June 12, 2016 Sermon
“The Paul Problem”
1st Scripture Reading – Isaiah 60:1-5a
60 Arise, shine; for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
2 For darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will appear over you.
3 Nations shall come to your light,
and kings to the brightness of your dawn.
4 Lift up your eyes and look around;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from far away,
and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.
5 Then you shall see and be radiant;
your heart shall thrill and rejoice,
2nd Scripture Reading – Acts 9:1-19
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.
10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” He answered, “Here I am, Lord.” 11 The Lord said to him, “Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision[a] a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” 13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem;14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.” 15 But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul[b] and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
“The Paul Problem”
The Apostle Paul – the guy whose name was Saul in our scripture reading from Acts for today – he had a story to tell, right?
I mean, can you imagine having THAT story to tell? He used to be a persecutor of Christians, breathing threats and murder against all the disciples of Jesus. But on his way to go to Damascus to uncover the names of all of Jesus’ followers there, so he could arrest them and drag them – bound – to Jerusalem…likely to be put on trial before the religious authorities and prosecuted, on his way to uncover the names of Jesus’ followers, Saul BECAME one of Jesus’ followers. And it wasn’t because he was captured by the Christians and convinced that they were different or better than what he thought. It was because he had a divine encounter – right there on the road. The risen Christ appeared to Paul and provided Paul his own kind of crucifixion and resurrection experience, an experience of blindness for three days. And Paul would later proclaim in his letters that the good news he preached to the ends of the earth after his conversion was good news he received directly from Jesus during that encounter on the road to Damascus.
Can you imagine having THAT story to tell? If you had that story to tell, I’m guessing you would spend your life telling it, just like Paul, right? Right?
That’s exactly why I call this sermon “The Paul Problem”. For me, the Paul Problem isn’t that some of Paul’s words are controversial and create quite a stir among Christians and non-Christians. While I freely admit that Paul’s words have that effect, the Paul Problem I’m referencing today is the problem of Paul’s conversion experience, Paul’s amazing conversion story and encounter with the risen Christ. For me, the Paul Problem is quite simply that if we judge our fitness as evangelists on the story we have to tell – especially the story of how we came to be followers of Jesus – and then judge the story we have to tell against Paul’s story, just about every one of us comes up short. And so we COULD spend our lives saying that this evangelism thing is reserved for the Paul’s of the world, the people who’ve had these amazing conversion stories…which conveniently means “not us”, “not me”. It’s a job for someone else.
A great many Christians today – most of you, probably, and myself included – grew up in some manifestation of the Church or another. And so when a pastor like me comes along and asks you – as I so often have – what kind of difference being a Christian makes in your life…you probably have a similar reaction to what you would have if someone asks you what difference oxygen and food make in your life. You know they’re important, but they’ve probably always been there and you’ve likely always assumed they WOULD be there, so you’re not really sure how to answer the question. In fact, you most likely cannot remember a definitive BEFORE and AFTER. Was there a “before oxygen” for you? Was there a “before food and water” for you? Similarly, in faith, if Jesus, if God, have always been part of your life, how can you talk about the DIFFERENCE they’ve made? They’re just part of this life thing and always have been.
On this day on which we baptize four youth in our congregation, this question is particularly relevant. So many generations after those first followers of Jesus walked the earth, baptism means something that is subtly different than it did to those first followers. To them, it meant a very MARKED change in life, a change from following some OTHER way to following Jesus. Today, it often means the CONTINUATION of something we were born into. Still a great moment worthy of celebration. But hardly a life-altering change like it was for Paul. In fact, that might have something to do with WHY we don’t celebrate baptisms quite as heartily as I believe we should – because they have become little more than a SYMBOL of something we already EXPECTED to happen.
So…it’s hard to put into words what difference it makes to be a Christian. I get it. It can even be difficult among pastors. In her book, Unbinding Your Heart, Martha Grace Reese tells a story about a group of pastors she took on a retreat. While on that retreat, she asked these pastors what difference being a Christian has made to them. And while you might expect these pastors to have a ready answer, Reese reports that there was nothing but silence for an uncomfortably LONG time. And when one of the pastors did respond, it was more in the form of a question than an answer: “Because it makes me a better person???”
So if you’re having difficulty putting into words the difference the Christian faith has made in your life, don’t feel alone…and don’t be alarmed…and don’t come to the conclusion that you can’t do this evangelism thing.
RATHER…start intentionally thinking about the difference Christianity makes in your life, the difference Jesus makes in your life. Start taking some time each day to ask God to SHOW you the difference Christianity makes in your life. Talk to other Christians to discover the difference Christianity is making in THEIR lives.
As you do these things, keep an ongoing list. Really, write them down, keep the list with you so you can add to it easily – maybe use the Notes app in your smartphone if you carry one with you. And then, pick a time each and every day to review the list and remind yourself about the difference being a Christian makes in your life.
To help you begin your list, I want you to join me in a little exercise, right here, right now. Close your eyes, if you’re comfortable doing that…and imagine something.
- Imagine that you don’t go to worship on Sundays;
- Imagine that you don’t go to any mid-week activities with others in First Christian Church, Grand Junction, or any congregation;
- Imagine that you don’t know that any of your FCCGJ friends even exist;
- Imagine that you don’t know any church songs….or Bible stories;
- Imagine that you don’t know the story of Christmas…or Easter…in fact that there is no Christmas or Easter. There is no Savior who came to die for you.
- Imagine that all you have to hope in – outside of maybe family and a few close friends – is the people of this world who spend whatever time they spend with you trying to get something from you – getting you to buy something from them or vote for them or pay taxes to them or pay attention to them for reasons that are about glorifying them, reasons that are selfish.
- Imagine that you get sick or need someone to call for help, and there’s no one to call to pray for you…and you don’t even know that there is such a thing as prayer…and that there’s no God who cares or can help you in your time of need. You are truly ON. YOUR. OWN.
- Imagine that you don’t even know God exists.
Imagine all of this and think on it for a few moments. (LONG PAUSE)
And now, I want to ask you: what difference does being a Christian make in your life? Does it make a difference to NOT feel the way you felt in that exercise? (PAUSE)
If you’re still stuck, I want to share with you some potential ways Christianity might be making a difference in your life, ways Christianity has made a difference in the lives of others I’ve encountered in my ministry and in the lives of others encountered by Disciples pastor, the Rev. Dawn Weaks, in her ministry:
- Hope for eternal life with God…life beyond what we know here and now on this earth;
- Friendships with people in the church who are willing to give of themselves for their friends the way Jesus gave of himself for his friends;
- Comfort from the church family, especially in times of need;
- A sense of purpose and direction in life that goes way beyond making enough money to survive and feed myself and my family;
- Direction from the Bible;
- A connection with God in prayer, and a peace in prayer that can’t be found anywhere else;
- A knowing awareness that I’m never alone; God is with me, and God’s people are with me;
- Hope that even when things are going bad, even when things seem as bad as they can get, things will get better and even turn out allright;
- A feeling that I MATTER, that my existence makes a difference as part of God’s long-term plan for the world. I want to expound on this last one just a bit…because it has to do with the other person in our reading from Acts today, Ananias. Ananias had a story to tell. It wasn’t a conversion story like Paul’s. It wasn’t even a story Ananias would have wished to have – he didn’t WANT to do what God told him to do. But he did it anyway – he helped Paul to participate in God’s plan. Later, looking back, I’m sure Ananias had a story to tell that he never thought he would have. He participated in what God was doing through Paul. Ananias wasn’t the one who started all those congregations – Paul did that. But by participating in God’s plan, Ananias was a part of the spread of Christianity. YOU have a story like that. Maybe not a story about your conversion, but a story about how you have participated in God’s plan for the world.
Y’all, these are some pretty amazing things! These are differences that being a Christian MAKES for us and for the world. And while you might not always be in touch with them because they’ve always been there for you, I’m here to tell you that there are tons and TONS of people out there who don’t ever experience ANY of these things.
So when you get in touch with the difference Christianity makes in your life – even if it seems trivial because, hey, everybody feels like this, right? – you’ll be getting in touch with some amazing things that NOT everyone out there ever feels in life. When you get in touch with the difference Christianity makes in your life, you’ll have something to share that is every bit as important as what Paul had to share.
So my message to you today is this: don’t let the Paul Problem keep you from sharing the faith. Don’t get caught up in thinking you’ve got to have some amazing conversion story in order to have something to tell. All you need is an awareness that Jesus makes a difference in your life, that God makes a difference in your life, that Church makes a difference in your life. And that God is making a difference THROUGH your life. When you know what that difference is, you have something amazing to share…something amazing that so many people out there would love to hear about and would love to have in their own lives. Let the world know it. Amen.