Sermon on Acts 9:1-19a
3rd Sunday after Epiphany | January 21, 2018
Grace, mercy, and peace be yours in abundance. Amen.
The lesson for our meditation is recorded in the book of the Acts of the Apostles 9:1-19a.
Dear fellow followers of the Way, my brothers and sisters in Jesus our Lord; last week we talked about the Confession of St. Peter, that foundational testimony on which our faith is based: “you are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Today, we’re going to talk about the other part of that foundation of faith: the calling of the Lord. Today we celebrate the minor feast day of the Conversion of St. Paul, and on this day we remember not just how the Lord called Saul, or Paul, but how he called each of us to believe in him and to serve in his kingdom. Paul heard the Savior calling…and so do you.
Who is this man, Paul? He appears rather suddenly in Acts, chapter 8 as Saul the Pharisee. Those who stoned Stephen, the first martyr of the New Testament era, to death piled their cloaks at his feet. According to the legal customs of the time, that meant Paul was the prosecutor in Stephen’s case. But what’s his back story?
Paul has described himself in his letter to the Philippians as a "Hebrew among Hebrews." With Jews spread throughout the Mediterranean world, most of them no longer knew Hebrew, or even Aramaic, but spoke Greek instead. But Paul was raised in a house that still spoke Hebrew.
And to further distinguish his pedigree, he studied in Jerusalem under Gamaliel, the equivalent, among Pharisees, of having a Harvard Law degree. So Saul became distinguished even among the already well-respected Pharisees. The Pharisees, you know, were zealous upholders of the Law, who thought that strict adherence to the letter of God’s Law would please him. We know Christ rebuked them for that, because in their obedience to the letter of the law, they missed the spirit of it…they forgot that at the center of God’s Law is that simple, one-word command: Love.
Now, it was after Stephen’s death that Saul, as we read, began his own campaign against the Christians in Jerusalem, dragging men and women out of their homes and throwing them into prison, or worse. And when the Christians scattered, he sought them in other cities, including Damascus.
Saul was “zealous for God;” though what he was really zealous for was the false teachings of the Pharisees, a lie they taught the people - the lie of works righteousness, that sinful human beings can somehow earn their salvation by obeying the Law. Since we know that there is no way for a mere human to perfectly obey the Law, we know that such a teaching leads only to Hell. Yet Saul believed in the power of the Law to save, and so he hated the Christians, because those deceitful followers of the Way taught faith in Christ, and freedom from the Law.
So he actively sought to destroy the Church and its blasphemous teachings –destroy, mind you, not persecute, not convert, etc. Saul rejected that first call of God through Stephen, because it conflicted with everything he had been taught. So, while he sought to serve God, in truth he was just another unbeliever: an enemy of Christ, an enemy of God and his plan to save his people.
Now, usually, we remember Paul as a paragon of faith, but the initial picture we paint of him in the book of Acts isn’t very pretty, is it? But let’s paint another picture, shall we, friends? Let’s start painting that person in the mirror.
Are you an enemy of God and his saving work? Well, if you’re sitting here, probably not. But have you ever failed your God when faced with worldly temptations, doubts, and fears? When the bills start to mount up, do you ignore God’s call and fail to trust his promise to provide? When your health fails, do you ignore God’s call and fail to trust his promise to keep you in his hands, and take you home when your time here is over? When the pressures of peers at work, school, or even your home tempt you to deny or ignore your God, do you listen to his call and trust in him, or fail him yet again?
You see, all of these things are about misplaced trust: Saul trusted in man’s ability to save himself; consider Peter, who trusted in his sword, or in his own bravery, even when they failed him. As for you…where is your trust misplaced? If it is not given to your one and only God and Savior, then you have come up against him, and against his plan to save you.
Fortunately, our merciful and compassionate God doesn’t give up as easily as we do. He has given us the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit works through his Word to call stubborn, sinful and doubtful hearts to faith. That’s the task our Lord has given us, to answer that call so that he might call others through us. Our call is to carry, speak and give that Word to those who need to hear it. Though we are weak and frail, God chooses to use us as his vessels. Paul heard the Savior calling…and so do you.
So how does he call us? Saul’s conversion falls somewhat outside of normal conventions. Most of us don’t get to claim such an experience as a bright light accompanied by a heavenly voice. But it wasn’t the light, or the blinding, or even the voice that converted Saul. It was the Word the voice spoke: “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” And Saul learns the truth. Jesus Christ himself comes to tell him: You thought you were persecuting a group of blasphemous radicals, but you were persecuting me! You were persecuting God! And from that moment, Saul can no longer call the Christians liars, for the proof of Christ’s teachings was right there in front of him: Jesus Christ, himself, risen from the dead!
Consider Peter, again. You might think that Peter was “easier” than Paul. We know that he was first a follower of John the Baptist, and John told him and his other disciples that they ought to be following Jesus. And as we read in our gospel when Jesus called, Peter left his nets and followed, immediately.
Peter had a lot of issues that can make us wonder about his faith. But there is one point we might call crucial. Sinking into the water when the wind and waves rose, drawing his sword and cutting off Malchus’ ear, denying his Savior three times, these are all events of backsliding. No, his denial of Jesus’ very purpose in coming to earth, that was his low point. When Jesus said he must go up to Jerusalem to be killed, Peter said “let it not be!” Jesus rebuked him, and that turned it all around for him.
“Peter, you’re caught up in the things of men, but I’m going to save you from all that. Don’t listen to that evil little inner voice that tells you to doubt or fear. Don’t listen when it contradicts what my Word tells you. All these doubts and fears come from your old self, and from your old enemy, Satan. Put them aside, trust what I tell you, and fear no more.” Though not as flashy as Saul’s call, Peter’s was just as effective. And both of them, Peter and Paul, took that call all the way to Rome, the heart of official persecution of the Christian faith, and died there.
But how are we called to trust, and faith? Our conversion is not quite so dramatic as Saul’s was. Or is it? Yes, the Special Effects department certainly had the day off when I was converted, because I can’t even remember the first time I knew in my heart that Jesus was my Lord and Savior. Perhaps some of you have a better memory of it than I. But the real drama was in the conversion itself….when a heart bent on evil, an enemy of God, changed to one that loves God and wants to obey him. Peter, Paul, and you have all been changed by the same means, the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God, spoken or written. Dramatic, and yet so subtle, it happens without fanfare or flag-waving, but the angels in heaven rejoice.
Dramatic and subtle, and with it, a command so simple: “Go.” What power that command has to silence fears and quiet objections. Ananias didn’t want to visit Saul: “He’s been jailing every Christian he can lay his eyes on, and now you want to give him his sight back? What are you thinking, Lord?”
But the Lord’s call cannot be denied. He simply said: “Go! I am with you, my power has changed this man’s heart, and he will serve to spread my gospel.” Consider how many times the Lord has told his people to go, and what blessings they have received and brought to others by simply “going:”
- Go to the land of Canaan, Abram, and I will give it to you and your descendants.
- Go to Pharaoh, Moses, and tell him to let my people go.
- Go to Nineveh, Jonah, so they may repent.
- Go to Bethlehem, shepherds, and see the Savior that is born to you.
- Go into the world, Christians, and make disciples of all nations.
Paul heard the Savior calling…and so do you…to go and do his will in the world. Like Peter and Paul, we are not perfect. Yet God uses us as his instruments, so we may take part in the blessings he gives through faith. Don’t ever doubt your “usefulness” in doing his work, for as frail as you are, you have his Word, and his command, his call, and that is all you’ll ever need. May God continue to bless your work, and our work together as we answer the call and command of our loving God.
The peace of God, which transcends all understand, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.