a result of gaining true sight. You can see here that reflection is built right into repentance.

Saul realizes through his process of reflection that his zealousness comes from a place of fear that if he gets something wrong, he too could be seen as not being faithful to the community he belongs to, he could lose his identity of who he was and be found unrighteous and unworthy by God.

But through the process of reflection with an attitude of humility, curiosity and vulnerability, he realizes there is a better way to understand who God is – realizing the implicit bias of what he had been taught, understood his fears of losing his community and identity, reflected on how he was being ministered and cared for by his supposed enemy and in the process gaining true sight.

Saul would later on encourage others to do the same. In Rom 12:2 he writes –

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Our growth and transformation is tied to how we go through a continual renewal of our mind, and to have it tested against God’s will. That is metanoia and reflection at work.

With true sight, Saul decides that his first act after regaining his sight is to get baptized.

And what is baptism but a public commitment declaring of who Saul now belongs to, his dying to his old ways and being raised to new life with the risen Christ.

With true sight, Saul takes the same passion he has but it is now renewed and reframed towards preaching God’s grace and love to all, instead of policing God’s law and judgement of all.

We often refer to the Damascus event as a one moment, single event conversion experience for Saul. But can we see conversion instead as an ongoing process of transformation for all of us, for the salvation of the world, and towards love and justice, towards peace and shalom? Especially in a time such as this marked by such great lovelessness.

As we close today I would like to ask us three questions. Today what is God opening your eyes to see?

To have true sight? Where are you on the wrong path? How is your implicit bias blinding you and causing you to “breathe threats and destruction” instead of life and invitation? Where you stand in need of metanoia today?

Maybe some of us are like Ananias’ situation, thinking “are you sure God? This person has been out to get me.” I want to encourage you today that we don’t change people, God does. When God is the agent of change, all things are possible. We get to participate in the experience, we get to see God working through us, but it is the Spirit of God who convicts the heart.

Who is God opening your eyes to bring the light of God’s love to? What is God opening your eyes to see?

For some of us, maybe you are not yet sure what you supposed to see. Or maybe you want to experience greater spiritual growth. Growth only happens when our minds are renewed and we experience transformation. And for this to happen, we need true sight. And to have true sight, we need to take time to reflect so we can gain hindsight, foresight and insight.

Understanding how important now reflection is to growth, I would like to invite you to make a commitment to stopping and reflecting more regularly. This needs to be super intentional. If that’s you, would you enter how often you would like to commit to reflect intentionally?

It could be using tools just as the journaling to gain foresight, or working once a year on your personal philosophy, or committing to act with wisdom when you are facing a difficult situation.

Without metanoia, without stopping and reflecting, there can be no change in direction that comes from gaining true sight. Thank you for your commitment.

And finally, If you are new to the journey and haven’t yet had your own encounter with the risen Christ, my hope for you is that you will pause to pay attention to how God is revealing God’s self to you. God is love. God is love and I love the way Father Richard Rohr says that “the people who know God well always meet a lover, not a dictator.”

And that’s Saul’s transformation. That was what he gained from his process of reflection, and I pray you too will encounter God this Easter through God’s word, through the faces of people around you, through visions and the embrace of God in worship, through the beauty of creation, through love.

Let us pray.