The Risen Lord calls and directs servants in the world while a heavenly court praises the worthy Lamb.
Acts 9:1-6, (7-20)
How the apostles witnessed to the work of the risen Jesus is the continuing theme of the readings from the Book of Acts. Here we have the conversion of the fire-eating persecutor Saul into a transformed preacher of the gospel. (His Greek name Paul is used only after he begins his work in non-Jewish circles, at Acts 13:9.)
The main reading (verses 1-6) presents Saul confronted by the risen Jesus. It is a heavenly explosion of light on the road near Damascus, traumatic to Saul but to his traveling companions only confusing. As the narrator presents it, however, to Saul the message was clear. The now long-dead false messiah had suddenly become overwhelmingly real. Had now intervened in a devastating way and totally overturned Saul’s world. This supposed false messiah has spoken from heaven and named Saul very specifically, challenging his futile campaign against the disciples. Jesus’ last word here is, Get up and go into town; I have better stuff for you to do. Most of the rest of the book of Acts unfolds what that stuff is. (See Special Note below on Acts’ three versions of Paul’s call.)
The optional part of the reading, verses 7-20, does not add to the basic event; it only gives interesting detail and local color. We meet the reluctant Ananias, who in a vision is assigned by Jesus to rehabilitate Saul. This was like sending the humble servant into the den of the fiercest enemy, and he complains of this absurd instruction (verses 13-14). Ananias’ resistance must be overcome by a heavenly Lord with a divine plan. It is to Ananias that Jesus indicates the great and trying future he has in store for Saul/Paul. “He is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles [the nations] and kings and before the people of Israel [!]; I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (verses 15-16, NRSV). As soon as Saul had recovered physically and been baptized, he “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues…” (verse 20).
The Psalm reading is one of the more memorable expressions of personal thanksgiving for delivery from – death, as the psalm puts it.
A thanksgiving psalm expresses joy and gratitude in the present for release from severe trouble in the past – often not distant past. Reciting the overwhelming threats recently faced may be a major part of the now joyful release. So here, “you brought up my soul from Sheol, restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit” (verse 3). The speaker, whom we will view as a man, relates how he resorted to what, for a psalmist, is the ultimate appeal to God when things are at their worst: “What profit is there in my death,…Will the dust praise you? Will it tell of your faithfulness?” (verse 9). The speaker insists that God’s reputation is involved in this faithful soul’s plight. The speaker must make God urgently aware of the stakes!
When this psalm is used as an Easter season reading, the speaker is understood to be Jesus, thanking God for deliverance from death. In its earlier Israelite setting, the speaker was probably a person who was desperately sick, to the point of being given up for dead. He had no resort except God, and uttered his hope in the most eloquent language available to him. He recovered, and now brings his thanksgiving offerings to God – which offerings include a superb song in thankful praise of his savior God. God has turned his mourning into dancing, has replaced his sackcloth with garments of joy! (verse 11). He who was dead is alive again – and in good health!
The reading from the Book of Revelation (which provides the Epistle readings for Easter season in Year C) is the climax of a heavenly drama, the central feature of which is the preparation for opening the scroll of the world’s destiny.
The whole scene (4:1-5:10) is a greatly elaborated version of the heavenly court and divine judgment, focusing on the Son of Man, in Daniel 7:9-14. After evil on the earth had reached an intolerable climax, the heavenly court finally sits to render judgment. The heavenly court consists of the supreme judge sitting on the throne, the four bizarre heavenly creatures that provide the throne’s mobility (at least in Isaiah’s and Ezekiel’s visions that is their role), the sitting council of (here) twenty-four elders, and various brilliant accoutrements round about.
The supreme judge on the throne holds a super-numinous scroll in his right hand, and the total universe waits in suspension for someone with the authority, power, and honor worthy to take that scroll and begin to open it. The One capable of such action is the Lamb, who appears in the court and takes the scroll. (This Lamb corresponds to the Son of Man in the Daniel scene.) All the other members of the heavenly court burst into ecstatic praise of the worthiness of the Lamb to break the seals of the great scroll.
Our specific reading within this court scene (5:11-14) presents the second rank of praise teams acclaiming the worthiness of the Lamb. Joining the heavenly court are the massed singers of all the Tabernacle Choirs of all time (“myriads and myriads and thousands of thousands”). They are, of course, angelic voices – presumably with never a missed tone or late entry! The whole chapter presents three hymns sung in the heavenly court. The longest, sung by the inner cabinet around the throne, is two verses long; the second, sung by this massed choir of angels, is one verse long; and the last hymn, sung by everybody on earth as well as the heavenly folks, is only half a verse.
The first hymn (verses 9-10) praises the Lamb as worthy to open the scroll; the second hymn (verse 12) praises the Lamb as worthy to receive power and glory (to overcome the powers of evil in the universe); and the third hymn (verse 13b) is a general blessing on God and the Lamb for all the above. All the universe is engaged in hymnic anticipation of the exercise of power by the risen Lord who will transform the world that humbly waits upon this heavenly drama.
The Gospel reading comes from the appendix to John’s Gospel, which presents an alternative view of the appearance of the risen Jesus to the disciples from the main narrative in chapter 20. This appendix knows about the two appearances of Jesus to the disciples in Jerusalem (21:14), but adds an appearance in Galilee, beside the lake where earlier events occurred between Jesus and the disciples. There are seven disciples, five named – enough to make us curious about the rest but leaving more questions than answers.
The catch of fish after the unproductive night is a version of the story used in Luke for the call of Peter to be a disciple (Luke 5:1-11). The two narratives have in common that Jesus is revealed in heavenly power on the lake shore (see Luke 5:8-9) and that Peter, and his particular assignment as a disciple or missionary, are the primary focus.
What is the thrust of the dialogue between Jesus and Peter about loving Jesus and feeding the lambs? The suggestion is compelling that Jesus asks Peter three times, “do you love me?” to balance the three times that Peter denied Jesus at the passion. Each of those “I am not (one of them)” statements must be cancelled by a “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” And with each affirmation of loving Jesus there follows an instruction: “Feed my sheep” (with slight variations). This appendix, which strongly resembles the Gospel According to Luke, gives to the Fourth Gospel a pastoral boost into the world of the churches (a word not used in John), into human communities that have been changed because of the reign of the risen Lord.
Special Note on Paul’s Call in Acts
The book of Acts gives three versions of Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road, his “conversion” or “call” experience. The first is our text above (9:1-6), narrating the event in the third person. In 22:6-11, in a speech to hostile Jews in the Jerusalem temple, Paul tells his experience in the first person as part of his defense for preaching the gospel to the nations. Then again, in a less hostile setting, Paul tells his conversion experience to King Agrippa II during the time Paul was being held a prisoner in Caesarea, 26:12-18. All three of these texts are given here for comparison. Many details vary in greater or lesser degree, but the “core” is verbatim the same in all three versions (italics in the following texts). (All translations are the New Revised Standard Version.)
9:1-9. Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. 3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” 5 He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. 9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.
22:4-11. 4 I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment. 6 “While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ 8 I answered, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ Then he said to me, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth— whom you are persecuting.’ 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 I asked, ‘What am I to do, Lord?’ The Lord said to me, ‘Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.’ 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.
26:12-18. 12 “With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13 when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.’ 15 I asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The Lord answered, ‘I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’
James D. G. Dunn sees the variations as typical of orally recited materials over time. “In each of the three statements the brief exchange between Saul and the exalted Jesus is word for word: ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ ‘Who are you, sir?’ ‘I am Jesus (the Nazarene), whom you are persecuting, rise…’ (22:7-10; 26:14-16). This gives a good illustration of how stories would be told, then as now. The core of the story is preserved, maintained with almost rigorous consistency, while the supporting details can be treated with greater flexibility, as circumstances [around the narrator] may demand. We can well, and quite fairly imagine that the exchange had been burned into Saul’s memory, and so from the first was fixed in the tradition by which the event of the great persecutor’s conversion was retold and celebrated among the churches (cf. Gal. 1:23).” ( The Acts of the Apostles, Trinity Press International, 1996, p. 121.)
Finally, we have Paul’s own summary of this event in his life (Galatians 1:13-17), written thirty or so years earlier than the book of Acts.
13You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. 14 I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. 15 But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased 16 to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.