A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor of New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on April 18, 2010.
What caused you to become a follower of Jesus? I am not talking about when you began attending church? I mean to ask you to think about what caused you to begin to take Jesus Christ seriously? When did it happen? Where did it happen? What was going on in your life? What was your turning point?
Most of us probably did not have the kind of dramatic experience that Luke records about Saul of Tarsus where we are blinded by a light from the sky and hear a voice confronting us about our moral and spiritual course. That does not make our relationship with Jesus less important for that reason. What happened to Saul was his turning point. It was not the only way that people change course for God.
And people do change course for God. Somehow they realize that God is real. Somehow, the reality of God becomes personal so that God is not “out there” but takes on personal meaning. Somehow the personal God is encountered, sensed, heard, and recognized by us even when others do not sense anything, or do not attribute the experience to God.
The important thing for you and me to remember is that God does encounter us! We may not experience what happened to Saul, but there are probably events in your past that you understand were turning points when your sense of spiritual direction was challenged. Perhaps something happened that forced you to re-think your priorities. Perhaps you hit a wall along the journey that made you stop moving so fast and required you to think about the route you were taking. Perhaps a relationship turned painfully sour to the point that you reconsidered whether it was healthy in the first place. If we are honest with ourselves, these turning point experiences occur, even if we decide not to change course.
When we view Saul’s Damascus Road experience with the risen Jesus from that perspective, several lessons come to our attention.
There is a huge difference between being religious and being right with God. Saul was devout, dedicated, and disciplined in his religious faith. He was zealous, influential, and trusted by leaders of his sect. As far as his religious sect was concerned, the followers of Jesus posed a real threat to true faith in God. The gospel of Jesus was attracting new believers each day. So the institutional leadership of Saul’s religious sect was determined to protect itself from what it considered a threat to its moral, cultural, social, and political influence. Saul, like so many people who are dedicated to institutional religion, focused on defending the institution from what he considered a virus. To Saul, the gospel of Jesus amounted to religious heresy. He was determined to root out the heretics. So Saul sought authority from the leaders of his religious sect to find the followers of Jesus in Damascus, arrest them as heretics, and return to Jerusalem so they could be tried for heresy.
Saul was wrong about Jesus and the people following the gospel of Jesus because he was wrong about God. If we do not correctly understand the character of God, we will misunderstand the life and teachings of Jesus. Jesus came to make the character of God humanly obvious to us—personally close, so to speak. In Jesus, we learn that the holiness of God is not characterized by legal codes, but by love which insists on righteous relationships. Jesus came healing and teaching from the twin pillars of grace and truth. Rather than defining devotion to God through the framework of institutional religion, with all its rituals, rules, regulations, and power relationships, Jesus demonstrated that God wants to relate to us individually, personally, intimately, so that we become willing agents of divine love and truth.
Yes, God is holy. Yes, God is all-powerful. Yes, God is righteous. And yes, God is to be obeyed and honored in reverence. At the same time, divine love is holy. Divine love is all-powerful. Divine love is righteous. Divine love is worthy of reverence. God is love, and in Jesus, the fact of divine love has been made unmistakably clear. There is nothing wrong about being zealous in religion. However, we should not confuse religious zeal with righteousness. Righteousness is always a function of divine love, not zealous religious involvement.
So what happened on the Damascus Road involved a confrontation between religious zeal and righteous love. The religious Saul ran into the righteous Jesus. Institutional religion was met by divine love. Saul was an institutional man. Jesus met him on the Damascus Road to challenge him with the inspiring reality that God’s love is too big, too wide, and too wonderful to be held hostage by any system of rules, regulations, and rulers. God’s love is deeper and higher than our pet list of do’s and don’ts. God’s love is wider and thicker than our systems of wishes and prejudices. God’s love embraces all people, everywhere, from every tongue and nationality. God’s love embraces all creation. Any system of religion that presents something less than that is a system from which we must be turned. Because God loves us, and loves the world so much, God challenges us no matter how zealous we are in our religion. In the Damascus Road encounter, the love of God is revealed as the challenging, confronting, force that confronts every zealot.
There is always a risk that we can become like Saul, more motivated by commitment to religious institutions than to loving relationships with God and others. A new community of faith usually is based on relationships. As it grows, the emphasis on being relational—with God and others—can be overshadowed by institutional concerns such as who should lead, what rules should govern admission to the faith, and so forth. As important as those things may be, we must never forget that they are not God-defining. God is love, and love is always relational. If we do not relate with God in loving righteousness, we will not relate to each other in loving righteousness. We may build a religious organization that has institutional power, but lacks divine credibility because it is unloving.
The love of God will confront us when we least expect it. Saul’s Damascus Road experience shows that God’s love can and does eventually challenge us. Saul did not expect to experience a vision of the resurrected Jesus. He thought he was on a trip to find some more of those worrisome Jesus people, capture them, and return to Jerusalem so they could be tried for heresy.
God’s love has a way of challenging us when we least expect it. Sometimes the love of God challenges our religious confusion. Sometimes it challenges us when we have fallen victim to our pride or fool-hardiness. Sometimes God’s love challenges us gently. In Saul’s case, God’s love was a blinding light so strong that he could not stand in its presence. Do you recall where you were and what happened when you first realized that God’s love is personal for you, and that you could not escape dealing with its personal impact and implications for your living? That was your turning point.
Notice that Saul’s associates did not understand what was happening to Saul on that road. They knew that he was behaving strangely, but did not understand why this was so. This was an encounter between Jesus and Saul. They were spectators, but the experience was personal. That is how God’s love works on us and with us. In Jesus Christ, we are first are personally encountered by God’s love, then we are personally challenged by it.
God sends help when we turn. Saul had his turning point, but needed someone to help him understand it. There are aspects of God’s love that we can only learn through relationship with other people in God’s love. The road to Damascus was where Saul met Jesus Christ, but a relationship requires more than a meeting. We need help understanding God’s love. We need acceptance in God’s love. We need to be nurtured in God’s love. We need affirmation from other people who have experienced God’s love. In short, we need the help that only comes from fellowship.
My friends, one of the great challenges of 21st Century Christianity is for us to be agents of loving fellowship with people in God’s love. It is not enough for us to have buildings, budgets, and programs. People need help as they wrestle with the claims of divine love on their lives and relationships. They need acceptance. They need encouragement and loving correction. They need forgiveness and re-direction. They need to be found by Ananias-like followers of Jesus Christ. Saul did not find Ananias. Ananias found Saul. In the same way, you and I must follow Jesus in ways that find people like Saul—people loved by God, confronted by God’s love, and waiting to be accepted, affirmed, and encouraged in God’s love.
The issue of becoming intentionally relational represents another turning point for followers of Jesus. We must decide whether following Jesus means being institutional or relational.
Which way are you marching? John gives us a glimpse of what God is calling us to become in the reading from Revelation. In that vision, John finally understands that the love of God reaches every tongue, every nation, every tribe, and every creature. John writes: Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
‘To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might forever and ever!’ Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God’s Love, has called us to join in that song. Jesus Christ, who has loved us as only God can, calls us to that song. Jesus Christ calls us to turn from our prejudice, turn from our religious bigotry, turn from our small-minded obsession with institutional power and privileges and toward the throne of God and Love.
Turn to Love. Walk to Love. March to Love. Sing to Love. Live to Love. We are marching to Zion, by God’s love, in God’s love, and for God’s love. Turn by loving as Jesus loves. Turn by living as Jesus lived. Turn to Love, to Life, and to God. Then live the Love! Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.