Saturday, April 5, 2014

Rest For Bodies and Souls



So, last week in confirmation class, we were going around the room doing “kyries and alleluias” (highs and lows) and it occurred to me that a goodly number of the kids in my class seem to actually hate school.  Just in general.  They hate their classes, they hate the books, they hate the subject material, they hate their teachers, they hate that they have homework, they hate that they have tests, and on down the line.  A good number of them even hate the organized sports that they choose to play!!  

I started pondering, as they were talking…and I noticed that the ones who most hate school also most love gym class…

And then I asked every single kid when the last day was that he or she had “nothing to do” – no plans on the calendar, no place they had to be, no homework, no sports practice, nothing. 

And the ones who most hate school, and most love gym class, were also most likely to tell me that they simply couldn’t remember the last day they didn’t have anything to do. 

Conversely, the kids with the least jam-packed extracurricular schedules seem to like school more, and were more able to identify their last “day off”.  

Now these kids – all of them – are smart, good kids.  When they are focused, they can laser in on some awesome stuff (once, one of them called me out on saying “God” when I mean “Father” or “First Person of the Trinity” because it sounds like I’m saying Jesus isn’t God).  So it’s always been a mystery to me why they are so opposed to school and to learning, and why they are just so…restless…all the time.  

But that evening, the whole thing hit me like a ton of bricks.  They hate school because it is one more place they “have to be”.  They hate homework because it is one more thing they have to “do”.  They hate teachers because they are each one more person who “expects performance”.  They hate the sports because even though they enjoy them at some level, they don’t ever play for fun, they only ever play to win.  Or the sports that they actually do not enjoy at all, they play because “everyone else does” and everyone else “expects” them to do so, as well.  And I think the thing about gym class is that it’s very low pressure.  It’s activities they enjoy, without a teacher grading them or a coach challenging them to better.  It’s a relaxed environment, with no pressure.  

And so I tried an experiment.  We blazed through the lesson, hitting the high points, and then, I told them to be quiet, to put everything – books, papers, pencils, bags, capri sun packages – everything down.  Put it all down, and we are going to rest.  We are going to rest, and relax, and have quiet time for 3 minutes. 

Three minutes was not nearly as much rest as I needed, but I sat on the floor, watching the clock, and praying for these kids.  They, however, were fidgety as all get out.  Constantly changing position on the couch/chair/floor, sighing, tapping their feet, looking at the clock.  Now, I know that three minutes is not enough time to truly get in the relaxation “zone” – but this whole experiment was telling for me.  When a person is exhausted – just done, burned out, no more gas in the tank – 3 minutes of quiet is glorious.  When you’re that tired, you know exactly what to do with 3 minutes of quiet, and it goes by in the blink of an eye.  When a person has no idea how to just. stop. for 3 minutes, that 3 minutes feels like an eternity.  Which is exactly the feedback I got.  When I finally called time, what I heard was, “That wasn’t 3 minutes!  That was 30 minutes!!!”  No, honey, it was 3 minutes.  I promise.  And so I responded, “You guys just don’t know how to relax,” to which they replied, “Of course we don’t know how to relax!  We never get to!  There’s no time to relax!”  

Wow.  Okay then.  

These kids are so far beyond "tired" that we'd have to peel back several layers to even get to "exhausted."  Which leads to me to wonder if perhaps the greatest faith-gift we could give our “youth” is the gift of rest.  My kids don't harbor objective hostility toward “church”, God, confirmation, the Bible, etc – at least no more than any of the rest of us poor in curvatus se souls do.  But when “confirmation class” and “memory work” and “going to church” and “taking sermon notes” and “doing service projects” and even “fun” events like bowling or pizza that they are “expected” to do and attend and “take seriously” and “put effort into”, then the more turned off they are likely to become, just as they are about school, and even the sports they claim to enjoy.  

How many of the so-called Biblical heroes heard from God in their sleep?  Off the top of my head, I can think of: Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, Samuel, Elijah, and NT Joseph.  Even Jesus took time to get away and rest.  Are we stunting our kids’ spiritual growth (and by extension, our own) because they have no downtime, no ability to relax, no way to hear God in the quiet and still – because there is no quiet and still in their lives, and even if there was, they wouldn’t know what to do with it?  

My plan for this week is to start in our normal classroom with kyries and alleluias, followed by devotions, as we always do.  Then I’m going to take them into the dimly lit sanctuary, and give them time to relax.  The only rules will be “no talking”, and “no touching or otherwise disrupting other people”.  They can sit, kneel, lay, stand, on the pews or on the floor.  They can read (Bible or hymnal), they can sleep, they can pray, they can just be there quietly with their thoughts.  

I want to give them 20-30 minutes.  My thought is, they’ll be stir-crazy for the first 10, and after that, they may be able to settle down a little.  Then I’ll bring them all back to the chancel to talk about the experience. 

And then I guess we’ll see what happens.  It’s an experiment, and it may fail, but it doesn’t strike me as a foolish idea.  What if we made it a goal to teach our kids that “here” – church, the Body of Christ, Christ Himself – you will find rest for your souls, and for your bodies?  If that was their “takeaway” from “youth ministry,” their heart-knowledge about Jesus, that He’s the one who gives them rest when they are tired and weary, well, I’d put that one in the win column.  

What do you all think?  Am I crazy?  Is this going to just not work?  Or am I maybe on to something?  Feedback, please!

Friday, March 28, 2014

So That God's Works Might Be Revealed...



As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Good morning, dear Christians!  This is not an unfamiliar question, is it?  How often in our lives, when bad stuff happens, do we ask ourselves, “What did I do wrong?”  Or "what did they do wrong?” This seems to happen, I’ve noticed, with circumstances that appear to have no other rational explanation.  Frequently it happens with children – what did I do wrong while I was pregnant? What did I do wrong while I was raising them?  But that’s not the only time – maybe if I had eaten more blueberries, I wouldn’t have cancer? Is God punishing me for not believing in him enough? For that awful decision I made when I was a teenager?  For that terrible, horrible, no good, very bad thing that no one knows about? 

Or we do it to other people…what did they do wrong that they’re homeless?  Or so incredibly poor?  Or can't keep a job?  People don’t get that disease unless they’ve done something they shouldn’t have been doing…

And it is true that there are plenty of circumstances in our lives that come about as a direct result of sin – our own sin, or someone else’s sin.  Sometimes life is hard because we sinned or somebody else sinned, and we are now stuck with the natural consequences.  Getting into a car accident when you’re driving drunk is not God punishing you, it’s just what happens when you do stupid things.  Flunking a test that you didn’t study for is not God’s punishment for being lazy, it’s just what happens when you don’t study.  Yes?  But there are also plenty – plenty – of times, more often than not, I’d wager, when rotten stuff happens to us or to people we love because it just does.  Because this world is not perfect, it is broken and scarred by sin, death, and the power of the devil.  Because God is working on a new Heaven and a new Earth when all this crap that we face in our lives will pass away, but it’s not here yet.  

This is why babies die in miscarriages and natural disasters happen and people who eat right and exercise every day get cancer and so much else.  The junk in this world that just is.  It is what it is.  Even Jesus will tell you that.  

Nobody sinned – this man was born blind.  Because sometimes that happens.

And in those moments when inexplicable, rotten things happen…when we feel most like perhaps God has abandoned us…it is at those times when He is most powerfully there…working, working, working situations that He didn’t cause…but that you better bet your britches He’s gonna use for good.  

So we’re going to play with the text a little bit here, I’ll teach you a little bit about Greek, and we’re actually going to use the screens – now this is the first time that Mike and I have worked on this, so give us both some grace here, but…let’s look again at John 9 verses 3 and 4: 

“Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him.  We must perform the works of Him who sent me..."

Well…not quite.  

Jesus does not say, “He was born blind so that…”

The actual Greek does not contain Jesus’ restatement about the fact of blindness.  The actual Greek reads more like 

“Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents have sinned: but that the works of God might be revealed in him.’”  

 Well, that’s kind of an oddball sentence.  It’s like it’s missing a whole clause, right? 

Neither this man nor his parents have sinned, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him   ???  .   

And so most – not all, but many – translators have filled in what appears to be the obvious answer – he was born blind.  And we end up with sentences like the translation I read earlier, 

‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.  We must perform the works of him who sent me…’

But here’s the thing about Greek, and it’s why I want to depart a little from some of the major translations…Ancient New Testament Greek contains no punctuation.  They just wrote until they were done.  And part of the task of translating is to figure out where sentences end and commas belong, and so forth, so that what's being said actually makes sense.  We do this in English, too, don’t we? There's a world of difference between:

Let’s eat, Grandma.
Let’s eat Grandma.

Punctuation is important.  

So the Greek for these two verses actually reads, 

“Jesus answered neither this man nor his parents sinned but that the works of God should be revealed in him I must perform the works of him that sent me…”.   

We’re just going to leave the part about day and night alone for right now…  

But now we have to punctuate it.  Let’s fill in the easy stuff first.  It’s pretty obvious where the quote marks should go – Jesus answered – what did he answer? – Neither this man… so we’ll fill in the quote marks and the comma after answered, because that’s English convention.  Now, we can also put a comma after “sinned”, since the word ‘but’ is a conjunction, it’s the start of a new clause.    

But we still have a run-on sentence, or at least a run-on clause.  

 “…but that the works of God should be revealed in him I must perform the works of him that sent me [when are we performing those works?] while it is day the night is coming when no man can work.” 

 As I said before, the most typical translation breaks that run-on clause by putting a period and ending the sentence right here: 

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but that the works of God should be revealed in him. I must perform the works of him that sent me while it is day: the night is coming when no man can work," 

But what if we change it up?  What if instead of putting a comma after "sinned", we put a period?  And instead of a period after "him," we put a comma?  So that the whole thing reads, 

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  But that the works of God should be revealed in him, I must perform the works of him that sent me…”


Well now, that’s different, isn’t it?  That changes the whole situation.  It shifts the man’s blindness from something that God did to him, or at the very least that God allowed to happen, just so that God would have an opportunity to perform a miracle, it changes that to something that, well, just happened, because these things do, but that God is now going to use to “perform his works” in the guy. 
 
Now, I do think we should be careful.  We need to have humility, and realize that most translators are not punctuating it like this. But. I really do think that we can go with it, and here’s why.  God does not willingly afflict people with suffering, just so that he can come back later and prove how awesome He is.  When life is miserable, for whatever reason, it’s true that God will use that to draw us closer to Him, He will take that opportunity to show his glory, his power to heal and resurrect.  But God does not decide to actively make our lives miserable, just so He can show off.  Not at all.  Not. At. All.  

So let’s run with this, for today.  “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  But that the works of God should be revealed in him, I must perform the works of him that sent Me.”

Okay then, so…what is the work of God?  Miracles? Healing this man’s eyes, so he can see?  Well, yes.  Certainly God does miracles.  But we can’t read Scripture in a vacuum.  We will always have a better understanding of Scripture if we read what’s around it, if we know what else has happened in the story, or what is going to happen.  If we have a sense for even the entire book of the Bible that we are reading, and the entire framework that the author is working from.  So what is the work of God?  I’m glad you asked!  

Let’s flip back a few pages to John chapter 6, verses 28-30:
“Then they asked him, ‘What must we do to do the works God requires?’”  Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent.’” 

The “work of God” is to believe in the one He has sent.  So let’s substitute that into our verses from chapter 9: 

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  But that God's work belief in the one God has sent might be revealed in him, I must perform the works of Him that sent Me.” 

Huh.  

This whole story is about the man who was born blind coming to faith in Jesus.  Please notice that this man does not begin the story with faith.  He is not blind old Bartimaeus, calling out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  This is not the woman with the flow of blood hoping to touch just the edge of his robe so that she will be healed.  He is not the centurion saying to Jesus, “I’m not worthy to have you come to my house, but if you only just say the word, my daughter will be healed.”  No, this man born blind is, by all accounts, just going about his day, minding his own business, and nowhere does he ask that his blindness would be healed.  But Jesus does it anyway.  Jesus heals him because it is that healing process, and everything that happens afterward, that leads this man to believe in Jesus, that leads to the work of God, belief in the one God has sent, to be revealed, to be made manifest, in his man.  

So then, let’s look at the rest of the story – pretty soon after the guy gets healed, the neighbors start to ask.  “Hey wait a second?  Is that the guy who used to have to beg for money because he couldn’t work?  Wasn’t he blind or something?  Well, he’s not blind now…It can’t be the same guy…no, I think it is… ‘Hey buddy, didn’t you used to be blind?  What happened?’”  

And he responds, “Yeah I was, but then some dude named Jesus did this thing with the spit and the mud and the… and when I washed it off, I could see…I don’t know how it worked, man, but I swear to you, that’s what happened.”  A man named Jesus.  That’s his starting place.

And while the neighbors might think it’s a little weird, the Pharisees are outright disturbed.  They can’t let this go on.  This Jesus guy has been running around upsetting apple carts all over the place…and now he’s healing blind people?  And on the Sabbath no less?  Oh, of course it was on the Sabbath…golly gee…it’s always on the Sabbath.  So the Pharisees, who, remember, are the rule-enforcers of the Jewish people, call the man in and ask him what happened, and he tells the same story.  He put mud on my eyes, and I washed them.  I was blind, and now I can see.  Now, the Pharisees are split over what to think – “He can’t possibly be from God…he was working…on the Sabbath!  Sinner.”  “Well, yeah, but how is somebody who is such a sinner able to do these kinds of signs?  That doesn’t make any sense!” So they ask the guy himself – gosh, there’s an idea – it was your eyes he opened, what do you say?  And the man says, “He is a prophet.”  Ok, so we’ve gone from “Some guy named Jesus,” to “a prophet.”

But the Pharisees, of course, because they have their own spiritual blindness issues going on, just can’t let it go.  So they go to the guy’s parents – “He really was blind from the time he was born?”  “Yeah, he really was.”  “Well, what just happened?”  “Uh, we don’t know.  Ask him, he’s an adult.  And, please don’t kick us out of the synagogue!”  So they call the guy back in, and they go through the whole thing all over again…and the guy says, “Why are you asking all this?  When I already told you?  And you didn’t believe me the first time?  Do you guys want to be one of his disciples, too?”…implying, of course, that he has since become one of Jesus’ followers…and he even puts the problem into sharp relief for the Pharisees… “Look, you don’t know anything about him, but that he healed me.  And we all know that God only does stuff like this with people who listen to him and obey his will…so there’s no way that he can possibly be a sinner…he’s got to be from God!”  To which the Pharisees’ response is basically, “Hey ya smartmouth, you think you’re better than us?”  And they kick him out.  

But Jesus goes and finds him – Jesus always goes and finds…Jesus goes and finds him and says, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”  “Who is he? Tell me so that I can believe.”  “It’s me, Jesus says.  The one you’re talking to right now.”  And the man answers, “Lord, I believe.”  

Jesus tells the crowds of people following him, “The work of God is to believe in the one He has sent.”  

Jesus tells his disciples, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.  But so that the work of God might be revealed in him, I must perform the works of the one who sent me.”  

At the moment that the man says, “Lord, I believe,” the work of God – belief in the one God has sent – has been revealed in the man.  Praise the Lord.  

This is what Jesus does with us, as well.  Sometimes stuff happens.  Rotten things.  Things with no explanation.  Or things that have an explanation, but are certainly not our fault.  And even things that are our fault.  Even the consequences of our own sin, can be quite unpleasant.  Life is tough.  And while God never causes these things, once they happen, He works them over into something that is at least useful. 
 
By his own death and resurrection, Jesus has overcome all the death and darkness in the whole world.  He will open your eyes to see that He is the Christ, the one whom God has sent, to bring you out of darkness, and into his marvelous light.  He does indeed have the power to forgive our sins, to heal our sicknesses, to raise us from the dead, to put back together the situations and relationships that are broken beyond repair.  He alone has that power – He is the one who performs the miracles.  But as much as he does not wish us to suffer, his primary concern is not that we would have no earthly troubles.  His primary concern is not that life be smooth sailing all the time.  His primary concern is that you would believe in Him, the One whom God has sent.  And so as He is healing your sicknesses and infirmities, as He is fixing the things that are broken, in the moment when He is forgiving your sins and raising you from the dead, in the midst of that all of that, He is drawing you unto Himself.  He is teaching you to believe in him, and to trust him for everything, even for life itself.  

The very end – the last two verses – of John’s Gospel tells us exactly why John bothered to sit down and write all this out: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book.  But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  

The world can be a terrible place, and terrible things happen in it.  But even in the midst of terrible things, know that God is hard at work, overcoming sin, death, and the devil, bringing you to faith, and teaching you to trust Him, to believe in Jesus, the One whom God has sent, so that by believing, you may have life in his name.  

Amen. 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

On the Conversion of St. Paul



Good morning!  So, if you were here last week, you know that we celebrated Peter’s confession of faith, when he declared that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.  This week, we are transferring Saturday’s celebration of St. Paul’s conversion to today, and remembering his story, his faith, and most especially, the way that God worked in his life. 

In the same way that last week we celebrated not so much Peter himself, but the faith that God had placed in Peter’s heart, the faith upon which Jesus builds the church, today we remember Paul’s conversion – not because of how awesome Paul is, but because of how awesome Jesus is.

Let’s start, though, by taking a good look at Paul, at who he was, and the life he lived, so that we have a really good context for seeing the work of Jesus. 

We get just a short background to this at the beginning of the Acts reading, so I want to flesh it out a little more, so that we’re all on the same page to start.  So, Paul, who Acts chapter 13 also tells us went by the name of Saul, which is the name that is used in this part of the story – this Saul guy was Jewish.  Now, we have talked before about Peter, or the other disciples, or Jesus, or most of the people who hung around Jesus during his ministry, and how they were good, faithful, Jewish people.  But Saul was, well, his religiosity, his zeal for the Jewish religion, and more than that, for the God of the Jews, far outstripped everyone else around him.  Saul wasn’t the sort who came to church most weekends, and made sure the kids got to well, Saturday School and confirmation.  Saul wasn’t even the sort to be a local synagogue leader, or to volunteer at the Temple to usher or read the Scriptures once a month.  Saul was Jewish to beat the band.  He grew up in a household filled with faith.  He had the Scriptures – what we call the Old Testament – memorized backwards and forwards.  He studied under all the best rabbis and priests and teachers.  He read everything he could get his hands on.  He was consumed with evangelistic fervor.  He loved the Lord, the one who had promised to save his people, to one day bring them a Messiah who would deliver them from all their enemies.  He trusted God’s promises, and he was willing to defend God at all costs. 

If you were someone who said something untrue – something heretical or blasphemous or just plain mean or wrong about God – Saul was perfectly happy to correct you. He wasn’t going to let anybody stand in the way of knowing and believing the correct things about his God, the God of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, the God who had promised a Messiah, but who hadn’t yet delivered.  He followed every last rule and law of the Jewish religion – dotting all his I’s and crossing all his T’s – because this was what God had said to do, so, I better do it, and so should everybody else.  This was Saul.  100% sold out for God.  And so Saul also knew that one of the things you don’t do – in fact, the primary thing you don’t do, when you are a follower of God, is to go running around following other gods, claiming somebody or something else is God, and worshipping that. 

And to a great extent, Saul is not wrong.  Even today, when we read the Old Testament, we assume that it’s all about rules, and it’s about not doing bad things, and following the Ten Commandments and being a good religious person.  But that’s actually only sort of true – see, when God gets angry at the Israelites for all of the bad things they keep doing, it’s less about the fact that they did those specific sins, and more about the fact that they had first turned their hearts over to other pagan gods.  The confirmation class this year has been reading through the sections of the Old Testament, and right now we’re at the part that is all about the kings and prophets.  There are some good kings, and lot of bad kings, and it turns out that the primary characteristic of a bad king is one who doesn’t follow the Lord, one who turns away from the Lord, and then, because his eyes are turned toward other gods, begins to do all sorts of evil things – once you’ve broken the first commandment, the rest just fall like dominoes…

So Saul, in being zealous for the primacy of God, well, let’s just say that his heart is in the right place.  But unfortunately, we all know, that our heart can be in the right place, and we can still be radically, totally, completely wrong.  And this is what had happened to Saul.

You see, Jesus is the fulfillment of the Jewish religion.  In his conception and his birth, in his ministry, his death, and his resurrection, and in his ascension to the throne in heaven, Jesus is proved to be the Messiah that God promised long ago, that the prophets spoke of, that the Israelites had been waiting, and waiting, and waiting for.  When we speak of the relationships between Jesus, and Jews, and Christians, it’s not that Jesus is Christian, just like all of us, and we’re waiting for the Jewish people to get on board with that and join Christianity like they’re supposed to.  It’s actually almost the opposite – Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises of God, promises that God made to his chosen people, the nation of Israel – also known as the Israelites or the Hebrews.  And it is we, the Christians without Jewish ancestry, who are grafted – adopted – into that family, that nation of Israel, to whom the promises were first given. 

But if like Saul you are Jewish, and you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the promised one, then when Jewish people who do believe begin encouraging others to follow Jesus, to believe that He is the one who fulfills the promises, that He himself is God, and should be worshipped and praised as such, well then, it looks like you’re leading people into idolatry, does it not?  It would look like you were saying untrue things about God, and worshipping false gods and denying the faith.

This is where Saul is at, before his conversion.  At the beginning of the Acts reading today: Saul was still breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples.  Yes, Saul had gone so far as to be an accomplice to murder.  One of the apostles – Stephen – was the first person to be killed for his faith in Jesus.  He had been out witnessing to Christ, and the Jewish leaders had gotten a hold of him, and for his so-called “offense” against the Jewish faith, Stephen was stoned to death.  And the Bible tells us that Saul was there, not throwing stones, but holding the coats of the men who were.  

Saul firmly believed in his zeal for the faith, in his willingness to condemn Jesus-followers, that he was pointing people toward the one true God and away from false idols.

And yet, he was incredibly wrong.  He was so, so, so wrong.  Poor Saul, he just doesn’t get it. 

Do you know people like this?  People who just…for some reason…can’t grasp faith?  People who claim to basically believe in like, God or something, but they don’t really get it.  People who think they know God, but really, Jesus is just kind of a peripheral thing to their lives?  Are you people like this?  Someone who comes to church because it’s “what good people do”, but when other people are talking about Jesus and faith…you just kind of bow out of the conversation, because you don’t quite get it? 

If this is you, or someone that you know and love, then listen up – Saul’s story isn’t done.

Because as Saul was hunting down followers of the Way – the first term they used to describe Christians – as Saul was, in his ignorance, seeking out the Lord’s disciples to kill or imprison them, Jesus came to Saul.  In a brilliant flash of light, Saul was struck blind, and heard Jesus personally speaking to him: Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?  I am Jesus, who you are persecuting.  Go into the city, and you will be told what to do.”

And so Saul follows instructions, goes into the city of Damascus, and is met by a man named Ananias, whom the Lord had sent to lay hands on Saul so that Saul’s blindness would be healed.  So the two of them meet up, and Ananias does as he’s told.  Saul is filled with the Holy Spirit, and something like scales fell from his eyes, and he could see again, and was baptized.

Now this is another one of those stories that has two layers of meaning to it – first is the literal, historical level.  We believe that this is actually what happened, and how it happened.  And there’s also a metaphorical level to it as well – Saul had been struck with physical blindness, yes, but he had also been experiencing spiritual blindness.  He simply couldn’t see that Jesus was the Messiah, the fulfillment of the promises to Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  And as the scales fell from his eyes and his physical blindness was cured, his spiritual blindness was also cured – by the power of the Holy Spirit, who opened Saul’s eyes, both physically and spiritually. 

Don’t miss that part – that it was solely through the action of God, that Saul was brought to an understanding of the truth about Jesus. 

Luke tells us this in Acts, Paul relays it himself in the reading from Galatians.  Jesus came and revealed himself to Paul, to one for whom it seemed that all hope would be lost, one who just didn’t get it.  But God intervened.  The Holy Spirit came and personally brought Paul to faith in Jesus – just as the Holy Spirit does for each one of us – and from there, Paul went on to an incredible life as an apostle – a witness, a missionary, a pastor, a preacher, a teacher – throughout all of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Asia Minor.  The man who participated in the killing of the very first Christian martyr is the same man who later wrote 1/3 of the New Testament, and traveled through much of the known world to spread the message of Christ and build the local church wherever he went.  

Yay, Paul, but more importantly, yay God!  This is a story of hope.  When we celebrate the conversion of Paul, what we are really celebrating is the power of God to transform hearts, to bring people to Jesus, and to work powerfully in each of our lives.  If God takes it upon himself to knock Paul upside the head when he needs it, then there is still hope for each of us, yes?  If someone who is so opposed to Christ as Paul can be brought to faith, then there is still hope for all of your children and grandchildren who are uninterested, to say the least, in Jesus…right? 

This is the message of Paul’s conversion – that it is never too late, that someone is never too far gone, or too opposed to God, for God to work miracles.  That even though we share our faith with other people, it is not our responsibility to pressure people – ourselves or anybody else – into believing – that the Holy Spirit will work faith when and where He wills, at precisely the right moment to serve God’s purposes.

If you struggle to believe some days…or every day…(and really, don’t we all?)  If you know someone who seems downright opposed to the message of Christ…do not lose heart, and do not despair.  God wants every single person – each one of you, and each one that each of you loves and cares for – to come to know him through faith in Jesus Christ.  And he does not give up on any of us.  It may seem like a long time coming, we may not notice the miniscule adjustments he is slowly, patiently, tenderly knitting into our souls, but He is faithful.  We only need to look at the Cross to see the extent to which he will go to bring each of us back into the fold. 

Through the conversion of Paul, and his unfailing witness to Jesus – the same zeal that was once focused against Christ now set to the task of expanding God’s kingdom – through Paul, and the inspiration and workings of God in him, the church took root throughout the world.  Like the churches of Judea, that we heard from Galatians today, we praise God because the man who formerly persecuted Christians went on to preach the faith he once tried to destroy.  We remember and celebrate that today, that victory of God, and we remember and celebrate that what God did for Paul, he can and does also do for us, and for our loved ones. 

Paul experienced an epiphany of his own on the road to Damascus, as he saw Christ for who he truly is: and so let this also be our epiphany today – that Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, is the Lord of all, and he is working to bring us to himself in his own good time.  He is the one who has the power to work faith in each one of us, and he is the one for whom not a single one of us is too sinful, too unbelieving, too far gone to be brought to life, health, and salvation.  This Jesus whom Saul encountered, who was born for the shepherds and the wise men, for Mary and Joseph, for John the Baptist and Peter and the disciples and Paul – was born for each one of us, and he is graciously working in each of us for our benefit.  May you be blessed by this epiphany.

Amen.