Sunday, January 25, 2015

Sermon upon the Conversion of Paul

Conversion of Paul – Acts 9 – January 25th, 2015

In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +
          Today we are observing the Conversion of St. Paul.  Whereas last week we heard of Peter, the great disciple and apostle, today we hear of the Paul, the last Apostle, the convert.  The enemy turned friend and preacher.  And it is good for us to consider the life of St. Paul, to consider how he came to faith, for it again shows us where our focus is to be.  So we will move through our lesson in Acts considering what we are taught and shown by our Lord this day.

          “But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the LORD, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.”  And here we begin.  First, I want to quash something wrong that you’ve been taught – Paul did not change his name when he converts – even at the end of our reading he still goes by Saul.  Here is the thing, Paul is a dual citizen – Jewish mom, Roman dad – he is both a Jew, a highly respected one – can get in with the High Priest and get him to cut orders; but also a Roman Citizen.  If you are a Roman Citizen, you have a Roman name, and Saul is a Jewish name – the name “Saul” just doesn’t work in Latin.  So he is called Paul outside of Jewish speaking areas.  A silly but similar example – when I was taking Japanese, they didn’t call me “Mr. Brown” because the Japanese can’t say the “br” in Brown – I was Buroun-san.  I didn’t change my name – that’s just how it sounds in Japanese.  Saul and Paul – same name, just Hebrew and a Latin variation.  With that little pet peeve of your pastor’s out of the way, let’s consider what Paul is, where he is.  Paul is one of the best of the Pharisees, one of the most zealous and respected folks in Jerusalem, and he has as his mission to stamp out these folks who are upsetting things theologically.  Paul is the one who orchestrates the stoning of Stephen, the first Martyr.  And he did a reign of terror in Jerusalem, and people scatter, and so now he wants to go to Damascus to go grab anyone who got away up there.  Paul is the villain – he is the bogeyman.  He is the bad guy.

          Here is the neat thing – the Christians at this time didn’t have the label “Christians”.  That name hadn’t developed yet – they went by “The Way” – remember what Jesus says in John – I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life.  Christ Jesus is the Way, the path of salvation – that’s who we are.  And then we hear this in verse 3: “Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him.”  Paul wasn’t on the way – he was on *his* own way.  There’s a play on words here, and a warning for us.  If you had asked good old Paul while he is riding on up to Damascus, he would have been absolutely sure that he was just a good little boy, that he was doing everything right – in fact, he would have figured you should be a zealous as him.  But here is the problem.  What instruction, what guidance had Paul received?  Where in the Scriptures, where in the Old Testament would he have been instructed to persecute Christians?  No where – yet instead of searching the Scriptures, instead of listening to the Word of God, Paul is hell-bent on doing what *he* thinks is good, right, and pleasing to God.  He’s making it up as it goes, and according to his own standards he is spot on target and great.

          Now, this is sadly still a threat to us today.  Where do you find the truth?  Where do you find what is right or wrong about the Christian faith?  One of the most distressing things to me as a Pastor is how much “stuff” that passes as Christian out there has absolutely no basis in the Scriptures whatsoever – is basically made up.  This might be something silly like we become “angels” when we die, or “God helps those who help themselves” – neither of which is anywhere in the Bible.  It’s just made up feel goody-goody junk.  But the problem is this – we are tempted to think about religion not on the basis of what the scriptures say and teach, but rather what culture around us says and thinks.  Jewish culture highly approved of Paul and his zeal – the only problem was it wasn’t taught by God in His Word – and so it was off and vile.  How off and vile?

          “And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’”  Paul, in his self-made attempts to serve God, was in truth striving against God.  In attacking the Church, in messing with the people of God, Paul was in fact messing with, persecuting God.  This teaches us something.  When the Scriptures refer to the Church as the Body of Christ, they aren’t just whistling Dixie.  This is the reality of who you are in your Baptism.  You are tied to Christ, and what happens you to happens to Him.  Why are you persecuting Me – because that is what happens when you persecute Stephen, when you go up to Damascus and persecute people.  But not only that – what has happened to Christ Jesus has happened to you, for you are tied to Him.  This is the heart of the Gospel – as Christ has died and risen, so too, even though you die, yet shall you live.  The righteousness that He has done is applied to you – you don’t have to try to create ways to impress God or prove how good you are – you don’t have to follow misguided zeal to work your way up to God like Paul tried to do.  No, Jesus comes to you and gives you all His righteousness and Holiness and forgiveness.

          And Paul’s reaction to this revelation is interesting.  “And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’”  Who are You, Lord.  I get that You are LORD, that You are Jehovah, Yahweh, God Almighty – but who are You?  Who are You, because apparently I didn’t know You.  I thought I had, but I was wrong, I didn’t get it – because if God had come to me I’d figured He’d be patting me on the back about how great I was, not coming with blinding light and casting me to the ground.  These words of Paul are a confession of his sin, his ignorance, his lack of righteousness – his declaration that he in fact knows nothing about God.  A humbling admission.

          Then we hear this.  “And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”  Who am I Paul, I’m the very God of very God Whom you are attacking, the One Whom your self-made “righteousness” is fighting against.  Now – just pause there.  What is the expectation if you are persecuting God Himself?  What is the expectation going to be if Jesus says to you, “Not only did you crucify Me, but you keep messing with Me even after that?”  The expectation is to be smashed.  The expectation is thunder and lightning and fire and brimstone.  Not what Jesus does.  “But”… you are persecuting Me, but rise.  I’m not going to kill you, Paul.  I’m going to raise you – and now you just go on into the city and don’t come up with something for yourself to do, don’t create your own persecution – when you create, when you come up with stuff on your own Paul, you mess it up.  Rise – go into town, and you will be told.

          And so then Paul gets up, he’s blind, no one else has heard a thing.  And he heads to town, and he fasts, he repents.  And what does Jesus do?  Well, he calls upon Ananias and tells him to hunt down Paul and heal him.  And Ananias is skeptical – “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to Your saints at Jerusalem.  And here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call on Your Name.”  You mean the guy who is persecuting us, who came here to throw me into the clink, and you want me to go find him?  Jesus, the dude is EVIL, flat out EVIL.  And do you see the problem with Ananias’ response?  He had be told by Jesus what to do, and he knew that Jesus brings forgiveness, that Jesus makes people holy, makes them saints – but You mean that jerk, that SOB!  That’s his gut reaction – forgiveness is good and all for me… but for that evil guy who hurts me, You’re joking, right?!  “But the LORD said to him, ‘Go, for he is a chosen instrument of Mine to carry My Name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.  For I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of My Name.”  Ananias, I have chosen him, just as I have chosen you – and My choice, My election is good.  

          This is something we also are to remember, something the conversion of Paul shows us.  There is no one who is too evil, too wicked to receive mercy from God.  That person who annoys you, who harms you, who is your enemy, Christ Jesus has died for them too.  Upon the Cross, He took up their sins, in fact their sins against you.  And the hope that we ought to have is that they know and receive and rejoice in this forgiveness – but so often our old flesh doesn’t want that.  Be wary of your own flesh, that you would make you want to ignore Christ’s proclamation of forgiveness as it applies to others – rather repent and listen to Christ.

          “So Ananias departed and entered the house.  And laying his hands on him he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’  And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight.  Then he rose and was baptized; and taking food, he was strengthened.”  And Paul comes to Church.  First, there is preaching – Ananias declares the Word of the Lord, and the scales fall from Paul’s eyes.  But more than that – Ananias is going to heal, but then also give the gift of the Holy Spirit – and when does that happens?  Paul is healed… and then he is baptized.  Just like you, Paul received the gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism – was given new life and redemption right there.  And what comes next?  What is the normal thing for those who are baptized to do, how do we receive Christ and His Spirit again – Paul took food and was strengthened.  That’s pointing to the Supper – that’s given and shed for you for the remission of your sins, for the strengthening of your faith.  For the joining together, taking those who by the world’s standards should be enemies and gathering them together around the table and joining them together in Christ – the Communion of Saints.  And from there, Paul goes on.  He proclaims Christ in the synagogues, but not only that – note the last verse: “But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ.”  He grows in strength – he hears the Gospel proclaimed, He receives the Supper… and then he is “proving” that Jesus was the Christ.  That “proving” refers to opening the Scriptures and showing from the Old Testament who the Messiah is and what He would do.  Now instead of making things up on his own like he was at the beginning of the chapter, Paul the baptized lives in the Supper and in the Word of God – and no where else.

          Dear friends in Christ – the world is going to tell you a lot of stupid junk about God.  Your own flesh is going to want to tell you a bunch of stupid junk about God.  And that only leads to pain and sorrow and shame and vice.  But Christ Jesus has chosen you, He has baptized you, joined you unto Himself.  He reveals who He is to you in His Word, His Gospel showing you the forgiveness He has won for you.  He reveals Himself and gives Himself to you in His Supper, where you are joined to Him and receive His forgiveness.  God grant that He keep your eyes ever more upon Him through His Holy Spirit, given to you in His Word and Sacraments.  In the Name of Christ Jesus, the Light of the World +

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