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.


Saturday, January 4, 2014


Happy Epiphany!  

Let’s start today with a little explanation of what Epiphany is, and why we celebrate it.  So, the dictionary definition of little-e “epiphany”, not the specific festival, is “a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience,” or “an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity.” 
So “an epiphany” is the appearance of something, especially a God, or an insight into the meaning of something.  

With the birth of Jesus that we celebrate at Christmas, we celebrate the appearance, the manifestation of God here on earth.  And so in a way, Christmas, too, is an epiphany.  But on January 6, the Feast of the Epiphany (which we’re celebrating here on January 5th), is a special, particular kind of epiphany.
Because on Christmas, who was there?  Mary and Joseph, of course, and the shepherds, who had been directed by the angels – shepherds who were basically your average Jewish blue collar workers, but whom we might characterize as being from the wrong side of the tracks.  By Christmas morning, Jesus has been announced to, introduced to, adored, worshipped, praised, honored, yes, but only by Jewish people.  On the Feast of the Epiphany, we celebrate the Wise Men, the Magi, coming to worship the Christ Child.  These are kings from the East – people of a very different culture, priests, even, of a very different religion, and now Jesus, the king of the Jews, has been revealed to, is being worshipped by, even them.  

The specific individuals who were the Magi that St. Matthew speaks of, saw and worshiped the Christ Child.  But they are also representative of the entire Gentile world, of all people who are not Jewish.  Here, on Epiphany, with the visit of the Magi, we see the answer to David’s prayer in Psalm 72 that we read, “May all kings bow down to him, and all nations serve him.”  It is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy to the Israelites, that, “nations will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your dawn…all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.”  

This is why we celebrate Epiphany – on its own, and as kind of one last hurrah for Christmas – it is in this moment, when the pagan kings – representing each of us who is not Jewish, each of us who was not among the very first to see – it is at this feast of Epiphany when they come to worship, that we celebrate that the revealing of God Himself, and God’s love for us, in the baby named Jesus, has indeed come to and for the whole world – Jew and Gentile, shepherd and king, young women and old men, and everyone in between.  God is revealing himself to the whole world, and to each one of us.  

Throughout the season of Epiphany – which will last clear up until Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, we read the stories of Jesus’ ministry as he is revealed, over and over again to different people in different circumstances, to be God incarnate, to be the One who is God, and who has to come to earth to be with us and to be for us.  This is the lesson of Epiphany – that in Jesus Christ, we ourselves encounter none other than God himself.  

The Wise Men came from afar, brought their gifts, met and worshipped the God who transcended everything they were familiar with – themselves, their culture, their religion, and even the classic dividing lines of society – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, shepherd and king – and then, after that encounter, they returned home by a different route.  

This is also instructive for us.  Yes, the wise men, having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they went home another way.  There is, of course, historical accuracy to this statement.  Herod was out to remove all threats to his power, and that included infant kings, and anyone loyal to them.  

And yet there’s also another level to this statement.  Because the Magi have met Christ, they have met God and now, having come and worshipped, they cannot go back the same way.  Something has changed – their allegiance to the Lord now trumps their respect for Herod who had provided them with directions in the first place.  

This is like you, too, I believe.  

When you meet the one who has been born King of the Jews, the one who is king of the whole world, king of kings and lord of lords…when you hear and see that he is revealed to you – you, yourself -- when you find him in the water and word of your baptism, when he comes to you in flesh and blood right here at this altar, when the words of Scripture leap off the page, when you hear that your sins have been forgiven, and stripped of their power to bind you, when you see that even death has lost its sting – when you encounter Christ, not just for “the whole world,” and not just for “those people who need him,” but when you encounter Christ for you, you cannot help but be changed.  You cannot go back the same way you came, because you are now different, for having encountered Christ. 

You are different because Christ has made you different.  You may not look different.  And let’s be honest; you may not even feel different.  The Son of God, who has been present in Heaven since the beginning of Creation, has now come to Earth to be with us, to be with you.  Not to take pounds and inches off your waistline, or even to make you be more happy and pleased with what you have, as though he was some sort of New Year’s Resolution fairy.  That’s not why Jesus came, and those aren’t the benefits of Epiphany.  The benefits of Epiphany, of an epiphany of Jesus, are even greater.  He comes to transform your soul.  To take your sins and your burdens, and even your death away from you, and to trade you for his righteousness, and his freedom, and his life.  In what Lutherans call the Glorious Exchange, you, like the wise men, go home differently because God has exchanged your stuff for his, so that you will become more like him. 

When you leave here today, you will have heard the words of Scripture read, and the Gospel proclaimed.  You will have tasted the forgiveness of your sins and praised your Savior, through hymns and liturgy, for his marvelous gift.  God will – once again, as he does each week – come to you to transform you and send you home a different way.  You don’t come to Christ because that’s what good people do – Christ comes to you precisely because you aren’t good people, because you need to encounter and worship the One who is good, because you need to be changed and sent home a different way.  

Today we celebrate the Feast of Epiphany – we rejoice that God has revealed himself to us, and to all the nations; we rejoice that he chooses to come to us, each one of us; and we rejoice that he sends each one of us home different than the way we came.  

Praise the Lord for this marvelous Epiphany!